The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.
On June 20, 1965, four high school buddies set out to a remote desert location about 90-miles northwest of Las Vegas. Their intent: to joy dive into a deep, geothermal abyss called Devils Hole. Sadly, two of the young men would never remerge from this mysterious "fossil water" portal.
Their publicized disappearance set into motion a series of revelations concerning deep time, interconnected hydrogeological sublimity, time-traveling Indigenous Shamans, distant seismic events, genetic conundrums, capitalistic greed and consequent environmental exploitation. At the center of this saga is a tiny endangered fish at the threshold of existence.
But before we move along too far along let's get back to the plight of those boys. Indulge me for a moment and imagine their fateful story beginning something like this: Arriving at their destination, the foursome hiked up a hot, barren hillside overlooking the large-scale ranching operation that would nearly erase the ancient spring complex of Ash Meadows within a few short years. A well-trodden trail led to the entrance of a limestone chasm that had opened to the heavens some 60,000 years ago after some likely impressive seismic event caused the roof of the cave to collapse inwards. The group -- Paul Giancontieri, 19, a cafeteria worker at the nearby Nevada Test Site and his new brother-in-law David Rose, 20, a Las Vegas casino parking attendant, along with Bill Alter, 19, and his younger brother Jack scrambled under a fenced enclosure posted with warning signs and proceeded to descend the 30 or so rocky feet down to a ledge where the faint, but flitting movements of tiny blue-grey pupfish could be observed swimming in the 8-by-60-foot pool if one bothered to look closely.
After suiting up with scuba tanks, masks and dive lights Paul, David and Bill dove into the womblike waters -- the temperature nearly indistinguishable from that of our skin. Upon entering the pool the boys most likely disturbed the delicate algae spawning mats where the entire population of the exceedingly rare Cyprinodon diabolis continues to prosper and breed exclusively. Alter's brother remained stationed on the ledge in case anything went wrong. Sometime after midnight Giancontieri failed to resurface so Rose and Alter quickly re-dove in a vain attempt to locate their missing friend. Alter frantically followed Rose some 175 feet until Rose, too, disappeared into the vast liquid darkness. The bodies of the brothers-in-law were never to be recovered.
The young men's illicit nocturnal dive may have been inspired by a newspaper article from the previous year detailing a speleological research expedition of a massive "underground lake" below Death Valley, led by California-based professional diver Jim Houtz -- who would ironically dive numerous times round-the-clock with military personnel and other volunteer divers in their futile attempt to locate the missing men until their search was called off 36 hours later. The only traces left of the two brothers-in-law were a mask and snorkel along with a flashlight tied to a ledge some 100 feet below that ineffectively signaled the way out of the otherworldly aquatic cave system.
Syndicated articles detailing the unsuccessful rescue effort were published nationwide. In the Sarasota Journal dated June 22, 1965, Houtz stated he had previously dived in Devils Hole around 300 times over 28 trips, further commenting: "It's beautiful in there. It goes straight down 160 feet, like a pipe, then opens into a room that is about 300 feet long, and maybe 40 feet wide. The bottom of the room is about 260 feet down, then it narrows into another tube. I dived to 315 feet, maybe it's a record, I don't know, but at the end of the tube it opens again into something else. We don't know what the next room is, or if it's a room at all. It's like infinity."
More than a century before the ill-fated men disappeared into their watery grave, Death Valley forty-niner Louis Nusbaumer, whose emigrant party had camped near Devils Hole in the winter of 1849, visited the formidable pool. "At the entrance to the valley to the right is a hole in the rocks which contains magnificent warm water in which Hadapp and I enjoyed an extremely refreshing bath," he reported, also noting, "the saline cavity itself presents a magical appearance."1 Their guide, William Lewis Manly mentioned this "miner's bathtub" in his memoirs noting the presence of some "little minus [sic] in [it]," which were first collected during the Death Valley Expedition, a U.S. biological survey of the region in 1891.
More than 9,000 years ago the Nevada Spring culture, ancestors of the contemporary indigenous people of the region, began their occupation of the Ash Meadows area. The Southern Paiute branch of the Shoshone, ancestors of contemporary Timbisha People, later took up seasonal residence here until they were displaced for the most part by Euro-American settlers after the mid-19th century.
The cultural significance of Devils Hole for the Timbisha was apparent; tales arose warning children of "water babies" who would surface and swallow them if they dared to remain in the pool too long.2 Other legends suggested that Tso'apittse, a legendary malevolent giant who dwelled at mountain springs and caves, would snatch and devour unwary victims. Myths withstanding, Barbara Durham, an elder of the Timbisha Shoshone who shared these stories at a 2002 workshop, admitted that she and her friends enjoyed how the pupfish "tickle [sic] their toes" while they played at the spring.3
Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) were first classified as a unique species in 1930 by Joseph Wales. Ichthyologist Robert Rush Miller was the first researcher to conclude that the population of C. diabolis had indeed been isolated far longer than its nearest cousin, the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish (C. nevadensis mionectes) found less than a mile away. Miller's subsequent and persistent studies helped to secure its listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, which had been underscored by President Truman's earlier designation protecting the 40-acre Devils Hole as part of the Death Valley National Monument on January 17, 1952, "for the preservation of unusual features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest therein contained," which included the tiny pupfish -- the rarest fish found anywhere on the planet.
At almost an inch long, C. diabolis are the smallest known pupfish in the world. Breeding males are iridescent bluish grey while the female is more olive drab in coloration. Although genetically similar to C. nevadensis mionectes, Devils Hole pupfish differ in that they are dwarfed and exhibit neotenous or juvenile characteristics with their large heads and eyes. C. diabolis feature other unique physical traits; breeding males have a dark band on their rounded caudal fin and both sexes lack pelvic fins. Their personality differs as well; Devils Hole pupfish are mostly laid back and males, rarely, if at all, defend their mating territories like their more aggressive cousins. Today, it is generally accepted that their distinctive morphology has resulted from intensified challenges within their extremely limited environment, which is home to the entire wild population of C. diabolis -- hovering at about 100 observable pupfish -- making it the smallest habitat of any known vertebrate species in the world.
Devils Hole pupfish are infamous among the conservation community. As the "poster fish" for conservation biology, C. diabolis seems to defy the assertion that small, isolated populations of organisms cannot possibly persist over time. Until very recently the scientific community has commonly held that C. diabolis has endured there for at least 10,000 years -- possibly up to 20,000 within this nearly inhospitable submerged cavern environment. Key to their survival is the 19-by-8-foot "shallow shelf," a portion of the long collapsed limestone roof providing the pupfish with crucial forage and spawning habitat. The shelf is covered with less than two feet of on average 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit water containing very little dissolved oxygen. Although the pupfish spend most of their lives at the surface near the submerged shelf, they will occasionally swim up to 100 feet below its surface into the aphotic reaches of the fissure near Anvil Rock. Overall, their short 10-to-14-month life span hangs in a precarious balance. These tiny, seemingly resilient wonders will be lucky to survive a newly projected 28 to 32 percent risk of extinction over the next 20 years.4
This fragile ecosystem in which wild C. diabolis are completely dependent upon is susceptible to an array of environmental disturbances, including the decline of the pool's water level primarily resulting from water withdrawals at area production wells. Seasonal fluctuations, drought, flash floods and on occasion, reverberations from a distant earthquake also contribute. The fissure's physical orientation, structure, seasonal conditions, the amount and duration of sunlight reaching the shelf along with many other environmental factors control food availability and overall productivity of C. diabolis' sole natural habitat. Combined, these factors determine the species resilience and its ongoing survival -- month-to-month, year-to-year, millennia-to-millennia. Considering this barrage of environmental hazards, climate change and other complications arising from anthropogenic impacts, it is miraculous that Devils Hole pupfish have managed to flourish there at all.
How and when C. diabolis ended up in Devils Hole is a continuing mystery. Earlier mitochondrial DNA analysis suggested that Devils Hole pupfish genetically diverged from its closest relative, C. nevadensis mionectes between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago,5 though this molecular dating technique is fraught with inconsistencies. Additionally, these dates conflict with the scientific determination that C. diabolis could not have colonized the pool before 60,000 years ago when the fissure opened up to the sky, enabling life to thrive within it through the process of photosynthesis.
Several hypotheses speculate how the species emerged at this specific location, but none are scientifically confirmed. The ancestors of today's desert pupfish are thought to have colonized the American Southwest more than two million years ago via the Colorado River and other tributaries when a system of interconnected pluvial lakes and marshes spread across the landscape. As these Ice Age lakes and riverine systems retreated, drying out over extended periods of increasing aridity, isolated populations of various species were left to evolve in genetic isolation -- including the nine known Death Valley pupfish species and subspecies of which eight currently remain.6 In spite of this, no firm paleohydrogeological evidence so far supports an inflow or overflow connection here from a pluvial waterbody or otherwise that would have provided a conduit for colonization.7
Even if this were the case, the Warm Springs pupfish (C. nevadensis pectoralis) that live in springs nearest to Devils Hole should be its closest genetic relative under this hypothesis. However as mentioned earlier, C. diabolis is more closely related to the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish (C. nevadensis mionectes) found in springs much further away.8 It is unlikely that C. diabolis populated the pool from deep within the cavern but remains a possibility as dissolved oxygen is fairly consistent up to a depth of 125 feet and temperature varies in only tenths of a degree at 260 feet.9 What is left to consider is introduction by animal -- a bird or better yet human, as it is known that the indigenous peoples of the region did occasionally consume pupfish and would have been one of the driving factors to do so. Still, it would take an awful lot of pupfish to feed a few people.
Christopher Norment in his lyrically detailed 2014 book "Relics of a Beautiful Sea" suggests that if C. diabolis was indeed introduced by humans 11,500 years ago (the date when humans are said to have arrived here) or even much later, then it may have been done as some sort of a ritualized practice.10 Although not scientifically verifiable, I would like to personally conjecture that Indian children at play transported the pupfish from another Ash Meadows pool into Devils Hole -- as I did as a young girl when collecting frog eggs in glass jars to bring home. If humans were indeed responsible for introducing C. diabolis here then it may have occurred more recently -- possibly less than a few hundred years ago as proposed by a recent scientific paper.11 Regardless of how or when these tiny creatures arrived here, gradually over time and in their isolation, they took on a unique phenotype or particular morphological traits that have made C. diabolis the singular and prized rarity that it is today.
Ojo de Agua
During the futile rescue mission for the missing young men in 1965, Houtz rather exuberantly, if somewhat offhandedly, commented to the press on the sheer beauty of the underwater cave: "The sides are limestone, the most beautiful limestone I have ever seen. Greens. Blues, so blue, they are nearly white. Quartz. Bronze colors, every color in the rainbow."
Houtz was likely referring to the sinewy, undulating formations of translucent mammillary calcite etched by the ceaseless movements of endolithic borers seen on the walls of the submerged limestone cavern. He could have also been describing the shelves of protruding folia found in the air-filled chamber -- called Brown's Room -- that glow like opalescent bracket fungi when exposed to artificial light. The mammillary morphology, deposited through precipitation of groundwater supersaturated with calcium carbonate (CaCO3) over a span of 500,000 years, informs paleoclimatologists through radiometric dating techniques of climatic variations over time. Additionally, it provides a firm indication of when the roof of Devils Hole caved inward as it is known that this formation abruptly stopped precipitating some 60,000 years ago when it was exposed to dry air and other external forces.12 The folia, another carbonate morphology created by subtle waxing and waning of semidiurnal tidal movements and water level changes serve as a record of water table fluctuations formed over the last 120,000 years.13 Flowstone occurring above the water line of Brown's Room built up over time in thin, layered sheets of carbonate material like a sensuous veil of hardened alabaster flesh.
This particular ojo de agua or as one scientific paper stated, "skylight to the water table,"14 is a mysterious portal offering us a glimpse into deep time and the third largest carbonate aquifer system in the U.S. Within this subterranean maze, "fossil water" is banked at depths up to 2.5 miles below the earth's surface through an endless maze of Paleozoic carbonate rock formations, chambers and networks that are connected by a series of fractures, fissures and fault systems that can impede, enhance and store groundwater flows. The actual depth of Devils Hole itself is still not known; USGS divers Alan Riggs and Paul DeLoach with the late renowned cave diver Sheck Exley reached 436 feet in 1991, stating that they could see an additional 150 feet before they lost sight as the chamber curved sharply downwards.
The 12,000-foot Spring Mountains range located to the east and southeast of Ash Meadows, along with the Pahranagat, Sheep and other smaller eastern ranges, are the primary high-elevation source for groundwater discharged in the region. Amazingly, the water bubbling up from the subterranean depths is estimated to have resulted from precipitation and snowfall that fell on these mountains during the late Pleistocene -- well over 10,000 years ago. As this water ever so slowly filters down into the carbonate rock aquifer, it becomes increasingly alkali over time. Flowing southwesterly and circuitously under the irrevocably damaged lands of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) -- now known as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) -- the water is forced up to the light of day when it encounters the Gravity Fault that blocks its path further west.