The horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of being Aquaman

Aquaman. DC Comics.

Aquaman. DC Comics. A rational response to seal poaching is to lob a polar bear at the aggressors.

Aquaman may not be everybody’s favorite superhero, but since his creation in 1941, he has been among DC’s most enduring icons. During the Golden Age of comic books, he held his own against Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Silver Age Aquaman was a founding member of the Justice League. His powers, tied to the ocean, forced writers to create a compelling, complex hero with explicit limitations. In the early days, when Superman’s strength was practically infinite, and Batman’s brilliance was unmatched, Aquaman had to become more than just a superhero, he had to be a person.

If Superman existed to show us how high the human spirit could fly, and Batman to show us the darkness within even our most noble, Aquaman is here to show us the world that triumphs in our absence. The ocean is not ours, and no matter how great our technology, we will never master it as we have mastered land, but Aquaman has. Through this lonely ocean wanderer, we can experience a world that we can never truly command. In many ways, Aquaman was stronger than the Man of Steel and darker than the Dark Knight. He knew loneliness that the orphan and the alien exile never could.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, not does remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.

Byron

Even though Aquaman had to fight harder, endure the jokes of other, less limited heroes, and find relevance in an ecosystem hostile to the humans that had to empathize with him, Aquaman was never forced to confront the truly horrifying consequences of life in the ocean.

The penetrating cold

Aquaman is, for all intents and purposes, a marine mammal. And, with the exception of a healthy mane in later incarnations, he is effectively hairless. As a human, we would expect his internal body temperature to hover around 99°F, or about 37°C. Even at its warmest points, the surface temperature of the ocean around the equator is only about 80°F/27°C. At the poles ocean temperature can actually drop a few degrees below freezing. In the deep sea, ambient temperature levels out around 2 – 4°C. The ocean is cold, and water is a much better thermal conductor than air. Warm blooded species have evolved many different systems to manage these gradients, including countercurrent heat exchangers, insulating fur, and heavy layers of blubber. This is what a marine mammal that can handle cold waters look like:

Elephant Seal. NSF, photo by Mike Usher

Aquaman. DC Comics

Aquaman. DC Comics. This is not a man familiar with the term “blubber”.

Aquaman is not just a human, he is an incredibly buff human. Look at his picture. If the man has more than 2% body fat, I’d be shocked. In contrast, warm-water bottlenose dolphins have at least 18 to 20% body fat. Anyone who SCUBA dives knows that, even with a 12 millimeter neoprene wet suit, after a few hours in 80°F water, you get cold. Aquaman, lacking any visible insulation, should have slipped into hypothermia sometime early in More Fun Comics #73. He is better built for the beach than the frigid deep.

Concentration gradients are not for the faint of heart

This raises the next issue with life in the water, osmotic pressure. The human body is hypotonic compared to seawater. That means that there are more molecules in seawater than in our cells. Assuming Aquaman is drawing seawater into his lungs, sinuses, and other air chambers, he must maintain internal equilibrium within his body for his cellular transmembrane proteins to function. So his cells begin expelling water to increase their internal molecular density. As he loses water, his cells shrivel and begin to lyse. The kidneys, likely, will be the first to go, but most of his internal organs, especially those in the respiratory and circulatory system will fail. If he hasn’t frozen to death, he will dehydrate, ending his Justice League tenure as shriveled human jerky.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The only silver lining for this Silver Age hero is that without efficient ion-exchange pathways, his brain will shut down as his blood becomes saturated with sodium.

And then you get bent…

Let assume that, through the magic of comics, Aquaman has managed to overcome the challenges of temperature and osmotic pressure. He still must face the dreaded threat of all divers – decompression sickness: the bends. Aquaman has gills, which means that he is extracting oxygen from seawater and pumping is across a membrane. At pressure, such as what you might experience a few hundred feet beneath the surface, oxygen is toxic, even fatal. Divers breathing pure oxygen suffer traumatic injuries. Even if he somehow manages to extract an appropriate mixture of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, Aquaman still must contend with the crippling effects of gas expansion in his blood stream. As he changes depths, bubbles of nitrogen come out of solution, clogging his circulatory system and causing possibly fatal embolisms.

A spherical lesion found in a rib of a dead sperm whale that beached on Nantucket was likely caused by nitrogen bubbles that formed when the whale rose too rapidly from high-pressure depths. The bubbles obstruct blood flow and lead to bone damage. (Photo credit: Tom Kleindinst)

A spherical lesion found in a rib of a dead sperm whale that beached on Nantucket was likely caused by nitrogen bubbles that formed when the whale rose too rapidly from high-pressure depths. The bubbles obstruct blood flow and lead to bone damage. (Photo credit: Tom Kleindinst)

Even deep-diving marine mammals suffer from the bends. Sperm whales cope with gas accumulation by depositing excess gasses in their bones, creating a porous, brittle skeleton, riddled with osteonecrosis — patches of dead bone. For a superhero, bones that snap like a sponge are not conducive to fighting evil. And Aquaman fights, and swims, and pushes his body to its supra-physical limits.

Calories out must equal calories in

Aquaman is one of the fastest swimmers in the ocean. He chases German U-boats, out-swims dolphins, can even catch up to a torpedo. The Justice League reports that Aquaman can swim at 10,000 feet per second. 10,000 feet per second is more than 3 kilometers per second, or 6,800 miles per hour. We’re talking Superman speeds, here. For comparison, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps can sustain a speed of 4.7 miles per hour. To maintain that pace, Phelps burns about 1,000 calories per hour while racing, up to about 6,000 calories a day. If Aquaman were to spend an hour swimming at full speed, he would burn 1.4 million Calories. Even to survive a day strolling at a leisurely 10 miles per hour, enough to travel from Beaufort, North Carolina to Bermuda in about 3 days, Aquaman would need to replace 48,000 Calories each day.

The ocean is full of food. Tuna contain a hearty 1440 Calories per kilogram, so Aquaman could get away with eating a bit more than 33 kilos of tuna per day. Unfortunately, tuna are fast. Aquaman would have to burn even more energy chasing them down. And that’s assuming he wants to eat a dense, energy rich fish. Knowing Aquaman, he probably understands tuna over-fishing better than most. Odds are, our hero is eating from the bottom of the food chain. Actually, Aquaman may not have a choice in the matter because, as the ocean acidifies, the enamel in his teeth will literally begin to dissolve. Since he won’t be digging his pearly whites into anything substantial, it looks like plankton soup is on the menu. This means that, just to stay alive (let alone do battle with the Legion of Doom), Aquaman must eat pretty much continuously.

The constant eating would also contribute to the single most horrifying aspect of being Aquaman…

The constant, unceasing screams of dying marine life

Golden age Aquaman can talk to sea life. Modern iterations can communicate telepathically with ocean creatures. Even excluding humans, the ocean is a brutal place. Aquaman, alone is consuming untold thousands of animals to sustain his svelte, 48,000 Calorie-per-day, figure. Seeing as he must continuously eat, there’s little time for cooking, or even humanely killing his prey. He is surrounded by the psychic screams of every zooplankter that enters his cold-hearted gullet, each one, begging for mercy as it plunges into his hypertonic stomach.

His victims aren’t the only ones he is forced to hear. Throughout the ocean, predators stalk their prey, parasites consume the eyes, tongues, and gonads of their unwilling victims. Superman avoids the screams of the suffering by being a callous jackass with some hyper-narcissistic code that forbids him from “interfering” with the path of human history (which is why he’ll swoop in to stop a mugger, but has no problem letting Adolf Hitler march across Europe). Aquaman, however, loves the ocean with every porous, necrotic bone in his body. He is its protector. Which means that every dying sea creature breaks his tachycardic heart.

And we haven’t even touched the consequences of an ocean exploited by human beings. Aquaman can see the scars left by every trawl, can feel the life being sucked out of the ocean, knows the name of every fish, dolphin, and crab whose life has been taken by our nets and lines. His life is the constant, horrible drone of unspeakable, unstoppable death.

No wonder he drinks like a fish.

  1. The acidification of the ocean will have numerous environmental consequences, but thus far is not going to affect the teeth as stated in the article. The point of concern would be if the ocean acidity dropped below 5.5. At 8.14 the ocean is still relatively basic compared to our human physiology. Therefore dissolving teeth are not a concern.
    Furthermore the acidification of the ocean is theoretically caused by the uptake of carbonic acid. The pka of Carbonic acid is 6.367. Therefore if Carbonic acid does overpower the natural buffering capacity of the ocean the new acidic set point will probably be around the pka which is more acidic than our physiology but less acidic than 5.5. 5.5 is the acidity needed to dissolve carbonated hydroxyapatite (tooth mineral.)

    • Thanks! Great to get the facts straight from an expert.

      I hope you will find it appropriate to, for the sake of narrative, accept the conceit that Atlantean teeth are more akin to gastropod shells than our own terrestrial chompers.

  2. I hate to say it, but most of this post can be ignored under the rubric “assume a super hero.” I mean, we could go on forever about how Super Man would be torn up by flying that fast, shouldn’t be able to hold his breath in space without decompression, etc., but we don’t, because he has super powers. For Aquaman, I presume that his super powers save him from the problems of pressure, the bends, blood brain barrier, etc.

    The last part was pretty interesting, though, the bit about being forced to listen to the thousands of screams, all the time. That would be rough.

  3. As Louis CK pointed out about mermaids… Aquaman swims around in pee-pee. If there’s a whole population of mermen and mermaids underwater, their biological waste has to go somewhere.

    I never really thought about it until I heard him point it out.

    Yuck. That has to be the most horrifying aspect of the whole thing.

    • “If there’s a whole population of mermen and mermaids underwater, their biological waste has to go somewhere.”

      Even if there isn’t a whole population of mermaids, there’s still a whole lot of fish and other marine organisms…

  4. Just Ran across this ! – Fantastic bit of teaching. I wonder if a research grant into some of his more inspiring exploits is feasible?

  5. Great article.

    Obviously the superhero world is lacking in realistic science (such as the recent study that showed Batman would break his legs every time he glided anywhere), but the reason I appreciate articles like this is that it makes writers come up with some sort of pseudo-science to explain these things away, which always makes for fun reading 🙂

    Linked via @AquamanShrine on Twitter

  6. I absolutely loved this! I work on Southern Elephant seals and they do actually manage to travel at those speeds. They also dive to depths exceeding 2km but they’re ugly and FAT and the males easily reach 4 tons. I think I’d rather be saved by drunk Aquaman 🙂

  7. Uh… Aquaman is shown to ACTIVELY use his marine telepathy. Meaning, it’s not always on, all the time.

    More recently (post Nu52), Aquaman has told people “I don’t talk to fish, I command fish”.

  8. I’m sure someone else pointed this out before me, but yeah, Aquaman does not hear the thoughts of every sea creature all the time, only select ones when he choses too.

  9. Please note that both Golden and Silver Age Aquaman can “hear” sea creatures, especially those calling for help. In the earliest iterations, his marine telepathy was “always on”

  10. The always very wise W.C. Fields famously said (without the asterisks):
    “I never drink water. Fish f**k in it.”

  11. Aquaman should really have become a villian shouldn’t he? With the over fishing and pollution he should be taking it to the land dwellers and coming into conflict with countries and heroes.

  12. Those are some good points, but I’ve always felt that Aquaman was never human, but is actually made of up gelled Awesome Sauce. As pure Awesome Sauce, the problems of temperature, gas exchange and osmotic pressure would not be a problem. Being as Awesome Sauce has a concentrated calorie count equivalent to about 50 semis full of Red Bull, he is able to expend truly heroic amounts of energy at all times. 😀

    You’ve made a few presumptions that don’t follow, though. For one thing, zooplankton have no brains, so they won’t be psychically screaming. Even so, Zooplankton only makes up about 18% of all plankton.

    Even most invertibrates in the ocean wouldn’t have enough of a brain to be read or controlled by Aquaman, so his only true allies would be fish (ichthyes), sea mammals, cephalopods and arthropods. That’s still a pretty huge arsenal of allies, though.

    It seems you’ve made the presumption that Aquaman’s “fish telepathy” is always active. That isn’t necessarily so. Following fictionally-defined cases of telepathy, a telepath is able, due to raw talent or training, to block out the cacophony of idle thoughts around them, and only concentrate on the specific target they are focusing on, it’s logical to assume that Aquaman wouldn’t be forced to hear every single “voice” in his specific area of the sea at all times.

    As for the specifications of Atlantean sewage technology, I would say that would need to be described by an expert in that field, but I do bring up the point that the Atlantean people are much more technologically advanced than humans. 😀

  13. Hey, neat! I now have even MORE respect for this dude I’ve been known to write for!

  14. Who says AquaMan isn’t some sort of jellyfish or moves via hydrostatic pressure? Maybe the “man” is just a facade over another creature. The interesting question is what properties a creature could have to adapt to AquaMan’s environment and have his exhibited abilities. Write another! I wanna read it!