One day, you’ll be at the aquarium trying to appreciate the Hawksbill sea turtle or a family of otters, and it’ll suddenly sink in: Everything in this place wants to kill you. The only thing separating you from their fishy clutches is a tiny glass screen through which they actively plot your demise.
The ocean is a cruel and beautiful arena of death, but it isn’t the only place that puts our mortality into perspective. Dying in the cold, unfeeling vacuum of space seems like it’d be very lonely — but still more dignified than having your remains eaten by deep-sea dwellers in the Mariana Trench.
Because Earth’s oceans and outer space are terrifying in their own unique ways, people studying both love to argue about which is scarier. We asked astronomers, marine biologists, and science enthusiasts to weigh in on which is more horrifying — the ocean or outer space — and were actually pretty surprised by the verdict.
Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
“Space is passively trying to kill you. The ocean has things in it that are actively trying to kill and eat you.”
Jason Major, citizen scientist
“The ocean. Everything in it wants you dead. At least in space you can die in peace.”
JoAnna Wendel, science writer
“The ocean is 100 percent scarier. Space is just a bunch of rocks and like … depth.”
Ethan Kocak, science illustrator
“Honestly, I think space. Partly because we already know it contains worlds with even more terrifying oceans.”
Caitlin Ahrens, astronomer, University of Arkansas
“I think space. No way to get back to the surface safe/quick enough. If you’re stuck in space, you’re stuck in space.”
Mika McKinnon, geophysicist and science writer
“I adore the ocean. I was born on an island, and call the Pacific Coast home. But I’ve known since I was a toddler to never turn my back on the ocean. It’s beautifully fearsome, but powerful and unpredictable in ways that demand the utmost respect.”
Melissa Cristina Márquez, marine biologist
“I would say space because I know more about the ocean and the dangers there. Space? I don’t know as much- plus if my helmet comes off I have no chance of being able to breathe. With the ocean, depending how deep I am, I at least have a chance.”
David Shiffman, marine conservation biologist and science writer
“Psssssh, the ocean. There are a lot more ways that a typical person could get hurt or die. Space you can die from what, explosive decompression, black holes, solar flares, whatever the hell else is up there? That’s nothing. We’ve got everything from Vibrio to giant crocodiles to venomous jellies and fish that paralyze you if you eat them prepared wrong, not to mention the pressure of the deep sea, or the fact that you can be surrounded by water and die if you drink it?”
Maureen Berg, microbial biologist
“The ocean is scarier for sure, so many organisms that could scare you to death (or actually just kill you). That being said, I love ocean organisms, and would gladly put on a brave face to see and/or study them.”
Summer Ash, astrophysicist, Columbia University
“The ocean is scarier by far!!! In space only physics wants to kill you but in the ocean it’s physics PLUS biology!”
Carl Rodriguez, astrophysicist, MIT
“Sure, [in space] there are a lot of gruesome ways to die, like being tidally disrupted (spagettified) or irradiated or crushed in the atmosphere of some planet, but I think the odds of any of those happening right now to us are basically nil. Even if they weren’t and we could sci-fi our way across the universe, space is somewhat large, so the odds of coming across something that extreme are pretty small. But since we can’t, our best ways of dying in space at the moment are either decompression (very quick) or exploding rocket (very very quick).
The ocean, on the other hand, can either kill you quickly but terrifyingly (drowning) or slowly (being stranded at sea). Plus, it has things that are actively trying to kill you (sharks, pirates, etc).”
Final verdict: The ocean, while technically more familiar to us than the vast expanse of outer space, is a watery murder dungeon. For this reason, it’s even more important that we protect all its hungry little creatures — if we don’t keep them happy, the world will be an infinitely more terrifying place.