Journey to the bottom of the sea

25 July 2017

Interview with 

Wally Fullweiler, University of Boston

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What's it like to journey down to the bottom of the ocean? Georgia Mills heard first hand from Wally Fullweiler, associate professor at Boston University, who has explored the seafloor...

Wally - We get into the submarine named Alvin. The pilot seals the lid and we’re lifted up and into the air and off the stern of the boat into the water. We stare out the window and see the sky, then water, sky, then water, as we bob up and down. The descent begins. First, we move through sunlit, blue waters seeing organisms swimming and dancing in the water. Salps swirl around the windows, gelatinous water column dwelling creatures –translucent, save for their dark orange stomachs and blue rib-like structures. Little, see-through pink shrimp and small jelly fish with hints of auburn slide across our view.

Before we know it the light is almost gone and the water is this amazing dark blue, green, grey – and then darkness. The light is gone at around 200 m. For a brief moment it’s pitch black - and the we see them. We see the light – all the flashing lights. Tiny sparks that are barely discernible and then big, bold, dramatic blazes. For just moments, we see the ghostly outlines of their bodies. We are descending too fast to know what they are - but likely they’re scores of bioluminescent fish, jellyfish, squid, and sea worms. We are falling through an ocean of stars.

Scared? Not at all. I’m in awe and I’m in love. The joy of seeing this is immense – it’s more beautiful and peaceful than I imagined. It’s like home. And then we’re on the bottom. A gentle landing on soft mud with lights turned on for illumination. There are legions of red crabs with arms raised ready to defend themselves against our weird metallic ship and scores of eels skidding slowly along next to them. In our fleeting hours on the bottom, we observe streams of methane bubbles, thick white microbial mats, and moon-like carbonate rocks with bacteria mats growing on them that look like thick coats of brown hair. We squeal with delight at large anemones the colour of intestines and a black urchin the size of a dinner plate. Alvin’s arm and hook-like hand, controlled by our pilot, deftly collects samples. Silvery fish with large bright eyes inspect our work, before, all too quickly, it’s time to go back to the surface again.

Georgia - Thank you for relating that - that sounds fascinating. And the thing you mentioned that you weren’t scared at all but it does sound quite scary and also quite claustrophobic. How big was this thing you were sitting in?

Wally - It’s super tiny and it only fits three adults. So there’s a pilot and he sits in the middle of you facing forward and then there’s a bench on either side of the pilot for one of the divers. You can sit there on the bench or you can lie down on it, but it absolutely is very tight and closed.

Georgia - How deep did you go?

Wally - We got to go to 11 hundred metres.

Georgia - How does that compare with how deep other people have gone?

Wally - Most of our ocean hasn’t been explored and the Alvin can go to a depth of 45 hundred metres right now. With its recent upgrades it’s really close to being able to go  to 65 hundred metres. So if it goes to 65 hundred metres, we can explore over 90% of the ocean. But right now it’s still rated at the 45 hundred metres.

The deepest anyone has gone is James Cameron, the movie director, and he went down in the Mariana Trench a couple of years ago and he went down over 10 thousand metres.

Georgia - You mentioned this submarine called the Alvin - what is the Alvin’s purpose?

Wally - The Alvin has been around since the 1960s and its purpose is to explore the ocean. You’ve often heard we know more about the Moon than we do about the ocean and the bottom of the ocean, and that’s true. It provides a really valuable opportunity for scientists to go and really experience first hand, and see first hand what the ocean floor looks like.

We have other types of vehicles that are unmanned, and they can also go deep and they can be down there for longer periods of time which certainly provide other benefits. But I think there’s nothing like actually being able to see it with your own eyes.

Georgia - I’m thinking now of when you fly on an aeroplane - it sometimes does funny things to your head with the pressure. Do you get anything like that but in reverse when you’re going down that deep?

Wally - Yeah, that’s a really great analogy to give because it’s basically the same idea as an aeroplane, just in a different direction. Sometimes I think people get kind of woosy and you can certainly, just because of the air pressure if there’s any change there. I did not notice any of that. I think the larger issue that people have is when you come up to to the surface, there’s a few moments where you’re bobbing around on the surface waiting for the boat tender to come get you to pull you back on the ship. And she’s not the most elegant ship at the surface of the water, so there’s a lot of bobbing and I think people get seasick.

Georgia - Oh no. In a cramped, three-man submarine!

Wally - Yeah. You become very close with your pilot and fellow diver.

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