I Must Go Under the Sea Again

Would we rather go into space or to the bottom of the sea? For me, always, and with zero hesitation it would be to the bottom of the sea...
26 February 2017


I keep hearing about bucket lists – all the things we’d do if we weren’t working or otherwise obligated and the things we must do before we die.  Often these are things that with proper planning, budgeting, and some discipline we can make happen: Serengeti safari, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, completing a marathon.  Then there are those things that defy such pragmatism. Things we only dream about. Questions we asked as children but still have today – would we rather go into space or to the bottom of the sea? For me, always, and with zero hesitation it would be to the bottom of the sea.

Sex appeal
Even though I’m trained as an oceanographer, for me, diving to the depths of our oceans was something I simply never thought possible. I study the coastal ocean – it is, by definition, shallow. And don’t get me wrong – I love my research and there are plenty of mysteries in coastal waters that need to be solved. But, the deep ocean is the most exotic landscape I can imagine – more than any planet in our galaxy and equally, if not more so, unknown.  There’s a sex appeal to deep ocean work – all of it’s charismatic. The work is hard and inherently dangerous. Specialised equipment and training are required. National Geographic will always be interested. And we’re likely to see something – maybe an animal or simply an underwater muddy hill slope – either way it’s likely never been seen before! Imagine what we might find. Imagine how much there is to learn.

So this past year while on sabbatical at Harvard University, I attended a Deep Sea Submergence Science workshop. And while there, besides learning about the amazing technology available to deep sea scientists, I was able to have conversations about someday using these tools in more shallow areas, like my beloved coastal ocean. A few months later I saw the call for applications for the UNOLS Deep-Submergence Science Leadership Cruise, funded by the National Science Foundation. They were targeting early career scientists and I was, according to their definition, two years past their deadline, and then there was my scientific focus on coastal waters. But, I applied anyway. Maybe I could dive to the bottom of the ocean? Maybe I could be trained to know how to take these deep sea assets into shallow waters? Maybe, just maybe…

Aboard Alvin
And that is how I found myself on a Friday afternoon in August descending a ladder into the Alvin while onboard the R/V Atlantis. Alvin is one of the few human-occupied deep sea submersible vehicles in the world. It’s owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It was first commissioned in 1964 and underwent a major upgrade that was completed in 2013, which included a larger “personnel sphere” certified to 6500 m, larger viewports, and other advancements. Currently, the submarine is capable of operating to 4,500 m. That day in August we were diving to 1130 m on a site called “New England Seep 2.” In the sphere was my dive partner Julianne Fernandez, a graduate student from the University of Cincinnati who studies the Great Lakes and dreams of bringing this technology to her freshwater research, and our pilot Bob Waters, who has completed over 120 dives. With three people it’s close quarters. Only one person can stand at a time. There is a diver (me) on the portside (left) and one (Julianne) on the starboard (right) side. We have small benches to sit and lie on and two, small round windows to look out of. One window on each side of the Alvin and the other out front and overlapping with the pilot. There are video cameras outside that allow us to look around and record what we are seeing. And a clipboard with our data sheets and lists of the samples we are to collect.

Down, down, darkness...
So in we go. The pilot seals the lid and we’re lifted up into the air and off the stern of the boat into the water. Two swimmers are checking the cameras and unhooking the line that tethers us to the ship. We stare out the windows and see sky, then water, sky, then water, as we bob up and down. The descent begins. First, we move through sunlit, blue waters seeing organisms the way they were meant to be seen -  not crumpled in nets or piled together in buckets, but 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 ribs (disclosure: they are not real ribs -that's just what they look like). 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 the darkness. Just like we read in the textbooks, just like what’s taught in class, the light is gone at around 200 m. For a brief moment it’s pitch black until our eyes adjust and we seem them. We see the light – all the flashing lights. Tiny sparks that are barely discernable 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 fish, jellyfish, squid, and sea worms. It’s not just around the Alvin that they’re flashing but outwards across our plain of view. We are falling through an ocean of stars.

Dinner plate sized sea urchins
Scared? Not at all. I’m in in awe and I’m in love. The joy of seeing this is immense – it’s more beautiful and peaceful than imagined. I’ve never been so calm and yet so excited. It feels like home. And then we’re on the bottom. A gentle landing on soft mud with lights turned on for illumination. We’re searching for active seeps of methane as they support rich microbial life and we must be close to one. 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, more crabs, and moon-like carbonate rocks with bacteria matts growing on them that look like a thick coat of brown hair. We even see clumps of deep-sea mussels holding fast to carbonate rock rubble. We squeal with delight at large anemones the color 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 we know it, though, it’s time to go up. Our cores are filled with deep sea mud and our sample bottles with deep ocean water. We ascend quickly, everything in reverse.  What seems like minutes later, we’re climbing down the ladder to the deck, where our colleagues are waiting to administer the ceremonial ice bath—a ritual for first-time Alvin divers. Our samples, of course, need to be unloaded and  processed. There will be little sleep this night, but it’s of no importance. I’ve been, after all, to the bottom of the sea. My worldview has forever changed with the experience—an opportunity I barely dared to dream of. And for me, for now, maybe that’s the greatest deep-sea lesson of all.


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