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MESA Archives: Aleutian Islands Deep Water Corals Cruise, August 6, 2004

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Part I:  Tuning in to the seafloor. By science reporter Sonya Senkowsky.
Part II: The science team.

 
The appearance of a "Dumbo" octopus (possibly Grimpoteuthis) on a dive the evening of July 30 was among the more unexpected and exciting sights of the Jason II dives, said researchers, who have been watching video footage of the ocean floor day and night.  NOAA-Fisheries

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Tuning in to the seafloor

Location: North of Tanaga Island

Before heading out on this expedition, I wondered how exciting a "remote" dive to the bottom of the ocean could possibly be. Watching video from the ocean floor, after all, isn't anything like being there.

Chief scientist on this cruise, NOAA Fisheries biologist Bob Stone, has told me he prefers doing his observations "in person" -- which he and colleague Jon Heifetz have done many times, with the little yellow research sub Delta, the vehicle they used to document the Aleutian coral gardens.

"Being in the Delta of course, you're truly down there, not just with your eyes, but you're physically down there, which feels much different. With the ROV, it took a little bit getting used to," he said. "It was a totally new experience to be seeing through the camera's eyes as opposed to your own."

But after experiencing both kinds of dives -- firsthand and remote -- I've found one big advantage to this remote video and sampling approach: Everyone aboard, from the science team members to the ship's crew, has the opportunity to take part in every dive.

This wasn't the case when I went along with the R/V Atlantis and the deep-diving submersible Alvin (which is again in Alaska seas this summer). Although Alvin (operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) also collects video footage, it is not connected to the ship, and can't send back live images. For the eight hours or so the sub and the two scientists inside were submerged, there was very little communication to the rest of the science party about the dive. If you weren't in the sub, you didn't know what had happened until it resurfaced.

Posted information about the Jason Channel
Signs posted throughout the ship remind those aboard how to tune in the seafloor.  Photo by Sonya Senkowsky

 

With Jason II (an ROV operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography), everyone can be involved, every dive. Because the remotely operated vehicle remains connected to the ship at all times, it sends up real-time video through a cable. During dives, it's possible to tune in to the "Jason Channel" from throughout the ship.

What this means is that, when I'm writing Web entries in the computer room, I have the seafloor next to me on two TV screens. If I break to get a snack in the ship's mess, there's a TV tuned to the "Jason Channel" there. (In fact, people get so glued to the monitors, Captain Dave Murline doesn't allow the TV to be on during the brief mealtimes; too distracting.) It's accessible in crew members' private quarters and over the ship's Intranet, too.

Geologists might tap biologists on the shoulder to ask "What's that?" or a biologist might cue a geologist that we're into some rocks. And the scientists aren't the only ones paying attention. When I looked away for a few moments today and missed another sighting of a "Dumbo" octopus (so called because its swimming fins look like big ears), it was a Revelle crewmember working in the engine room who dropped by to tell me about it.

Many of the ship's crew, not surprisingly, are marine biology enthusiasts. The computer tech formerly studied tuna. One engine room worker, during his time on land, is a middle school science teacher.

Right now, at 2 a.m. Friday morning, I can see from the monitors next to me that the ROV is patrolling a muddy seafloor rippled by strong currents and populated by mostly springlike chrysogorgid corals and single-stalked seawhip corals with red brittle stars wrapped around their tips. A fish, here and there, snakes through the scene, its tail leaving a wispy trail as Jason II's lights reflect off it. And just now, a white ray glides from left to right, and away...

Rarely have I felt so in touch with a world a mile below.


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