Notes from the Deep

Joanna Lott
December 31, 2001
photo of Black smoker with ALVINella tubes
Image courtesy of Richard Lutz, Rutgers University, Stephen Low Productions, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Photo credits must be used in full.

Black smoker with ALVINella tubes

Life is both stranger and hardier than we know. Until quite recently,
scientists thought the realm of deep ocean, far from the Sun's sustaining
rays, was a cold, dark wasteland. Then, in 1977, researchers investigating
hydrothermal vents — hot springs on the ocean floor — discovered communities thriving in total darkness. Specialized bacteria in these communities turn chemicals seeping from the vents into food much like plants on land make energy from sunlight. These bacteria are the base of the food chain for life at the vents. Clustered near these vents giant
tubeworms, scale worms, and many other previously undiscovered species thrive on food supplied by the bacteria. Some of the biggest and most dominant species, like the giant tubeworms, mussels, and clams, house the bacteria inside their bodies in a finely tuned symbioses. In other words, these animals give the bacteria a place to live, and in turn, the bacteria provide the host with a food supply.

photo of Pompei worm, caterpillar worm, and crab
Image courtesy of Richard Lutz, Rutgers University, Stephen Low Productions, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Photo credits must be used in full.

Pompei worm, caterpillar worm, and crab

Penn State professor of biology Charles Fisher has been one of the leaders in investigating the physiology and ecology of these exotic communities first-hand. This month, Fisher and colleagues James Childress of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Cindy Van Dover of William & Mary, are at it again, leading an expedition in the East Pacific Ocean, 500 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico. From their floating base on the research vessel Atlantis, scientists will dive in the research submarine ALVIN to sites along the East Pacific rise, 2,500 meters down, to study the extreme life forms they encounter in their natural environment and collect some for shipboard analyses.

Our own Joanna Lott is part of the team aboard the Atlantis. Now that she has her sea legs, Joanna is sending back a series of live dispatches. Welcome aboard!

First Dispatch: Black and Blue

Waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting.

photo of waterway with homes and businesses built along the hillside
Credit Joanna Lott

Leaving Manzanillo

It's 9:00 a.m. We were scheduled to depart Manzanillo, Mexico an hour ago. We are ready to go, but a ship ahead of us doesn't want to get out of our way. So we wait.

We were lucky to be ready only one hour late considering the trouble we faced last night. At 6:30 p.m. I arrived in Manzanillo — one of the last of the 23 science crew members — to find that the Research Vessel Atlantis was having engine trouble, and ALVIN, the submersible that takes the scientists to their underwater laboratory, was in need of a replacement window. If the parts didn't come in on schedule, we looked at a two day delay departing Manzanillo.

The parts came, repairs were successful, and we are ready to ship out. But still, we wait. As time ticks by, the chances that we will lose a dive
increase. There are 22 scientists hoping to make a dive to the ocean floor
in ALVIN, and for every dive we lose, someone's name gets crossed off the dive list.

At 3:00 we are on our way, seven hours behind schedule. We know we will lose one dive, but the excitement of the beginning of the expedition
replaces disappointment as we take a last look at the colorful hillsides
of Mexico—our last look at land for 22 days.

For many of us, the rest of day one is a blur. The scientists, who have
not yet found their sea legs, are easy to distinguish from the experienced
Atlantis crew. We stumble around like a bunch of drunken sailors, fighting sea sickness, or suffering the side effects of anti-sea-sick medication. Experienced sea travelers warned us that the first few days could be rough, even if the sea wasn't. Dramamine, sea sick patches, and the natural remedy, ginger, are passed around. Christian, an Austrian
scientist, was one of the first to lose his battle with sea sickness. Stephan, a Penn State post-doc and experienced sea explorer, tells me he chased Christian around with a banana in each hand, trying to get him to
eat something. Why bananas, I ask. " Bananas taste the same coming up as they do going down," Stephan replies.

I lose my battle with motion sickness and sleep away the first few hours of the voyage. When I wake, it's just water and sky. Varying shades of blue broken in the middle by the horizon and interrupted only occasionally by a fluffy white cloud. Blue sea, blue sky.

They tell me I will get bored—I think they must be joking.


The scientists are here to study life at the hydrothermal vent sites
located along the East Pacific Rise at our destination, 9 North, or, as it
is affectionately called, 9N. Teams of scientists from Penn State,
University of California Santa Barbara, William & Mary, Duke, and
researchers from as far away as Austria, Alaska, British Columbia, and the
U.K., are here to see what's going on a mile and a half beneath the
surface of the Pacific Ocean—a veritable laboratory at the bottom of the sea.

Everyone has been busy since arrival setting up their labs. The Atlantis, at 274 feet long, 17 feet draft, has 3,710 feet of lab space (Atlantis specifications). Everyone pitches in to see that, when we arrive at 9N — whenever that may be—all equipment is set up and ready to go. The researchers on board wear many hats. As carpenters, welders, and general jury-rigging experts, what they need, they build; what breaks, they fix.


photo of dark ocean and dark clouds above, light streaming from behind the clouds
Credit Joanna Lott

Evening sky, en route to N9

The Dramamine kicks in around 5:30, and I am able to eat dinner. After
dinner I catch my first sunset at sea—pinks and yellows on the horizon break up the never-ending blue, which slowly turns to slate gray. Soon black night settles in. The line where ocean meets sky disappears, and this 3,200 ton ship seems airborne, as the stars sway back and forth in
the great black sea of night.

Second Dispatch: Rolling Along

photo of researchers working with the ALVIN unit
Credit Joanna Lott

6:00 a.m. Preparing ALVIN to dive

They told me I would be sick. They were right. They told me it was a long time to be at sea. They were right. They told me I would get bored.

They were wrong.

Just when I think I might be getting bored, when things appear to be getting into a routine, something or someone surprises me. Just when it seems like it's all eat, sleep, dive, write, eat, sleep, dive, write, something unexpected happens. All the planning and schedules in the world can't prepare you for what happens out here. When you're dealing with something as uncompromising as the deep blue sea, nothing is a sure thing.

" The electronic component that failed today worked fine on deck," explains ALVIN pilot Philip Forte. "We operate all those things on deck in the morning—everything the sub will do during the dive—in what's called a 'walk-around.'"

After ALVIN's launch this morning, it was called back to the ship because of problems with the hydraulic system. "Bringing the sub back up is not a very common occurrence," Forte tells me. "That sub is pretty damn reliable."

But today they did bring the sub back up.

After a failed attempt to fix the problem, they decided to dive using the back-up system, and at 11:30, ALVIN was launched for the second time. Forte explains that the problem was not a safety issue, but one of maneuverability. "We cannot dive with anything that compromises the safety of the sub or the people," he says.

At 4:00 I report for duty to the fan tail where I'm surprised to find the Penn State research group lounging by the pool instead of busily preparing for the recovery of the sub.

"We didn't get anything," Govenar tells me. "It broke."

"What broke?" I ask.

"Chimneymaster," she says. "I'm not sure what happened. But we won't have much to do when it comes up."


Chimneymaster, one of Fisher's favorite toys for scooping up communities of life from the sea floor, looks something like a medieval torture device with a vacuum cleaner bag inside. Fisher tells me that, designed for high temperatures and rough conditions, it is the most robust tool of its kind. This strange implement traveled to the bottom of the ocean on ALVIN's science basket to scoop up even stranger creatures from the vents. Apparently, one of the steel cables on Chimneymaster snapped.

photo of burned Chimney master
Credit Joanna Lott

Chimneymaster after the blowout

"I'm not sure why the cable snapped," Fisher tells me later. "We pulled on it with the full hydraulic force of ALVIN — which is roughly 7000 pounds of pull. My guess is that at 2 degrees Celsius they were a little more brittle than normal. We got one good collection before we broke it."

Was it a complete loss?

No, says Govenar. It wasn't a loss "because even though the equipment broke, we have developed new ideas to make it work. And we got one good quantitative sample from the dive."

And tomorrow they get another chance, using Bushmaster, a tool similar to Chimneymaster, but bigger and not as strong. At a meter and a half tall with a meter and half opening, it looks like a giant badminton shuttlecock. Bushmaster was designed to scoop up intact clumps of Riftia (tubeworms) from the softer sediment of the Gulf of Mexico. It will be used here for the same purpose with the hope it will withstand the rougher conditions of the East Pacific Rise.


The next morning, 6:00 a.m., it's still dark out — solid black. No stars. The Penn State group is up preparing for today's dive. The ALVIN pilots move quickly around the sub testing every system like the pit crew at a race track. Today, Penn State post doc Stephan Hourdez and graduate student Jason Flores dive with Bushmaster. At 8:00 they dive. A small storm moves in, the water gets rough and your wimpy reporter gets sea sick. At 5:00 ALVIN is recovered, and while Hourdez and Flores are put through their initiation — ice water and whipped cream, Bushmaster dumps a huge clump of tubeworms into a bucket. Success.

And I think of what my father said to me before I left for the cruise. What do I do if things go wrong, I asked.

Roll with it.

Third Dispatch: All in a day's work

ship and equipment in foreground, person in raft in the ocean in background
Credit Joanna Lott

ALVIN about to be recovered

After a rough and rainy day that lulled many members of this scientific crew into a dangerously comfortable feeling of ennui, I awoke to find the ship abuzz. Today, instead of the routine dive in the morning, recovery in the afternoon, and lots of science in the evening, there will be two short dives, with only an hour between for recovery and prep. Breea Govenar leads this morning's dive. This is only her second dive, and already she'll be the scientist calling the shots. (Although the ALVIN pilots would argue that no one calls the shots but them.) She dives with Barry Rowan, one of Jim Childress's research group on board the New Horizon. Chuck Fisher was delighted to discover that Rowan is a former student and Penn State alumnus. So today is a mini-reunion, and a surprise to Fisher who, until he saw Rowan's face on the New Horizon in Manzanillo, didn't know he was along on this cruise.

The morning flies by and before we know it ALVIN has surfaced and is being recovered from the water. Govenar's forced smile as she descends the steps of the A-frame conveys concern and frustration.

I watch from one deck above the action as the dance begins. The swarm of scientists mobilize and set upon the sub, picking it clean of samples, while the Alvin Group goes to work prepping it for the next dive.

Meanwhile, the newest ALVIN diver, Rowan, endures the traditional first timer's initiation and is doused with buckets of ice water.

We soon find out what Govenar was concerned about; the sample that Bushmaster holds in its jaws isn't what they were hoping for. They wanted a quantitative sample, Govenar later explains to me, meaning that they enclose and collect an entire community in Bushmaster. But the collection she had the ALVIN pilot aim for was a little too big for Bushmaster, so they netted only the top portion of the community, perhaps losing whatever lives at the bottom.

This experience for Govenar goes way beyond research. It is a test of her confidence, her knowledge, her energy, her patience, and her abilities as a leader. As she said in our interview before the cruise, "I'm the lead graduate student on this cruise. Is that scary? Yes. Is that a lot of responsibility? Yes."

No one is harder on Govenar than Govenar herself. "It was a judgment call," she tells me, "and I made a bad judgment." Later Fisher tells me that it really isn't that bad. "The collection is still fully quantitative with respect to the tubeworms, and appears to have the gross majority of the associated fauna as well. Breea strives for perfection, and is disappointed with less."


This afternoon's short dive is an unusual one, because in a way it's a "bonus" dive with a single pre-determined objective. Fisher and expedition leader Patrick Hickey have decided that a couple of early Christmas presents are in order: Penn State undergrad Therese Waltz, whose participation in this cruise is funded by the Eberly College of Science, never expected to get a dive. She had gone back to bed after the morning launch, because this morning, like every morning, she was up at 0400 preparing a water sampler for use on the day's dive. She was awakened with the news that today is her lucky day.

head shot of young woman smiling, wearing life vest
Credit Joanna Lott

Therese Waltz, lucky undergrad who got to dive

"This is, like, the best Christmas present ever," Waltz said when Fisher gave her the news.

For the crew members on the Atlantis, watching ALVIN dive is an everyday occurrence. But actually getting to dive in the sub is something most have never done. Fisher and Hickey have asked Captain Gary Chiljean to hold a crew lottery for the third seat in the sub. And the winner is second engineer James Schubert, a perpetually happy young crew member whose slogan is "fun, fun, fun," and who appears to have taken on the role of ship clown. He tells me that he once proposed that the engineers learn hula dance as a form of communication in the noisy engine rooms. He was surprised when the idea didn't catch on. I ask him how he feels about his lucky win. He gives me a big grin and a thumbs up.


But before they can even think about the next dive, they have to deal with the samples from the first dive, and fix Bushmaster, who suffered several broken fiberglass rods and severely bent steel supports during the first dive. There is no time to lose. Govenar and Cynthia Kicklighter, a Georgia Tech graduate student, work hurriedly to get every last bit of fauna from Bushmaster at the same time that Fisher and Hourdez work on repairing it.

At 12:45 the pilot tells Fisher that Bushmaster has to be on the science basket no later than 1:15 for a 1:30 dive.

"It'll be ready in ten minutes," Fisher says.

At 1:00 they are still working. It looks like they'll never pull it off, but after watching these guys work for ten days now, I know that they will.

At 1:15 Bushmaster is fixed and attached to ALVIN's basket.

photo of young man and woman on the deck of a ship; young man is giving the thumbs-up signal
Credit Joanna Lott

James Schubert and Therese Waltz on the A-Frame about to get into ALVIN

When Waltz and Schubert finally ascend the A-Frame stairs, the fantail is packed with scientists and crew there to support the lucky divers. Cameras click like crazy. Waltz gets into the sub, then remembers to ask about the dive plan and wants a clipboard. ALVIN pilot BLee Williams shouts the message to Fisher who shouts back, "video, collect, and that's it." Williams' answer: "She wants a clipboard — she's very official."

Waltz gets her clipboard. ALVIN is in the water at 1:30. And everyone goes about their business, until the ship's horn blows at 4:30 announcing that it's time once again to recover ALVIN from the water. Another big sample, another broken Bushmaster, and another round of initiations.

And in just over twelve hours, it starts all over again.

Fourth Dispatch: Worm Science

photo of tubeworms and clams
Image courtesy of Richard Lutz, Rutgers University, Stephen Low Productions, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Photo credits must be used in full.

Tubeworms and clams, swarm of small crustaceans

Most of us think of the sea floor as a vast, lifeless expanse — nothing to see, nothing to study. But over the last twenty-five years, scientists have discovered lush communities of life thriving at hydrothermal vents on the ridges and rises of the ocean floor. No visible light reaches this environment, oxygen concentration can be extremely low, potentially toxic sulfide levels are high, and heavy metals are rife. Not what you'd call ideal conditions for most animals we are familiar with.

But the animals at these vent sites are unlike any that we know. These
communities include some familiar looking animals, such as mussels and
clams, but also tubeworms, which bear little resemblance to any previously discovered animal.

This is what brings scientists from all different fields here to the East
Pacific Rise and to other vent sites all over the world year after year;
for every discovery, another question forms, taking us deeper and deeper
into the mystery of the vents.


Penn State graduate student Breea Govenar, whose work on this cruise is crucial to her Ph.D. thesis, is looking at the community ecology of
hydrothermal vents.

"I'm interested in species distribution — where are the animals and why."

The factors that influence where an animal lives can be divided into two groups: abiotic and biotic. Abiotic factors are concerned with the
physical and chemical environment, which at hydrothermal vents fluctuate greatly both with time and space. Move one centimeter and the temperature changes dramatically, sulfide and oxygen concentrations change dramatically — come back to the same spot in a year's time, and you don't know what you'll find. Biotic factors, or biological factors, include competition (for food and sulfide) and predation (being preyed upon), where the behavior of one animal affects the survival of another animal.

On this cruise, Govenar has made three dives in the submersible ALVIN to the vent sites of the East Pacific Rise, each time bringing back carefully
selected quantitative samples of vent communities to try to get a better
idea of the species interactions taking place there.


For two weeks now I have watched Govenar and the others from Charles Fisher's lab group at Penn State at work in their lab on the Research Vessel Atlantis, sorting, slicing, bleeding, measuring, and weighing the animals ALVIN brings up from the sea floor.

three female researchers in lab, working around a table
Credit Joanna Lott

Joanna, Therese Waltz (undergraduate in biology) and Breea Govenar

Today I finally got my hands dirty. Govenar and the rest of Fisher's group (graduate students Sue Carney and Sharmishtha Dattagupta, post-doc Stephan Hourdez, and undergraduate student Therese Waltz) are working on the Riftia pachyptila, or giant tubeworms, that came up in today's sample. They warned me that the worms were still "a little bit alive," and that they might retract into their tubes or flinch when I touched them. The idea didn't appeal to me, but I had to prove myself to these young scientists who had too many times put up with my exclamations of "EEEeeeew!" as they worked.

They set me up with a measuring tape, some string, a razor blade, a
caliper, several beakers, a bucket of filtered sea water, and a slop
bucket, and I went to work cutting open the thick white tube to get at the
soft and vulnerable worm inside.

A tubeworm, when removed from its protective tube, looks like a cross
between a common earthworm and something out of science fiction. Besides being larger (sometimes much larger — up to a meter long), Riftia's vestimentum and plume set it apart from the earthworm. That and the fact that they live on the ocean floor, have no mouth, or gut, and get energy from potentially toxic chemicals processed by sulfide-oxidizing bacteria living inside of them.

Cutting open the tube is the easy part. It's picking up and measuring the soft red worm inside that was a challenge for me. I felt like I held a creature from another planet.

The first time a seemingly dead worm flinched in my hand, I shrieked and tossed the worm onto the lab table. A wave of shivers went down my spine. I realized that I would be more comfortable if this creature were already dead. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed my reaction, and Govenar, ever reassuring, smiled and told me that it startles her too
sometimes.

Therese Waltz, the only undergraduate on this cruise, teaches me a little about the anatomy of the tubeworm. She points to the strange piece of flesh that wraps around the worm like a vest just above its middle and
explains that it is the vestimentum, the muscle they use to hold their
plume, the top part of the tubeworm, outside of their tube so that it can
pick up the nutrients it needs to survive.

"Ooh, I've got a bleeder here," says Sharmishtha Dattagupta, working across the table from me, when she nicks the flesh of the worm she is working on. Blood drips and then pours from the worm, and Dattagupta, conscious that the loss of blood affects the precision of the volume measurement she wants, is quick to move the bleeding worm over a beaker, turning the beaker water pink and then deep red.

Sometimes you don't have to cut the tube at all, Dattagupta tells me. You can squeeze the worm right out of the tube. "Like deep sea toothpaste," she says as she presses the tube flat at one end. Plop goes the worm into the beaker.

The scientists patiently teach me how to tell a male Riftia from a female, correct me with a smile when I call the vestimentum a vestibule, and congratulate me on each correctly weighed and measured worm.

The work is tedious and slow and hard on the body. After only a couple of hours spent bent over the tubeworms, my neck is stiff, my eyes are tired, and my fingers are pruney from the seawater that spills from the tubes.

But this is just a small sampling for me of the scientists' life. To
properly study community ecology of vent sites, every animal from a
quantitative sample must be identified, counted, weighed and measured.
Hours of sorting go on before you even get to this point of looking at the
specifics.

I was proud (and relieved) that in the time I worked in the lab, even with the rocking of the boat, I didn't have a single bleeder.

Fifth Dispatch: Cruisin' Christmas

man wearing red and white Santa hat
Credit Joanna Lott

Captain Gary Chiljean on the bridge in a santa hat

Christmas at sea—no shops, no sales, no Salvation Army Santas, and no last minute shopping. Working on a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean five hundred miles from land is a strange way to spend Christmas.

Although 22 days at sea with no escape can seem interminable, time is strange out here; scheduled meals and meetings keep you super-aware of the time of day, but time on the larger scale of days and weeks is lost, as every day is essentially the same. Since departing Manzanillo on December 9th, we have had no weekends and no days off.

So Christmas Eve sort of snuck up on us and began like any other day. But after ALVIN's recovery and the subsequent science dance (tubeworms and mussels and clams, Oh my!), a sort of compressed holiday rush commenced. At 5:00 with the go-ahead from the Captain Chiljean, the party began. Cans of beer were rationed out (two per person) and a regular Fourth of July style cookout was underway, with barbequed chicken and ribs, coleslaw, pasta salad, and chocolate crisped rice squares for dessert.

What began as a dull, gray day turned sunny as if just for us. Christmas carols played over the ALVIN hangar sound system, and we mixed and a-mingled on the fantail as if we were at any other party, as if we hadn't been in constant company for the last 16 days. It was a treat to see the night operations scientists up during daylight hours, and to see the scientists and crew (those that weren't on watch) at play, even if only for a few hours.

After dinner we sorted through and distributed samples from a different kind of quantitative collection; creatively wrapped presents of every shape and size filled the huge collection bucket, usually full of mussels or tubeworms. We each drew a number from a Santa hat, and one by one we picked a present from the bucket or stole one from someone who had already picked. A flying pig toy was the most popular present. Everyone wanted that pig, but no one held onto it for long. In the end, Paul Vinitsky, oiler on the Atlantis, was the lucky keeper of the pig, and we were happy to know that the pig would stay on the ship.

man picking something out of bucket on deck of ship while shipmates look on
credit Joanna Lott

Pat Hickey (ALVIN pilot and Expedition Leader) picks a present from the bucket

A piñata was hung from the A-Frame with care, and blindfolded scientists took swings at it with a large pole until candy spilled out onto the deck. Then, as is a common Christmas tradition, we all started throwing each other in the pool.

Sopping wet (shoes and all) and getting chilly, a group of us decided it was time to get dry and get back to Christmas. So we set off to the lounge to watch "It's a Wonderful Life. "

But first I headed off to the bow where I had an all too rare moment to myself — no camera, no notepad, no tape recorder. Just me and the sea and the spectacular Christmas sky.

The moon seems much closer out here-—-never very far out of reach. That night it was directly overhead, and though only a crescent moon, it was bright enough to reflect on the water and light up the puffy clouds. White clouds in the black, starlit sky. I silently sent Christmas greetings to friends and family. And then back to join the others.

Christmas Eve came as a much needed break sixteen days into the cruise — sixteen days of sameness, sixteen days of work. And in a few hours, it was over, and Christmas Day came and went like any other day out here. The sub launch at 8:00, recovery by 5:00, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and work, work, work in between.

Happy Holidays to everyone at home. Can't wait to get my feet back on solid ground.

Sixth Dispatch: Odds and Ends

Being at sea is like being in prison, only with the added risk of drowning, runs an old sailors' expression. Life out here goes something like this:

Work
Eat
Work
Eat
Work
Eat

Work some more

Sleep

inside of ship cabin
Credit Joanna Lott

Joanna's cabin on the R/V Atlantis

It's hard to explain, but let me put it like this: Take your office building and all your colleagues, pick it all up, and move it to the middle of nowhere. Take away all phones, Internet service, newspapers, and television. Take away weekends and days off. Take away changing scenery. Work as hard as you know how on as little sleep as you can handle with the same people every day for 22 days.

Work
Eat
Work
Eat
Work
Eat

Work some more

Sleep

The routine both drives you mad and keeps you going.

Sleep

I open my eyes to complete darkness. It must be the middle of the night. Is that my alarm going off? Can't be. Back to sleep . . .

Then the room rocks, and the sloshing of the 29,000-gallon fuel tanks below reminds me of where I am. I am in a bunk that folds out from the wall three feet from the floor, in a small windowless room just below sea level, on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from land.

The first night, when the feeling of "I'm so lucky just to be here" dulled most of my senses, sleeping in this little bunk was part of the adventure. I imagined that just beyond my closed curtains, the sea was rocking me to sleep.

That was before the seasickness and nightmares set in. Then this tiny cabin became a dark cavern where I battled insomnia amid visions of sinking ships, shark attacks, and tropical storms. Soon I was walking around during the day like a baby in need of a nap—overtired, overworked, emotions running high.

The scientists don't sleep either, but for a different reason. They have just three weeks at sea and must get as much done in that time as they can. Some of them rise at 4:30 a.m. to prepare the equipment for the day's dive. Some work all night every night, napping only when they have the chance, often on deck in plastic lawn chairs with the thunder of the engines for a lullaby.

Eat

Woman sleeping in deck chair, her arms over her face
Courtesy Joanna Lott

Sharmishtha Dattagupta gets some shut-eye

Showering is, at best, a challenge. The rolling of the sea turns a simple ritual into a naked balancing act. The shower is a curtained-off corner in a bathroom smaller than my bedroom closet back home—so small that for the ladies, shaving your legs is out of the question, unless you don't mind your head ending up in the toilet.

I dress quietly by the small light over my bunk to avoid waking my two roommates, who usually come to bed just before I get up. I throw on yesterday's clothes, run my fingers through my damp hair, grab my notebook, pen, and camera, and head for the deck. I'll put on clean clothes later — maybe. If any of my clothes are clean.

Then I'm off to the galley for the morning smorgasbord. Breakfast, like every meal, is a danger to the waistline. Too many choices. The food is great, but the coffee makes a landlubber like me long for Starbucks. Most mornings I grab a bagel on the run and head off to see the launch. But when I have time, I indulge in blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup.

Mealtimes are set: Breakfast is at 7:15, lunch at 11:30, and dinner at 5:30 — right after ALVIN's recovery. We are so well-trained by now to go to the galley as soon as the sub comes up that if she surfaces early, it's as if Pavlov has rung our dinner bell. Our stomachs start to growl, and the rest of the afternoon seems endless until the food is finally served.

Work

I envisioned days spent basking in the sun while typing away on my laptop, but soon learned that work time and break time must be kept separate. So I typically work in the computer lab from ALVIN's launch until her recovery.

One day, my work is interrupted by an announcement: "Attention all hands, attention all hands. There is a large log floating by on starboard side." This may not seem like big news, but we're at sea. Water and sky, blue on blue, day in day out. A log floating by is something to check out. I watch it—a branch actually—drift slowly by our ship. This branch and our ship, two specks in the vast ocean. I wonder about its journey. How long has it been floating out here? How many storms has it endured? How many ships has it seen?

In the shadow of the branch, a large school of shimmering blue fish darts back and forth, moving together like one animal. I had counted on a daily dose of dolphins, sharks, and whales, but this is the first surface sea life I've seen. So I'm delighted when the small fish attract a group of oceanic white-tip sharks. At about three feet long, the sharks are hardly big enough to give the small fish a proper scare. But still, it is a glimpse of an oceanic eco-system — big fish chasing small fish.

Then back to work.

Sleep?

When dinner is over, we have until 7:00 the next morning to do as we wish. You would think we would sleep, but many of us don't. The scientists often work into the night, dissecting and cataloging the day's samples of tubeworms, mussels, and limpets.

three researchers in casual clothes sitting on deck

Josh Osterberg, Breea Govenar, and Sue Carney catch some rays

Now and then the need for fun and socializing outweighs the need for work or sleep. Some people play ping-pong in the main lab, others watch movies on the DVD player in the lounge, play cards in the galley, or just relax in the night air on deck.

One rainy evening, a scientist, an engineer and I, all in need of a break, sat below the ladder-well near the submarine hangar, passing the time singing old sea shanties as the ship steamed along from 9 North to 11 North—a ten-hour journey. My companions asked me to sing an old camp song I knew about the ill-fated Titanic. It took a lot of persuading, but I finally gave in. I hadn't finished the first chorus of "it was sad, so sad, it was sad when the great ship went down," before a ship's alarm sounded. The engineer took off to see what the trouble was. The scientist chuckled with delight at the concerned look on my face. "Finish the song," she said. No way.

By the end of the adventure, ALVIN's morning launch and evening recovery are a normal part of my day, the hours spent in the computer lab are my job, and that poor excuse for a bed is just where I sleep. There is no place so dark as a bunk in a windowless cabin, closed in by curtains on all sides. By the end, it isn't the vast ocean rocking me to sleep; it's exhaustion.


Special thanks to Sophie Pendlebury of the University of
South Hampton, U.K., for her patience in talking me through the amazing
amount of science that goes on at the hydrothermal vents. Also, thanks to
Chuck Fisher, Breea Govenar, Sue Carney, and Stephan Hourdez, all of Penn State, and to Cynthia Kicklighter of Georgia Tech for clearing up a few of my questions, and to Greg Ravizza of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for his encouragement and enthusiasm. And thanks to Cindy Lee Van Dover for writing two great books about hydrothermal vents,
Octopus's Garden and The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents."

People associated with this story:

Principal Investigators:

Chuck Fisher, a Penn State professor of biology, is chief scientist on the RV Atlantis, the "biology boat" for the cruise. Fisher studies the physiology and ecology of symbiotic autotrophic marine microbes and their invertebrate hosts. In the past 19 years, he has made 75 deep-sea dives in research submersibles and has spent another 54 days at sea working with deep-diving remotely operated vehicles. His laboratory at Penn State is currently conducting research projects at hydrothermal vents sites on the East Pacific Rise and at hydrocarbon-seep sites in the Gulf of Mexico.

James Childress, chief scientist on the RV New Horizon, (the "physiology boat"), is a professor of marine biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Childress was a principal investigator on the first biological expedition to the deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1979, and since then he has been chief scientist on upwards of 70 oceanographic cruises and has made more than 50 dives in deep submersibles. He has had four species of deep-sea animals named after him: two shrimps, a jellyfish, and a mussel.

three researchers in casual clothes sitting on deck

Josh Osterberg, Breea Govenar, and Sue Carney catch some rays

Members of Fisher's lab on the trip:

Sue Carney, a Ph.D. student, is interested in molecular approaches to deep-sea ecological questions. She has looked at genetic variation in hydrothermal vent tubeworms and in deep sea mussels from cold-seep environments.

Sharmishtha Dattagupta, also a Ph.D. student, got her masters in biotechnology in Bombay, India. She has working on data analysis of transplant experiments with mussels from the Gulf of Mexico. She also wants to work on behavior studies of the methane-utilizing seep mollusc Bathynerita naticoidea.

Jason Flores another Ph.D. student, is currently working on the blood physiology of the hydrothermal vent tubeworm, Ridgeia piscesae. He hopes to get insight into what mechanisms have allowed R. piscesae to survive, and even thrive, under diverse environmental conditions.

Breea Govenar, yet another Ph.D. student, is interested in the community ecology of hydrothermal vents. She is currently at work estimating biomass and diversity from samples taken from various hydrothermal chimneys at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

Stephane Hourdez, a postdoctoral fellow, holds a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the University Pierre & Marie Curie in Paris, France. His doctoral work was on the respiratory adaptations of deep-sea worms to hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.

Therese Waltz is an undergaduate majoring in biology who has been working on analyzing DNA samples taken from various species of tubeworms living at hydrothermal seeps.

Our correspondent:

Joanna Lott is a freelance writer and assistant editor of Research/Penn State. This is her first ocean cruise.

SIDEBAR

Chuck Fisher describes the expedition

Last Updated December 31, 2001