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A day in the life of a marine scientist

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from the August 16, 2005 edition

(Photograph) EARLY MORNING: Four times weekly, the research boat Point Lobos takes scientists out to conduct experiments where the ocean is 3,000 meters deep.
KEELY PARRACK A day in the life of a marine scientist Scientists study the deep parts of the ocean and the unusual creatures that live there.
By Keely Parrack
MOSS BEACH, CALIF. – 6:30 a.m. I am waiting to spend the day out at sea with a team of scientists and technicians from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Patrick Whaling is senior science technician and today's chief scientist at sea.

Our boat, Point Lobos, waits patiently in the fog. The travelers arrive: student scientists, technicians, Dr. Whaling, a marine scientist, and me. The boat crew is already here.

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We glide out to sea at 7 a.m. In the harbor, seals bark farewell.

Point Lobos is no ordinary boat. Owned by MBARI, it has a laboratory on deck for experiments and a special operations room with banks of monitors that resembles NASA's mission control.

The screens show live pictures from the boat's ROV (remotely operated vehicle), called Ventana. It probes the sea with its cameras, data collection sensors, mechanical arms, and animal-collecting devices. A crane on board the boat guides the Ventana into the water. The camera controls are guided from the operations room, using what looks like a joystick for video games.

Less than 5 percent of the deep ocean has been studied. As the water gets deeper, the pressure increases. A Styrofoam cup traveling down 915 meters would be crushed to half its original size. At a depth of about 200 meters, the light fades, which gives the impression of a "twilight zone."

However, with the help of new technologies, scientists can dive deep into the ocean without being crushed or getting wet.

The ROV splashes into the ocean

Noon. We arrive at the edge of Monterey Canyon, the main reason we are here. The canyon, a few hours offshore, goes more than 3,000 meters deep. This means marine scientists can get to deep ocean water and back to shore in one day. On the East Coast, it would take 12 hours to get to water that deep.

The Ventana probe is unleashed. It is guided carefully into the water using the crane fixed on Point Lobos's deck. Floats are layered along a rope to help track Ventana. As it sinks down, its cameras give the researchers in the control room a fish-eye view of the ocean.

The first task takes two hours, filming two-thirds of a mile of the ocean floor at a depth of 200 meters. The distance and depth have to be precise, Whaling explains. "This tape will be compared to a tape of the same section taken on June 18, 2004." This way, they can find how life on the ocean floor is changing.

Whaling has been working at MBARI studying bottom-dwelling organisms for more than 15 years. "I go out two to four times a month on average," he says. "We get to the Smooth Ridge sites [where we are today] about six to seven times a year."

The researchers routinely place sediment tubes at different depths, leave them for a month or two, and then recover them. They analyze the sediment to determine what materials are flowing onto the ocean floor - and how much. The nature and stability of the ocean floor affects the life there. More than 95 percent of known marine species are bottom-dwellers. If there are any changes to those creatures, the ocean's food chain could be affected.

Story continues below

(Photograph) OCEAN-GOING EXPERIMENTS: Above, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute lower a remotely operated vehicle into the ocean. Sometimes it carries equipment to observe bioluminescent creatures, below, deep in the ocean.


In search of a 'homer'

2:30 p.m. The next mission of our trip begins - to find and pick up a "homer" left in the area six years ago. A homer guides a boat toward it by "pinging" back when contacted. These devices are left with scientific experiments so that the experiments are easily found when it's time to get the results. The batteries that power the "ping" last about two years. Since the batteries in this device no longer work, "we are picking up our trash," Whaling says.

It is likely that the homer has shifted around quite a bit from its original spot, but we head out to where it was originally left.

Fifteen minutes later, ROV pilots Craig Dawe and D.J. Osborne Jr. use the radar to steer the Ventana probe to areas that look as if they might contain a metal object. Mr. Dawe thinks he's found it - and he has.

The mechanical arms are guided to grab the metal cylinder of the homer. When Ventana emerges, it is grasping a huge robotic fistful of sea anemones that were attached to the homer.

3:30 p.m. Our day's missions accomplished, we begin heading back to shore. The Point Lobos comes out four times a week carrying different scientists who are taking part in a multitude of projects. All of these researchers and engineers are working together and developing cutting-edge technologies to help solve the mysteries of the deep sea.

For more information, see www.mbari.org.

Flashes of brilliance deep in the ocean

Below 200 meters in the ocean, light all but disappears. But there are flashes of brilliance in the dark. Many sea creatures that live at this depth are bioluminescent, which means they make their own light.

With their blinking blue and green lights, many of these gelatinous (jellylike) creatures in the deep ocean look more like spaceships than animals. "When you see one, they really are more bizarre than science fiction could come up with," says Steve Haddock, marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

These animals can glow when they are disturbed. They range from radiolarions, creatures that are just a few millimeters wide, to siphonophores, which are related to jellyfish and can grow up to 40 meters. The glowing is like a "kind of a message - don't mess with me," says Dr. Haddock.

Blue-green light is the most common. That is because these colors have a long wavelength in water and are easily spotted by sea creatures.

Some deep-sea animals use the lights for other purposes. Angler fish, for instance, have what looks like a tiny glowing worm held on a miniature fishing pole attached to their heads. It is in just the right place to attract tasty little fish.

The dragonfish has night vision. It uses red light to see into the darkness. Other creatures nearby normally do not see the dragonfish coming because most fish cannot see red light (the wavelength is too short).

But Haddock's team - Dr. Casey Dunn of Yale University, Dr. Philip Pugh of the National Oceanography Centre in Britain, and Christine Schnitzler of MBARI - recently found a siphonophore that broke all the rules. Discovered at 1,600 meters, it had red lights and seemed to be using flickers of its light as a lure for smaller prey.

This discovery has led to more questions. Can some deep-sea fish see red light? Do more bioluminescent creatures use red light than previously thought? Marine biologists are seeing deep-sea life in a new light.

Sources: Dr. Steve Haddock, www.MABARI.com, and www.montereybayaquarium.com

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