The Magic of Exploring Under the Sea

It’s midnight on the ship, and the labs are filled with scientists busy examining samples. Two of them just got back from a trip to the seafloor, and the excitement is palpable.

Guest Blogger
July 31, 2016
Stephanie Bush of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (left) and Chiara Borelli of the University of Rochester emerge from the research submarine Alvin after the first dive. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis
Stephanie Bush of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (left) and Chiara Borelli of the University of Rochester emerge from the research submarine Alvin after the first dive of the training cruise. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis

By Bridgit Boulahanis

There’s something magical about being under the sea. I believe if we could transport every member of Congress to see the ocean floor by submarine, even once, funding to marine science would skyrocket.

On Saturday, two of my colleagues, both early-career scientists, got the opportunity to spend eight hours in the research submarine Alvin, roving the seafloor almost a mile below the surface, grabbing creatures, sediment, and water samples to advance the research of our science team.

It was their first submarine dive, and as they stood on the ship’s deck waiting to climb into the sub, their excitement was contagious. Much of the science party gathered on deck to watch the submarine’s launch: first carried to the edge of the deck by tracks not unlike a train, next hoisted upwards by a rope that could lift one and a half blue whales, and then lowered gently into the rolling sea where it bobbed and dipped as the Alvin team swam around it, doing a final check before descent.

Even with Alvin at the depths, those of us left behind on the ship were involved with their exploration. Radio communication between the submarine and the ship has been possible for years, but our expedition is the first to utilize text and picture messaging between the seafloor and the ship. The text communication is still so slow that the average millennial would demand a new phone before using this system for even a day, but it allows the science party to stay in contact throughout the dive, conferring on discoveries and important places to stop and take samples.

Mussels brought back from the seafloor by the submarine team. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis
Mussels brought back from the seafloor by the submarine team. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis

By mid-morning, texts from the deep had sent word: coral and mussels had been found and sampled! In the afternoon, I was sent to the top lab, where Alvin communications happens, to add an extra stop to Alvin’s sampling tour. I radioed down to give them coordinates and to request a sediment core. I will not be diving in Alvin on this expedition, but even speaking over a radio to the team at the bottom of the sea gave me a heady rush of excitement.

When the submarine finally surfaced, a small boat was deployed with crew members who dove into the water and helped tie ropes to the submarine in order to hoist it back onto the ship. Those of us gathered on deck gave a round of applause to Chiara Borelli and Stephanie Bush, the scientists returning from their first mission to the deep. They seemed enthralled to the point of giddiness with both what they had just done and with the wealth of samples they had to offer: a basket full of corals and mussels, mud, sand, and water.  They recounted to us the experience of dropping deeper and deeper, to the point where light no longer penetrates from the surface, and watching the green blinking of bioluminescence float into view out of their portholes.

Corals collected from the seafloor go into an oven for drying. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis
Corals collected from the seafloor go into an oven for drying. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis

It’s midnight now aboard the R/V Atlantis, yet in the Main Lab, the Hydro Lab, and the Wet Lab, every single workstation is full.

At the far end of the Main Lab, Mercer Brugler of the American Museum of Natural History has just removed a surprise anemone from a mussel. He carefully transports it via razor blade into a test tube and screws on a lid. Mercer works on corals and anemones, but his goal was to collect corals on our cruise.  He hadn’t even hoped to get an anemone, and he is clearly elated. Across from him, Katlin Bowman of UC-Santa Cruz is looking through a microscope at tiny spikes on her coral sample, exclaiming that now she knows what was poking her hand through her gloves. Her workbench is covered with paper towels, yet still damp, and she uses gentle precision to scrub coral branches with a toothbrush. Once they are sufficiently clean she moves them into an oven where they sit to dry.

On the other side of the table, Jeffrey Marlow of Harvard and Sean Jungbluth of the University of Southern California are bent over pushcores, pulling each clear tube from one bucket and cataloging it before placing it into a box for further analysis. Cores are cylinders shaped just like PVC pipe that Alvin pushes straight down into the seafloor. This technique provides an excellent way to understand the ocean floor because it keeps the mud layers in the same order they had at the bottom of the ocean. Once they’ve cataloged each core as a whole, Jeffrey and Sean will remove the sediment from the pipe in inch long slices and begin their analysis of each of those subsamples. They laugh as they work even though they have a very long night ahead of them.

A pushcore of seafloor sediment arrives for sampling. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis
A pushcore arrives for sampling. Photo: Bridgit Boulahanis

Across the hall in the Wet Lab, Doreen McVeigh of the North Carolina State University is sorting mussels. She has a tub full of them; some so small you can’t even see them, others as big as my fist. She is cheerily arranging them based on their size, an indicator of age. She is going to try to keep the older mussels alive until she gets back to her lab so that she can undertake better understanding their life cycle. As she sorts them she moves the ones that are old enough for her study into buckets of cool sea water, and for the rest of the cruise she will be making sure that the water remains an environment where her mussels can thrive. Nearby Amanda Netburn, from NOAA, is carefully planning out her mission aboard Alvin for tomorrow, making sure each sample collection device will fit aboard the submarine.

Dan Fornari of Woods Hole is hurrying through the main lab carrying a power drill, while Chiara follows close behind him with a clipboard. They have just pulled a new gravity core out of the ocean. Gravity cores are much longer than the push cores that Jeffrey and Sean are working on, and Chiara is thrilled that they pulled in a few feet of mud for her research. She selected the site earlier that day from aboard Alvin—close enough to a methane seep to pick up the chemical signal, but far enough away to miss hitting the rocks and biology that are so common near these features.

Saturday night aboard a research vessel is not like a Saturday night on the town, but the scientists on board are about as happy and excited as any average person on the dance floor. It’s not so bad working crazy hours when you’re doing what you love. I know that as I go to sleep tonight, in the pitch black of my on ship bunk below the water line, I’ll be imagining bioluminescence dancing before my eyes, and an inconceivably massive underwater world waiting for me to explore.

Bridgit Boulahanis is a marine geophysics graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Her research utilizes multichannel seismic reflection and refraction studies as well as multibeam mapping data to explore Mid-Ocean Ridge dynamics, submarine volcanic eruptions, and how oceanic crustal accretion changes through time. Read more about the training cruise in her first post.