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Seagoing science: riffing on the rift

A glimpse into deep sea exploration

Elliott Smith 15 December 2019

That sinking feeling: Alvin in 2004 (credit: NOAA)

When Alvin first descended to the bottom, no one expected to find much living there, let alone teeming communities of animal life never seen before

The 1970s represented, among other things, the International Decade of Ocean Exploration. In that heyday of marine science, even its practitioners were research topics. In 1972 social scientists Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth, in residence at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, decided to spend two weeks on board the Scripps research vessel R/V Melville, exploring the relationships among scientists, support personal and crew. They published a paper on their findings.

A research expedition at sea is a rather closed society with an interesting dynamic. Basically, the captain and crew operate the ship, while the chief scientist and colleagues conduct the science. In the realm between professional scientists and sailors are technical support staff: scientific assistants, graduate students, computer specialists and marine technicians. Cooperation is essential, but the perspectives of scientists and crew regarding shipboard life are fundamentally different. The scientists may come and go on each short leg of a months-long cruise, while crew members tend to live and work on board for the duration. For scientists the research vessel is like their motel and mobile lab on a field trip. For the crew, it’s more like their home and workplace on a foreign tour of duty.

The social scientists on this particular cruise found that the general attitude of crew members toward seagoing scientists was – shall we say – less than reverential. The crew tended to characterize the scientists as obsessed with their research and otherwise oblivious to the disciplines and traditions of maritime culture. In their view the scientists did not appreciate the essential services that crew members performed. The scientists, whose research grants subsidize the cruises, tended to take this crew support for granted. The sympathies of tech support staff lay more with the scientists or with the sailors, depending on the issue at hand.

During the mid-1970s, physical scientists on the same R/V Melville were investigating geological features of the Galapagos Rift Zone about 400 miles west of Ecuador. At a depth of some 9,000 feet, the rift is a meandering crack in the seafloor where continental plates are slowly diverging. Occasionally, molten lava oozes up here and there, and plumes of hot, sulfurous water rise from shattered bedrock. In February 1977, another expedition of physical scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution brought the deep submersible Alvin to the site, planning to collect rock samples and search the rift area for hot springs. When Alvin first descended to the bottom, no one expected to find much living there, let alone teeming communities of animal life never seen before.

The discovery of this new deep-sea ecosystem in the Galapagos Rift was a singular event in marine science. The circumstances of it are well documented. There are numerous accounts of the scientists’ ecstatic reactions to this discovery. According to one MIT geochemist:

We all started jumping up and down. We were dancing off the walls. It was chaos. It was so completely new and unexpected that everyone was fighting to dive (in Alvin). There was so much to learn. It was a discovery cruise. It was like Columbus.

But what of the response from the crew and marine technicians? There may not be any public record of what they thought of these events. But given the findings of Bernard and Killworth, one might imagine a conversation among fictitious crew members somewhat like the following. (Note: Any resemblance to actual persons either living or lost at sea is purely coincidental!)

Here’s the scene:

Marine techs Adam and Karl are lounging in their four-man cabin after assisting with Alvin operations on an epic day of discovery in the Galapagos Rift. Able seaman Doug from the midwatch has just joined them there for an illicit nip of bourbon.

Karl: “Yo, Doug. Helluva day, huh?”

Doug: “Damn right. You know those two grad students that are supposed to relieve the midwatch at 0730, but they’re always wandering in late so we miss breakfast? Well, last night I sneaked into their cabin and set their alarms back a half-hour, then I hid the clocks in a drawer and under a berth. Can’t you just see those nerds crawling around in the dark, looking for those damn clocks? Boy, were they furious. But they showed up for watch on time, by God.”

Adam: “Good move, Doug. Actually, though, we’re talking about Alvin’s big day. You really missed it.”

Doug: “Oh, that… Well, I have to work nights. I don’t get to hang with the scientificos like you guys.”

Karl: “It was a pretty big deal. Alvin found some hot springs in the rift that are full of brand-new animals. They’re even calling one spot the Garden of Eden.”

Doug: “I hope they got some pictures of Eve naked.”

Karl: “And Adam, too?”

Doug: “Not so much.”

Adam, flexing his muscles: “Your loss, buddy. Anyhow, they got video and samples of deep-sea critters nobody’s ever seen before. At least not these geo-science profs.”

Doug: “What do they know about critters?”

Karl: “Not much. I can’t believe they came way out here without a single biologist on board.”

Adam: “Well, all they were planning to do was measure temps and collect rocks.”

Doug: “Why does it take a boatload of eggheads to do that?”

Adam: “Obviously, they weren’t expecting to see anything alive down there.”

Karl: “My question is, why not? Hell, five years ago when I was out here on the Southtow Expedition, they measured a bunch of little earthquakes, and we found deep-sea bottom fish floating on the surface. And then last year on the Pleiades cruise, we got a Deep-Tow photo of a pile of giant, foot-long clam shells. They called it the ‘clambake’.”

Adam: “Were the clams alive?”

Karl: “No, but they must have been at some point. Here’s the funny thing: There was a beer can down there, too. So, all the geniuses decided some party boat must have dumped their garbage overboard there.”

Adam, rolling his eyes: “Yeah, right. You’re having a party 400 miles at sea, and you shuck some foot-long clams nobody’s ever seen before. You dump the shells in 9,000 feet of water, with currents going every which way, and they all end up in a neat pile. And later a beer can drifts down in the same spot.”

Doug: “One beer? Some freaking party.”

Karl: “They must have drunk something with all those salty clams. So, where’s the rest of that so-called party garbage?”

Adam: “Didn’t it ever occur to them the clams might actually live there? Maybe all those geo-nerds think clams get born in the fish market.”

Doug, grinning: “Don’t they?”

Karl: “Well, now they know better. Even geo-nerds can recognize a live clam.”

Adam: “Anyway, when Alvin reported that garden of critters down there, all the scientificos on deck went nuts and started jumping around. I thought they were going to pee their pants. It was chaos.”

Karl: “There was some newspaper guy there from San Francisco. I hope he took pictures of all the craziness.”

Adam: “I heard they radioed some biologists on shore to find out how to collect and document all the animals. But then the geologists got miffed because it was their cruise, by God, and all they wanted to do was collect more rocks.”

Doug: “Right. If you’re a hammer, all that matters are nails.”

Adam, nodding: “Total failure of imagination.”

Karl: “They did bring up some creatures and water samples with Alvin. Get this: when they opened the samplers in the lab, the sulfide, rotten-egg smell had everybody diving for the door.”

Doug: “You sure it wasn’t from all the spoiled eggheads in there?”

Adam: “And after they brought up all those rare critters, they didn’t have any way to preserve them except freezing. Some prof next to me was wringing his hands about it, and I said, What about booze? ‘Booze?’ he says, like he never heard of it. I said, you know, like vodka, gin, white rum… Sure enough, they had a bunch of vodka somebody bought in Panama and that’s what they used to pickle some of the critters.”

Doug, shaking his head: “Waste of good liquor. So, what do they make of all this?”

Karl: “I heard one of them say there’s a bunch of those hot springs down there, with particular animal groups around each one. Maybe it’s because the spring water chemistry varies, or the communities change over time. They’re really specialized animals.”

Adam: “The clams and tube worms they cut open even have red meat, like raw liver. They say it’s probably from hemoglobin, just like in our blood, maybe because there’s low oxygen around the springs. It must be tough living next to boiling hot water with nasty chemicals in it.”

Doug: “So, how do they figure all those critters make a living down there?”

Adam: “Well, I’ve been to Yellowstone where there’s thermophiles – bacteria and such – doing just fine in that hot, sulfury water. Other critters eat them, and on up the food chain. I’d guess there’s something like that going on down in the rift. But those hot springs aren’t permanent. They come and go.”

Doug: “How do you know?”

Adam: “I’m sure that so-called clambake site used to be home for some happy clams. When the hot springs quit flowing, the bacteria died and the food chain collapsed. Scavenger fish came in and cleaned up the dead. Nothing left now but clam shells.”

Karl: “But they could all come back if the springs do. They must have larvae drifting around looking for another hot water vent, like an oasis in the desert. Only they don’t need the sun or green plants to live there. They don’t give a damn about our world.”

Doug: “So, all the critters need is that hot, stinky water coming out of those rocks?”

Adam, nodding: “Just saltwater and minerals and the heat of the Earth.”

Doug takes a sip of whisky and leans back, a serene look on his face. “I like that picture. So, when the next big meteor comes and wipes us off the planet, they’ll still be down there just doing their thing. They won’t even know the difference.”

Karl: “Yeah, Doug. But if that happens, you’ll miss breakfast again.”

Two years later an expedition returned to the Galapagos Rift with a team of biologists and a film crew from the National Geographic Society. The results were a comprehensive survey of rift fauna and a television special, Dive to the Edge of Creation, which is available on YouTube for now. (We can only guess what the ships’ crews thought about all of it.) Since then, other such deep-sea springs and communities have been discovered. It’s now considered likely that they occur along continental plate boundaries worldwide.