Mountains of the Sea

These logs were written by Melissa Ryan, Program Coordinator for the College of Exploration, when she participated in a research cruise that explored the undersea mountains off the coast of New England.

The objectives of this mission were to:

  • map,
  • collect, and
  • identify deepwater corals, fishes, and miscellaneous invertebrates from the seamounts,
  • with special attention to whether corals are most abundant at the crest of the seamount and whether they form important habitat for other species. Melissa's specific mission was to create lesson plans that compare the Challenger voyage with a modern research expedition.
  • July 11, 2003  7:16 PM

    Hi, Peter!
    Nice to hear from you.  Today was spent hooking up laptops in the lab. There seems to be more square footage of personal laptops than lab space! Meals have been great, and everyone who was hoping to lose weight has already given up.

    A favorite pastime when we start feeling woozy below decks is to sit outside and scan the horizon for pods of dolphins.  We saw two groups today and they have a ball riding the wake and diving alongside the boat. In my next life I will return as one.

    A long afternoon of safety lectures, videos, and fire drills was also on our agenda today, and we are now knowledgable about many aspects of fire fighting and abandoning ship.  The Science crew is now trading stories about when the nausea first hit them, and many of us are torn between actually taking the medication and feeling drowsy, or toughing it out and getting used to it. The weather has finally cleared and we have blue skies and warm winds, though the seas have picked up quite a bit and I estimate they are probably about 8 foot swells. Captain George says there is no bad weather in sight, and that he is hopeful about completing all the Alvin dives.
    All of us web-based life forms very much look forward to emails from home, so keep them coming! More tomorrow when we are multibeaming a seamount that has not been mapped.  You may want to follow along by going to the Atlantis site (do a search for RV Atlantis and you'll find the Woods Hole site. Then on the left nav bar there is a caption that says "Where is the Atlantis?" and you can see our track.  Cool cool stuff....
    Ciao for now,

    July 12, 2003  5:00 PM

    Hi!   It is Day 2 of our expedition, and we spent a fitful night rocking and rolling with the high seas.  Few people were alert this morning, and everyone has been napping at one point or another through the day (I fell asleep in the sun on the upper deck, which is the only one we are allowed on because of the sea state). It is amazing how much we take for granted on land:  taking a shower at sea becomes an undignified waltz, and brushing your teeth while standing at the sink becomes treacherous if you do not pay attention to the movements of the boat. I am full of bruises already!  Life at sea is a lesson in presence and awareness, where we must be conscious of tying equipment and computers securely, and taking care that hands are not caught in hatchway doors that weigh too much to guess at.  Simply staring at the dynamic ocean seems to add a Zen component, and I get lost in the ability to try and follow a single wave. We crossed into the Gulf Stream sometime last night, and the water temperature is a balmy 78 degrees, with a warm wind. 

    After a Science crew meeting this morning to discuss mission objectives, the handling of samples,and post data cruise collection, we retreated to our usual habitat of the main lab, where all laptops,most video screens,and other equipment are located.  I had a fascinating conversation with the Science Illustrator, M.J. Brush, who gave me some great ideas for the Art lesson that compares scientific illustration with that done on the Challenger and also to other styles of art.  

    A short visit on the Bridge revealed an entirely different atmosphere than our labs:  very peaceful with two crew members who were friendly and laid back.  A CD of 80's music played softly in the background, and it was good to hear familiar songs.  

    Wish us calmer seas and much less wind, which is supposed to happen by tomorrow for the first Alvin dive!

    July 13, 2003  7:54 PM

    The weather finally cleared and today was very sunny and very warm with relatively calm seas (finally!)Everyone was up early to watch the first Alvin launch, and we all gathered on deck.  It is first rolled out of its "house" on a track to the aft of the ship. Divers with their lunch, pillows, hand held video recorders, and any other useful items climb in through the top hatch.  An A-frame lifts the sub, which is tethered by a heavy rope until it is released into the water.  It took them about an hour and a half to descend to about 1600 meters.  Sub crew on the bridge are constantly tracking the movements of the sub through sonar pings, and voice contact is made about every half hour to ensure things are going smoothly. An announcement is made when the sub is ascending so everyone can be on the forward decks waiting to spot it as it first breaks the surface, several hundred feet from the ship. The ship then maneuvers to the sub, a swimmer swims out to it and connects it to the rope on the A-frame, and it is hauled in.  Great photo ops.
    As soon as it is back in its hangar, the scientists rush to get the samples into cold water, categorize them, and begin lab work to study things such as coral DNA, reproductive behavior, etc.  Several beautiful coral samples were collected, and we could see the polyps opening in the
    water.  Another favorite activity is looking at the decorated styrofoam cups that we sent down to be compressed into shot glass size.  Someone also brought some styrofoam wig stands (wig heads, as they are known) to decorate and send down on tomorrow's dive, so then we will have a few shrunken heads.
    There is a rock dredging activity happening now, which takes about an hour to get to depth, dredge for 10-15 minutes, then back up. Dredging at great depth still takes a fair amount of time, though not as long as it did on Challenger.  

    Moods were lifted today with the good weather and successful dive, and we are falling into our individual routines.  I have been interviewing the crew, reading through Challenger material, and beginning to work on lessons, in between watching the videos from the dive and eating, which is
    always a favorite and frequent activity.  Tonight was lamb chops, tuna steak, asparagus, couscous, roasted red potatoes, rolls, and always a salad bar.  Ice cream for dessert!  And Haagen-Dazs, no less! We are treated very well in all respects.
    Until tomorrow....

    July 14, 2003 5:12 PM

    Greetings from Manning Seamount,
    This morning was kind of long, as the weather was very gray, drizzly, and some thunderstorms. What a difference it makes to be able to go outside into sun now in the late afternoon!  I did see a waterspout during the storms, which looked like a skinny, long, curvy tornado that stretched
    from sky to sea. I was up on the bridge at the time, and of course my camera was 5 levels down, so no pictures - only memories.
    I was reading these past few days the Joseph Matkin letters sent from aboard HMS Challenger, and whenever I think life at sea is tough, I think of the crew on that ship.  He writes: "Some of the old [biscuits] is quite mouldy and contains maggot and weevils, but of course it has to be eaten and I expect we shall get worse, before we get better." I also found a bit in the book about the band they had on board, which played tunes such as "God Save the Queen" and various waltzes.  Up on the bridge, they play a variety of CD's, including 80's musicians such as the Go-Go's, Billy Squier, and J.Geils Band.  Country music is also popular. Quite a difference from the 1800's!  

    It was extremely humid with still air and slight seas today, and it is amazing to think that just a day or two ago the ocean was roiling.  It is as if it never happened. I cannot imagine what it must have been like on the Challenger in the warmer climes with no air conditioning, and two
    hundred men trying to sleep down below.  When it was too hot for clothing, the mosquitoes feasted on them.  A life I would never choose, but they certainly have my respect!  

    The Alvin has just surfaced with more brightly colored orange, yellow and red corals, and the graduate students have whisked them away to the freezer room.  They were up until 3:30 a.m. yesterday tending to their samples. We also sent some of the wig heads down to be shrunk, and of course another batch of styrofoam cups.  We have a running joke that people on board (including the two reporters) are more interested in the styrofoam than in the corals!  No dredging tonight, as we are already in transit to Kelvin seamount, which has NEVER BEEN EXPLORED! Tomorrow should be interesting. Please stand by.....
    Take care,

    July 15, 2003  5:16 PM

    Good Evening from 1 mile above Kelvin Seamount! Today was another successful dive to a previously unexplored seamount. We are truly pioneers.  One of the graduate students experienced her first Alvin dive and, as is the tradition, as soon as she got out of the sub was
    drenched with 2 huge pails of seawater with ice cubes in it to ensure the cold factor!  She had tried to prepare for this moment by putting a large trash bag over her clothes, but the water found its way around it anyway.
    Interestingly, the diver scientists are noticing very few fish at the sites they are diving.  No one knows why yet, and they have told us that the uncertainty and need for more research will make for a nice upcoming proposal. 

    We saw some wildlife today...finally!  Four or five mahi-mahi, or dolphinfish,about three feet long, were sighted swimming alongside the ship and chasing the schools of flying fish (boy, can they go a distance!).  The mahi are of the most striking colors, with iridescent blues and greens, and that is only what we could see with them just below the surface.  The Captain and several crew members tried desperately to catch them with rod and reel, but no luck.  We are hoping to get hold of some type of fish because a group of us are interested in doing "fish prints" where we use latex paint to paint the fish and then press it onto T-shirts or paper. A group craft activity! Don't know if it will happen though.  

    I have found a nice haven in which to work -- the bridge, which is very serene with only the 1 or 2 crew on watch.  Plus it is where the information comes first, such as when the sub is coming up, or where the wildlife sightings are. No sea monsters yet, but I am still optimistic. I was sharing a few passages from the Matkin letters with one of the crew, specifically one of the passages about the Brass Band that was on board the Challenger:  "there were 15 volunteers and nine of them wanted to play the big drum, they practice every day in the fore peak of the vessel
    and the noise is something fearful and causes the Watch below to swear a good deal." I had a similar experience, as I was allowed to choose from about a thousand MP3's. Naturally I chose Celine Dion, and it must have been too much for them, because any crew that came up on the bridge groaned heavily, and they only lasted for about 2 songs.  

    I have been raving about the food on board (we all have) and you may have noticed.  Well, today it all made more sense. I was chatting with the Relief Steward named Al, and he was telling me about his fascinating and impressive career, which included serving as Executive Chef in the Clinton and Bush administrations, where he was often picked up in a private jet with his wife
    and flown to whatever site the Presidential fundraiser was being held. Plates were $1000 each! From then he had his choice of jobs, and chose being the head of cuisine for Princess Cruise Lines, and was also in charge of food for the Live Aid concert performers a few years back. He
    has also worked on privately chartered yachts that housed movie stars and moviemakers. 
    Ok, I have gone on too long, and will sign off for the evening.
    Ciao for now,

    July 16, 2003  6:36 PM
    Well, Day 6 brought another successful dive with lots of coral samples and some urchins and 2 suction samples.  Last night a few of us spent the evening carefully sorting through the suction samples, which is affectionately termed a "slurp".  This process entailed taking handfuls of
    sediment and coral pieces, etc. and, with a coffee stirrer, picking out little "snaily guys", which were shells about a quarter to a half inch long. We also found a beat-up little shrimp, many fossil corals (those that had broken off and fell to the bottom and become fossilized over time), and two of the tiniest anemones I have ever seen (maybe 1/2 inch long).  It was lots of fun, and everyone seemed to grab a handful of mud and dig in at one point or another. The two reporters are eager to work, and are both quite knowledgable about oceans, since they have been covering ocean stories for years. They have repeatedly noted that the group of scientists we have on board are the most approachable and easygoing that they have encountered, which I bet is true.
    Did I tell you that MJ, the artist on board, will be doing a poster for this expedition with a "landscape" of the seamounts and smaller pictures around the border of critters and cross-sections? It should be spectacular, and I will make sure I acquire one.  

    We are now transiting to Bear Seamount, so no dredging tonight, but maybe tomorrow. This entry will be short, as the dive got in late and we won't quite have any astounding news until all the work is done tonight in the wee hours.
    Until tomorrow,

    July 18, 2003  8:33 PM
    Hello again,
    Well, today we completed the last two dives - shorter ones, with the Newsday reporter very excited about going, since he had been working on doing so for the past year.  As is the ritual, he was drenched with buckets of ice water as soon as he got out of the sub, and proceeded to
    say it was more than worth it.  Go, Joe!!
    The dives today were at Bear Seamount, which has been explored before. One objective was to assess the condition of the seafloor which had been trawled. The sub pilot said there was very little damage, and it did not even look like the trawls were dragged along the bottom, which is good news from the human impact point of view.  The scientists did not report much of a haul, but saw some fish and a beautiful octopus, which we have on video and I think will make the "Best Of..." CD.  We are running into proprietary issues regarding releasing some of the footage from this cruise.  Not sure what will happen with that.  

    There was excitement today among the educators, because a class of middle school students from New Haven, Connecticut communicated via satellite phone with the divers and pilot during one of the dives. It is truly amazing to think that over 500 miles away and 1300 meters deep, communication still takes place. The kids were kind of funny, and among the expected questions of "What are you seeing?" and "Where and how deep are you?" they also asked if we were looking for the Andrea Gail (from The Perfect Storm) and if we saw any hydrothermal vents.  

    Tomorrow will be spent doing another fire drill (1 per week is mandatory), packing up all of our luggage and lab equipment, samples, etc.  Some of us are ready to go home, others would like to stay on longer.  Although this has been an incredible adventure, I am ready to go home to family and friends and a bed that doesn't move every few seconds!
    Signing off from the Mountains in the Sea Expedition with the best of memories and experiences,

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