Science Opinion

Into the Deep

By Hepsi Zsoldos — March 01, 2003 10 min read
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A Delaware science teacher recalls a journey that took students from across the country a mile and a half beneath the waves.

This past fall, Hepsi Zsoldos found herself sailing the Pacific Ocean aboard the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis, part of an expedition linked via the Internet to 500 schools, including her own, Talley Middle School in Wilmington, Delaware. The 8th grade earth science teacher holds a master’s degree in marine science and harbors a longtime fascination with the sea-floor hydrothermal vent systems that the Atlantis and its submersible, Alvin—best known for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic— were there to study.

While aboard the Atlantis for the National Science Foundation and the University of Delaware’s Extreme 2002 project, she explained the ship’s mission to students through phone calls and daily journal entries, participated in experiments, helped cook—and even learned to box. With research delayed by an encounter with Hurricane Kenna, Zsoldos was far from certain that she would make her scheduled date with the depths on October 29, but fair weather prevailed and she was cleared to dive.

The journey was of special significance for Zsoldos, who struggled with the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis for 14 years. At 39, she began a new drug regimen; within six weeks, she was climbing through a ropes course and preparing for the deep-sea dive. Later this spring, she plans to lead a second student-driven expedition to explore the unique chemistry and culture of the Black Sea. Compiled from Zsoldos’ shipboard journals, available online at www.ocean.udel.edu/extreme2002 , here’s her account of the journey that brought her classroom a mile and a half below the ocean’s surface.

The morning of the dive, I was wide awake at 4:45 am—I was too excited to sleep. I’d already packed a pillowcase with things I’d need on the bottom. I knew it would get cold in the sphere, so I packed a pair of wool socks, a pair of sweat pants, a turtleneck, a heavy wool sweater, a wool hat, and a pair of mittens. I couldn’t take any clothing that wasn’t wool, cotton, or silk into the sub because polyester can spark and cause electrical shorts. So I climbed into the sub in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. It was quite warm in the sphere once the hatch was sealed, but it didn’t take long for it to get cold.

As the hatch closed, the pilot, Blee Williams, kept saying, “It’s not too late to turn back—you can still leave.” There was no way I was getting out.

During the dive to the bottom, Williams, the port observer, Dr. Craig Taylor from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and I went over the dive objectives. We wanted to test two sampling instruments for Dr. Taylor: the Autonomous Microbial Sampler and a cagelike trap called “Harold.” Other objectives involved collecting temperature and water samples around vents where Alvinella pompejana, also known as Pompeii worms, were growing. The final objective was to collect a “beehive,” a brittle vent structure featuring extremely hot water (around 572 degrees Fahrenheit). It looks like the beehive hairstyles of the ‘60s—big and poufy.

Once in the sub, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible and watched through our viewports. I was on the starboard observer’s side, so I could only see things happening on the right-hand portion of the sub. There was surprisingly little motion when the sub was lifted off the deck. Once it was in the water, the swimmers unhooked the towline and the huge 6-inch-thick lifeline, and we started our descent. By 356 meters down, it was pitch-black, but I could see lots of small bioluminescent critters go by the viewport. It was like watching a meteor shower underwater.

Some 90 minutes later, we reached the dive area. We were in 2,502 meters of water—a mile and a half below the surface of the ocean. I couldn’t wait for Williams to turn on the lights so I could see the fantastic world at the bottom. He gave me a 10-meter warning, flipped on the lights, and waited for my reaction. I know I stopped breathing.

I’ve watched an awful lot of video of vent systems and read as much as I could about them, but nothing prepared me for my first view. I was overwhelmed by the sight of the enormous pillow lava with crabs and brittle stars all over them. All kinds of odd-looking fish and eels scurried out of the sub’s way. There wasn’t much color to this portion of the ocean floor—it was mostly black and gray lava—but the textures were amazing. Some of the lava looked like pulled taffy; some was rocky and broken off into big chunks. Other spots looked like yawning caverns. These were places where the pillow lava had collapsed after the hot lava under it retreated. In several of these hollow pillows, crabs stood guard against intruders.

Williams asked us to keep watching out the viewports as a safety precaution. The pilot can’t see very far to his left or right and relies on observers to apprise him of any obstacles. No worries—I wasn’t moving. The only drawback was that you get a big crick in your neck, not to mention that your nose and face need to thaw out from the cold permeating the sides of the sphere.

It wasn’t too hard to navigate to our first destination, as through the years the pilots havelaid down a “road” of numbered markers. It reminded me of an interstate system with mile markers and exit signs. On our way to the vent called Bio 9, we had plenty of time to really look at the sea floor. There was an awful lot of bacteria growingon the basalt. We also saw several pockets of Riftia pachyptila, a giant tubeworm, but none looked very healthy. When we arrived at the “Alvinella stump,” there was almost no Alvinella pompejana. We took some hand-held video through the viewport to document the lack of worms. Although the subis bristling with built-in cameras, the pilots routinely take video and still photographs for extra documentation.

My face was getting numb from the cold, and I had to wipe the viewport a few times to get rid of the condensation. By the end of the dive, the sides of the sub were dripping.

The way that samples are taken and traps deployed is incredible. The equipment is strapped onto a grated platform, called a basket, on the front of the sub. On this dive, we had a “bio box” (also called the coffin) to collect worms and chimneys, the DISSR, the AMS, the “Sipper,” a “shank box,” the Harold trap, a “slurper” to collect microbial material, and a milk crate to collect rocks. The pilot uses Alvin‘s manipulator arm to pick up the sampler, place it where it needs to be, take the sample, and then put it back into the basket.

The pilot’s position is quite uncomfortable. He sits on a little box, leans forward, and places most of the weight of his upper body on his head while he looks out the viewport and drives the sub. He spends anywhere from four to five hours in that position and gets very cramped and sore. Alvin pilots must have the worst neck- and backaches of anyone on the planet.

I seemed to be the only one affected by the cold. Williams put on three pairs of socks and a sweat shirt. I guess he was working too hard to get cold. Dr. Taylor added a pair of socks, but I looked like the Michelin tire man in my wool socks, wool sweater, sweats, wool hat, and turtleneck.

At 12:45 p.m., the conference call from the schools was piped down from the Atlantis. I got to speak to 12 different schools—including my own—from the bottom of the ocean. It was wonderful to hear my students hooting and hollering from 3,000 miles away (and one and a half miles above me) when they heard my voice. I’ll never forget that moment.

Before moving the sub again, Williams needed to stretch, and for a few minutes he let me look through the pilot’s viewport. This is definitely the view to have! Bio 9 is a huge chimney covered with active Alvinella pompejana. The whole area iscovered in bacteria, and large flocks of it float by like snow. Hot water shimmered its way from the vents into the darkness above. The vents look like the drip sand castles I used to make as a child at the beach, only those were minuscule and got washed away each night by the tide. Some scientists think that hydrothermal vent systems may be where life began, so these structures and their inhabitants have been around for hundreds of millions of years. They can grow at a rate of a foot per day, are never exposed to tides, and appear ageless. Definitely not like my sand castles.

Dolphins greet the Atlantis near the coast of Costa Rica.
—Photograph by the author, Blee Williams, and Kevin Fielman

I’ve always thought that the deep ocean was mostly black and gray basalt, punctuated by some white crabs and brittle stars. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The array of oranges, browns, and grays that surround the vents are more than any artist’s palette can capture. Add to that the brilliant red of the Alvinella pompejana and Riftia pachyptila, and the ocean floor is very colorful indeed.

I remember thinking that the giant tubeworms and the vent clams looked like something from Star Trek—they were too odd to be real and could only be science fiction. But here are these unique creatures, surviving in this toxic environment where no life should be, and they’re thriving. I have made teaching about these unique systems a priority. My students and I wonder, If life such as this can exist right at the bottom of our ocean, are hydrothermal vent systems the key to life on our planet and others? It’s an intriguing question that beguiles my students.

Several scientists on board needed whole Alvinella pompejana, which had to be plucked off the vent, taken out of their tubes, and placed into the DISSR sampler. As you can imagine, a pilot must work hard to convince the worms to come out of their tubes. At the end of an hour, Williams collected one enormous worm, plus one large, two medium, and two small ones. We watched a hungry crab hang around the basket trying to get a free meal. It swam away when Williams got tough with it.

We then headed to an unusual marker on the ocean bottom. A former Alvin tech, Dave “Spaceman” Olds, retired in early 2000. He was immortalized as a life- size plywood cutout anchored to the ocean floor near Bio 9. Williams drove over to say hello and take photographs. That’s something you don’t see every day.

At 3:25, we had to leave the bottom. It took 93 minutes to get back to the surface; we passed the time by chatting and taking photos. I was a good subject for pictures as I was pretty much a block of ice. Once the lights and thrusters were turned off, it was cold and damp, and I got even colder, if possible. Good thing the sub had wool blankets on board. I needed them.

Back on the surface, every first-time diver gets initiated with 15 gallons of ice water upon her safe return. Luckily, there was a warm pool to leap into.

As my time onboard the Atlantis drew to a close, I thought about three things I will never, ever forget. The first was my initial glimpse of the ocean floor at 2,500 meters. It’s branded on my brain; nothing but darkness for 90 minutes, a warning from Williams that we’d be hitting the bottom shortly, and that very first moment when he threw on the lights and we flew over pillow lava after pillow lava. I don’t ever want to forget that feeling of wonder and discovery.

I got to speak to 12 different schools from the bottom of the ocean.

The second was the view from the pilot’s viewport at Bio 9. I could have sat there for hours watching the vent flow and the teeming life living on it. What if these vent systems are the origin of life? What can these creatures tell us about our lives and ourselves? They have a story to tell, and that story is slowly, painstakingly being pieced together by the scientists working these sites. I got a glimpse of that story and brought back a small chapter of samples for others to decipher.

The third thing I took with me was the sense of camaraderie. I wanted to bring that spirit back home with me. Things onshore get chaotic and difficult, and we sometimes forget that there are people around us who could help. Teamwork is the key.

People looked at the sea for thousands of years before venturing below its surface. There are still many new things to discover on this planet, many we probably never dreamed existed. I wish you all fair winds and following seas. This is the R/V Atlantis and Extreme 2002 signing off. Over and out.


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