National Geographic crew records the expedition

September 29, 2012

Along with the scientific research team and the ever-supportive crew of the R/V Western Flyer, there are the rest of us: me (your grants person), and members of a National Geographic team consisting of an outstanding photographer, David Liittschwager and his assistant Zach Kobrinsky, and their equally impressive writer Olivia Judson. So why are we here and more importantly why should we care about what these scientists are researching? That, my fellow MBARIans and future potential external funding agencies, is the (if we are lucky) million dollar question.

It’s a hard day’s night—as the song goes—as the collections from the first day’s ROV dive get handed down bucket-brigade style into the wet lab and are prepped, tagged, and fawned over by all of us. A lovely squid that Henk-Jan Hoving, waiting ashore, has graciously agreed to keep alive, is prepped for his potential pictorial debut in an upcoming National Geographic article on bioluminescence. As Meghan Powers stimulates the squid Octopoteuthis with a pair of tongs, the squid cleaves its tentacle tips like a lizard dropping its tail—except that these express a brilliant blue light in the process. Meghan, because she is professional and thorough, agitates half of the tentacles so that she and Henk-Jan can observe them grow back. Steve Haddock and David photograph the expressions of bioluminescence in our retrofitted darkroom and work their way through the squid, siphonophores, Tomopteris, a bell jelly, and a ctenophore before heading off to sleep around 1 a.m. (an early night according to the chief scientist).

David Liittschwager photographs the action in the lab for an upcoming National Geographic  story.

David Liittschwager photographs the action in the lab for an upcoming National Geographic story.

Day Two begins with a 7 a.m. ROV dive and we have an early encounter with another Octopoteuthis, to which I say “swim away” because we are doing a deep dive to 3,600 meters and that’s a long day for the squid to be in the sample jar. Thankfully, it listened, inked, and split. A morning blue-water scuba dive is cancelled due to steering issues on the dive boat and crew members Andrew McKee, Matt Noyes, Perry Shoemake, Randy Prickett, Fred Peemoeller, and Knute Brekke do their best to hide rope and other jerry-rigging materials away from Steve, who is excited to get into the clear blue water that surrounds us. They distract him with hopes of future shiny things in the ROV control room and Steve leaves the MacGyver skills to the experts who have a functioning dive boat by early afternoon (thanks guys!), leading to a successful blue-water dive. We have many options on our ROV dive and fill the containers with many creatures (five green-bomber worms, a Sphaeronectes christiansonae, a giantFlota, several radiolarians) to the point where Meghan agrees with the executive decision to skip the trawl for the night.

Octopoteuthis deletron, the octopus squid.

Octopoteuthis deletron, the octopus squid.


Lynne Christianson in the control room looking at Octopoteuthis deletron.

Lynne Christianson in the control room looking at Octopoteuthis deletron.

As the ROV is lifted out of the water and we wait with anticipation for another night of work, creative tactics, and a new mystery mollusc photo, I ask for the National Geographic team’s perspective on the antics, science, and methods thus far:

Olivia Judson is a glamorous, fun-loving, self described minimalist who has recently had the Santa Cruz experience of disc-golf. Her professional credentials include being an evolutionary biologist, and a writer for the New York Times and the Economist. She has penned the best-selling “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice To All Creation” and, in addition to the article, she is currently at work on her next opus.

“It’s amazing to watch as the ROV travels through the depths, revealing beings that seem more like magical concoctions than real animals—angler fish with glowing lures, bright red squid, and a huge variety of gelatinous organisms,” Olivia said. “Incredible!”

David Liittschwager is a free-lance photographer for National Geographic magazine and is the recipient of the Endangered Species Coalition Champion award. He takes great care to capture faithful portraits of diverse creatures ranging from those underfoot to those in the sky. He is best known for his One Cubic Foot series for National Geographic, recently collected into the book “ A World In One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity” (University of Chicago Press 2012).

“This is a fantastic opportunity to observe the leading edge of the scientific study of bioluminescence because nobody else but MBARI can give me this experience,” he said.

Zach Kobrinsky is the photographer assistant extraordinaire.

“I find it fascinating that so many different facets of the taxonomic tree have developed many different and unique mechanisms of bioluminescence independently from one another over the span of time,” Zach said.

I empathize with our researchers who have to put into words and photos what they do every day because it’s not easy (and they still have to do it). I wish everyone could experience what it’s like out here and what is seen in the depths of the ocean because it’s exciting—we can’t wait to tell you about what we just saw! I find myself wondering what else is out there and how do we affect it?

Olivia Judson, Zach Kobrinsky, and Danielle Haddock try on their immersion suits. Safety first!

Olivia Judson, Zach Kobrinsky, and Danielle Haddock try on their immersion suits. Safety first!


Olivia Judson captures a ctenophore on the first blue-water dive of the expedition.

Olivia Judson captures a ctenophore on the first blue-water dive of the expedition.

—Danielle Haddock