Easter Microplate Expedition
March 19, 2005 Day 8
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Transit day 8:
We're making excellent progress. The swells are still long-period but they are coming more from the south so we are rolling more than we were earlier in the week. The skies were pretty gray all day and the air temperature has been steadily dropping since this time yesterday (9:30pm); the ship's thermometer says 68°F (20.3°C) so we're not really suffering. We've crossed into the next time zone east (mountain time) and lost another hour. The longitude where we are heading is the same as somewhere between Bozeman and Billings, in the state of Montana, or Evanston Wyoming, or Green Valley Arizona. There are rumors that Easter Island keeps the same time as mainland Chile, so we will probably change our clocks again when we arrive there.
The ship's computer lab with several of us hard at work.
Dan, Nicole, Cindy, Michel, and Bob in the ship's library consulting photos that Nicole brought of the seafloor at our first dive region that were taken with a remote camera on a previous expedition.
Our destination at 38°S is getting closer by the hour. We will be some 600 nautical miles south of Easter Island, the nearest land. The closest continent will be South America, another 2000 miles away over the Eastern horizon. We will be working at a group of hydrothermal vents located at about 2200-2500 meters of depth. These vents are often found atop submarine mountain ranges, in what we call Ridge Systems, which edge the earth’s different plates, an active part of the crust. But they, and the rest of the bottom of the ocean at this site are far closer than any bit of dry ground poking up from the depths! When you watch Alvin launch for the day's journey into the deep, it's important to remember that it will descend to its destination in under 2 hours; that’s less than a mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. You could walk there and back in a day. With that visual in mind, it’s not hard to see the oceans of the world for what they are - a very thin, very fragile skin holding our planet together. And of course that despite all the water – we who habitat all our specific plots of land are really all connected to the same spinning top, there really is not much that separates us all. Since we are made up of something like 97% water anyway- that leaves only 3% to argue religion and politics with.
The environment we are setting out to investigate is varied and rich, teeming with life of an extraordinary kind - an ecosystem living without sunlight, under immense pressure and in extreme temperatures. Descending to the vents is like launching slowly into space, the blue of our known world is quickly and totally enveloped in blackness. Streaks of bio-luminescent zooplankton fly by the windows like shooting stars in space. Once on the bottom, amidst this alien environment, hot vent water mixes with the cold seawater giving the area around a vent a shimmering ethereal quality, creating a mirage at the bottom of the sea.
Informal poker game in the galley.
Life at sea is proving to be very interesting. The days go by surprisingly fast, despite the rolling sea making us all (besides the sure-footed crew) stumble around like rookies. Many of the scientists (myself included) had a sleepless night last night, and even though there are no weekends when you are out at sea, everyone is laying pretty low today. We are finally nearing our first dive site. We only have one more day of transit before the
Alvin hits the water. I am very curious to see the vent organisms up close and personal. It seems we will find mostly mussels and their associated fauna at
38°S. Hopefully we will find some limpets. We are going to construct a recruitment study on both mussels and limpets. Very fun. Should be pretty easy, we will have lots to sort out and dissect- hopefully the weather will be calm since we will be staring through microscopes for extended periods of time. I am also very interested to get to some of our more northern sites like 23°S and
26°S. These localities should be very interesting and we don¹t have any samples from them. I am currently working on a population genetic study of several lepetodrilids (cute little limpets) from the East Pacific Rise and these localities will fill in several holes in my data set. This cruise is not only fun and exciting; it is a very valuable addition to my data set! For once, I have the best of both worlds.
And Bob is the winner! (It has nothing to do with him being chief scientist or anything...)
We have been creating weighted markers to take down in the submarine to mark where we collected samples.
These are made of bucket lids cut into thirds and tied securely with a long piece of rope to something heavy. We have been using old chains donated by the bosun. It is weird to think something I have decorated will stay in the ocean forever, or at least until mussels climb up it. We made 6 yesterday,
labeling them A, B, C, D, W, and M. Other scientists here have commented on our excessive school spirit, but we just can't help it. The final flourish on these markers was PAR5, the new official name for this cruise. It stands for Pacific Antarctic Ridge 2005. I added some lovely golf clubs on the edges of the markers for color. Even if some people think they look like dotted quarter notes, I know the deep-sea animals will appreciate my artwork.
Getting closer, but not quite there yet! One more transit day and we'll be putting Alvin into the water.
This expedition has been made possible by National Science Foundation grants to Dr. Robert Vrijenhoek (NSF OCE-0241613) and Dr. Cindy Van Dover (NSF OCE-0350554)
All underwater photos were taken with the submersible Alvin, and are courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.