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M/V Med Taipei Lost Container – Traveler's Cruise Log
Tuesday March 8, 2011
We are leaving Moss Landing harbor. The vessel has begun to rock, as we leave the sheltered harbor area and begin to enter the Monterey Bay. The crew and the scientific team on board of the Western Flyer –MBARI's impressive research vessel– are getting ready for a long day tomorrow, of research work and potentially exciting discoveries in the deep sea. This expedition will explore marine life activity in the immediate surroundings of a sunken shipping container lost at sea seven years ago. The container has been resting on the deep seafloor since 2004, at 1,281m under the surface and 17.5 nm offshore of the Monterey Bay. Scientists cannot reach such depths using conventional SCUBA diving equipment. The human body could not resist the enormous pressure. Other technologies are required to explore the vastly unknown deep-sea world. Soon after we boarded the vessel, I saw it for the first time: “Doc Ricketts," the vehicle that will take us to our lost container. It is a robotic submersible, technically known as a “remotely operated vehicle" or ROV. It's an impressive achievement of human ingenuity and technology. The size of a car, this underwater robot is equipped with mechanical arms, sampling devices, and video cameras to expand our frontiers of ocean exploration and discovery. Tomorrow morning, very early, we will attend the launch of the Doc Ricketts and the beginning of its new mission. Stay tuned.
Wednesday March 9, 2011
The Doc Ricketts ROV has been exploring the seafloor for about an hour now. Its launch was an exciting reason to get up early this morning. At 6:00am the crew began all the preparations for it. It took almost an hour to have everything ready and make sure the submersible was set to go. The operation involved 4-5 crewmembers, each one attending a specific task. One person controlled the crane, which held the ROV from the top. Two people were securing cables, connections and checking on the various robotic functions. One more was controlling the long tethering cable, which would keep the ROV tied to our vessel, like an umbilical cord. And lastly the ROV pilot was verifying that all the controls worked. The moment finally came, and as we were looking through the window from the upper level, the bottom of the central chamber where the ROV was sitting began to open up like a sliding door. The clear turquoise water of the ocean appeared underneath, creating an indoor pool (It was very cool to watch! It also made me understand why this area of the vessel is called “the moon pool"). Soon after, the crane began to carefully lower down the ROV toward the water, and a few minutes later we watched it disappear into the blue. The launch was a success, and the Doc Ricketts was on its way to the bottom. Now it's time to begin our exploration!
by Sacha Lozano (MBNMS)
The sun had just come out and I caught a glimpse of the rolling waves and seabirds gliding over the ocean, as we rushed downstairs to check out the ROV control room. If you thought the launch was cool, you should check out the control room! This is much like a space mission. The control room is a dark chamber full of screens, control buttons and monitoring instruments. It's hard to focus on one thing when you first walk in. There were four people in front of the screens, each one operating a particular control or instrument. Two of them had piloting controls over cameras and mechanical arms. The other two were monitoring the ROV's position and navigation. Progressive changes in the surrounding physical conditions –as the ROV dove down– were also being monitored in one of the screens, where a multiple plot was recording in real-time the variations in temperature, salinity, oxygen, and beam transmission. Behind the main control chairs there were four additional chairs for other team members to watch what was happening on the screens and assist with event annotations. I sat back on one of those chairs and focused my attention on one of the big screens connected to the ROV camera. I pretended I was in a submarine going down into the depths and sensing the excitement of the unknown. The first images were very homogeneous. Mostly blue water with a bunch of white dots –what marine scientists call “marine snow"– and a few occasional critters swimming by. When the ROV was reaching a depth of 900m, I took a break to have breakfast.
|ROV Control Room
The ROV is currently transiting toward the location of its second transect around the container. Soon after breakfast, the submersible hit bottom at approximately 1,260m and started searching for its target: lost shipping container TGHU7712262. Before that, it stopped to check on a fish trap that had been deployed earlier in the day, as part of a research study of one of MBARI's experts on deep-sea benthic habitats. Not far from the fish trap's location the ROV finally reached its target. The first images of the container showed some evidence of marine life colonization. A closer examination of its surface would reveal what kind of organisms were living on it, but before doing that, Dr. Andrew DeVogelaere (co-lead scientist of this expedition) wanted to conduct visual surveys and collect sediment samples along transects going in various directions away from the container. Dr. DeVogelaere is the research coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. After conducting a quick visual survey around the container, the ROV started exploring the soft seafloor along the first transect. A number of strange and fascinating creatures, which I had never seen before, started to show up on the screen. Some of them were quite abundant and appeared to be fairly common in this deep-sea landscape. While everything seemed new to me, nothing extraordinary or unusual had popped up yet, from the deep-sea expert's point of view. There is probably a handful of scientists around the world who would recognize a “familiar" environment in these images, and could confidently identify the various organisms we were looking at. Some of those scientists were sitting in the control room right next to me. I was witnessing one of the cutting edges of deep-sea exploration. That was an exciting thought.
The ROV is conducting its second transect. The seafloor is an extensive mud-plain made of fine and soft sediment, and it seems to be covered by large amounts of drift-deposited sea grass. It is a peaceful landscape with more beautiful creatures than I expected, with pinks, lacey whites, and many shapes and forms. So far, we have found a large number of sea cucumbers, sea pens, and brittle stars. We have also found pom pom anemones, tube worms, sea stars, and deep-sea fish including grenadiers and thornyheads. All of these species are commonly found in this type of habitat. Even though it is flat and uniform landscape, lacking much apparent activity, scientists tell me there are many kinds of animals who live buried just underneath the seafloor. That is where most of the activity actually takes place. They know that because they have brought samples of sediment back to the surface before, and have found an abundance of life in them. That is also why Dr. DeVogelaere wanted to collect some sediment samples around the container to bring back for analysis in the lab. The Doc Ricketts has been collecting sediment samples for the past couple of hours. Actually, pilots in the control room remotely operate mechanical arms attached to the ROV. It was a remarkable maneuver to watch. It takes a lot of precision and fine motor skills to operate these mechanical arms. The controlling mechanisms for the ROV are very similar to the joystick and buttons used in modern video games. I can imagine a lot of young kids have already developed the required skills. The ROV is now headed back to the container. It's time to explore its surface.
I stepped outside to get a bit of fresh air. It's a nice day! The wind has picked up and the vessel is rocking a bit more than it was this morning. Actually, we have strong winds of 25mph right now, but in this sophisticated ship we only feel a bit more rocking. Inside the dark control room it is easy to loose track of time and where you are. The ROV is now surveying its third or fourth transect. A lot of samples have been collected, and really good footage has been taken. A few minutes ago I saw a white-purple octopus appear on the screen. It was a cool looking animal! We keep seeing a lot of sea cucumbers, of a kind that I had never seen before. Scientists call them Scotoplanes globbosa, but they are also commonly known as sea pigs. They are somewhat blue but almost translucent, and they have “legs" and two pairs of appendices projecting from their backs. Apparently they are very common in this habitat. They stand very still and seem to be focusing all of their attention into the mud. Earlier, the ROV spent more than an hour exploring the actual surface of the container. Dr. DeVogelaere and his team wanted to carefully survey as much of it as possible and identify the various organisms that were growing on it. The community of organisms we found on the container was different from the mud-plain communities we found around it. The container provides a hard surface amid a large extension of soft mud. In that sense, it is like a small island for organisms that need hard surfaces for their survival. In another sense, the container is like a stark obtrusion in an otherwise tranquil sea floor. As hard-substrate organisms settle in, they might begin to attract their natural predators, and those may attract others, and eventually a whole different community may establish around the container. Furthermore, if enough containers do the same thing in various places, not too far from each other, they might become stepping stones for species that require hard surfaces to expand their territories into the soft seafloor. This could cause significant changes in the ecological structure of soft bottom areas. No one really knows whether or not this is actually happening, so this expedition will shed some light to start answering a few basic questions, taking our lost container as an example. The ROV is on its way back to the surface. We are now getting ready to receive the sediment samples, and prepare them for further analysis in the lab.
It has been a long and exhausting day. We just finished processing 32 core samples of deep-sea mud. The ROV returned to our vessel at around 7:30pm. By that time, we had already been divided up in teams and assigned very specific tasks to process all the sediment brought from the deep seafloor, as soon as it arrived (i.e., preparing samples for further analysis in the lab). Basically, we were looking for little animals (macro-invertebrates) living in the top 5cm of the mud, and for the amounts of carbon and nitrogen present in the mud. For the macro-invertebrate surveys we had to take the top 5cm from each core sample, sieve them, look for animals, and preserve anything we found in carefully labeled jars. For the carbon and nitrogen, we took sub-samples from each core, and put them in labeled jars and plastic bags for further chemical and physical analyses in the lab. Each person had a specific role, like moving core samples in and out of the freezer, pushing core samples down a metal rod to extract their top 5cm, sieving mud, looking for animals, putting sub-samples in jars, taking sub-samples with syringes of two different sizes, re-labeling jars, or anything else that needed to be done. It was a very structured and orderly process –as is required in scientific research– running non-stop for about three hours! Now all the samples have been processed and we are ready to pass out. Tomorrow, MBARI's scientists will be conducting some experiments on the way back.
Thursday, March 10th 2011
Our cruise is coming to its end. It's a beautiful day at sea! As we begin to head back to port, our large vessel is almost gliding over a very calm ocean surface. A group of us have gathered at the bow, and we are all quietly staring at the continent in front of us. The Monterey Bay doesn't seem too big from this angle. We can distinctly recognize the Santa Lucia mountains and Big Sur to the right; the flat horizon of the Salinas Valley, and the Gabilan mountains behind it. In front of us, the Moss Landing power plant stands out, and to the left we see the farm fields around Watsonville and the mountains behind Santa Cruz. There is a nice warm breeze, and a group of curious seabirds is escorting us. It's a good moment to reflect upon what we found in this expedition. This morning, Dr. DeVogelaere handed me an updated list of all the species we found during our brief exploration, both on the container and on the surrounding seafloor. The list included sea anemones, soft corals, tunicates, snails, scallops, nudibranchs, octopi, urchins, sea stars, sea worms and fish. Our deep-sea experts identified a total of 30 species on the soft seafloor and 16 more on the container. With the exception of one nudibranch and a snail called Neptunea amianta, none of the species were found both on the container and the muddy seafloor. In other words, there clearly were two distinct communities: a long-established deep-sea mudplain community and a much more recent community, which was only possible because of the presence of a hard surface provided by the container. Marine life communities and their habitats are inextricably connected; they naturally co-evolve and attune to each other, over long periods of time. When we disturb one or the other in any significant way, generally the balance between the two gets altered, and a cascade of effects can cause major changes to the ecosystem, including the introduction of new species and extinction of former ones. This expedition examined only one container, and it's too soon to establish whether or not there is a significant ecological alteration locally underway. However, the real issue is not what happens to one container, but what is happening to the tens of thousands of containers that sink at sea along established shipping routes every year. Are they becoming stepping-stones for hard-seafloor-dwelling species? Are they changing the nature of soft-bottom deep-sea landscapes? There is so much we still don't know about the ocean, and yet, we let our human footprint on it continue to grow. With all of these sunken containers we might be altering a largely unexplored marine ecosystem –the deep-sea mudplains– before we even have a chance to know it well and understand its connection to the rest of the ocean system. This experience has made me revisit two important questions: What is the extent of our influence on the ocean? How does the ocean influence our lives on a regular basis?
Sacha Lozano is a marine biologist and bi-lingual education specialist. He has coordinated the Multicultural Education for Resource Issues Threatening Oceans (MERITO) program at the Sanctuary for the past four years.
|Staff and crew from the M/V Med Taipei Lost Container cruise