A Race to the Deepest Point on Earth

The media is buzzing today with news of James Cameron’s upcoming solo journey into the Challenger Deep.  At 35,768 ft (more than 6.7 miles!) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, it’s the deepest spot on Earth.  He broke a solo depth record yesterday during a test dive.

Jacques Piccard and Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh, in the Bathyscaphe Trieste, were the first and last to journey into the trench.  That was in 1960!  Since then only two robotic missions have made it.  We’ve sent humans to the Moon more often and more recently than we have to the Challenger Deep.

Cameron, however, is not the only one with a bid for the Deep.  A handful of private endeavors have built or commissioned submersibles in the last couple years. Among them is Richard Branson, the billionaire papa of Virgin Records (and Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Airways, to name a few), whose goal is to dive into the deepest point in each of Earth’s five oceans this year – including, of course, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific.

We have perhaps arrived at a new age of exploration, in which Private Company 1 and Private Company 2 race each other to distant frontiers.  Whether you think it a noble motive or not… if a movie mogul and Branson want to spur each other towards the first live video feed from the darkest pit of the sea?  I say bring it on, y’all!  Scientific discoveries and incredible technological advancements often go hand in hand with competitive exploration.

Read more from the New York Times here.

layer cake

When the glacier’s face calves, we get a new look at the inside.  To give you an idea of scale here, the cliff face is several hundred feet tall.  Twenty-foot ice javelins?  Yes please!  (I was almost a quarter mile away when I took this photograph, and you’d be an idiot to get much closer.)  See all those horizontal stripes?  Each layer took about 150 years to form.


Hey y’all!  I’d like to introduce you to my new project.  Everyone, this is SeaMonster.  SeaMonster, meet everyone.  SeaMonster is a blog about all things ocean-related – from surfing to ecology to politics to submarines – and written by folks from the United States and the UK.  We hope you’ll enjoy it, whether you’re already interested in the ocean or you’re just into stuff like cool videos, current events, monsters, sculptures

serial kriller

Meet Grace. Hailing from Rutgers University, a meter-and-a-half tall and weighing in at just over 7 stones, Grace is ranked No. 1 on the east coast in carbon dioxide purchases this year. A powerhouse package of awesome, she also happens to be doing one of my favorite experiments on the ship. Grace brought most of that enormous CO2 supply with her (check out the oversize golden scuba tanks in the photo below) to investigate the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. For more than two weeks, she had incubators full of seawater connected to the CO2 tanks, all bubbling away at three levels: the CO2 in the atmosphere of pre-glacial Earth, today’s CO2 level, and the CO2 level we’re predicted to reach by 2100. The more CO2 is in the atmosphere, the more CO2 gets dissolved in the ocean (or these little mini incubated oceans, in Grace’s case), and from there she can see how the community of phytoplankton, bacteria, and viruses reacts. These tiny lil guys are at the base of the food chain, and since their tiny lil lives are very sensitive to acidity in the water, increased CO2 (increased acidity) has some big effects further up the food chain. It’s a tedious but elegant experiment and we’ve seen some really cool results so far, but overall I’m just impressed that Grace made the DEA watch list for all that CO2. Congrats, Grace.

sediment or bust

Usually we zip-tie a small plastic baby Jesus (like one you might bake into a Mardi Gras cake), or the Rubber Iguana of Good Fortune, or some other “lucky charm” to the sediment trap before we deploy it. A little luck is entirely necessary: as soon as the sediment trap sinks several hundred meters and settles into the chilly bottom of the Antarctic ocean, we abandon it. Exactly one year later, we return to the same spot, push a button, and keep our fingers crossed in the hopes that, by some miracle of science, technology, and/or our plastic talismen, the trap will bob to the surface… at which point we can welcome our poor little forsaken trap into our loving, open arms. Or at least our loving, open nets and grappling hooks. Communication with the trap after twelve months underwater is a little like trying to contact intelligent life on an alien planet.

In case you’re wondering: the sediment trap is basically a large funnel (see picture) intended to capture plankton poop and other small things on their merry way to the bottom of the sea. Below the funnel is a ring of bottles, which rotates so that only one bottle is collecting samples during a given time period. That way we can dig through the bottles and figure out how productive a particular month is. During, say, February (the middle of southern-hemisphere summer) when it is relatively warm and everyone in the sea is awake and active and at their pooping-est, you might correctly guess that our sediment bottles are a good bit more full than, say, the wintertime bottles. There are lots of nuances, of course (scientists LOVE nuances!), but that’s more or less the pattern.

My job today consisted of:

1. waking up at midnight. My 12-hour shift normally begins at 4am, which is already WAY too early. Good thing there is daylight 24 hours a day during the summer down here.

2. being present for the Pushing-of-the-Release-Button, and then keeping an eye out for the bright yellow buoys attached to the trap. For being first to spot the trap, I won 50 bucks! I am the champ of trap-spotting. I also won two years ago, and last year, when I was not on the boat, the trap failed to release and remained forever at the bottom of the ocean. It is clear that I am critical to mission success. Right?

3. pulling aboard and cleaning the trap. Anything that has been living in the briny deep for a year has a certain… perfume… that stings your nose in a not-completely-unpleasant way. Because I am a returning veteran, I got to stand by with the hose while the new kids scrubba-dub-dubbed. Suckers!

4. disassembling, downloadin’ data from, reassembling, and reprogramming the trap so that its bottles rotate at the appropriate date and time. Don’t be too impressed… I had an instruction manual.

5. TATTOOING THE TRAP! The chief scientist handed me a giant Sharpie and told me to go to town. So I drew a huge anchor and a banner reading “H#LL-BENT ON SEDIMENT” (see picture)

6. redeploying the trap… and down it goes for another twelve months. Godspeed, lil trap. You’ve done good work this year.

The day couldn’t be lovelier: a big chain of mountainous islands in the distance, bright blue skies, and a balmy -2.1 degrees. (again, see picture, and note that the Marine Tech on the left is not wearing a jacket because he is “from Alaska” and “it’s nice out, guys, shut up.”)

Is it time for bed yet?

18:42, January 12th

In honor of Inauguration Day, we decided to name an upcoming sampling site OBAMA (Ocean Biology and Antarctic Marine Analysis, or something cheesy like that).

Turns out, one of the scientists on board is friends with Obama’s new science advisor, and sent him an email about OBAMA.  The response was as follows: the President will love this.  Send us more info.

We are all completely dorking out, fretting over what to say in our must-be-perfect one-page memo to the Obama Administration.  Suggestions?