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Today's Weather
Mostly cloudy
Lat: 28° 40’ N
Long: 88° 29’ W
Air temp: 62.4°F (16.9°C)
Water temp: 74.5F (23.5C)
Barometric pressure: 1022 mbar
Seas:  calm
Wind: WSW, 3.4 mph

what's to eat?

Stepping Up by Stepping Aside

December 10, 2010 (posted December 11, 2010)
by Ken Kostel

Tonight promises to be a hectic night in the labs. Erik Cordes and Pen-Yuan Hsing, diving in Alvin today, reported from the seafloor that they have collected more unhealthy-looking coral and have taken several samples of the brown material clinging to it. They used a new filter that they hope will improve sample collection of the substance.

Scientists collected a sample of the brown material in November, but analyses of it proved inconclusive. The goal of Chuck Fisher, principal scientist on the cruise, is to collect samples of this and other material and definitively prove or disprove whether the material is the result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He wants a firm yes or no.

Today’s dive also collected the first group of tubeworms, and it is very likely that other animals that congregate with tubeworms, called associates, will also be in the sample. It will be the responsibility of Auburn’s Ken Halanych to measure and identify the species of each tubeworm and associate that’s brought up. His will be a long and painstaking job, but he will almost certainly have plenty of help from those who want to see the things that live in the deep Gulf.

Scientists often use the word “community” to describe the extended group of people who engage in scientific research. Something happened today that displayed how those bonds of community form.

Last night the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry surveyed unexplored territory on the seafloor of the Gulf and found a new site that appears to be thriving with animals. Weather permitting, Alvin will dive tomorrow on that site. Researchers hope to make observations and collect specimens that will provide a baseline to compare against any nearby coral sites that are found to be affected by the oil spill.

It promises to be an exciting and visually spectacular dive. The problem is, there’s only room for two scientists, and one of those will be Chris German, a principal investigator on this cruise.

A dive in Alvin is a dream-come-true for almost anyone, and a potential high point in the career of a young marine scientist. You become part of a select group that has been to the deep ocean and seen things that perhaps no one else has seen.

The trip to the seafloor can be long and cold and uncomfortable. The day and night before is also filled with detailed planning and often very little sleep. But no one remembers the inconveniences. There are only smiles and wide-eyed stories of the incredible things people saw, particularly after a first dive.

There are two people on this cruise who are ideally suited to accompany Chris tomorrow. Both know deep-sea corals: Walter Cho, a postdoctoral fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Andrea Quattrini, a graduate student at Temple University. Walter has seniority and experience, having made two Alvin dives before.

It would be understandable if Chuck put Walter on board. Instead, he saw in both Walter and Andrea two capable scientists who were up to the challenge, and he asked them to draw straws in order to make it a completely fair and unbiased decision. But then Walter asked Chuck to give the dive to Andrea.

 “My first dive changed my life,” he told Chuck. “I want her to have that experience.”

Andrea is busy processing corals and preparing for her dive, so I’m going to leave her alone until tomorrow and ask her about it after she returns as a member of a new community.

For all our sakes, let’s hope the weather holds out. It wouldn’t be a research cruise without some discussion about the weather. I mentioned that three out of about 20 dives were lost on the previous cruise due to bad conditions. Chuck knew that we needed all the protection we could get, and on his way through New Orleans to Gulfport before this cruise, he stopped at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo and bought a charm to protect us against bad weather.

It seems to have worked so far—high winds that threatened to scrub yesterday’s dive never got strong enough. (Alvin will dive in most winds below 25 mph.) There is, however, a cold front headed our way that could create treacherous conditions late Sunday or early Monday. As usual, scientists and crew are making contingency plans that give Chuck and Capt. Colburn a range of options to maximize our time on the bottom with Alvin and Sentry under a variety of conditions.

For now, we will bask in the warm glow of our little floating community.


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