Blog | Oceana USA

The New York Times had a huge story about mercury yesterday. I can hardly do better than the title -- "E.P.A. Says Mercury Taints Fish Across U.S.":

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday that fish in virtually all of the nation's lakes and rivers were contaminated with mercury, a highly toxic metal that poses health risks for pregnant women and young children.

This warning was limited to fish caught recreationally in fresh water, but you can't escape mercury by exchanging fish from your neighborhood lake for fish from your neighborhood grocery store; the highly toxic metal taints fish caught around the globe, not just in the U.S.

In fact, total EPA fish contamination advisories are up 10% from 2002. Nevertheless, the Agency continues to weaken regulations for major mercury sources. This latest warning should motivate the public to demand real reductions in mercury emissions -- now.

August 16, 2004: The video we collected on our dive to Pratt seamount allows for an unlimited number of opportunities to revisit the seafloor. Each dive has generated a treasure trove of digital video data. A hard-working team of undergraduate and graduate students, NOAA scientists, and research assistants has diligently reviewed each minute of footage collected during the entire cruise and annotated the highlights. "Dive 4036, time 16:11:43, closeup of bubblegum coral with polyps extended". "Dive 4029, time 13:45:07, seastar apparently feeding on bamboo coral". "Dive 4031, time 14:20:27, spider crabs and squat lobsters swarming on carcass (fish?)". There are hundreds of entries like this. You can check out some of the best on the NOAA Ocean Explorer Web site.

August 15, 2004 (continued): Grenadiers (or rattails) are the most common fish at this depth. One swims directly up to my porthole to check us out. They have huge eyes and a long, undulating serpent-like tail; they're halfway between cute and freaky. Thousands of tons of these fish are killed and discarded each year in Alaska as fishery bycatch. The fish are cool, but I'm keeping my eyes open for deep-sea corals.

The seafloor community at this dive site is diverse. The biomass isn't as great as some of the other sites we've visited, but there's a wide array of critters. Filter-feeding armored sea cucumbers are abundant, as are crinoids and sponges. But the most striking feature are the deep-sea corals. We find bamboo, Primnoids, Anthomastus, black and bubblegum corals, sometimes all growing on the same rock!

Atop a rock wall, a beautiful sight emerges. Growing atop a large boulder are several beautiful bubblegum coral colonies, bright pink and over a meter across. Galatheid crabs, shrimp, anemones, and brittlestars are festooned amongst the coral branches. It's beautiful, it looks like Spongebob's Christmas tree. It's also a perfect sample for Tom Shirley's coral habitat research, so Bruce breaks out the "slurp" vacuum and begins sucking the organisms off the branches. We also "slurp" several other species of coral, each with its own unique biota, and snip representative coral branches.

The sub batteries are used up, so Bruce drops the weights and we begin our trip to the surface. We've spent 6 unique hours exploring the flank of Pratt Seamount. The dive is definitely a success. We collected several organisms that had yet not been sampled during the cruise: a pink nudibranch, two predatory seastars, and a species of Galatheid crab. I'm sure much more will be revealed when we process the samples aboard the Atlantis. I'm very appreciative of Tom Shirley, who donated this precious seat which has allowed me to become one of the select few "Aquanauts" who have explored the ocean floor. Y'arr!

August 15, 2004: We're sinking! But don't worry, I'm in Woods Holes' famous Alvin submarine, and sinking is exactly what it's designed to do.

We're descending 3/4 of a mile beneath the sea to a rocky slope on Pratt Seamount in the Gulf of Alaska. Our pilot is Bruce Strickrott, an experienced sub pilot with over 150 dives under his belt. Crammed into the starboard is Peter Etnoyer of Aquanautix, and yours truly, Jon Warrenchuk of Oceana is on the port side.

The trip to the bottom will take about 45 minutes, so there's time to listen to music and wonder at the bioluminescent plankton. Unfortunately, we didn't bring Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which would have been absolutely perfect for the occasion. My sub-mates try to put on Rush, which I quickly kibosh, and we settle on some ambient house music.

I stare out the porthole, hoping for a glimpse of a sperm whale or giant squid or something equally rare and undocumented. I don't see any, but nonetheless, the bioluminescent jellyfish, salps, and marine snow drifting past the porthole are interesting to watch.

When the seafloor looms into sight, it's very surreal. Here we are, on the bottom of the ocean, millions of tons of water pressing down above us, and I'm wearing my favorite bedroom slippers. Bruce takes a moment to make a few calibrations and then we're off, cruising upslope in a search for deep-sea corals for the biologists and pillow basalts for the geologists.

[editor's note, by Jason] Jon Warrenchuk is currently participating in NOAA's 2004 Gulf of Alaska Seamount Expedition.

August 14, 2004: Tomorrow will be my first dive in the Alvin, so it's time for an equipment and safety briefing. I'm getting very excited. This is the same Alvin that photographed the Titanic, the same Alvin that discovered the explosion of life around hydrothermal vents, the same Alvin that's made immeasurable contributions to our knowledge of the deep-sea. And now I get to make a voyage in that same Alvin to the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska.

Safety is important when you are descending into the depths of the ocean in areas never explored by man. Three miles of ocean water pressing down can crush just about anything other than a 2-inch thick titanium sphere. Good thing Alvin happens to be built around a 2-inch thick titanium sphere. Alvin has made thousands of dives with nary a hitch, but we learn what to do if the pilot becomes incapacitated (drop the weights and shoot to the surface). We'll only be staying at the bottom of the ocean for a few hours, but there's enough air and life support for 3 people for 3 days.

The first thing you notice when you get inside the Alvin submarine is how much larger it seemed from the outside. Inside, it's definitely close quarters. If one person moves, everybody knows it. The pilot sits hunched on a box, surrounded by switches, lights, buttons, control levers, and computer screens. The two observers lie in kind of a prone position on either side with a small 12 inch porthole to peer through. The observers also control 2 pan and tilt video cameras mounted on the outside of the sub. These will come in handy tomorrow while we document life on the rocky slope of Pratt Seamount, 3/4 of a mile beneath the sea.