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

August 7, 2004: Rocketing up from the depths, the 'crab elevator' breaks the surface. We set the crab elevator the day before, it's been soaking for a day, and we're eager to check out today's catch.

The 'crab elevator' is essentially a platform loaded with crab and fish traps. Yummy herring and cat food (the quintessential crab bait) will attract critters to the sample traps on the seafloor. We dropped it over the side yesterday and sank it down to 550 meters deep on Dickins Seamount. The elevator is equipped with remote-activated floats, and when these are triggered, the elevator shoots up to the surface under its own power.

Unfortunately, the catch is pretty sparse. The lone "megafauna" in the larger traps is a female scarlet king crab, Lithodes couesi. The smaller traps fare better, and contain several dozen shrimp of an unknown species.

We measure the king crab (standard measurements are across the widest part of the carapace and the length of the claw) and perform some basic dissections. She's not carrying any eggs, and when we dissect her we see that her ovaries are quite full: it's apparent that she hasn't yet extruded. This is interesting, because in other samples we've seen female crabs of the same species carrying eggs.

This kind of asynchrony is evidence of the lack of seasonality in the deep-sea. Crabs in shallower waters generally brood their eggs for 1 year and release their larvae around the same time, to coincide with things like spring blooms of phytoplankton.

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

August 6, 2004: Last night we launched the CTD. Marine biology is fairly light on acronyms, but this is one we throw around often. "C" stands for conductivity (a measure of salinity), "T" for temperature, and "D" for depth. Perturbations and combinations of those 3 factors (salinity, temperature, and depth) are primarily responsible for patterns of life in the ocean. This particular CTD also measures dissolved oxygen, another important limiting factor for marine life.

The CTD device is tethered to the Atlantis with fiber optic cable, and displays real-time data to the computer lab as it's lowered to the ocean floor. What's surprising is that dissolved oxygen decreases significantly after 200 meters depth and the water actually becomes quite "hypoxic" (low in oxygen). But after 1300 meters depth, dissolved oxygen increases. On seamounts that transcend this depth range, zonation of organisms is as evident as it is on a tidal seashore. It's cold on the bottom too, a consistent 1.6 to 2 degrees Celsius.

The best part about launching the CTD at night is that the boat is stationary and all the deck lights are on. When this happens, you never know what might ascend from the depths. Schooling forage fish, attracted to the lights, flash about in silvery streaks. A squid, about 3 feet long, quietly ascends, hovers, then disappears out of sight. I waited patiently for a salmon or two to make an appearance, but no luck.

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

August 5, 2004: While there's always duping, clipping, editing, and highlighting those "oh cool!" moments of underwater video to be done, the flurries of activity really begin when the Alvin breaks the surface after a dive.

Tom Shirley's research is focused on documenting species that rely on deep-sea corals for habitat. It's relatively straightforward to video larger "macrofauna" such as crabs using corals as feeding platforms (and we see a lot of this). But it's more difficult to assess the habitat of those smaller critters that play an important part of the benthic ecosystem. Fortunately, Alvin is equipped with vacuum "slurpers" and these are used to "slurp" around the corals and collect any critters on the branches. This technique reveals a myriad assemblage of creatures not apparent on video. When the sub is winched back on board, we empty the slurp tubes and find many strange and wonderful creatures. We catalogued and preserved brittlestars, polychaete worms, shrimp, amphipods, and anemones for future identification.

After our samples were processed, a pod of about 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins zipped around the boat during sunset. It was very oceanic.

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

August 4, 2004: Last night we left Denson Seamount and moved on to Dickins Seamount. Dickins is a shallower seamount, so I'm hoping to see more marine life. The waters above seamounts are supposed to be more productive than surrounding waters, concentrating plankton and zooplankton and the life that depends on them. I pictured swarms of seabirds in the waters above the seamounts, but there was not much evidence of this at Denson. I only saw a few storm petrels skimming the surface waters. Possibly Denson seamount is too deep for upwelling to occur.

Aha, there are a few more birds at Dickins, and diversity is greater too. I see about a dozen black-footed albatross, a few sooty terns, and more storm petrels. It's still not the circling swarm I pictured in my minds-eye, but it could be a significant observation. There's also a "boat effect" I need to address; albatross are curious and might come from miles around to check out a boat (there's not much on the horizon in the middle of the sea). I guess my feature article in "Audubon" will have to wait.