Blog | Oceana USA

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.

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

August 13, 2004: Man... the combination of high definition underwater cameras and a submersible with dexterous mechanical arms is unbeatable. With this set-up, we're able to observe and record deep-sea corals alive in their natural habitat, then collect those exact same individual corals for physiological measurements. Research on deep-sea corals in years past had relied on opportunistic samples that arrived in a mixed haul from a deep-water trawl, or tangled in some other sampling equipment.

The corals were generally battered and broken, fleshy parts all sloughed off or crushed beyond recognition. And there was no context in which to interpret the samples, no visual picture of the relationships. Imagine aliens trying to interpret human society by scraping a giant net along the earth, scooping up a cow, a broken street lamp, a Starbucks, a nerf football, and a 1976 Plymouth Volare?

Being able to observe deep-sea corals in a natural setting has greatly expanded our knowledge of these organisms in just the last two weeks. Peter Etnoyer has discovered hitherto unknown "sweeper tentacles" on bamboo corals. Tom Shirley has found a suite of species living amongst the corals, observed some species that prefer certain corals over others, and some that even prey on corals. Amy Baco-Taylor has catalogued at least 30 to 40 different kinds of corals, some of which are sure to be new species.

I receive exciting news at the end of the day: I get to be an official Aquanaut on Sunday! Tom Shirley is giving me a precious seat on the Alvin to explore the slope of Pratt Seamount, 1200 meters below the surface. Rock on!!! (air guitar)

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

August 12, 2004: Y'arr! It's been thirteen days without sight of land. In fact, we're so far offshore that we're nearing the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the United States. The EEZ is the boundary that contains the sovereign ocean waters of the United States and extends 200 miles seaward from the U.S. shoreline. The next seamount to explore, Pratt seamount, lies just outside the EEZ in international waters (y'arr, it's in the high seas me'boy). The high seas are truly the last frontier on Earth. But since no individual country holds sway over this resource, it's relatively unprotected and unregulated.

There is a United Nations convention, the "Law of the Sea", and while we observe it as a matter of course, the U.S. does not endorse it. The "Law of the Sea" does address some extractive activities like deep-sea mining, but not others like high seas fishing. In some parts of the ocean, high seas bottom trawling is a real problem.

My organization, Oceana, supports a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling until there are agreements in place to protect special areas like seamounts. Seems reasonable, doesn't it?

So what happens once we cross into the lawless international waters outside the EEZ? Were there pirates, offshore gambling casinos, international intrigue, and debauchery? The answer is... no. Understandably, it's anticlimactic.

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

August 11, 2004:Today was the last day on Welker seamount. Some interesting things have been documented during our 4 days of exploration. Huge fields of glass sponges, a fleeting glimpse of a deep-sea anglerfish, and corals, corals, corals. Bamboo corals, bubblegum corals, red tree corals, and black corals. Shortspine thornyhead, sablefish, scarlet king crab, grooved Tanner crab, spider crabs, squat lobsters, Pycnogonid deep-sea spiders, crinoids, grenadiers, and brittlestars (to name a few).

These names roll off our tongues easily now; we've seen varying amounts of these critters on each and every seamount. But on Welker seamount another creature left behind signs of its presence. Lying amongst the corals and sponges was a lost "longline"; commercial fishing gear baited with hooks. Was it lost during a scientific survey of fish populations? Or during exploratory commercial fishing activity?