DAY 21 – The edge of the world

Thom has a theory that we are in fact all dead.  It seems we may have all been killed in the storm off of Auckland and this is just some kind of weird purgatory.  I am starting to believe him (if the concept of an afterlife wasn’t simply screaming lunacy).

 

I strolled out on deck this morning at stupid O’clock and there was nothing.  Not a breath of air, not a ripple in the water and butterflies flying all over the place.  In all my years at sea I have never seen the sea this calm, it was like a mirror, we didn’t even have the engines on, just drifting silently nowhere slowly.  It feels as though we are so close to the end of the earth that the tide has ran out and given up and any day now we’ll simply fall of the edge of the world.  Turns out the world is round, which is ideal.

 

So, hi-ho, off to work we go. We pulled in Frank Trappa in one of the easiest lander recoveries in living memory and were presented with one of the best amphipod catches I have seen in a long time.  Hundreds and hundreds of large specimens of at least 4 major species.  Easy.

 

The crustacean kid gets what he’s after.

The crustacean kid gets what he’s after.

We later released the lander from the bottom of the trench and again brought it on board in such easy condition that frankly it bored me.  However, it is safe to say Thom and I were rather nervous about the result.  This was the big one.  We striped it down, pulled the flash card out and right enough we had indeed taken over 1000 images of the bottom.

 

Image from the bottom of the New Hebrides Trench. Poddies – check – prawns – check – cusk eel – check, snailfish – doh.

Image from the bottom of the New Hebrides Trench. Poddies – check – prawns – check – cusk eel – check, snailfish – doh.

The question is: does the New Hebrides Trench have an endemic snailfish in it?  The answer to that is, well, erm, no.  It doesn’t.  There are fish, but again the usual big ophidiid of the genus Bassozetus, but the images were amazing nonetheless.

 

It is all starting to make sense.  I would go into some great detail about how scientifically interesting these last few weeks of data have become but that isn’t necessarily an interesting read but in a nutshell here it is:

 

In trench research there is a propensity to study the deep ones (10,000m+) and then make large sweeping statement about what we see.  The New Hebrides Trench is a relatively shallow one (7000m) compared with the nearby Kermadec Trench (10,200m).  What we are trying to study is whether the bathymetric trends that we see across deep trenches is the same across similar depths shallow trenches but cease at the shallower maximum, or are the overall trends completely compressed into a shallower trench.  I.e. does what happens at the deepest part of a deep trench also occur in the deepest part of a shallower trench.  If so, that would mean that depth isn’t everything, and that is looking more and more likely to be the case.  It’ll take time to go through all this but it looks like the combination of food supply and topography are perhaps more important than depth.

 

Jeez, now I’ve bored myself and I’m not sure that even makes sense.  Ho hum, deal with it.

 

So after an afternoon of intense advanced level sweating and trying to avoid inhaling butterflies, all gear was redeployed – lander to 6500m, traps to 5600m.  Quickly running out of time now.

 

Heather picking small scavenging amphipods from the eye sockets of a rotten mackerel carcass – she gets all the best jobs because she’s a girl.

Heather picking small scavenging amphipods from the eye sockets of a rotten mackerel carcass – she gets all the best jobs because she’s a girl.

On other more personal matters, Mackenzie and Heather, Thom and Ryan got the chance for a raz about on the boats rib today after the man over board drill (the man over board is a buoy that I spray painted a face on and called Rodriguez).  The late evening was spent watching bioluminescence in the unbelievable calm waters followed by luring in puffer fish, squid and various other wet and pointy animals using torches.  Good fun.

 

I think I might have actually enjoyed today, but it’s been so long I can’t remember exactly what that feels like.

 

Alan – 25th November.

DAY 20 – Plummet

It seems we are back in the game with regards to frozen samples.  The -80 freezer was stripped down and restarted on deck and quickly plummeted back to very sub-zero temperatures.  Turns out it simply over heated in the wet lab like the rest of us.  To maintain this facility we have had to lash the -80 outside on the deck.  How we are going to deal with this on the trip back to Auckland should be interesting.  Anyway, plummet is a great word, and simply switching things on and off does work sometimes.

 

At first light we brought in Frank Trappa which heralded a relatively good catch from 2000m.  Shortly after we had the lander on board which finally produced something other than ophidiids and pennaeids- they were of course there, but we had a more typical scavenging community.  We imaged Chimaeras, Bathyrajid rays, a couple of macrourids including the mighty Coryphaenoides rudis, and various others critters.  This means we have found the bathymetric boundary of this deep oligotrophic system.  Good work, good science, but not quite have-a-go-hero hadal work is it?

 

So we set a course for the deepest part of the New Hebrides Trench and decide to nail this thing once and for all.  Because of our incredible run of bad luck we don’t actually have a fully working system rated to 7000m.  But we think we do now.  I’m not going to explain how we overcame this problem, what happens on Kaharoa, stays on Kaharoa, but it was one of those moments where I was thinking it but didn’t want to say to Thom while Thom was thinking it and didn’t want to suggest it to me.  But in the end we agreed a course of action that would take us to the deep end, and so we did.

 

We shot Frank Trappa down to exactly 6000m followed by the lander to 7000m and then retired to the hot, muggy, filthy deck for a cold and crisp Steinlager and think about what we have just done.

 

Me and the boys shoving stuff off the back of a wee boat.

Me and the boys shoving stuff off the back of a wee boat.

A lot of the day was spent trying to formulate a plan of what to do with the remaining days we have on this charter.  As supreme commander of the Pacific Rim, everyone seems to think that I actually have a plan.  Partly because I did have a plan, but unbeknown to them that plan was jettisoned over a weeks ago and now I am completely winging it.  On the plus side, despite the kinks in the lineage of certainty, the ripples in the ship-time continuum and complete lack of cosmic stardust, we have actually already done a sterling job in this trench.  The deployments today were numbers 32 and 33, that’s a lot of work.  The success rate is in the mid-80% and it looking very much like we will complete an imaging and sampling transect spanning a 5000 m depth range (2000-7000m) at a less than 500m resolution.  With all the problems and stuff we have had to duck, dive and bodge our way through, I didn’t realise we have done such a amazing job.

 

Coryphaenoides rudis – a fat macrourid with a face like a football.  Ideal.

Coryphaenoides rudis – a fat macrourid with a face like a football. Ideal.

Alan – 24th November

DAY 19 – Flicking gold

For a lander that didn’t even exist 4 days ago, Frank Trappa is amazing.  It even recovered a fish from 4700m today – two ophidiids.  It of course also recovered lots of amazing amphipod specimens.  The landers worked well too so we are making good progress again.

 

The problem is the extend of this deep ophidiid-pennaeid community.  We need to know how far it extends bathymetrically and so far every site has been much of the same.  So, with a tear in my eye we set course for a rather pathetic 2000m site.

 

The 2000m site is however very close to one of the Loyalty islands and it was good to cast our optical balls on land again.  The topography at this depth is insane.  The seafloor is so volcanic we spent 4 hours searching for a flat enough spot to deploy on.  After another blistering hot day and a complete lack of breeze, we shot everything down to 2000m.

 

A pesky natantian decapod from 4800m tickles our bait.

A pesky natantian decapod from 4800m tickles our bait.

Then everything started going wrong again.  Mrs Rodiers -80 freezer decided to have an episode.  After turning Noumea upsides down for this freezer and liquid nitrogen, we are slowing descending back to square one.  It appears it over heated in what so far has been the hottest day.  Heather et al then had to quickly transfer all their -80 samples in the last remaining liquid nitrogen dewer, which means that it is now full and we haven’t finished sampling yet.  This means that to preserve samples from depths we have done yet, we are going to have to sacrifice samples from other depths that we have more from.  They won’t be destroyed as such, but transferred to the -20 but for some analysis it is the equivalent for flicking gold into the tide.  Any scientist reading this will know how heartbreaking it is to be forced into jettisoning samples that span a 5000m depth range across the abyssal-hadal transition zone.  We’ll just have to wait until the freezer has cooled down to see what can be salvaged – you just can’t make this stuff up, but what else can we do at the end of the earth?

 

Alan – 23rd November

One of the deep cusk eels recovered using Frank Trappa.

One of the deep cusk eels recovered using Frank Trappa.

DAY 18 – Volcanoes, tornados and butterflies

Been a funny old day again today, much like every other day I suppose.

 

The remains of a blue mackerel bait after a night on the deep abyssal plain.

The remains of a blue mackerel bait after a night on the deep abyssal plain.

There is something strange going on around here.  There are loads of bits of pumice floating around in the water following the eruption of an underwater volcano a while back.  We see that a lot round the South Pacific so it is not that strange.  We sample it for various reasons and it appears I have a natural ability to fish out pumice with a small sieve on the end of a 5 metre gaff.  Not sure I’ll put that on the CV but I am pretty darned good at it.

 

The strange thing is that there are huge yellow plumes of what look like dust swirling around in the water.  As we pass through them they often reek of sulphur.  The nearest erupting underwater volcano is 100 miles to our east yet these plumes don’t appear to be diffused in anyway and a lot of the look like they are originating from below us, so perhaps there are volcanoes or even vents beneath us.  The other strange thing occurred in the evening.  While watching the sun go down a tornado cloud formed.  Quite spectacular really.  It looks like a normal large cloud on the horizon which a unicorn-style spike emanating from it.  Apparently that it a very rare phenomenon to see.  The final strange thing to mention is the number of butterflies that have appeared on the boat.

 

If you imaging the above, coupled with a day of the calmest seas I have probably ever seen, and the hottest air temperature a Scotsman has ever been exposed to, it is all getting rather surreal.

 

So, anyway, work stuff.  We deployed all our gear to 4700m and then collapsed on deck to spend the rest of the evening basking like seals in lava lavas.

 

A wee amphipod after devouring the bait at the edge of the trench.

A wee amphipod after devouring the bait at the edge of the trench.

Alan – 22nd November

GERRINGER

GERRINGER

1 – Name and Rank

Mackenzie Gerringer, PhD student (1st Year, University of Hawaii), Covert Intelligence Officer.

 

2 – What is your main objective on the voyage?

To sample fish and find out what their eating and how they are connected to the overall system.  Energetics too, should really mention that, oh and to gain experience in hadal sampling but most of all, to spend time with Ryan.

 

3 – What is the most unexpected thing about being offshore on a trip such as this?

Landsickness, looking forward to that.

 

4 – What do you miss the most?

Gum.

 

5 – What has been the most interesting thing so far?

Conversations with Alan Jamieson and games of ‘would you rather’ with Ryan.

 

6 – What is the first thing you’ll do when you get back?

Try to stop swearing in a Scottish accent.

 

7 – What was your vomit count from the first 48 hours on board?

Seven, watery and of low intensity, lady voms.

 

8 – What song is stuck in your head right now?

Rooting for the bad guy by the Wildhearts (Alan approves of this)

 

9 – What have you inevitably forgotten to bring?

Nothing.

 

10 – What do you hope to find in the trench?

Hoping for a new Liparid, but any data would be good.

International Waters

One of the things that I find so cool about these types of cruises is that they bring together a group of people with radically different backgrounds and allow them to get to know one another very quickly. You are spending every waking hour with the same group, and they’re people that you might not otherwise have the chance to meet, or to really take the time to understand. This atmosphere encourages a lot of lively, interesting, and fulfilling conversations.

For me, it’s been very different being the only American aboard. With all these accents (though I guess I’m the one with the accent here) I become overly self-conscious of my haRsh AmeRican Rs. We’re constantly overcoming a major language barrier here. There are the few things that everyone thinks of – lorry (truck), boot (trunk) – but spending so much time on the ship together, we’ve just about run the gambit of conversational topics and have met quite the array of linguistic idiosyncrasies. There’s the bonnet (hood) of a car, the nappie (diaper) on a baby, and a lovely collection of curses too colorful (colourful) to be transcribed. My favorite (favourite) expression that I’ve learned is “to blank someone,” which, for all you Americans out there, means to ignore them. I’ll be taking that one home with me.

We’ve also taken the opportunity to really suss out our cultural differences by getting down to the hard-hitting topic of food. Ryan still won’t forgive me for revealing that in America, corned beef is a common Sunday dinner. On the other hand, I find it a bit odd that it’s commonplace to cook and eat a rabbit in the British Isles, so I can’t really begrudge him his shock.

In all sincerity, though, I really enjoy the cultural diversity part of the gig. The technical challenges and immense scale of deep-sea research provide unique opportunity and incentive for international collaboration. This collaborative energy is one of the things that attracted me to HADEEP and that really makes me excited to continue working in deep-sea science. Torben Wolff, one of the fathers of trench research, said it better than I can. “When frontiers are closed scientific research stagnates… No science can thrive without foreign contracts. And oceanography, concerned with the physical conditions of the oceans, their flora and fauna, and the utilization of these for the benefit of hungry man, is surely one of the most international of all the sciences. The sea affects us all, at once separating and uniting us.”[1]

 

Literature Cited

 

1.            Nielsen, K.H., Postcolonial partnerships: deep sea research, media coverage and (inter)national narratives on the Galathea Deep Sea Expedition from 1950 to 1952. The British Journal for the History of Science, 2010. 43(1): p. 75-98.

Amazing people and unfortunate crabs

It is common to get superstitious at sea. So much of our life on land is under control that the sudden feeling that you are small and at the mercy of these huge processes can come as a bit of a shock. Even the most logical minds can ascribe lucky and unlucky traits in a desperate attempt at making sense and taking some control of random and uncontrollable events.

We have been marred by misfortune at every turn and it is beginning to feel that there is some malicious and deliberate opposing force that is pushing against us. When you are just a few people, tiny against the forces you are up against, there is only so much you can have control over. This is the point where people really prove themselves however.

I am immensely proud of the people on this vessel, of the things they have managed to achieve with so little. Things have been forced to happen, have come into being through sheer acts of will: Deliveries that would have been late have been intercepted in transit (optional scientist as Adam Ant in Stand and Deliver sequence here), a -800C freezer has been found on a remote island and a abyssal depth rated vehicle has been constructed out of spare parts on the vessel, to name just a few.

These acts have yielded rewards. We have seen a slow trickle of data from the trench as we refuse to be beaten. The water is incredibly clean, allowing us to see our gear as far as 20m below the vessel. These clean waters don’t produce much life and so there is very little food raining down on the seafloor below. The photos we have taken have revealed a very clean seabed with golden silty sediment. In some areas there are large and irregular rocks lying on the sediment. Since they have not been burred they must have arrived relatively recently. Their dark colour and irregular shape would indicate they are volcanic in origin and we have seen a few signs of activity in the area.

Yesterday we passed over a ring of bright yellow/green water, in stark contrast to the clear dark blue of the surrounding water. There was a strong sulphur smell and also large amounts of pumice in the water; rocks that had solidified so quickly when contacting that cold ocean water that they were full of gas bubbles and floated on the surface. We have seen these floating blocks the size of footballs. These larger blocks become little floating islands as larvae in the water settle on them and grow. Many are covered in goose barnacles and we even recovered one piece with two crabs living on it. These were crabs that should have been living at the bottom and were not able to swim. They had obviously found their little island home as larva and grown there; if they were ever to fall they could never get back. The pumice is eventually over-colonised and sinks, likely killing all onboard. On a tough day in the middle of the ocean you can dwell on that. It can be a grim metaphor for all sorts of things. Poor little crabs.

We have covered a range of some 5,000m depth but the life we have found has been amazingly consistent. The same four fish species, in different proportions, have been found at all of these depths. These species are familiar; we found them in the Kermadec trench earlier this year. The Kermadec is closer to land and has a higher food input. In that trench we saw many species and several transitions with depth as one species took over from the last. Here in the New Hebrides trench the fish that we saw at about 4-5,000m in the Kermadec have expanded in both directions. This would suggest that in the Kermadec they do not occupy their narrow depth range because that is the only range that they can cope with but, at least on one side of their range, they may be limited not by depth but by competition with other species. The boisterous and greedy macrurids (rattails) may keep them out of the shallower areas in the Kermadec trench but here, with the noticeable lack of this group, they are free to spread and eek out a meagre existence on a seabed with very little food.

There have been a couple of species that have been mocking us for some time. Turning up in abundance for our cameras but refusing to enter a trap and allow us to know for sure what they are. Our deep-sea bullies were a large red shrimp and a very pale eel. We had our hunches as to what they were but without a specimen to look at it was all an educated guess. We have finally managed to capture a few examples of each. We have identified them as best we can on the vessel but in some species x-rays are needed. These specimens were left intact and will be examined at the Te Papa museum in Wellington. I am excited to finally put a name to the face that has been mocking me through a camera’s lens.