A Magical Mystery Tour
by Mike deGruy
Let’s play a little game. Imagine yourself in a huge auditorium filled with two thousand people. From the ceiling a tiny steel ball, the size of a gnat, is slowly descending toward the floor. This tiny steel ball is a submarine and you are in it, so small that inside of it your outstretched arms touch all sides. It is pitch dark in the auditorium. You flip a switch in the sub and little lights go on, illuminating an inch in front of the portholes. Now this is a fancy ball, make no mistake, but still, there you are, falling inside of it to an unknown place.
Now the fun begins, you peer out the windows and are treated to one of the greatest light shows on earth, just on the outside of your little ball. More on what this light show is later; but for now, think of dropping like this for 2 hours. Finally you hit something. It’s almost soft. You see rolling tubular shapes cascading down and disappearing in front of you. You’ve just landed on the head of the woman seated next to you and the tubes are her hair. You lift off and slide down a smooth canyon, onto a quilt of fibrous colors; you’re seeing her skirt as you sit on her lap. Now you move forward over rough terrain and see the bright colors outside your window suddenly turn into a tan flat plane, her leg. Then you fall over another cliff, dropping until you hit what appears to be a thick, black rope. It is her shoelace. Over the shoe you go and you hit a bumpy substrate with enormous white boulders, kernels of popcorn. After five hours of this abstract exploration, you begin a slow, 2½-hour ascent. Once you arrive the ceiling again, you emerge from the little ball and report back to the Mother Ship what you learned about the auditorium full of people. How many dives like this would it take to even begin to understand and describe what the auditorium full of people is like?
The scenario I describe is not far from how we actually gain information about the deep sea. For our purposes, “deep” refers to anything below the furthest reaches of light. What little we know of the deep sea comes from the small number of men and women who’ve been lucky enough to go there, from fishermen or from scientists dropping various instruments miles down from ships. There are not many active submersibles in the world and this is a genuine obstacle in the way of our understanding the deep sea. This great unknown – entire worlds yet to be discovered, mapped and understood – beckons me to take every opportunity I have to dive and film from manned submersibles. There is literally nothing like it on earth.
Where can you go on Earth and honestly say that you are guaranteed to see something that no one has ever seen before you and is probably new to science? I do not know of such a place, except the deep sea. And what you see is… literally indefinable, at least by me. There are incredible landscapes, outrageous creatures and entire ecosystems that we are just barely or not at all familiar with.
This ignorance of the Deep Sea will continue until conscious decisions are made to multiply the number of craft able to take men and women down to the darkest depths of our oceans. We do not have a single submersible capable of taking a man to the bottom of the ocean. Not one! How is this possible? We’ve consistently been sending people into space, and at an extraordinary expense, but only two people, Jacques Piccard, who recently passed away, and Don Walsh, have been to the bottom of the ocean. This was for 20 minutes in 1960 and no one has been back. It seems odd to me, tragic even, that we spend so much looking up into space, but so little time and resources looking down, into our oceans. Let me take you for a little sub ride…
I’ll describe a journey to the hydrothermal vents, but first a little scene-setting. There is a huge 40,000-mile mountain range encircling the earth. We don’t know much about it, and some of you may not even know of its existence, because it is underwater. In any case, it is taller than the Himalayas and is splitting right down the center. These splits, or rifts, contain hundreds of active volcanoes spewing lava and creating new land, the very land we walk on today. Inside these spreading rift valleys, over 10,000 feet down, lies one of the most astonishing scientific discoveries this century. Some 30 years ago, scientists discovered the first hydrothermal vents off the coast of Ecuador. The only way you can get there is inside a submersible and here is a typical trip to the vents:
You board a large research ship and steam to, in this case, a place called “9 North” which, as you may deduce, is nine degrees north of the equator. You climb into your little steel inner-spaceship, seal the hatch, turn on a little oxygen and the scrubber (to remove exhaled CO2), and over the side you go. Early in the descent there is still light and you may pass a few familiar creatures: dolphins, sharks, maybe a billfish or tuna. Within an hour, the water has transformed from a bright sunlit blue, to darker blue, deep violet and finally it has disappeared altogether. First, you marvel at the lightshow outside the sub’s windows, produced by the myriad creatures flashing bioluminescence as you disturb their tranquility. It is the rule, not the exception for creatures of the eternal darkness to produce light. They do this to feed, attract prey, communicate and avoid being eaten. After soaking in the lightshow, you turn on the lights of the sub and illuminate this black world. Without question, some of the most bizarre and extraordinary creatures imaginable live in this mid-water community; they seem to come straight from your dreams – or nightmares.
The longest animals in the world live here – far in excess of 100 feet. They glow with eerie luminescent as the lights dance through their gelatinous bodies. And here be monsters; Viperfish, Fangtooth, Vampire Squid, Gulper Eel, Coffinfish and Hairy Anglers – they’re all here with multitudes of equally strange cousins.
Finally you settle on the bottom, a nondescript undulating gray surface covered by a fine dust. Through a funky but effective underwater radio, the mother ship vectors you on a heading and you slowly cruise forward toward the target area. The dust becomes thinner, revealing a volcanic landscape reminiscent of the Hawaiian lava flows; not surprising as it is undersea volcanic activity that created the landscape you are traversing. Spires begin to appear, volcanic towers the sub maneuvers between and you begin to see signs of life: white crabs and fish starkly contrasted against the black lava bottom. The numbers of animals increase as the landscape becomes heavily tossed into great folds and valleys, some with sharp cliffs tens of feet tall. Now you see the first signs of the hydrothermal vent community as some of the volcanic towers are seen spewing clouds of billowing black smoke.
In front of you is a particularly tall tower, perhaps 20 feet and it appears white. The sub slowly inches its way up to the tower revealing shimmering superheated water radiating from its flanks. The top is well above you and out of sight, as you arrive near the base. Before you is an extraordinary scene: the white coloring you first noticed has morphed into a tangled mass of 6 foot long tube worms with spectacular bright red plumes perhaps 8 inches long emerging from their tops. Several species of bizarre fish are living among the tangled mass as well as strange crabs and shrimp. The sub slowly ascends, following the tower toward the top revealing new communities of animals, clams, more fish, strange lobsters and then the Dumbo Octopus – a new species that has no sucker disks and uses flaps attached to its head for propulsion.
Finally you reach the top if the tower and a horde of creatures are massed together filling every conceivable niche. You notice a white cloud undulating above the tower, a swarm of pure white amphipods, tiny shrimp-like creatures frantically performing a dangerous dance between the freezing sea surrounding the tower and the 700-degree water spewing from within. There are scores of these towers, each unique but possessing a similar collection of creatures. The sub carries you through this overwhelming landscape, revealing new vistas at every turn. It is hard to remember that this is earth you are witnessing, rather than an alien planet.
And at the very top of the chimneys you finally get a glimpse of the “Black Smokers”. Thick twisting columns of black “smoke” is being thrust into the clear water right in front of you. The pilot says you are safe, but you’ve already heard that this water is so hot it will melt the acrylic windows of the sub. You lean back a bit.
And let me back up a bit… Where does this hot water come from? At 12,000 feet, there is roughly 6000 pounds of pressure pushing on every square inch of surface area, pressure generated by the weight of the miles of water above. Imagine two adult elephants standing on every couple of inches of your body. In these active rift valleys in our oceans, the cracks in the spreading plates allow sea water to be forced into the earth by the enormous pressure above and this water travels toward the earth’s core. The water eventually hits extreme heat, becomes super-heated and super saturated with minerals, reverses it’s flow and like a geyser on land, shoots back toward the surface, emerging from the earth’s crust with enormous force. Now comes an interesting point; the 6-700 degree vent water is clear as it emerges into the open ocean, but stays clear only for a fraction of a second and a fraction of an inch. If you look closely right where the water emerges, you’ll see the clear water, but not much of it. The surrounding water is only slightly above freezing and immediately cools the water ejecting from the vent. As the water cools, it can no longer hold in suspension the vast minerals it absorbed and they precipitate out immediately, turning black. Some of the minerals are deposited, forming the very chimneys we see coated with bizarre life and the remaining black smoke shoots hundreds of feet above.
Surprisingly, this entire area is ephemeral – after 20 or maybe 30 years, the conduit bringing heated seawater from the earth’s core is cut off, eliminating the heat and the entire ecosystem dies, leaving ghostly skeletons of a once thriving ecosystem behind. But some miles along the rift valley, another vent will erupt and like a phoenix, another community regenerates and a new hydrothermal world is born.
It is surprising that the entire world of hydrothermal vents was completely unknown when many of us were born. The first hydrothermal vent was discovered in 1977 near the Galapagos Islands and its discovery threw science on its head. Before we knew of hydrothermal vents and their associated unique life forms, all life on earth was believed to be dependent on the sun and photosynthesis. But down here there is no sunlight and no photosynthesis occurs, it is the noxious chemicals emerging from the vents that drives this entire system; instead of photosynthesis, it is chemosynthesis that fuels the hydrothermal vent ecosystem. It gave scientists pause… was it here, not in some primordial soup sparked by lightning, where life on earth began?
After 8 hours, it is time to return to the surface and the sun, the fire in our sky that is necessary for life up here on dry land. The return trip takes another 2 hours and finally you are home, safely lifted back on the ship and at long last, you go straight to a bathroom!