A Magical Mystery Tour

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Thoughts on Dispersant

First I will mention that this is coming after a lifelong interest in all things ocean, a BS and 3 years of Graduate School in Marine Biology, followed by making films in the ocean for over 35 years.  I know little of the chemistry of what the dispersant (primarily Corexit 9500) used in the Gulf of Mexico is precisely made of and the proportions of each chemical within it and how these chemicals interact with the various organisms that encounter it.  And I do not understand much of what happens when fresh crude oil is abruptly thrust into near-freezing water, injected with foreign chemicals and released into a huge gulf to be at the whim of the currents and the wind.  But I do know what I saw and what I feel and these last two points are the motivation for this story.  A lot of oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and a lot of Corexit dispersant was injected into it as it entered the Gulf and sprayed on it at the surface and the result of this experiment concerns me.

I have talked with many people about the dispersant issue and I try to take no sides when I speak with these people.  I’ve talked with fishermen, homeowners, scientists, Government Officials, coastal business owners, representatives from NOAA, NMFS, the EPA, Sea Grant, the FDA and many local academic and marine laboratory employees.  I found there are two clear opinions being expressed regarding the use of dispersants with surprisingly little grey area.

I say surprisingly little grey area as I expected this to be a hot topic when I arrived the Gulf and was eager to become engaged in the conversation.  The tragedy is there seems to be a dearth of information – research – on what effects the dispersant has on different ecosystems and how the animals and plants that encounter are affected.  My surprise was that this does not seem to be a hot topic in the Gulf.  While I encountered a few highly emotional people on the issue, in general there was an odd quietness on the subject everywhere I went.  In the early stages of the spill there was a lot of press coverage regarding dispersant; BP was using it at depth and spraying at the surface, the EPA stopped them, then they started using it again while the EPA, et all, studied the problem and several alternatives were considered.  Then came a lull in the coverage while BP continued to use the chemicals.  My conversations in the Gulf reflected the level of interest currently in the press- not much debate.

To illustrate what the dispersant actually looks like acting on crude oil, I ran a little qualitative experiment.  In a lab in Santa Barbara, I put equal amounts of crude oil in two identical beakers filled with sea water.  I then added equal amounts of crude oil to each and let them sit overnight with a spinning magnet in the bottom of each.  The next day I returned to essentially unchanged conditions – the oil was still floating on the top of each beaker with clear water underneath.   Then I added Corexit 9500 to one of the beakers and within five seconds the water became cloudy.  Within 10 minutes, the beaker with dispersant was a chocolate brown and completely opaque.  To say this was dramatic is an understatement; within minutes, the dispersant had spread the oil throughout the entire volume of the beaker.

I believe the use of chemical dispersants at the surface as well as at 5000 feet, and the use of a lot of it, at the very least should be thoroughly tested.  I would be shocked if I was wrong, but I doubt this dispersant has ever been tested on anything at 2000 pounds per square inch of pressure and water temperatures of just above freezing.  Adding to this elixir is hundreds of millions of gallons crude oil shooting from a pipe, which is under even higher pressure.  Several independent studies state that the dispersant is toxic, which should surprise few after looking at its ingredients.  What more do we need to know to at least place it on the controversial list and have people seriously questioning its use in the Gulf of Mexico?

Many people have looked at the issue of whether or not to use dispersant in the Gulf  oil spill.  And many more are looking at it right now.  These are smart people and obviously the policymaking majority believes that we were right to use dispersant.  This fascinates me and I wanted to hear their arguments, so I asked.  In short, the consensus I found is that “it is the lesser of two evils”, and I heard this often.

The arguments generally go something like this: the dispersant keeps much of the oil from hitting the surface and consequently ending up in the marshlands and on the beaches.  It also breaks down the oil into small particles that are more easily and rapidly “eaten” by bacteria and microbes present in the water.  I see validity in both of these points.  But to put these ahead of the potential downsides of dispersant use is baffling to me.  While I agree that the dispersant probably stops much of the oil from hitting the surface, is this a good thing?  And yes, if the dispersant does what it was designed to do it will break the oil into tiny particles and “disperse” these particles throughout the water column, and is this desirable?  And does the dispersant affect the potential for oil-eating microbes to actually “eat” the oil?

From what we have seen on the news and I have seen personally, the dispersant did not prevent the oil from hitting the shorelines, it did this shortly after the blowout occurred.  I dived under both dispersed and undispersed oil and it is a different experience with each.  The dispersed oil is relatively undefined; the floating portion is essentially non-distinguishable from the water below and it tapers across the surface laterally into a milky edge never seeming to end.  At the surface the dispersed oil resembles an orange mousse with the underlying water filled with brown particles sticking to everything they touch.  Conversely, the undispersed oil has relatively clear water under it and finite edges both where the floating portion meets the water below and at the outer edges; a sharp delineation is usually present where the oil stops and the clear water begins.

I feel that if BP and the US Government had not used dispersants and allowed the oil to rise to the surface, we stood a better chance of removing oil from the Gulf.  Had BP re-configured the vast resources they employed in the Vessel of Opportunity program during the clean-up, sent every skimming-capable boat out to sea focusing HARD on removing the oil at the surface, we would have removed far more oil than we did.  Employing a fleet of suddenly out of work people with a vested interest to collect oil at the surface, perhaps even placing a bounty on the oil, seems more prudent than scattering ineffective booms near shore and filling the entire Gulf with dispersed oil.  This approach did not work in Santa Barbara in 1969, did not work in Alaska in 1979, Ixtoc in ’89 so why would we think it would work on the BP blowout in 2011?  Wasn’t it Einstein who defined insanity by doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?   Furthermore, the tiny dispersed oil particles seemingly stick to everything they touch and I have to wonder how the gills of fish, the swimmerets of tiny shrimp, the eyes and antennae of countless marine creatures and the massive oyster beds filter feeding in the shallow waters, cope with this onslaught.

Then there is the dispersant itself.  Millions of gallons have been used and remain in the Gulf waters.  Nobody knows what the chemicals do at depth and studies conducted on Corexit at the surface have proven fatal to experimental fish.  Some scientists report that it bioaccumulates, meaning it reaches a higher and higher concentration as it moves up the food chain.  Many questions regarding the toxicity of Corexit remain, yet we still allow it.

As I have stated, a lot of smart people have looked into the dispersant issue and the decision is to use it.  They obviously know and believe something I am not aware of.  I do not see the advantages outweighing the disadvantages.  Nor do I see it as the “lesser of two evils” but rather an additional evil that we are voluntarily adding to the disaster we already are facing.  I do not know as much about the dispersant as many of the people who have made this decision, at least I hope I don’t, but it seems to me that we are adding to the problem, not alleviating it.  I agree that allowing more oil to go into the marshlands is a bad thing.  But using dispersant not only allows oil onto the marshes, but also finely distributes it throughout the entire water column.  This exposes every animal in the Gulf, as well as the shorelines, to oil and dispersant and I have a hard time with the logic of this practice.  I cannot imagine it is better to contaminate the entire Gulf, when we could vastly reduce the pervasive extent of the oil in our environment by simply not using dispersant.  The oil is “dispersed”, not removed; it remains suspended in the water, settles on the bottom, or both.

Somewhere, I like to imagine cloaked in white lab coats, teams of scientists are studying this issue, trying to determine if this massive experiment we are running is a good idea.  I feel sure they will come up with a consensus.  But these results will come long after huge quantities dispersant have been sprayed and injected into the Gulf of Mexico.  We may have this information stored away for the next oil spill, but it is too late for this one.  As we continue deepwater drilling, while I certainly hope not, we’ll most likely have more incidents.  My hope is that we learn from the Deepwater Horizon disaster; intensely study why it happened, how we might prevent it from happening again and be better prepared for the next such incident.  We owe at least that to the families of the men who died on April 20, 2010.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments