Life in Focus


The MBARI complex center right, and Moss Landing power plant smoke stacks, as seen from the stern of the R/V Western Flyer.

In the summer of 2012 I was so incredibly lucky and had the opportunity to work as a research intern at MBARI, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. This nonprofit brings together scientists and engineers to develop technology in order to study the ocean’s depths.

While there, I worked within a lab that conducts ecological research at the long term monitoring site Station M. The following pictures are from a cruise on the R/V Western Flyer to deploy and recover sampling equipment at that site, which is four kilometers below the surface.

The Benthic Rover was being recovered and then redeployed, during that cruise. The rover is an autonomous robot that collects biological measurements for  ~ six-month stretches. A short time after returning to shore, I watched the live videos of mission control for the successful landing of the Curiosity rover. The mars rover program has had three rovers, the earth autonomous rover program one.

Being included in that team, even for such a short stint, was beyond words; especially given the importance and limited coverage of oceanic time series.

See this post for a more recent cruise (2015)

Dr. Ken L. Smith Jr. releasing the lines to send the rover back to the bottom for another six-month mission.

The free decent predecessor (FVGR) to the benthic rover. By deploying both at the same time it is possible to correct for differences in measurements for the 20+ year time series of bentho-pelagic coupling. Standardization corrections, it’s what scientists live for.

Anatomy of a Rover: It moves across the bottom with rubber treads, notice the brushes on the rear for automatic cleaning. I thought what wonderful foresight, I was informed that those were added after field tests.  This also made me smile. The silver spherical objects are the pressure housings for the batteries. On the front is a clear cylindrical apparatus. This measures oxygen consumption in the mud, which is used to parameterize energy budgets in the thin sediment veneer of abyssal ecosystems. Cameras and strobes allow for continuous image mosaics of animals on top of the surface. Ocean current meters (yellow cage) mean the rover only moves, and deploys its sampling gear in ideal conditions.

Yellow syntactic foam bricks provide floatation so the rover returns to the surface upon release of its drop weight, and provides operational buoyancy so that it rests not too heavily on the bottom. This reduces its environmental impact, and requires less energy to operate. Lastly several silver tubes can be seen on its topside these are sonar to detect obstacles, and an acoustic modem. The modem allows for untethered communication and control (story below).

The camera tripod. Simple and effective. With floatation buoy line ready to be deployed. The camera fires regularly and gives a time series of the larger organisms that live on the sediment surface. Obviously, I like this kind of thing.

The gear on deck. The two yellow funnels are sediment traps, which are used collect and measure the sinking organic matter from the surface ecosystems that fuels the foodweb of Deep-sea habitats 4000 meters below. The changes in earths climate affect the structure and productivity of ocean surface ecosystems. Since the Deep-sea is tied to the surface, they in turn are affected by climate change. In this picture Jake (his break is much deserved), John, Ken, and Rich. A team effort supported by the greater MBARI team.

I have summarized, what may be found in the links above. Please explore them for well written explanations. What I would like to leave you with is a short story from that cruise.

The 2012 cruise was one of the early deployments of the rover. When we attempted to call the rover to the surface we were unable to communicate with it, the drop weight command was given, and no rover surfaced. The ship moved to a possible location where the rover could be, and the acoustic array was lowered again, to no avail. Later we learned that this was likely due to te fact that we were operating at the maximum range of the modem. Pushing the limits of available technology.

After consultation with the ROV team, the ROV Doc Ricketts was sent on a search mission, to where the rover was supposed to go. The rover was deployed to automatically travel about a kilometer in a predetermined cardinal direction from its drop site.

We crowded into the control room as ROV reached the bottom. Earlier in the cruise the ROV had been deployed to conduct benthic camera surveys, given the animals are small the ROV travels close to the bottom, for this work. But in looking for the rover the ROV was positioned such that it had a wider field of view, with its lights turned to full, and camera forward facing.

Stalked Hexactinellid sponges, covered the seafloor, with pink, orange, and white sea cucumbers mulling about. Herds of holothurians hoovering up the sediment in every hemisphere!

That season an above average high pulse of organic matter from above had caused an ecosystem bloom below. A vibrantly dynamic ecosystem that few get to see, which covers much of the planet. Alive and beautiful, a vast contrast to the illustrations and dead specimens I had seen prior.

I have traveled to a few wonderful biological diverse places, and yet this moment rivals my time in the deepest heart of the Amazon, and the untouched barrier reef of Belize.

While I was gawking at the biology, someone spotted rover tracks. The relative stability of abyssal plains means these tracks may last many years. Flying down the tracks the ROV’s sonar picked up a contact, and then the rover came into view. It seemed to be in good working order. The rover has an emergency weight release built in, such that the ROV’s mechanical arm can trigger it. The rover of course, made it to the surface in perfect working order, once the ROV triggered the release.

That summer was a wonderful experience, for a time I was part of a community that is pushing the frontier of innerspace exploration. It is amazing what a small group of capable people can accomplish. If we put our minds to it we can go to the moon and do the other great things.

My only regret during that time was not getting to know some of my colleagues and peers better. As I had been without work prior, and my future was uncertain, I worked rather too much that summer.

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