The Beacon: Jon Warrenchuk's blog

Jon's Journal: Day 13


[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?


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Jon's Journal: Day 12


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


August 10, 2004: Last night a few of us made an amazing discovery: big squid will hit a "pixie" fishing lure! On light line, it's quite sporting. They're hard to keep on, and we fail to land one, but boy, its fun! These babies are at least 3 feet long, fast, and furious. I just wish we could get one in the boat!

I don't know what species they are; the closest I can think of are the "majestic" squid, Berryteuthis magister, but those only get about 18 inches long. The big squid below us are fun to watch, streaking through the schools of forage fish (sandlance? capelin?) attracted to the deck lights. Then something large and grey makes the squid scatter. Is it a salmon shark? It disappears too fast for confirmation, but it's a likely suspect. These smaller relatives of the Great white have been recorded throughout Alaskan waters, but much of their life history remains unknown.


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Jon's Journal: Day 11


[editor's note, by Jason] Jon Warrenchuk is currently participating in NOAA's 2004 Gulf of Alaska Seamount Expedition. He was unable to get to a PC to blog on the 8th, so we rejoin him on the 11th day of his expedition.


August 09, 2004: For the next few days we'll be sampling Welker seamount.


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Jon's Journal: Day 9


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


August 7, 2004: Rocketing up from the depths, the 'crab elevator' breaks the surface. We set the crab elevator the day before, it's been soaking for a day, and we're eager to check out today's catch.

The 'crab elevator' is essentially a platform loaded with crab and fish traps. Yummy herring and cat food (the quintessential crab bait) will attract critters to the sample traps on the seafloor. We dropped it over the side yesterday and sank it down to 550 meters deep on Dickins Seamount. The elevator is equipped with remote-activated floats, and when these are triggered, the elevator shoots up to the surface under its own power.

Unfortunately, the catch is pretty sparse. The lone "megafauna" in the larger traps is a female scarlet king crab, Lithodes couesi. The smaller traps fare better, and contain several dozen shrimp of an unknown species.

We measure the king crab (standard measurements are across the widest part of the carapace and the length of the claw) and perform some basic dissections. She's not carrying any eggs, and when we dissect her we see that her ovaries are quite full: it's apparent that she hasn't yet extruded. This is interesting, because in other samples we've seen female crabs of the same species carrying eggs.

This kind of asynchrony is evidence of the lack of seasonality in the deep-sea. Crabs in shallower waters generally brood their eggs for 1 year and release their larvae around the same time, to coincide with things like spring blooms of phytoplankton.


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Jon's Journal: Day 8


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


August 6, 2004: Last night we launched the CTD. Marine biology is fairly light on acronyms, but this is one we throw around often. "C" stands for conductivity (a measure of salinity), "T" for temperature, and "D" for depth. Perturbations and combinations of those 3 factors (salinity, temperature, and depth) are primarily responsible for patterns of life in the ocean. This particular CTD also measures dissolved oxygen, another important limiting factor for marine life.

The CTD device is tethered to the Atlantis with fiber optic cable, and displays real-time data to the computer lab as it's lowered to the ocean floor. What's surprising is that dissolved oxygen decreases significantly after 200 meters depth and the water actually becomes quite "hypoxic" (low in oxygen). But after 1300 meters depth, dissolved oxygen increases. On seamounts that transcend this depth range, zonation of organisms is as evident as it is on a tidal seashore. It's cold on the bottom too, a consistent 1.6 to 2 degrees Celsius.

The best part about launching the CTD at night is that the boat is stationary and all the deck lights are on. When this happens, you never know what might ascend from the depths. Schooling forage fish, attracted to the lights, flash about in silvery streaks. A squid, about 3 feet long, quietly ascends, hovers, then disappears out of sight. I waited patiently for a salmon or two to make an appearance, but no luck.


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Jon's Journal: Day 7


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


August 5, 2004: While there's always duping, clipping, editing, and highlighting those "oh cool!" moments of underwater video to be done, the flurries of activity really begin when the Alvin breaks the surface after a dive.

Tom Shirley's research is focused on documenting species that rely on deep-sea corals for habitat. It's relatively straightforward to video larger "macrofauna" such as crabs using corals as feeding platforms (and we see a lot of this). But it's more difficult to assess the habitat of those smaller critters that play an important part of the benthic ecosystem. Fortunately, Alvin is equipped with vacuum "slurpers" and these are used to "slurp" around the corals and collect any critters on the branches. This technique reveals a myriad assemblage of creatures not apparent on video. When the sub is winched back on board, we empty the slurp tubes and find many strange and wonderful creatures. We catalogued and preserved brittlestars, polychaete worms, shrimp, amphipods, and anemones for future identification.

After our samples were processed, a pod of about 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins zipped around the boat during sunset. It was very oceanic.


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Jon's Journal: Day 6


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


August 4, 2004: Last night we left Denson Seamount and moved on to Dickins Seamount. Dickins is a shallower seamount, so I'm hoping to see more marine life. The waters above seamounts are supposed to be more productive than surrounding waters, concentrating plankton and zooplankton and the life that depends on them. I pictured swarms of seabirds in the waters above the seamounts, but there was not much evidence of this at Denson. I only saw a few storm petrels skimming the surface waters. Possibly Denson seamount is too deep for upwelling to occur.

Aha, there are a few more birds at Dickins, and diversity is greater too. I see about a dozen black-footed albatross, a few sooty terns, and more storm petrels. It's still not the circling swarm I pictured in my minds-eye, but it could be a significant observation. There's also a "boat effect" I need to address; albatross are curious and might come from miles around to check out a boat (there's not much on the horizon in the middle of the sea). I guess my feature article in "Audubon" will have to wait.


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Jon's Journal: Day 5


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


AUGUST 3, 2004: Forget all this science. The real reason we're here is to squish Styrofoam cups! It's so cool! You take a standard Styrofoam coffee cup, decorate it with artistic license (mine had a "Jaws" theme), and stick it in a mesh bag tied to the sub. As the sub descends the air spaces in the Styrofoam get compressed and you're left with a much SMALLER Styrofoam cup! It makes a great souvenir.

Today Catalina Martinez, the expedition coordinator, gets to take a trip in Alvin. It's an exciting day for her. She has organized these expeditions for NOAA's Office of Exploration for 4 years, and today will be her first ever dive. They'll descend 2700 meters to the base of Denson Seamount. The launch is only slightly delayed, and off they go.

While on the bottom, they answered live questions from students in a middle school in Rhode Island, only 2700 meters up and a continent east away. This is the result of a satellite phone call, arranged by their teacher Carey Delauder, who joined the expedition as an "educator-at-sea". Her students are from an Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program and it's a neat way for kids to learn about the deep sea.

After she climbs out of the sub at the end of the dive, Catalina is greeted with water balloons and buckets of water. The veterans tell us this is tradition after your first dive. Sploosh! Welcome back!


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Jon's Journal: Day 4


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


Monday, August 2: We've finally arrived at our first dive site. The early morning is spent "pinging" the bottom with multi-beam radar. This will generate the first detailed topography of the bottom structure and will be used to select the dive site. The peak of Benson seamount reaches to within 1100 m of the surface.

This morning, a small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins frolicked in the wake beside the boat. They're the first marine mammals I've seen other than some whale spouts off in the distance. We're "standing down" for awhile to let the winds die down a bit before they launch the sub. The aquanauts for the first voyage will be Tom Shirley and Randy Keller.

Late morning and we're ready to launch! It's quite an operation. Alvin trundles out on a train track from the hanger and is loaded up with ballast weights. Divers don wetsuits. A zodiac is launched. Tom and Randy walk the gangplank and disappear into the sub. A giant A-frame crane lifts the sub and lowers it into the water. The divers ride the sub a ways and check that everything is ok, and then the sub slowly sinks out of sight.

Six hours (and a few ping-pong games) later and Alvin breaks the surface. The retrieval operation proceeds much like the reverse of the launch operation. The sub is lifted on deck and scientists gather around like over-eager children at Christmas. And it is Christmas! Presents from the deep! Slimy, spiky critters and rocks!

The collecting boxes and suction tubes are loaded with goodies. I retrieve some kind of king crab species from the collecting box for Tom. With identification keys, I confirm that it's a female Paralomis verrilli. It's not well-known enough to have a common name. It does resemble the more familiar red king crab, but is "spikier".

We even find some unexpected critters in the corners of the collecting box and on pieces of coral: a delicate deep-sea spider on a small piece of bamboo coral, undescribed copepod species, and a small crab we couldn't identify. All are preserved in digital and alcohol media and added to the body of science on deep-sea biology.


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Jon's Journal: Day 3


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


AUGUST 1, 2004: We're transiting Canadian waters and the British Columbia coast slips by in the distance. There goes the last land we'll see for several weeks. I'm eager to pass over Bowie Seamount, on the Canada/U.S. border. There should be some seabirds and marine mammals around this shallow seamount. Seamounts are magnets for productivity. Upwelling currents concentrate zooplankton and forage fish and the critters that feed on them.

But I'm even more eager to get inside the Alvin. I'm listed as one of the potential divers, so that means I'll be going through some specialized training for scientists going down in the sub. There's an array of media equipment; digital video cameras mounted on the sub with pan and tilt controls that need to be coordinated, high-definition handhelds, digital still cameras, and lighting that needs consideration. There's lots of knobs and buttons, but most are "no-touchy". We discuss the air system, and get the most important info: that there's enough for 3 people for 3 days. The Alvin can dive down to 4500 m beneath the surface, or over 2.5 miles deep. It's one of a few manned research submersibles in the world that can dive that deep. The pressures at that depth are fantastic, but the Alvin was engineered with this in mind. The 2-inch thick titanium hull can easily withstand this pressure and even repelled an attack by a large blue marlin in 1971. It's unlikely there's anything in the Gulf of Alaska with the cojones to tangle with the Alvin, but you never know. Fifteen foot long giant squid have been washed up on the beaches around here before. Giant squid attack... that would be cool... from a scientific standpoint of course.


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