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A day in the life of a marine scientist

Scientists study the deep parts of the ocean and the unusual creatures that live there.

By Keely Parrack / August 16, 2005


6:30 a.m. I am waiting to spend the day out at sea with a team of scientists and technicians from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Patrick Whaling is senior science technician and today's chief scientist at sea.

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Our boat, Point Lobos, waits patiently in the fog. The travelers arrive: student scientists, technicians, Dr. Whaling, a marine scientist, and me. The boat crew is already here.

We glide out to sea at 7 a.m. In the harbor, seals bark farewell.

Point Lobos is no ordinary boat. Owned by MBARI, it has a laboratory on deck for experiments and a special operations room with banks of monitors that resembles NASA's mission control.

The screens show live pictures from the boat's ROV (remotely operated vehicle), called Ventana. It probes the sea with its cameras, data collection sensors, mechanical arms, and animal-collecting devices. A crane on board the boat guides the Ventana into the water. The camera controls are guided from the operations room, using what looks like a joystick for video games.

Less than 5 percent of the deep ocean has been studied. As the water gets deeper, the pressure increases. A Styrofoam cup traveling down 915 meters would be crushed to half its original size. At a depth of about 200 meters, the light fades, which gives the impression of a "twilight zone."

However, with the help of new technologies, scientists can dive deep into the ocean without being crushed or getting wet.

The ROV splashes into the ocean

Noon. We arrive at the edge of Monterey Canyon, the main reason we are here. The canyon, a few hours offshore, goes more than 3,000 meters deep. This means marine scientists can get to deep ocean water and back to shore in one day. On the East Coast, it would take 12 hours to get to water that deep.

The Ventana probe is unleashed. It is guided carefully into the water using the crane fixed on Point Lobos's deck. Floats are layered along a rope to help track Ventana. As it sinks down, its cameras give the researchers in the control room a fish-eye view of the ocean.

The first task takes two hours, filming two-thirds of a mile of the ocean floor at a depth of 200 meters. The distance and depth have to be precise, Whaling explains. "This tape will be compared to a tape of the same section taken on June 18, 2004." This way, they can find how life on the ocean floor is changing.

Whaling has been working at MBARI studying bottom-dwelling organisms for more than 15 years. "I go out two to four times a month on average," he says. "We get to the Smooth Ridge sites [where we are today] about six to seven times a year."

The researchers routinely place sediment tubes at different depths, leave them for a month or two, and then recover them. They analyze the sediment to determine what materials are flowing onto the ocean floor - and how much. The nature and stability of the ocean floor affects the life there. More than 95 percent of known marine species are bottom-dwellers. If there are any changes to those creatures, the ocean's food chain could be affected.

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