'Weird and wonderful' glimpses of the ocean floor

Lulu, Alvin, and Angus are the stars of the National Geographic fifth-season premiere: "Dive to the Edge of Creation" (PBS, Tuesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

A mother ship named Lulu, a deep-diving craft named Alvin, and an unmanned camera sled named Angus, in addition to a miniaturized CCD (charge-coupled device) color-TV camera, have played major roles in expanding what may prove to be the century's most startling marine-life discovery: the warm- water vents along the Galapagos rift 400 miles west of Ecuador.

A team headed by two Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists, Drs. Robert Ballard and J. Frederick Grassle, found teeming communities of exotic creatures that thrive on bacteria rather than sunlight, which never penetrates below 8,000 feet.

Hosted by E. G. Marshall, narrated by Leslie Nielsen, written and produced and co- directed by James Limpscomb (with Alfred Giddings), this truly phantasmagoric scientific marine adventure ranks with the best National Geographic specials ever. One of the best films ever made of the ocean floor, it captures weird and wonderful glimpses of strange plants and creatures in the black abyss.

Red-blooded clams, huge mussels, enormous tube worms 10 feet tall -- new families and new species were discovered, captured, studied. A tremendous amount of micro-organisms was found, integral parts of a whole new ecological system based upon chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis.

The film explains the technology and the science, but it does not stint on also depicting the human drama of such a research project. The way the scientists live, their varying work styles, their doubts and fears about the project -- all are indicated with the kind of sensitivity and empathy seldom seen in scientific documentaries. An example is the disappointment of the divers when they fail, and finally succeed, in bringing up a perfect specimen of a giant man-of-war called a "dandelion."

Everybody involved with the project -- teams from Harvard, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Hawaii, as well as Woods Hole -- was aware of being engaged in exploring not only a new under- water world, but a revolutionary concept.

Thus there are tensions peculiar to the awareness of the importance of what the teams are doing. And there is extraordinary enthusiasm when successful dives are made, when shattering scientific discoveries are apparent. The film allows the viewer to share in those moments of glory -- with an absolute minimum of hokum so often associated with popularized scientific documentaries. There are no re-enactments of phony climactic moments -- the new type of video camera recorded the findings with instantaneous accuracy and provided a fabulous record for the world, as well as the scientific establishment, to see and study. As the terse yet colorful script says, "It was very much like the moon landing. . . ."

In the midst of all the tenseness of major revelation, however, we hear somebody ask, "What's the white thing at the bottom?" Another man of science, with humor and a little disdain, responds, "A piece of Styrofoam."

Produced by the National Geographic Society and WQED, Pittsburgh, with the aid of a Gulf Oil Corporation grant, "Dive" is a quietly spectacular record of what has been called "the most important biological find about the deep sea in 100 years."

According to the documentary: "our view of the ocean can never be the same again. . . ." Not only is that true of the marine scientists who took part in the expedition, but probably of many TV viewers who will share the experience. An unforgettable dive to the edge of creation has become a memorable electronic experience.

This premiere show of the new series makes it apparent why, in a recent poll, the National Geographic specials proved to be the most popular television program in public broadcasting.

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