In November 2003, while an undergrad at University of California at Davis I was asked by my 2 of my Geology professors if I wanted to help them out on an expedition to hydrothermal vents on the East Pacific Rise. They knew of my interest in vents because they were teaching a 1 credit seminar on Hydrothermal Vents that I was participating in. My undergraduate major in Evolution and Ecology though and was planning on double majoring in Geology. It never happened though, mostly because I didn't want to stay an extra semester and take the two classes I needed to finish the major (coincidentally the same classes I would have needed to get a minor too - Paleoclimatology and Mineralogy).
This expedition was headed by the Field Museum of Chicago as more or less a collecting expedition and other parties with funding came along to share the cruise time. We used the famous Alvin submersible and sailed aboard the R/V Atlantis. Our role as the "geology contingent" was to oversee the night operations which included mapping the seafloor and flying TowCam, the towed camera system the we basically keep from crashing too may times into the seafloor or a cliff or something. It takes a photo every 30 seconds and also has equiptment to measure the alitude off the seafloor, distance of something in front it, particle scatter in the water column, conductivity and temperature. Except for the photographs, all this information is relayed up the cable to the control room where someone has to constantly have their hand on the controls to adjust the feed of the cable, keeping the camera at about 3-5 meters off the bottom. Not an easy task, but needlessness to say the graduate student and undergrad (myself) never crashed while the 2 professors who have done this for years... lets just say the close-ups were awesome!
Being that this was mainly a biology cruise was the real reason I was asked to go. I'm not really a geologist, just a biologist with a good deal of geological training. Being the least senior out of just about everybody on board I was affectionately referred to one French participant (whom I now work with on various projects) as the "ship's bitch". I was in charge of making a "best of" video for the expedition to show off to the Museum's patrons. Basically pulling out highlights and cool video from each dive. I also found my passion was sorting through rocks, sediment, snot, you name it and finding critters. I seemed to be very good at it as the Chief P.I. and other biologists seemed pretty please with my findings! Sorting is still something I take great pleasure in. I get all giggly when a box full of crap comes up from the seafloor, filled with various worms, gastropods, amphipods... its the "what new thing might I find if I keep looking?" that keeps my interests peaked. Other duties were as requested by whomever wanted help (like bleeding the giant tubeworm Riftia pachyptila). I reveled in it all!
Our nights were filled with work, but the daytime was spent waiting for Alvin to return from the bottom. We often peered overboard trying to spot marine life. Often floating debris from islands or continents far away would pass beside the ship with several colorful fish hidden underneath seeking its protection. One day a coconut floated by. I don't know whose brilliant idea it was, but one of the biologists netted it for fun I suppose. As it turned out this coconut was full of wonderful surprises!
All the images, except the picture of myself in Alvin, were taken by my friend and colleague, crustacean biologist T.A. Haney. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what any of these are, none of the specimens were in my possession since the end of that cruise. I presume they ended up deposited in the Field Museum along with everything else. The barnacle appears similar to species in the genus Poecilasma, but has lateral plates, which I haven't seen in Poecilasma. The clam has a massive siphon! But I think the polychaete steals the show. I can try to ID the family and maybe genus, using Fauchald's 1977 key to polychaetes tomorrow when I'm in the lab.
I just wanted to share these photos for a couple reasons. One is that they have fascinated me since I saw them. All of their coloring is reminiscent of a coconut. Its almost as if they intended to live inside of a coconut hull and have all independently evolved "cocomaflage". It is rather uncanny. I think the currents at 8-13 north run east to west. I'm not sure where the equatorial counter current was at that time and that year, but we were probably above it. Therefore this microcommunity had to have come from Mexico or Central America or an island offshore. We were about 400km from the coast, so it had to travel quite far and all the inhabitants seemed healthy and were responsive. What did they eat in there? Did the species interact? They all appeared to be adult forms.
Observations like this open so many questions for me about connectivity in the ocean. If I end up staying in research after I finish my degree, I will be putting proposals in to study floating microcommunities such as this one. Just think of trolling the open seas in transects and picking up anything you can spot and seeing what lives there. There can be higher and more rigorous scientific questions posed too, other than mere fascination with discovery and natural history. For instance, how do floating communities affect genetic structure of animal species? We can take an island biogeographic model and throw in information about the frequency of immigration events such as these into the mix and see if communities can be sustained or recolonized after local extinction. The role of floating debris, whether natural or man-made, is an underappreciated question in marine ecology, in part of the ephemeral nature of the debris. Anyone want to write a grant proposal? Or give me a job at a non-profit, or a post-doc, or... to investigate cool stuff like this? (big cheesy smile)