A Souvenir From The Deep

We’ve been in the Bay of Biscay for the last few days, and it’s been rough going. There have been a few storms and big waves that have tested my balance to its limits (and I’m the kind of person who finds stairs a challenge). I can now fully appreciate why every piece of equipment was bolted to the benches, why every bottle and tray was tied to the wall and why everything had a non-slip mat put under it at the start of the cruise. If none of these precautions had been taken, I think the labs would now be full of broken glass, smashed machinery and dangerous chemicals. The Bay of Biscay is a pretty angry place.

On Sunday, we finally broke away from the shelf and made it into real, deep oceanic waters. It was decided that we would send the CTD to the bottom of the ocean, some 4km down. Over breakfast that day, I was told of a neat tradition that happens when the CTD gets sent to do a full oceanic profile. If you wanted to take part, all you had to do was grab a styrofoam cup and decorate it with permanent markers. Everyone had different ideas, I decided an appropriate theme was deep sea creatures and drew a squid and sperm whale on mine. Next, the cups were stuffed with paper towel and shoved inside a few socks. These were then tied to the CTD so that the cups would descend into the abyss along with our equipment.

One of the socks, loaded with its odd cargo!

The result is pretty cool. Any scuba diving readers will know that as you descend every 10m of water, the pressure increases by 1 atmosphere. So, at 10m, a diver, a fish, a diatom experiences twice the pressure that there is on land. At 4000m, the pressure is about 400 times. All that pressure squeezes out the air in the styrofoam, and when the cups come back up, they are miniature, along with whatever you drew on them. The paper towel helps keep the shape of the cup and prevents it from just getting totally smooshed under the pressure.

It took about 2 hours for the CTD to make it to the deep ocean. I enjoyed imagining what kinds of creatures our little cups could see, from giant squid to angler fish to gulper eels. The deep is such an odd and curious place, so vastly unlike our own land-based world, and still so undiscovered. A lecturer once told me that to get an idea of how little we know about it, imagine that you are in a hot-air balloon hovering over a forest and you throw a bucket down attached to a rope. Whatever you bring back up is your idea of what lives in the forest, what it’s made of. Imagine how poor an idea you would get of what a forest really is. That is precisely what we know about the deep ocean. I think it’s facts like this that draw a lot of people to marine biology, that there is still this enormous part of our world that remains a mystery to us, still so much remains to be found. I like knowing I’m helping to lift some of that darkness on the workings of the oceans.

Well, the CTD got stuck at about 3500m on its way up as the winch stalled and the cable frayed. It was a bit precarious for a while, but many hours later the CTD made it back on deck, with a bunch of shrunk down cups along with it.

It was so neat, and an incredibly unique souvenir!

We’re now on our way out of the Bay of Biscay. We started our third bioassay yesterday morning, which meant a 2am start. In return, we were given an amazing wildlife display. A shoal of baby squid, presumably attracted to the lights on the ship, shimmered just under the surface at the side of the ship. They were joined, rather incredibly, by a bunch of orange oceanic crabs. All the action didn’t go unnoticed, and eventually larger squid turned up, big red ones about half a meter long. A shark or two turned up as well, though they were only small. It was fabulous, definitely worth the early start! They all dispersed as the sun came up, and we got a hint that it would be a beautiful day. The sky was amazing, my favourite kind. It looked like someone had taken a great paintbrush and daubbed and smeared and scraped hues of whites, greys and golds onto a blue canvas. We are definitely leaving the wrath of Biscay behind us, and steaming ahead into week 3 of our expedition.

I’ll keep you posted.


2 thoughts on “A Souvenir From The Deep

  1. The styrofoam souvenirs are awesome!

    That’s a great story about the bucket and rope containing all of what you know about sea floor life. I wonder if we have a better understanding of the surface of the moon than we do the abyssal depths of our own water world…

    It would be neat to see more underwater exploration in the future. Back in the 60s and 70s there were aquanauts living under the sea, maybe we will return to that one day.

    • They are great, aren’t they?

      I think you’re right, I have heard that we know more about the moon’s surface than our own deep ocean. It would be amazing to be able to discover more about that world, and slowly we’re uncovering more as technology improves. But it’s just so completely out of our element, I wonder how much we’ll ever get to know about it!

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