U.S. Deep-Sea Expedition Probes Earth's Final Frontier

February 21, 2003

At 150 meters (500 feet) below the ocean surface, all is dark—until the submersible, Alvin, descends into a firestorm of bioluminescence produced by barely visible sea creatures.

As Alvin approaches the bottom the pilot flicks on the outboard light revealing an undersea world of giant spider crabs and deep-sea corals that cling to the rocky slopes of an ancient volcano—the Patton seamount—in the Gulf of Alaska.

"This is one of the best parts," said Brad Stevens, a biologist with National Marine Fisheries Service in Kodiak, Alaska. "Looking out the porthole and seeing the bottom come up, it's like landing on the moon but you're landing on Earth—a part of Earth you've never seen before, that nobody's ever seen."

The Alvin and its mother ship the Atlantis are on a mission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Just as NASA explores space, so does NOAA explore the trackless undersea realm. Like a space shuttle, the ship provides a lab for a team of scientists from different disciplines.

"We go to find out what's there, map it, quantify it, sample the biodiversity—basically prepare the site for the next wave of science," said Captain Craig McLean, director of the Office of Ocean Exploration (OOE), in Silver Spring, Maryland.

NOAA founded OOE in 2001 after the Presidents Panel for Ocean Exploration issued a mandate to search and investigate the deepest reaches of our oceans for the purpose of discovery.

Ventures into the Unknown

During the past two years the OOE has dispatched multidisciplinary teams to the Galapagos Rift, the Canadian Basin, Alaska's seamounts and more than 10 other locations. OOE's 2003 budget—U.S.$13.2 million—is currently funding expeditions to the Puerto Rico Trench and the Pacific Ring of Fire, among others.

The recent voyage in the Gulf of Alaska followed a string of a half-dozen underwater volcanoes, or seamounts—30 million-year-old peaks with dramatic cliffs and even more dramatic inhabitants.

Oceanography can be expensive. Renting the 274-foot (83.5-meter) research vessel Atlantis—and the famed submersible Alvin, which located the Titanic—costs about U.S.$30,000 per day. In the Gulf of Alaska the Atlantis carried about 50 passengershalf scientists and half crew.

Part of the motivation for the researchers is that the Atlantis ventures into the unknown.

Continued on Next Page >>


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