Unrivaled Submersible Pilot on a Life in the Deep

November 6, 2003

Dudley Foster has spent more time on the deep-ocean floor than anyone else on Earth. Since the 1970s, as a pilot of the famous submersible Alvin, he has dived 552 times around the world—near the Galápagos Islands, the Western Pacific, the East and West Coasts of the United States, the Bahamas, the Northern and Southern East Pacific Rise, around Hawaii's Loihi seamount, and the Titanic.

Foster travels with two scientists aboard, and over the years he has manipulated Alvin's robotic arms to collect thousands of samples and specimens from underwater frontiers—including the strange new life-forms discovered near hydrothermal vents along the Galápagos Rift in 1977. Foster, and Alvin, are based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Did you expect to find new life-forms along the Galápagos Rift?

Not at all. Below a few hundred meters (600 feet), there is almost no light and very few animals. We were on a geology cruise along the Galápagos Rift looking for different environments to study plate tectonics. We were following this valley when we saw these ridiculously large giant clams, about a foot (30 centimeters) long, and then these giant six-foot (two-meter) tube worms near this shimmering water. No one had ever seen anything like this before.

I knew that the Galápagos islands had a lot of unique species, but being a sci-fi fan of the 1950s and 1960s B-grade sci-fi movies I couldn't help but think that this was some lost valley of prehistoric life—like some isolated place where dinosaurs were still living.

You were also on the 1979 mission that discovered the "Black Smokers"?

This was yet another mission to study plate tectonics. We were following the East Pacific Rise off Mexico, with escarpments to our right and left, when we came upon these three-foot (one-meter) spires that had sooty stuff blasting out of them—it looked just like a locomotive belching black smoke.

We stuck a temperature probe held on PVC piping into the black smoke. The temperature shot to 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit), the limit of the probe, and as we found out later back on the boat it burnt the PVC—which takes temps of about 250° Celsius (480° Fahrenheit).

What is the significance of these smokers?

They reveal a lot about how mineral deposits on land may have been formed. We broke off one of these chimneys and brought it back to the ship. The inside and out were coated in minerals, some precious [like copper and gold]. These super hot fluids have all these minerals in them that precipitate on the chimney the second they hit the cold water.

What was your first scientific cruise?

1974—Project FAMOUS [French-American Mid-Ocean Underwater Studies]. We flew along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to explore theories of plate tectonics and continental drift. It was like flying through the Grand Canyon, the scenery is spectacular but it is all hard volcanic rock.

Continued on Next Page >>


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