Gathering the bay's mysteries
Researchers scan, scour the ocean by remote control
By DENNIS MORAN
All those kids shouting "Wow, cool!" at Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibits have kindred spirits in the researchers who collect the specimens and explore the depths of the bay.
They certainly have kindred vocabularies when it comes to their favorite deep subjects.
"Wow, that's cool! A snailfish," said Veronica Franklin, 33-year-old senior aquarist, during a mission last week to collect a few exotic invertebrates for the aquarium's "Mysteries of the Deep" exhibit, which Franklin oversees.
Franklin and a few colleagues were sitting in a darkened room aboard the research vessel Point Lobos when the snailfish, some 2,800 feet below, swam in front of a camera attached to the deep-sea submersible Ventana, which sent live video back to the ship. Operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the Point Lobos was 15 miles out of its Moss Landing berth, over Monterey Bay's deep-sea canyon.
Staring at a high-resolution monitor, Franklin looked for the species she came to collect but found many wonders to explore along the way. Among those were a starfish caught in the act of snagging and eating a small fish and a sponge covered with translucent filetail catshark eggs, clearly showing the yolks within but with no embryos yet visible.
"Look at that! Wow! You can barely see the sponge anymore," Franklin said.
"That's really cool," said Ventana pilot Mark Talkovic, using a control stick to angle the craft for a closer look.
"Very cool," Franklin replied. "There must be dozens of sharks laying (eggs) here."
Many "wows" and "cools" later, the crew had their animals: predatory tunicates -- a sort of Venus' Flytrap of the deep -- and pink pom-pom sea anemones, which look like the kind thrown about by high school cheerleaders.
"Mysteries of the Deep" opened in 1999 and has offered aquarium visitors the world's first living display of most of the bay's 50-plus species, which are collected from waters as deep as 3,300 feet. The popular exhibit closes in September.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is in a unique position to collect and present deep-sea creatures, sitting as it does on the edge of the Monterey Canyon, which plunges to depths of more than two miles within 70 miles of shore. Within Monterey Bay itself, the canyon is about a mile deep from rim to floor -- as deep and steep as the Grand Canyon.
That nearness of deep-sea habitats is why the bay is ringed with so many research facilities, including the aquarium's sister organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. With its two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), including the Ventana, the institute explores a next-door frontier that scientists are still unraveling.
The Monterey Canyon is "probably the best-observed sea floor in the world now," said Knute Brekke, senior ROV pilot for the institute. "But only three-tenths of 1 percent of the canyon's area has been visually observed."
Collecting specimens for the aquarium is only an occasional sideline for the Ventana and its mother ship, the Point Lobos. The Ventana, in service since 1987, dives into the canyon 175 days a year on a variety of scientific missions that are booked a year in advance, Brekke said.
Looking like a Star Wars android, the Ventana is a tangle of hydraulic tubes, wires, propellers, mechanical arms and cameras, topped by an orange shell. Altogether its parts are worth about $1.5 million, Brekke says, including a $250,000 high-resolution main camera. The tether to the mother ship contains five power cables and eight optic fibers.
The Ventana's main mechanical arm has seven movement functions in its shoulder, elbow, wrist and claw. Controlling that arm from up to 6,200 feet away -- the Ventana's maximum depth -- "I can take a penny out of your hand, then I can fold the penny in half," Brekke said.
The Ventana is operated by "pilots" who "fly" it. Those terms seem natural because the craft hovers and maneuvers like a helicopter, Brekke said.
And yes, flying it is pretty cool. Brekke and Talkovic, the two pilots on board for last week's collection dive, were absorbed in the challenges of delicately excising the tunicates and anemones from their perches and placing them in the Ventana's specimen drawer.
"This is probably the best video game you can get," said aquarist Alan Young, looking on.
The "Mysteries of the Deep" exhibit took 10 years of research to determine which creatures are feasible to display. For example, aquarium-goers need at least a bit of light to see the displays, but the creatures are accustomed to a world of complete darkness. Even the relatively dim lighting of the exhibit takes its toll on some creatures, Franklin said, and some are rotated out of the exhibit and put into dark tanks.
The intense water pressure of the deep is another difference that the aquarium displays can't replicate.
"We can't bring everything we see up because a lot of the animals can't handle the change in pressure," Franklin said.
But thanks to the Ventana, they can sure gawk at them in their native habitat. At times during last week's excursion the actual collecting seemed almost an afterthought between spells of excited observations of eelpouts, sea cucumbers, rockfish, squid and many other species.
And the excitement wasn't limited to the deep. On the way to the dive spots, Point Lobos Captain Bill Wardle made a point of announcing the presence of dolphins and whales spotted along the way.
"I told you we'd see whales today," Franklin said to a colleague, with a wide smile.
I've seen the tunicate, they look alot like Venus Flytraps, except they eat fish. [img]http://www.**********.com/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif[/img]