Impressions of an Expedition

Off Western Grand Bahama Island, Day 4, 1999Predive meeting aboard the RV Edwin Link

Today must go like clockwork. Three dives are scheduled along with the usual snorkeling trip to collect a variety of mollusks. The usual pre-dive meeting takes place at 7:45 am and the first dive gets off sharply at 8:00 am. Along with the dives, there remains quite a lot of laboratory work to be finished today, yet the team is relaxed and ready after completing six successful trips to the bottom.

Sub Pilot navigating the deep seaFor the first time we are over flat bottom just 1,400 feet below, like a great big frying pan. There are small, subtle rises on the floor--targets for today's launchings. The rises are like small oases of life surrounded by a biological desert. There is a "meadow" of stalked crinoids, all bent into the current, like flowers in a breeze, and a surprising variety of gastropods, crustaceans, fishes, seastars, corals, and sponges lying inside the edges. The team is looking for a third species of slitsnail called the Lucaya slitsnail (Perotrochus lucaya), named for the native Indians that inhabited the islands in precolumbian times. These snails are much smaller than the other two species collected and the only hope of finding them is by locating one of these small oases, so the team is really searching for two things. This last day turns out to be a bonanza. Lucayans, a variety of other mollusks, and crabs are recovered and the team is feeling awfully grateful for such a successful run.Lucaya shell

Lucaya shell* * *

We thought to leave you with our personal impressions of this trip, how each of us felt to be on this team, spending each day in the inky depths of the Atlantic, surrounded by the wonders of oceanic natural history

 

Dr. Jerry HarasewychDr. Jerry Harasewych, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Although I've had the great privilege of using submersibles in my research for nearly twelve years, each dive still inspires a sense of wonder. For a few hours we are transported into a very different world, where the animals look more like fossils from the age of dinosaurs than anything living in shallow water today. However, the similarities of these animals to fossils are deceiving. The DNA of slitsnails shows that they evolve at a much faster rate than most of their shallow water relatives! Each dive produces samples that require weeks and months of analysis and study in the laboratory at the museum. The results will answer many mysteries about the history of the earth and its life forms while raising new questions. We have barely scratched the surface. There is much for future generations of scientists to discover.

 

Dr. José LealDr. José Leal, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, Sanibel, Florida

Thanks to cutting-edge research tools such as the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link I, we had the rare opportunity of observing and studying deep-sea mollusks in their otherwise inaccessible natural habitat. Our incursions into the Bahamian waters combined the thrill and anticipation of good scientific investigation with the powerful impression created by the eerie deep-sea scenery.

I have been a marine biologist for over 25 years, but this was the first time I visited the deep-sea floor aboard a research submersible. Close inspection of the steep walls and rolling hills at the bottom helped me interpret and bring together bits of information about deep-sea life that I had stashed in my mind. My vision of the deep-sea, and of the entire ocean for that matter, has changed after the enlightening experience of six submersible dives!

 

Dr. Patrick GillevetDr. Patrick Gillevet, George Mason University, Manassas, Virginia

Personally, the Slitsnail Expedition was an unqualified success for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the cruise and the opportunity to travel into the innner space of mother earth aboard the Johnson Sea Link I. Even for a scuba instructor as myself, it was a fascinating voyage into an unfamiliar realm from which new evidence may turn some familiar paradigms of biology upside down.

We should remember that all life on the planet originated from the ocean. To study the molecular evolution of marine life is to study the molecular evolution of ourselves.

Scientifically, the expedition was more successful than any of us anticipated. Considering the close call we had with Hurricane Irene, we were extremely fortunate to have such a successful cruise. We obtained numerous specimens from various families of marine gastropods, especially the Pleurotomaria family. The Pleurotomaria specimens will be used to characterize this ancient family at both the phenotypic and molecular level . The mitochondrial DNA from these and other specimens will be used to sequence mitochondrial genomes of the various marine gastropod familes. The data will be used to attempt to resolve the deep branches in the molluscan phylogenetic tree. We have months of work ahead of us to process the samples and analyze the data we have collected. We also have enough of the Pleurotomaria secretion to analyze the chemical structure of it's components and to investigate the pharmacological effects of these components.

There was one disturbing observation that we all made on the trip. That is the death of the coral reefs all over the Bahamas. It is an example of what is happening all over the world. Every where we went, the deep coral reefs were dead or dying. It is not clear what is the cause, whether it is from global warming or from anthropogenic (man-made) causes. In fact, many scientist have hypothesized that numerous global environmental factors are acting together to kill the coral reefs around the world. We have samples from the dying coral as well as water and sediment samples from various depths. Hopefully we can use the molecular tools we have at hand to try to probe and elucidate the effects of these environmental processes on the marine biota. Maybe then we can begin to understand the processes of this inner biosphere that supports all life on the planet, and only then is there hope of saving the coral reefs of the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed the comraderie aboard the RV Edwin Link. The ship and submersible crew were very accomodating and went out of their way to make us feel at home and assist in all aspects of the expedition. I would particularly like to thank Captain G. Gunther for an excellent job and for teaching us all a little bit about seamanship and navigation. I was delighted to make the aquaintence of Will and Harold from the Bailey-Mathews Shell Museum. We had delightful discussions on topics from molecular evolution to politics. It was a pleasure meeting Robert, Steve, Peter, and Chip and I would like to thank them for their excellent job documenting the expedition for the Smithsonian Institute as well as their stimulating discussions and interest in our research projects. Finally, it was a pleasure working with my research colleagues, Jerry and José. I look forward to many more years of scientific collaboration and many more trips to new marine habitats with them.

Chip ClarkRoy Clark, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Over the years I have noticed that scientists are intensely passionate about their research (as I am about my photography). I'm honored to participate in their adventures, but with this privelege I feel the responsibility for creating lots of great images. Ultimately, my images will comprise the greater portion of the visual documentation of this voyage; I am their eyes... and yours, too . . . but even with the responsibility, it's still a great deal of fun! Making a submersible dive is an incredible experience! Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution has created a technological marvel by designing, constructing and operating an exploration vehicle to routinely carry people into the frigid darkness and crushing pressures half a mile below the ocean's surface. And they've done it with style! The sphere is the ultimate front row seat! My thanks to the scientists, Drs. José Leal, Pat Gillevet, and especially Jerry Harasewych for inviting me along, and my gratitude to Will and Harrold (with several lifetimes worth of stories between them), from Sanibel Island's Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, for making it possible for all of us. I tried to capture some of the excitement of the moment; I hope my photographs are to your liking! My thanks to Don Liberatore, submersible pilot extraordinare, who patiently endured questions and overcrowding in the sphere with me (I'm twice José's mass and volume) and my two armloads of camera equipment. My greatest thanks to Captain George Gunther and the crews of the Research Vessel Edwin Link and the Johnson Sea-Link I submersible (a delightful collection of characters!), all consummate professionals (so good at what they do, they make it look easy). I wish you all fine sailing and good diving!

Steven PappasSteven Pappas, Department of Education, Washington, DC

Traveling to the oceanic frontier, and participating in the Joys of Research and Discovery, has been marvelous, truly. In some ways this expedition is a story deeply embedded in human culture, a story of searching, moving, and carefully observing the world around us, a story about connections and relationships. Not exactly roaming and nomadism, though not entirely removed from the deep human psyche that must account for the questing spirit. That said, I have learned a great deal about the concepts of science from which the work of the expedition is dependent, and I have come to realize how my pre-expedition ideas of those concepts were really not adequate. I account for that by pondering the tremendous advancements in the fields of Biology during the last quarter of the 20th century, and the precision, indeed the maturity, of concepts central to the Life Sciences. How eye-opening this has been. How interesting to understand the natural world within the scientific framework of a set of interrelating concepts. The ultimate value of studies such as the ones carried out by the Research Team is both unknown, and inestimable. One might ask how these studies will contribute to, say, the health of the oceans, or human health, or any number of other issues relevant to people. Since the answer is one of probability, that is to say that not all such studies will contribute appreciably, only some will, and since we cannot very well predict which ones will pay off, it is best to have a healthy number of scientific research programs going on, knowing that some will have great benefit. However, there is another class of scientific outcomes that enrich our lives, and these contribute to the intellectual legacy of cultural continuity. Fundamentally, science has written big stories, stories such as our understanding of the solar system, the nature of matter, energy, and Earth and life history. While the personal relevance of such stories is different for different people and cultures, the tradition of science which created the legacy must be preserved and nurtured for all that it has accomplished.

Robert CostelloRobert Costello, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Nothing could have prepared me for the spatial-visual experience of deep-sea diving, not seafloor maps, or even video. I have been places where I didn't know the names of things, where everything was familiar and new at the same time, but until I entered the undersea world in the submersible, I had never experienced place so unfamiliar, even if I do know the names of things. The animals were hardly disturbed by the 13 ton sub, she suspends and moves so quietly, that I thought of dodo birds unafraid at first contact. As a graduate student in Anthropology, I kept a saltwater tank in the office and was never more in my element than when writing up research, the classical music playing, and jellyfish pulsing by, high above traffic in the middle of Manhattan. That was merely a Lilliputian mock-up of what we experienced on this trip. Of course it is the science that takes this experience beyond the visual, aesthetic, and novel. The science is what gives us a way to make sense of these experiences. As a way of knowing, science raises the level of experience in the natural world.

I would like to thank the Harbor Branch ship and sub crews for all of their hard work and pleasant dispositions, and for a safe trip. To Jerry Harasewych, José Leal and Pat Gillevet, my gratitude for sharing your work and being good sports. Thanks to Steven Pappas and Chip Clark for the good company and for making my job easier, possible even, and the craftsmanship better. And to Harold Tovell and Will Schlosser, thank you both for adding intellectual depth, graciousness and good humor.

Harold M. M. Tovell, M.D.Harold M. M. Tovell, M.D., Trustee, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, Sanibel, Florida

As a physician, I have always maintained an active interest in the natural sciences, going so far as visiting the antipodes on Earth, the Antarctic continent and the Arctic archipelago. Having the opportunity to observe the ecological differences in these two extremes of latitude, in both the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, was thrilling. Being one of the observers on this expedition to the deep waters of the Caribbean was equally inspiring, and it has been a priviledge.

Being there, as deep-sea specimens were off-loaded from the submersible and placed into tanks in the ship's laboratory, was an exciting experience mixed with the glory of a successful dive and the anticipation of scientific investigation. Some of the specimens were well-known species, but some had yet to be identified and were potentially new species. I found the milky-white substance aspirated from the slitsnails especially intriguing for possible pharmacological or therapeutic agents.

Finally, a word or two about the state-of-the-art between the Mother ship and its two submersibles. At all times, Captain George Gunther was most willing to graciously demonstrate the operation of the Edwin Link. Steered by a pommel, (circa 5"), the ship was at all times in verbal communication with the summerged vessel through a second officer sitting behind the Captain. The officer followed movements of the sub on a monitor and knew exactly where the sub was in relation to the ship. I was greatly impressed by all the equipment onboard ship, the scanning, tracking and navigating devices, the submersible and its life support systems, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and all the crew and team members. Altogether, I had a most joyful experience. When do we go again?

Wil SchlosserWil Schlosser, Trustee, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, Sanibel, Florida

As an engineer, I well appreciated the methods and machinery used to collect specimens on this cruise. Accomplishing ordinary tasks, such as collecting water samples and snails, at extraordinary depths with an array of equipment was absolutely fascinating to see. Some of the equipment we depended on, the collecting buckets on a rotary conveyor, and the water-vacuum attached to the collecting arm, were simple, yet ingenious examples of mechanical design. One piece of safety equipment I was happy to see sitting unused was the remote operating vehicle(ROV). Having the ROV onboard showed me how seriously safety was taken; it is like having a small backup rocket ship for an astronaut crew. All the marvelous equipment really extends what we can do, and know, and ensures that we have the opportunity to recover life, and discover the secrets of the deep ocean.

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Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History