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8.25.04

Exploring Corals of the Aleutian Seas
Researchers tune in to deepsea corals
Part 2: In the 'Control Van'

By Sonya Senkowsky

Most days Jason II was in the water, it was standing-room only in Jason II’s “Deep Submergence Team Control Van” a small, windowless room filled with TV monitors, the hum of machinery and the chatter of scientists watching the tube.

They weren’t watching just any TV, of course, but the live feed from thousands of feet below on the ocean floor, courtesy of the remotely operated vehicle Jason II, which is tethered to the ship and controlled from this room.

On one night when I drop in, the Jason’s technical team is directing the vessel along the ocean floor more than a mile below. In the center of the dark room, illuminated mainly by video and computer terminals, NOAA fishery biologist Jon Heifetz sits holding a control box—the control for the “science cam.” A joystick allows the scientist in charge of each dive to zoom in on interesting sights below.

Looking as rapt as a teenager playing a video game, Heifetz’s eyes are glued to the screen as his hand works the controls. He erupts in occasional exclamations: “Ooh. Basket star!”

The many-armed sea star, looking like a pink tangle, blurs and jumps off and on-screen as Heifetz adjusts the zoom. Then, suddenly it is distinct and clear: another bizarre deep-sea denizen caught for posterity. “Got him!” says the researcher with satisfaction.

Though it was possible to watch the video from other parts of the ship, this room, filled with monitors, is the place to get the best view. Though the temperature was in the 40s outside, this room quickly became crowded and warm. But the extra observers were more than rubber-neckers. Every observer can use computer-based controls to “log” what they see and snap freeze-frame pictures of anything interesting.

By the end of two weeks, the team of 12 biologists and geologists onboard to study corals (and another five geologists using the ROV to conduct unrelated research) had snapped more than 10,000 still images and logged days’ worth of video.

What can researchers tell from the images?

Plenty, says marine geologist Gary Greene, head of the Center for Habitat Studies at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and one of the developers of the method this team is using to create a “habitat map” by combining information gained from sonar maps of the ocean’s floor with the observations from videos. Greene explained what he and other researchers looked for:

“Is the bottom covered with mud, and do burrows and tracks of organisms disturb this mud?” Mounds and holes in the mud indicate that food and life is plentiful, Greene said. “Another thing I look for is the condition of the sediment,” he added. “Is it rippled like a river or stream floor?” This and other clues indicate strong currents, which can carry nutrients.

Get audio, video and movies from the cruise, including images from the Control Van and a movie of Jason II at work.

Anchorage science writer Sonya Senkowsky is the editor of Alaska Science Outreach (www.alaskascienceoutreach.com). She spent two weeks aboard the R/V Roger Revelle (July 24-Aug. 8) with a team of coral researchers; her time aboard was supported by the North Pacific Research Board and the NOAA Undersea Research Program.

Related Sites

Cruise Web site

Alaska Fisheries Science Center cruise coverage

Cruise slide show


STORY PARTS

Part 1: Seafloor TV gets a good reception
Part 2: In the 'Control Van'
Part 3: Discovery
Part 4: Face to face with the Deep

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