Lab work can, at times, be a frantic dash between three projects that does not allow you a moment’s rest. It can also require long waits, such as when your GC-MS—Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer—reports a leak, rendering it inoperable for a few days. In the latter case, the imposed break can serve as a period of discovery where you further your knowledge of petroleum biomarkers or contently watch a live-feed of a scientific team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution exploring the Cayman Trench.
Needless to say, I chose to watch the live-feed.
The Cayman Trench, just off the coast of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, is one of the deepest parts of the Caribbean Sea. It is the product of a fault zone between divergent tectonic plates and is also home to several hydrothermal vents. These vents, at 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) below sea level, are some of the deepest yet discovered and have attracted multiple teams of scientists to explore the region (this particular team is at least the third to visit the site). To explore at these skull-crushing depths, the team employed an ROV—remotely operated vehicle—equipped with a reinforced titanium arm with a claw-like grip, specialized sample collectors, a high definition camera, a 27 kilometer fiber optic cable relay, and plastic milk cartons to safely store extra tools (yes, the cartons found in any middle-school).
But I digress. The ROV visited these vents to collect samples for us surface dwellers. At each vent, the submersible’s titanium arm would place a collection wand with a thermometer deep inside the vent to sample the recently ejected water and determine its chemical composition (the warmer the water, the more recently it was ejected, and therefore the less contaminated with normal sea water it is). The ROV would also take biological samples. The vents hosted a variety of micro and macro-organisms, including bio-luminescent shrimp that the ROV—in the name of science—would occasionally vacuum up.
No joke. Attached to the submersible was a long, transparent plastic hose, much like the one attached to your vacuum cleaner at home. This hose led to a collection tank, which needed to be filled with a few dozen shrimp from time to time—still for science. To collect these shrimp, the team would position the ROV’s arm, hose in hand, over an unlucky shrimp before turning on the suction. At this point, the shrimp was treated to the ride of its life before being deposited in the collection box with its brethren (all for our viewing pleasure). Frankly, this was hilarious and awesome to watch, especially since the shrimp were deceptively challenging to capture. An apt analogy would be the claw machine at your local grocery store, the one that dropped the toy repeatedly while whittling away your allowance. And honestly, I imagine the shrimp were just thinking “The Claw!” the whole time.
Before I conclude, I want to draw some attention to the Herculean effort these tasks—mundane at a cursory glance—require. Collecting a water sample directly from the vent at four hundred degrees, for instance, is deceptively challenging. The titanium arm, while elegant, lacks the flexibility and responsiveness of a human arm, and the HD cameras provide poor depth perception. It takes infinite patience on the controller’s part just to pick up a tool (a process of trial and error), let alone position a collection chamber in the middle of a black smoker. Compounding this challenge are the underwater currents and turbulence from the vent constantly bombarding the ROV; standing still requires constant effort, and the team has to respond from over 5000 meters away. And don’t forget the fiber optic cable trailing the ROV, which could be cut by the rotor on the ROV or accidentally get melted in one of the five surrounding black smokers (did I forget to mention one dive was into a field of vents?).
Despite these challenges and handicaps, the team expertly guided the submersible, patiently performing each collection with expert precision. It serves as a humbling reminder to the Undergrad struggling to grip a sample with his or her forceps to not complain. Things could be worse…so much worse.
Well, I’m going to end this entry here, since I want to go back to watching the live-feed. Tune in next week, wherein the author reports on his own results and proves he is not just watching TV all summer.
Oh! Here are some links for relevant sites! You too can watch a shrimp’s incredible journey through a vacuum, or learn why it’s necessary, or just about the expedition to the Cayman Rise in general (as well as upcoming voyages).