Stop!" shouts Veronica Franklin, pointing to a video monitor. "There's one right there." Nudging his joystick forward, pilot Mark Talkovic guides the VW-Beetle-size submersible toward a silt-covered rock where a lone predatory tunicate stands slackjawed in the deep ocean current. It's the first item on today's shopping list, and it will make a fine addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's one-of-a-kind exhibit, Mysteries of the Deep.
I'm sitting in the control room of the Point Lobos research vessel, a converted oil supply ship operated by the aquarium's sister organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Video monitors, stacked floor to ceiling, detail the operation of the ship's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ventana 1,400 feet below, and provide a rare window into a world where oddball creatures thrive in freezing temperatures, low oxygen, high pressure, and complete darkness. And on this chilly summer dawn, it's our mission to bring a few of them home.
The submersible handles like a Neptunian helicopter, jostling back and forth in the ocean currents as Talkovic variously fires six thrusters to keep it steady. And then there's the fiber-optic and copper-wire umbilical cord, which streams data and control commands between the sub and the boat, to keep track of. But perhaps the biggest challenge is depth perception-an ROV pilot relies on a two-dimensional video feed to navigate in a three-dimensional environment. But Talkovic and his co-pilot, D.J. Osborne, make it look easy. Jumping into a chair next to Talkovic, Osborne grabs hold of the articulated joystick that controls the sub's robotic arm and deftly plucks the tunicate like a delicate wildflower. A powerful high-definition camera provides a stunning view of the transparent creature, which snatches its prey like an aquatic Venus flytrap. One down, six to go.