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.
As with most of the exhibit’s 50 or so species, you won’t find predatory tunicates on display anywhere else in the world-all other aquariums collect critters closer to the surface. It took 10 years of research and design to develop the black tanks, gel lamps, chilling units, oxygen-reducing pumps, and know-how that keep the deep-sea animals alive. And they’ve made some startling discoveries in the process. Before the exhibit opened in March 1999, for example, no one knew that the male spotted ratfish uses an organ on its forehead to latch onto the female during a particularly energetic copulation. “Daily observations help us piece together a story,” says Franklin, the aquarium’s senior aquarist. “It’s a rare glimpse into what’s out there-akin to exploring the moon.”
Access to MBARI’s high-tech equipment is just one factor that makes the exhibit possible, and possibly not the most important one. At least as vital is the unique underwater geography of Monterey Bay. Starting just a few hundred meters off shore, the sea floor fissures into an underwater canyon, reaching depths of up to 2 miles and stretching a mile from rim to rim. It’s one of the few places on Earth with such depths so close to land, and it gives scientists a rare opportunity to bring deep-sea specimens home alive.
Before heading back to shore we make a last stop, for gorgonians-colorful stick-like corals with stinging polyps and a penchant for brine shrimp. We gather our quota quickly, which gives me the chance to make a collection of my own. Ignoring a black cod and a flapjack octopus, I nab a more docile sulfur sponge and throw it in the collection bin. Mysteries of the Deep will run until September 2003, so you have plenty of time to check out my sponge. It’s yellow, doesn’t move much, and looks a little beat-up. You can’t miss it.