April 18, 2006

The Ocean is a Desert

One cold November afternoon I ventured out to the Pryor Mountains to look for mule deer. It was hunting season and I had put in and drawn for the area just north of Lovell, Wyoming. As usual I had left late, with no exact plan in mind. With my sleeping bag on the cab floor of my old ford pickup, I had told my wife that I might not return until the next day. Bouncing around the back roads scouting for deer, the day turned to night. After failing to see deer I decided to scope them out in the dawning hours of the morning. There was no need to return to Billings, so I laid my sleeping bag out in the back of my truck to call it a night. It was icy nose cold but exceptionally clear. I remember looking up into the nighttime sky and seeing more stars than anytime in my life. There was no interference from man-made lights, no cars, no sound, just silence and the stars. This is the type of solitude you can still find in Montana and Wyoming with such open expanses and few people. Ssshh!! don't tell anyone. It was in my schema that few places like this exist. Places where one can reach such isolation. I was miles from the nearest town and likely the nearest person. Being on the ocean has changed my perception.

The ocean is a desert; solitude well beyond the places Edward Abbey eloquently described. This part of the ocean is devoid of anything on the surface beyond the occasional sailing cnidarian, exhausted bird, or flying fish. The farthest a person can see a ship on the ocean is 7 to 9 miles for small vessels and up to 16 miles for larger boats before it disappears over the horizon. In the last eight days I have seen only 3 vessels. One was a massive freighter leaving Charleston the evening of our first day. Two days ago we saw a sail break the horizon. It was a speck of white on the horizon. Apparently the sailing vessel was the ABN AMRO One, the lead boat in the Volvo Ocean Race from South America to Baltimore. We rushed to deck to get a glimpse only to be let down by its miniscule presentation. And today it was a small capsized dingy. The boat was about 18 ft. long with no sign of life, just adrift upside down, a mystery not to be solved. We stopped the ship to take a look then moved on. I wondered what story the little boat held in secret. How did it get out here? The closest land is Bermuda some 200 miles away. With the oceans covering the majority of the world and so few people traveling on their waters at anytime, this is truly the most desolate place, next to the poles where people rarely venture, on the planet. I sat on the bow tonight and gazed at the stars. They were not quite as clear as the Pryor's show, but the lights of the ship were causing some interference. I could imagine shutting down the noisy engines and letting the ship come to a stop on the water. The only sound would be the waves slapping the side of the boat and no other man-made disturbance beyond the boat would hinder the serenity. Other than the 60-some odd people aboard, there is not another soul for miles. We are on the eastern edge of the Bermuda triangle and smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

While in the middle of nowhere I spent some time on deck watching the flying fish leap from the water. Their glimmering bodies and vibrating motion reminded me of iridescent hummingbirds in the filtered sunlight of the forest. These little torpedoes are intriguing to watch. They dart out the water like arrows and glide for 10 or 20 meters. Not satisfied with the distance, they can accelerate by using the elongated half of their dorsal fin in the water to propel themselves along. From my observations they can double their time out of the water by using these modified fins. The other highlight of the day was attending seminar. Three of the researchers presented talks. The three talks focused on the following: creating a web based catalog for ostracod species distributions, developing RFLP(Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism) to identify Calanoid copepods, and the process of using silhouette photography to quantify zooplankton. I found each talk quite interesting. We are currently still on route to station 3. The water is warmer, with a little more sargasum floating by. We should reach our destination around 6 am tomorrow. There, we will do a 5000m deep tow using the MOC 10 net. We have already pulled up some wicked deepwater fish including an anglerfish that I now possess in an alcohol filled jar. It will soon be part of our preserved organism collection. I look forward to the activity and duties the next station will bring.

Daily question: These organisms utilize harpoon-like organs called nematocysts to capture prey. They are also closely related to coral. What phylum does the organism in picture one belong? What class of animals does it belong to?


Picture 1: Marine zooplankton organism.
(Photo from www.CoML.org/Images and Video)

Picture 2: A doliolid nurse from CMarZ census.

Picture 3: Foraminaphores from CMarZ census.