Friday, November 6, 2009
Passing the baton
Position at 13h00 EDT – Approaching Grand Cayman
Lat: 19° 09’N Long: 081° 29’W
Water depth: <2000m
So we are on our way home. Soon after I posted my last blog yesterday the weather turned against us and rose above 20 knots where it has stayed ever since. Indeed, Steve and I even saw gusts over 40 knots at our last CTD station when we got up around 2am to do that final shift. Needless to say that meant the chance of a final Nereus dive to our vent site today never happened. Even the idea of using our small grab became a non-issue because of safety. Actually, that was probably a good thing.
When I thought of that idea last afternoon it was as a chief scientist for this particular project, wanting to get the best possible samples for my various colleagues aboard ship. But then there is the bigger picture:– working in the deep ocean, this project included, is an international collaboration that isn’t ever finished with a single cruise. Considering that what we had found at the bottom of the Mid Cayman Rise may be a quite unique habitat, what might have been more irresponsible than lowering a sampling system in amongst it, blind? Far better to wait until circumstances (e.g. funded research projects, favorable weather) will allow us (as in the collective “us” of the international research community) to do the job properly.
This is what various programs that I have been involved with in the past decade - including the Census of Marine Life and InterRidge, both of which have been very supportive of our work – strive to achieve. So while it would have been wonderful to achieve everything we hoped for in less than 4 weeks on station here, in this first program, what we have already done is prove (a) that there is actually hydrothermal activity present and waiting to be investiagted and (b) localized key target areas from the blank canvas we started with (2000 sq km) to some very precise targets on the seabed. We’ve also proven that – on the days that the weather allows – the technology now exists to send our new Nereus robot vehicle to great depths and observe the seafloor from a much smaller research ship than had ever previously been possible. We think that must already be a world record in its own right.
Of course, that does still leave some major research questions unanswered. From the seawater samples we collected yesterday we will be able to make quite accurate predictions of the types of hydrothermal venting that wait be visited on the seafloor – but nothing about their biology. Happily, it probably won’t be long before those questions, too, get answered. Informed by what we have learned here, two new research cruises will be returning to the same area in 2010, the first in just a few months from now. This time next year, Jon Copley – who will be taking over from me as InterRidge Co-Chair on Jan 1st 2010– will be leading a cruise from the National Oceanography Center, Southampton to dive to the MCR using Isis – the sister vehicle to WHOI’s better known ROV Jason. But before that, Doug Connelly (you’ll remember him from Leg 1) will be back here next April on a precursor cruise as part of that same project, picking up where we left off. You can be sure that all of us from this team will be doing all we can, whether ashore or at sea, to help support that program – just as Jon, Doug and their colleagues have been so supportive of our cruise this year. So don’t be surprised if you pick up this thread again, somewhere in the blogosphere, before too long. But before that, Jon, Doug and I will all be off on a different (but closely related) adventure – off to the Antarctic next January to dive on new vent-sites we have already tracked down on a similarly isolated stretch of mid-ocean ridge, down there.
So now, as I sign off, I just want to pay tribute to you the readers (both of you?) and, especially, everyone it has been my pleasure to sail with on this trip. Mark (Chief Enginer) paid us the great compliment this morning of telling me and Andy that he had never in his 18 years at sea enjoyed such a combination of good humored, well-motivated and professional research throughout such a long cruise. I can’t take credit for that – I’m just the chief cheerleader – but I do want to echo the sentiment. It has been a great privilege for me to come out here and (i) work with the Nereus engineers as they put their new robot through its paces, (ii) share with my international research colleagues as we have made a series of REALLY cool scientific discoveries (specially considering I thought there was only a 50:50 chance that the MCR might host any hydrothermal activity in the first place) and (iii) achieve all the above in the fantastic environment provided by Captain Dale and his crew whose support, dedication and interest in our work has made all the difference to what we have managed to get done. The RV Cape Hatteras truly has lived up to its reputation as “the little ship that can” and I hope I soon get the chance to sail with her again.