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Run Silent, Run Deep--Exploring the Underwater Depths in a Minisub : Offshore Canyon Is Yielding Its Secrets to Research Scientists

September 06, 1985|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

MONTEREY, Calif. — Imagine for a moment that someone proposes a daring exploration of the Grand Canyon that will rely entirely on a small, one-person helicopter, operating in a blizzard at night with lights that penetrate only 15 to 20 feet, hovering in the darkness for three or four hours at a time.

Crude though that might seem, though, the imaginary scientists behind this project quickly point out that the tentative helicopter descents are far superior to the only previously known--if fictitious--means of exploring the reaches of the canyon. For years, scientists have relied on flying above it in a small plane that tows a butterfly net on a long cable to collect whatever may be flying in the canyon air at the moment.

Ridiculous? Improbable?

Bigger and Deeper

Aboard the Research Vessel Wecoma at sea 7.4 miles off Monterey, precisely the equivalent of the blizzard penetration by helicopter is occurring. Using the Deep Rover, a small, one-person submarine, members of a team of researchers are descending, for the first time, 2,000 feet into the middle of the Monterey Canyon--essentially the underwater equivalent of the Grand Canyon, except that this one is bigger, deeper and far more mysterious.

The dives began two weeks ago and will conclude in mid-September--marking the first attempt ever made to explore on scene the life forms that inhabit the canyon, whose walls begin their sheer drop less than a mile off Moss Landing on Monterey Bay and continue, sweeping into the ocean in a huge sort of S-curve, 60 miles out to sea, reaching a depth of as much as 14,000 feet.

A small deep-diving submarine piloted by geologists of the U.S. Geological Survey made, in two brief attempts, a tentative exploration of the rock formations at the very head of the canyon off Moss Landing a decade ago. But the Deep Rover project now under way represents the first time biologists have had access to the canyon to try to determine what life forms live in it and how they survive.

Deep Rover is diving with a sophisticated television camera aboard that will produce more than 100 hours of videotape footage eventually to be turned into an educational exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium here and a documentary to be aired initially by the British Broadcasting Corp. and perhaps later on network American television.

Among the discoveries that have already emerged is confirmation of a theory first espoused by UC Santa Barbara marine biologist Bruce Robison--project director of the canyon exploration here--that the amount and diversity of ocean life throughout the world may far exceed what scientists have heretofore believed.

Undercount of species

The vast undercount of both species and the sheer volume in which they exist has occurred, according to Robison, because marine biologist have based previous projections on net-dragging techniques--the equivalent to dragging the butterfly net behind a plane through the Grand Canyon. In these experiments, scientists tow nets 1,500 feet or more below the surface of the bay in hopes of sampling life there.

But Robison has long contended that the netting technique destroys creatures that are caught and, more important, that the denizens of the oceans are smart and alert enough to largely avoid being caught, anyway. Robison got initial confirmation of that, he said, in a series of more primitive deep dives off Santa Barbara in the last two years.

In the canyon, however, Robison said in an interview aboard the Wecoma between dives this week, what has been encountered so far is enough to make it seem increasingly probable that existing estimates of the volume of marine life in the seas may be a tenth or less than what actually exists there. If what he believes proves to be true on any scale throughout the world, there is at least the potential that Robison's findings could have significant implications for the ability of marine food sources to satisfy the needs of mankind.

For the moment, though, this direct application of the theory to feeding people remains tentative and unestablished--pending many more years of research in places far afield of the canyon here.

An illustration of the theory, though, sits in a plastic pail aboard the Wecoma. Researchers have unceremoniously placed in storage for eventual display in the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row, several tiny, 3-inch octopuses of a species seldom seen in deep netting exploration of the canyon. But on several of Deep Rover's dives so far, Robison and researcher Jose Torres, of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, have each encountered huge numbers of the little creatures, tentatively identified as a species called Oxythoe tuberculata .

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