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California and the West

Monterey Aquarium to Unveil Mysteries of the Deep

Biology: Scientists are gathering and studying animals from waters as far down as 3,000 feet. The display would be nation's first living deep-sea exhibit.

November 23, 1998|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY — From the dark and claustrophobic control room of the research vessel Point Lobos, pilot Stuart Stratton is having trouble locating a 5-inch invertebrate 1,200 feet below the ocean's surface.

As the ship pitches and rolls in heavy seas, Stratton is "flying"--steering an unmanned submarine by remote control through North America's largest underwater canyon. Furious rock music blasting over the cabin's sound system provides an unlikely soundtrack to the images of deep-sea fish swimming sluggishly across a bank of television monitors.

A pair of marine biologists peer at the screens, directing the pilots to maneuver the submarine toward their prey. Far below, the 7,000-pound camera-and-claw machine skims gracefully over rocks and coral.

Today's catch will bring the team close to putting the finishing touches on the nation's first-ever large-scale public display of creatures living so far below the ocean's waves that sunlight cannot reach them. It is due to open at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in March.

Until now, aquariums have almost always restricted their displays to easy-to-reach and easy-to-nurture animals that live in tide pools or a few hundred feet below sea level.

But if all goes as planned, Monterey's visitors will be able to see 40 to 50 species harvested from the floor, walls and deep waters of Monterey Canyon, 1,000 to 3,000 feet down. It is an effort that has cost the aquarium about $5 million and nearly a decade of research.

Across the nation, aquariums have watched the Monterey facility struggle with the myriad technical difficulties of mounting the display. They wait now to see how the public will respond.

"For research purposes and public education, it would be a tremendous breakthrough," says Michael Hutchin, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. in Silver Spring, Md.

In the last eight years, Gil Van Dykhuizen has led more than 40 expeditions to Monterey Canyon to chase deep-sea creatures through its inky black waters. The tiny animals almost never have been seen alive by anyone on dry land.

All other deep-sea exhibits are built around preserved specimens, videotapes and photographs, but there is "no living deep-sea exhibit," says Van Dykhuizen. "There's nothing in an aquarium that has been collected at 1,000 to 2,000 feet. That's beyond the realm of anybody."

Learning how to gather the animals, to keep them healthy and to display them has been an often frustrating process of trial and error, says project director Randy Kochevar, a research scientist.

"We had to write the book on this. Nobody had done this before," he says.

Because they are so inaccessible, no one knew much about the animals that have adapted to the extreme conditions in the deep sea. Just a century ago, scientists assumed life was impossible so far down. No sunlight penetrated, food was scarce, water pressure was enormous and temperatures hovered at 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

When animals were collected from great depths, it usually was by accident, when they were entangled in bottom-dragging fish nets. By the time they reached the surface, they were often dead or dying, killed by the changes in pressure and water temperature or just by being dragged.

Sustaining Life at Sea Level

On this most recent sea hunt eight miles off the coast, one of dozens, the team finds tunicates--a sort of deep-sea animal version of a Venus flytrap that is basically a mouth on a stem--but often can't pry their rocky perches free from the ocean floor. Each time a specimen is found, the pilots use one of the submarine's arms to bash the rock it is affixed to. They use the other arm, a steel claw padded with kitchen sponges--to carefully grasp the specimen and float it gently into a collection drawer.

One broken hydraulic line, a repair job and several hours later, just 14 animals, none bigger than a person's hand, are hauled to the surface. Van Dykhuizen stores them in picnic coolers filled with frigid seawater and seawater ice cubes. He is delighted.

"We got good diversity today," he says, picking through a collection that includes a pompom anemone, a basket starfish, sea cucumbers, mushroom corals and several tunicates. The voyage has cost $8,000.

When the aquarium and its sister facility, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, first started looking into the possibility of mounting a living deep-sea exhibit, the obstacles seemed nearly insurmountable.

The aquarium uses the research center's remote-controlled submarine to carefully harvest the creatures. Once able to collect living animals, the aquarium could experiment with how to prevent them from dying at sea level.

"The techniques that they have developed to keep these things alive are going to be very useful for biologists," says Richard Rosenblatt, a marine biologist with the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla.

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