Aliens of the Deep
THE “WOW” FACTOR:
LIVING THE ADVENTURE
“When you walk up to the submersible before the dive, it looks big and sturdyyou get comfortable and relaxed. And then the day comes for your dive,” says Figueroa.
“You get in and your adrenaline is pumping and they close the hatch and everything goes quiet. And that’s when you realize:
‘I’m about to go down 3,600 metersover 4,000 pounds per square inch of pressure pushing in on usin this submarine, in this huge ocean.’And then it doesn’t feel like the sub is so big anymore.
“When you dive down, as you go deeper and deeperbelow 2,500 metersit’s cold,” Figueroa continues.
“Everyone puts on parkas and hoods and hats and gloves. And that’s when you realize something else: you’ve put all your faith and trust in people who are telling you that this sub is safe so you can go down to the bottom of the sea and do this science, and you do it because the animals live down there and it’s your job to check it out. Every dive, I had that experienceuncomfortable and maybe just a little afraid of what might happenand it was always worth it to me.”
“On every dive, there’s a ‘wow’factor,” says Cameron. “There’s always something popping up that you couldn’t imagine. On one memorable dive, the two subs were descending together and we were looking at each other through the viewports, when all of a sudden, an enormous Humboldt squid attacked our lightsblocked out the other sub, right in front of us. Our first reaction was, ‘Whoa!’and our second reaction was, ‘That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
Cameron filmed the adventure with his Reality Camera System (RCS), the revolutionary 3-D camera system first used to film Cameron’s expedition to the Titanicfor “Ghosts of the Abyss.”
The lightweight RCS embraces digital technology and allows Cameron to shoot for hours at a time and go where no large-format camera could go before due to its sizebreaking the two primary impediments to large-format filmmaking. Cameron was able to get up close and personal with the marine life using a “bot” or ROV (Remote-Operated Vehicle), which could go where the larger submersibles couldn’t.
The director’s brother, Mike Cameron, designed the bot, nicknamed Jake, which was first tested inside the wreck of the Titanicin “Ghosts of the Abyss.” Going to some of the most exotic locations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Cameron and the scientists discovered breathtaking animal life and geologic formations unlike any to be seen on the surface.
One such location was Lost City, where, Cameron says, some of the geologic structures have grown to heights of 300 feet. “Most of the hydrothermal vent chimneys we explored were powered by magma chambers within the Earth,” notes the director.
“Those chimneys are very hot and very active. They can grow several meters a year and topple over quite often.
The chimneys at Lost City, however, are powered by a chemical reaction between the sea water and exposed mantle rock, an exothermic reaction similar to the handwarmer packets used by skiers.
So it’s a much slower process. The chimneys at Lost City are estimated to be at least 30,000 years old.” Another memorable location was Snake Pit, a hydrothermal vent site where the explorers saw, in Cameron’s words, “acres and acres of blind shrimp just churning within the black smoke of the vent fluid, trying to get at the nutrients that are pouring up out of the Earth. They look like volcanoes or smokestacks and the water was super hotif we’d gone in there with the sub it would have melted our viewports, and yet these shrimp were loving it.”
Some of the strangest animals studied by the team were seen southwest of Mexico, at the 9 North Site on the East Pacific Rise.
“We saw these amazing tubeworms,” says Cameron. “Their ‘feet’where they’re attached to the ocean floorare in freezing water. And their other ends, the plumes, are in very hot water150 degrees Fahrenheit. How can they possibly live under those conditions? They live in a temperature extreme we can’t imagine, but they’ve adapted.”
In the Guaymas Basin in the Sea of Cortez, the team literally ran into some hot water. “We saw these ‘pagoda’ structures,” remembers Cameron. “The hot water rises up, hits an overhang, and it can form a flat surface of hot water that looks like a lake. If you get down below, you can see a reflection, like in a surface of a lake, because of the temperature difference.
“Well, these things were 20 feet across. From above, they looked like giant mushrooms. Absolutely the most bizarre and gorgeous formations we saw throughout the expedition, and to our knowledge, they had never been imaged before.”
For the scientists, the deep-sea dives were a great opportunity to get out of the lab and into the field. Though Conrad’s workdesigning and building her “life detection” instrument was completed before she joined the expedition, the astrobiologist relished the opportunity to dive and see the results of her hard work in action (even though, at times, she seemed like a nervous parent).
“I dove three times and took our fancy-dancy optical instrument to the bottom of the sea. I bit my fingernails and hoped it didn’t blow up, explode, implode, or do otherwise unsavory things,” Conrad laughs.
“I had nine divesfour in the Atlantic, and five in the Pacific,” says Hand. “When you first reach the bottom of the ocean, usually all you see are rocks and maybe some sediment, and that’s it. Then you start cruising along the bottom to get to the hydrothermal vent site. It takes a bit of searching and it’s quite exciting, because the anticipation of seeing the vents builds as you soar along the seafloor.
As you get closer and closer to the vents, you start seeing life some crabs, some fish, anemoneuntil you get there and it’s just a tornado of lifejust flourishing. It’s an incredible amount of activity. That was my favorite part of each divethe approach to each site; it was like approaching the top of a mountain and being awestruck by the magnificent view.”