July 20, 2009 Brian Cousin - @SEA Correspondent


After a timely departure from the dock and a smooth ride down the Indian River Lagoon, out through the Fort Pierce Inlet and into the Atlantic Ocean destined for Grand Bahama Island, the Research Vessel Seward Johnson made a U-turn and headed back in to pick up backups for a critical component in a life-support system.

This is not a system that any of the humans on board would have to worry about, but one that will keep the deep-sea animals collected in special thermo-insulated containers on a dive in the Johnson-Sea-Link cold and happy in the ships special Environmental Room.

A compressor in the cooling system for that facility is functioning irregularly and so we will take on alternate cooling units at Fort Pierce, before heading into Bahamian waters. The importance of keeping deep-sea animals at the same temperature from which they are collected cannot be overstated. Any of the organisms sampled at depth can essentially be cooked ascending through the water column on the way to the surface. At 3,000 feet, the water temperature will only be about 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. It doesn't matter if it is the Bahamas. At the surface, the water temperature will be around 25°C. That's a huge change that organisms from the deep cannot tolerate well.

That's why chief scientist Dr. Tammy Frank (HBOI at FAU), had special collection chambers called BioBoxes fabricated to keep the samples she collects at the same temperature that they were collected at until they can be transferred to aquaria in the Environmental Room. The Environmental Room really resembles a large walk-in refrigerator. Behind a heavy aluminum door is a spartan white painted room with a counter for aquaria and powerful chillers. There are white lights that the science staff use when setting up the room, but once there are occupants collected from the cold, dark depths, the scientists switch to dim red light that the animals cannot see. An important key to studying deep-sea animal behavior and physiology is keeping them in conditions closely reflecting those that they live at 'in situ' (i.e., in their natural environment).


Once we arrive at our first study site on the east side of the Straits of Florida, the science team will begin a unique study on the bioluminescence of benthic organisms - those that live on the bottom. The members of the team assembled to perform the study are well acquainted with one another. Followers of @sea will know some of them from previous Deep Scope missions in 2004, 2005 and 2007 that are archived on this site. The 2004 and 2005 Deep Scope explorations were also reported on NOAA's (National Oceanic an Atmospheric Administration) Ocean Explorer web site. The current mission is also being chronicled there as well.

Utilizing the JSL submersible or HOV (Human Occupied Vehicle) Drs. Frank, Sönke Johnsen (Duke University), Edith (Edie) Widder ( Ocean Recon), Charles Messing (Nova Southeastern University) and Steve Haddock ( Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) will leverage their complementary sets of expertise in the fields of bioluminescence, visual ecology, imaging, taxonomy and molecular biology to explore the deep-sea benthic environment for undiscovered living lights.

They will use a submersible-based low-light camera to photograph in color displays of stimulated bioluminescence by animals in their natural habitat, including some that could be too dim for dark-adapted human eyes to detect. Animals brought to the surface in the BioBoxes will be identified to genus and possibly species, and further recordings of their bioluminescence will be made in shipboard imaging labs. Measurements of the color of their light, their visual physiology if they have eyes, and molecular studies seeking new photoproteins that may be involved in the production of near-UV bioluminescence will be made.

Dr. Widder's Eye-In-The-Sea (EITS) camera will be deployed to record animal reactions to artificial bioluminescence displays. The EITS is transported to the bottom on the Johnson-Sea-Link, left to perform its recording function and then is retrieved by the JSL, usually after about 24 hours, for data downloading and preparation for redeployment. A cabled version of the Eye-In-The-Sea is currently located on seafloor in Monterey Bay as part of the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), sending imagery and data to the surface in real time.

Joining the principal investigators are postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, a science teacher and the NOAA Ocean Exploration web team. As members of the principal investigators' labs, they will support the main objectives of the mission and conduct studies of their own as well. Jamie Baldwin is a graduate student in Dr. Johnsen's lab at Duke. Gabby Barbarite is a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, working under the direction of Dr. Frank. Erica Heine Raymond is a postdoctoral fellow in the Engineering Division at MBARI, with a long record of working with Dr. Widder and her Eye-In-The-Sea camera. Alison Sweeney is a postdoctoral fellow at Universiy of California, Santa Barbara, and is assisting Dr. Haddock in his molecular studies. Angela Lewis is a science teacher at the Marine Oceanographic Academy located on the Harbor Branch campus in Fort Pierce. Susan Gottfried and Ryan Keith are the reporting correspondents and data collectors for NOAA's Ocean Exploration an Research program.

Together, this group of researchers and educators, along with the crews of the Research Vessel Seward Johnson and the Johnson-Sea-Link II submersible will explore the depths to make new discoveries in the fascinating field of communicating with light during Bioluminescence 2009: Living Light On the Deep Sea Floor.

© 2008-2009, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute