A Scripps odyssey on the research vessel Robert Gordon Sproul

O we sail the oceans blue and our amphipod's a cutie

An amphipod. Amphipods are interesting because they have these things in their guts. You can isolate a large variety of very interesting microrganisms.
  • An amphipod. Amphipods are interesting because they have these things in their guts. You can isolate a large variety of very interesting microrganisms.
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

Our departure from the Nimitz Marine Facility at the end of Rosecrans on Point Loma has been delayed. Aristides Yayanos. who leads a scientific team from UCSD Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has had difficulty locating a forklift for his fiberglass shed full of research equipment. The removable laboratory is white and the size of a small garage. The Research Vessel Robert Gordon Sproul was scheduled to leave at 9:00 a.m., but it is after 10:00 when a dock technician finally lowers the shed over the side with a crane and sets it onto the fantail. The dock crews go to work bolting the structure down and securing it with wide yellow belts of canvas and plastic.

Aristides Yayanos: "It is widely considered likely that the dinosaurs’ extinction had to do with extra-terrestrial causes."

Aristides Yayanos: "It is widely considered likely that the dinosaurs’ extinction had to do with extra-terrestrial causes."

The R.V. Sproul is a converted oil rig supply vessel built in 1981. 85 tons. 125 feet long, with a 35-foot beam. The fantail is a capacious, low deck running some 60 feet from amidships to stern, equipped with four huge winches and a 22-foot-tall A-frame that can be brought forward over the deck or overhang the stern to suspend instruments, sample containers, and traps for marine life. The prey on this trip: amphipods, shrimp-like crustaceans that attract a broad spectrum of deep-sea bacteria. It is the bacteria Yayanos is after, but it is the amphipods themselves that interest doctoral candidate Ron Kaufmann, who is assisting him.

Captain Louis Zimm. Zimm wakes Rickman and me at 5:45 a.m. We are within a few hundred yards of the southeastern end of San Clemente Island.

Captain Louis Zimm. Zimm wakes Rickman and me at 5:45 a.m. We are within a few hundred yards of the southeastern end of San Clemente Island.

Such seemingly insignificant life-forms will help scientists understand the still-mysterious deep-ocean environment and reap its potential benefits. For instance, some ocean bacteria have been found to produce a fatty substance, a lipid, that may have more beneficial properties than existing dietary oils. Medical applications of deep-ocean research are also possible. The Japanese last year committed $30 million to a research project similar to Yayanos’s and are developing new patents from their work.

Eric Brody, Heidi Sosik. Brody becomes seasick and tries lying in different spots on the deck before finally giving up and going to his berth.

Eric Brody, Heidi Sosik. Brody becomes seasick and tries lying in different spots on the deck before finally giving up and going to his berth.

Observing the loading operation from an upper deck, Kaufmann, a muscular, bespectacled man in his late 20s with a disc jockey voice, watches Yayanos arrive just behind his shed and says. “A lot of researchers would be going nuts because of the delay, but Art is really easygoing. He just takes it all in stride.”

Deck of RV Sproul. After dinner, on the fantail, Rickman, Yayanos, and I gather out by the winch and exchange stories.

Deck of RV Sproul. After dinner, on the fantail, Rickman, Yayanos, and I gather out by the winch and exchange stories.

Yayanos oversees the positioning of his shed and stops to speak with crew members he seems to know well. He is 51 years old but looks 35. Black curly hair, dark heavily framed glasses, and bushy mustache, he smiles readily, inviting others to join in the fun he is having. Dressed in red polo shirt and Levis, his eyes widening enthusiastically, almost mischievously, he is reminiscent of a mild-mannered, intellectual Groucho Marx.

RV Sproul. Yayanos asks me if I will work the A-frame as he and Kaufmann fend the vehicle off the stern.

RV Sproul. Yayanos asks me if I will work the A-frame as he and Kaufmann fend the vehicle off the stern.

It is 10:30 a.m. when Captain Louis Zimm finally gets the Sproul underway. The ship’s complement consists of mates Linette Sutton and Roger Price, engineers Harvey Hight and Bill Bradley, resident technician Ron Comer, cook Ed Ansuso. and the team of scientists. Yayanos is the senior member of the team, and he is accompanied by Kaufmann, Heidi Sosik, a grad student running her own series of tests on phytoplankton and ocean optics: Santos Cabral, an undergrad from UC Santa Barbara: and Eric Brody, who will work with Sosik as a program analyst on the computer software he has set up for her observations. Sosik and Brody are working under the aegis of Scripps’s team leader Greg Mitchell, who is back in Washington, D.C.

The Sproul’s hull is painted royal blue, exactly the color of deep-water ocean, and her bridge and forepeak outer hull are stark white. Displacing 525 tons of water at an 8- to 9-foot draft and carrying two Detroit diesel 675-horsepower engines, the Sproul can stay at sea for as long as two weeks. She is named after the man who originally envisioned the university system in California much as it is today.

Once past the kelp beds off Point Loma, the Sproul heads due west at 8.5 knots. The white plumes of unburnt diesel disappear as the engines fire hotter and cleaner. She is heading for a location some 45 miles off the coast of San Diego, over the 2000-meter-deep San Clemente Basin. The “station.” as it's called, is an accessible spot, close to home port, for trapping deep-water amphipods and bacteria.

The atmosphere on-board is relaxed. The smell of bilge jetsam and diesel fuel mingles with the odor of barbecued ribs in the galley. Yayanos’s science team, an engineer, and technician Comer bustle around the fantail, preparing to submerge weighted traps, called free vehicles, to the bottom of the basin. Also on-board is a photographer on assignment from San Francisco; Rick Rickman will shoot two dozen rolls of film over the next three days for a coffee-table book celebrating UCSD’s 125th anniversary.

After heading into the swells for two hours, the Sproul passes beneath a marine layer of clouds and the temperature drops, the sky turns the color of birch. Bow spray reaches the forward deck every fifth or sixth swell. Scientists and crew members lurch occasionally against the railing as the prow strikes a large swell or a rogue wave hits broadside and rolls the Sproul to one side. Eric Brody, of the ocean optics team, becomes seasick and tries to get comfortable by lying in different spots on the deck before finally giving up and going to his berth. His shipmates are concerned, but he assures them he’ll be fine when they reach the station and the ship ceases its forward movement.

Captain Zimm shows passengers to the bunks in the six-man stateroom, where Brody has claimed an upper berth and is attempting to outmaneuver his nausea with sleep. Zimm wears thick glasses, a mustache almost as riotous as Yayanos’s, and a black baseball cap with a blue octopus stitched above the brim. He extends an invitation to visit the bridge for a tour, and after stowing knapsacks in lockers and claiming bunks, Rickman and I join him topside.

As in the engine room, most systems on the Sproul's bridge are redundant: two of everything. On either side of the swivel captain’s chair are two radar screens fitted with cones and eye apertures to block errant light. The devices look much like the old foot X-raying gizmos in shoe stores in the late ’50s and early '60s, the ones they pulled off the market because they were frying kids’ arches with radiation. Instead of a huge wheel for a helm, there is only a small lever the size of a bathroom faucet. Another lever and a push button operate the bow thruster, an electrical-hydraulic device powered by the ship’s engines that makes maneuvering in small arcs easier. Most impressive are the overlapping methods for determining the ship’s position.

’’We use radar mostly at night,” Zimm says, “and in fog. We can use them for positioning too. We can look at this and say we’re half an hour away from this point of land. We have a whole bunch of different ways to determine our position.” Zimm gestures around the bridge overhead, and to either side of the captain’s chair. "When they all agree, then we have confidence in exactly where we are.” He indicates a computer with a color map on its monitor. The computer receives data from the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) network and from LORAN, the land-based positioner (measuring the delay in radio waves from the ship to its base), and then it translates this data to latitude and longitude with lines intersecting on the screen. This position is corroborated with the RAND GPS, which calculates location by bouncing a signal off a satellite This military system, which played such an important role in the Gulf war, is accurate up to a thousandth of a nautical mile The probability of the Sproul becoming lost at sea is extremely remote.

When asked for an estimate of the cost of his ship, Zimm says, “Probably $3 million.”

Ron Comer calls a meeting in the galley of all shipboard personnel. He mentions that all bunks should have clean sheets, tells the location of the washer and dryer on-board, and begins to talk about safety. He underlines the rule that life preservers must be worn anytime work is being done on the fantail with the winches or the A-frame or when equipment is being sent over the side with the stanchion lines down. "If you get hurt, cut your finger, any little thing, you have to tell the bridge so they can log it. Out here with all the salt water and salt air, things can get infected.” He then plays a short videotape produced by the Coast Guard about how to don an immersion suit and launch the automatically inflatable life rafts. Later, all anyone will really remember about the emergency instructions is to “Stay dry... stay out of the water."

Ron points out the location of the refrigerator and freezer (loaded with Chipwiches) and invites anyone to snack anytime "Just clean up your own mess."

Lunch consists of the barbecued ribs everyone had been smelling all morning, green salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, rolls, and a half dozen other side dishes. The food is plentiful and excellent.

After lunch, Yayanos, Kaufmann, and Cabral gather on the fantail wearing the life vests equipped with whistles and the Day-Glo clip-on devices that look like marking pens and make the vest visible at night. The scientists are preparing their free vehicle for immersion at the station southeast of San Clemente Island. They attach lead shackles to a series of 20-foot-long aluminum poles, then affix bright yellow plastic spheres 17 inches in diameter. The spheres are sealed "hard hats” (made from the same material as construction workers’ helmets) designed to protect the buoyancy devices inside them. Each hard hat has approximately 57 pounds of "positive weight” or buoyancy. These poles, weights, and buoys will trail the free vehicle, which Yayanos now brings out of the shed.

The first device is a pyramidal frame bearing two amphipod traps, which are narrow metal cylinders, each about two feet long, and two smaller cylinders that are timed trigger mechanisms to seal the ends of the trap cylinders. Kaufmann describes the explosive squibbs that release the weights and the timed corrosive magnesium device after about 12 hours. The first cylinder will be closed an hour before the second one. A backup. Again, redundancy.

The dual trigger mechanisms will close the cylinders and release the shackles, sending each vehicle to the surface, where it will be visible within a mile or two (given visibility factors) by its bright yellow flag rising some ten feet from the first hard-hat float. Failing detection with the naked eye, the vehicle will emit a radio signal detectable with a hand-held device that looks like something the Ghostbusters might carry.

Work goes smoothly despite the movement of the vessel; the Sproul is a very stable craft, and the seas are not turbulent. Occasional waves burst against the waterline, and the fantail floods with several inches of seawater. Yayanos had warned me, “Wear shoes you don’t mind throwing away.”

Looking around the $3 million boat, the winches and crane, the A-frame, the wet and dry laboratories, one can imagine the poundage of grant proposals written. All of this for a handful of primordial arthropods (anything with an exoskeleton — amphipods, lobsters, shrimp...), something not entirely unlike cockroaches of the ocean bed. Skittering creatures the size of a fingernail cuticle that may tell us much about the world we live in and possibly — ourselves.

Kaufmann is gutting mackerel with a filleting knife and wrapping the gory chunks of fish in screen-line black netting material. This is bait for the amphipods. When the trap is retrieved and opened, the black netting should be covered with amphipods trying unsuccessfully to feed on the mackerel. "We don’t want the bait to be actually eaten because we want an idea of what’s in these things stomach’s ordinarily at that depth," Kaufmann says. "Also, if they eat the bait... well, we’ll run out of bait.”

Harvey Hight, one of the ship’s engineers, comes out onto the fantail and lights a cigarette. He is in his 50s, with white hair and whiskers, and looks as if he has spent a good deal of time at sea. in engine rooms. He looks as if he might know a sea chantey or two and could maybe dance a hornpipe if pressed. He taps the tripod trap vehicle and deadpans, "This will determine if there is any salt water in the vicinity.” He indicates the ocean. Our land reference. Point Loma, has long since disappeared to the east.

Heidi Sosik is readying her “donut,” a round black device that could be the frame for a coffee table were you to place a circle of glass over it. She adjusts lenses and hoses down the transmissometer, a laser device that will send data to her and Brody at their computer in the dry lab on-board. She looks at Kaufmann’s gutted mackerels and wrinkles her nose, sending her glasses riding up an inch closer to her eyes, which look, between the frames, like those of some aquatic creature out of water. “Pretty gross, Ron,” she says. “I’m glad I don’t have to chop up fish to get my phytoplankton.”

“Hey,” Kaufmann says in mock defensiveness, “my bait eats what you study."

As for what Sosik is studying, she says, "Well, it’s pretty boring, but I’ll show you.” She takes me into the dry lab, which houses computers and the more delicate scientific equipment, and seats herself at the computer keyboard and screen, boots up a program that looks like a combination of ancient Etruscan and numerical code, and says, "I’m trying to set up a program, a file, which indicates the parameters I want to plot in real time, so as we’re lowering the package (the donut) into the water, we’ll be able to see on the screen what the properties are we’re looking at. For example, channel 15 here corresponds to salinity.” She is pointing to one of a series of channels in a vertical profile program. Hight, the joking engineer, was not far wrong, but it is Sosik’s package, not Kaufmann’s that does, in fact, measure the salt water in the vicinity, among other things.

Another channel indicates the density of ‘downwelling irradiance,” units of light filtering through the seawater. Seven more channels on Sosik’s program are given over to analyzing different wavelengths of sunlight filtering through the surface of the sea and striking the top of the instrument. Her computer screen identifies blue light and red light to distinguish the spectral shape of underwater light. The difference between them? “It’s the amount of energy that a single photon of light has at that wavelength. Literally, red light will look red to the naked eye. and blue light will look blue’’

Other instruments aboard her donut vehicle register water temperature and electrical conductivity, but basically the device, called a Multi-spectral Environmental Radiometer, could be thought of as a huge light meter.

Why should anyone want to measure such a thing?

“Phytoplankton,” Sosik says patiently, “absorb light at a variety of wavelengths. They then fluoresce it at 680 nanometers or so... " she pauses and starts again, smiling a little "The application of this kind of study can go in a number of directions. It can help us understand the ocean's continued capacity to absorb about half of the carbon dioxide released by man. It can help us learn about global warming."

Through the portside hatch on the upper deck, I find a desk space and peruse the shelves for revelations about the reading matter of choice for scientists and crew. Mostly the books are paperback novels. I imagine I can tell which books were left by scientists on expeditions and which were discarded by crew members after a quick rifling of pages. Of the several hundred titles, stacked in two rows, at least half are science fiction novels, anthologies, fantasy, or horror. Some mangled volumes in the Executioner series are represented and a few books in a series that seem to be about mercenaries. On the top shelf is an old hardcover with a 1929 copyright. It is an explorer’s diary of an expedition to the Middle East in 1919.

Leafing through the 1990 edition of the Sproul's handbook, co-authored by Captain Zimm, specifying the ship’s capabilities and procedures. I notice a 6-page appendix (of a 23-page manual) that is devoted to memorandums on alcoholic beverage policy, controlled substances, sexual harassment, and/or rape.

From page 18 of the handbook, General Memorandum No. 83:

It is the policy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography that aboard SIO vessels and in SIO laboratories, offices and shops ashore, possession and/or use of controlled substances such as, but not limited to. marijuana, hashish, cocaine, PCP, synthetic or natural opiates or their derivatives, or hallucinogens is strictly forbidden. Evidence of their use will result in disciplinary action.

Fully three pages (Memo 86) is given over to "Sexual Harassment and Related Offenses.” Under paragraph B, "Actions Forbidden”:

  1. Physical attempts to obtain sexual favors such as assault, attempted rape, or rape. 2. Repeated or continued, unwelcome remarks or actions of a sexually explicit nature (for some specific examples, see attachment), addressed by any person to any other person. ..

Another full page details “Types of Behaviour Which May Constitute Sexual Harassment” and makes for interesting reading. So large a portion of the handbook addresses these issues that it seems not unreasonable to expect outbursts of drunken or drug-deranged lechery on board at any time The crew and scientists did not seem to promise much in this area, and the three-day sojourn was completed without so much as a hiccup or a wink.

By 5:00 p.m., we’ve reached Yayanos’s first station. The sun is sitting low on the horizon, staining the deck a muted gold, casting long shadows to the starboard quarter behind us. The swells are a stately four to five feet, their backs glowing like molten brass, their faces dark indigo and brooding. Spray from the bow glitters in the air like tossed coins in the sunlight, and our wake is a careless scattering of powdered yellow-white diamonds in a frothy soup.

Zimm cuts the engines, and Yayanos and Kaufmann have the traps set and baited. Their free vehicle is in position at the stern of the fantail, attached to a cable trailing from the A-frame. Kaufmann explains the precision depth recorder: "We get an echo off the bottom with this at 12 kilohertz, and then we correct for known temperature anomalies....” I nod, and Yayanos asks me if I will work the A-frame as he and Kaufmann fend the vehicle off the stern. Comer operates the trawl winch, paying out cable slowly, as I move the lever on the A-frame lifting the vehicle out some ten feet. The vehicle descends, and as Comer pays out cable, the shackles and hard hats follow slowly. Kaufmann makes sure nothing is fouled as the equipment slips beneath the waves, followed finally by the Day-Glo yellow flag on which is written in Magic Marker, "REWARD $ If found return to A. Yayanos UCSD Scripps Inst. Oceanography."

The first trap set, cable reeled back onto the winch, the captain fires the Sproul's engines and we are moving again. A second trap will go down at a station a mile and a half away.

"We don’t want to have the two traps too close together,” Kaufmann points out. "Each trap has a radius of influence where the bait odor will disperse, and we don't want them conflicting with each other.”

The second vehicle is smaller, a little brother of the first: two cylinders on an A-shaped rack. We repeat our procedure at the second station. San Clemente Island is not quite visible on the horizon off our bow, but several of us imagine we can see it.

Kaufmann describes an amphipod he has seen photographed that is nearly a foot long with mandibles sharp and powerful enough to sever a human finger. He is kidding, of course? “Not really. It was found off Fiji, I think."

In the galley, over pork chops, potatoes and vegetables, sodas, and Chipwiches, the conversation turns to the National Science Foundation and the grant that is funding Yayanos’s project, the Biological Oceanography Program. "It is a grant for usually two to three years, though as much as five years.” Yayanos says, drinking a Coke. As usual, he is smiling as if waiting for someone to comment on how obviously funny all of it is. His sense of enjoyment in this work is contagious: a kid in a candy store — out at sea, a sea full of inscrutable, wondrous, mysterious things.

Is he optimistic about getting his grant renewed?

"I’m never optimistic about that!” he says, laughing, but looks for all the world like a man who is optimistic about anything you’d care to mention. "The biological oceanography program covers a lot of different things. You have people that are interested in water properties and currents or what have you." He waves his Coke in the air to relegate these studies elsewhere, an unpromising Sahara of science. "They’re not necessarily interested in deep-sea bacteria. Amphipods are interesting because they have these things in their guts. You can isolate a large variety of very interesting microrganisms. Another interesting aspect is that bacteria may be producing something amphipods need. To study the interaction between these two, we can find out something. Working with bacteria is a lot easier than working with amphipods... what do I mean by that? There are no animals I’d say from two to three thousand meters that are incumbent... ”

Kaufmann interrupts him here and says that someone named Laura has found some at 1500 meters.

"But," Yayanos says, "I mean where you can actually have a sustainable population of organisms, like a breeding colony of rats. You look at your biochemistry books, zoology books — all of our knowledge comes from laboratory organisms; live organisms, animals and plants, of course things you can breed, grow, you can do genetics with them. In the deep ocean, talking two or three thousand meters, there is nothing we can keep in a laboratory. That means that more than half of the ocean has not been studied in the same way that everything else has been studied. Now we can recreate that environment, but not completely. We don’t know enough about the life mystery of the organisms.

"For many years, we were funded by a group called the Sub-seabed Disposal Program. The idea was to bury radioactive wastes beneath deep-sea sediments. I came across a paper recently written in the early ’60s. I guess it occurred to [the author] that if you could bury radioactive wastes in sediments, you are essentially putting them back in geological strata that are billions and billions of years old and they would stay there. He did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of what it would cost per reactor per year, and he felt at that time it could be done for maybe three to five thousand dollars a year. But the nuclear industry — I’m not sure why, maybe all the pressure from environmental groups — felt that they should forget about too many (disposal) options and just stick with a few. and that’s what they’ve done "There’s a lot of pressure from environmental groups, but this was and remains a promising area. I was kind of skeptical at first, but at 30 meters beneath the sea floor, it is very difficult to imagine the kind of processes that would move (radioactive wastes) out in a wholesale fashion. I mean, they talk about the safety of keeping these things under wraps for tens of thousands of years... well, civilization hasn’t been around for tens of thousands of years.

"The question that occurs is: With deep-sea bacteria moving around the ocean floor, might not this waste seep out sooner than we thought? You have to remember that these organisms exist in an environment that is a few degrees warmer than freezing and too dark for plant life, where the water pressure is up to 1000 times more crushing than that on the surface. I have speculated about ways in which bacteria might prove useful in coping with wastes. Through bioengineering, just as land-based microorganisms are being genetically altered to serve as cleanup squads for industrial wastes on land, marine bacteria might be made to perform a comparable task. Deep-sea bacteria may also possess genetic material useful to industries using high-pressure manufacturing processes."

Would it be a leap to assume that this might have some application to space technology? Vacuum... pressure?

Yayanos grins, his cheeks flushed with excitement. "That would not be a leap at all."

Ansuso, the cook, announces that the galley has to be cleared for cleaning.

The scientists have been talking among themselves for nearly an hour and a half. Yayanos, Kaufmann, and I retire to the area between the coffee machine and the engine room, standing at the base of the stairs to the upper deck and shifting our weight once in a while as the Sproul is jostled by a swell. The conversation turns to an eight-year-old press release I had seen about Yayanos’s theory of dinosaur extinction. The subject came up because I wanted a cigarette. As I fingered a Winston, I thought of the old Far Side cartoon about the "real reason dinosaurs are extinct"; the drawing showed a group of dinosaurs furtively puffing on cigarettes, like high school kids in a bathroom.

"Yes," Yayanos says, “I remember that. It is widely considered likely that the dinosaurs’ extinction had to do with extra-terrestrial causes. Almost half of what was in the marine environment died, but 90 percent of what was in fresh water bodies survived." His theory dealt with neutron-producing cosmic rays bombarding Earth from, say, a nearby supernova or an explosion at the galaxy’s center. "Whatever. Who knows? The thing was, all organisms received an initial dose of radiation, but probably only a few faced immediate death. The greatest impact was on those species that accumulated calcium or sulfur from seawater, or calcium, phosphorus, or sulfur from eating plants. They selectively received a lethal dose of radiation from the decay of isotopes of those elements. In fact, it’s very conceivable to me that what is called the mutagenic action from this ionizing radiation is largely what is responsible for the evolution that took place in the early Tertiary Period."

Kaufmann and I have been listening to Yayanos for over an hour. The doctoral candidate seems riveted, as I am, and Ansuso has to chase us out of his work area yet again. He shuts off the lights in the mess, and we are in darkness. No one is eager to adjourn, but we say good-night.

In the forward six-man stateroom, I squeeze into my bunk, pull the curtain, and turn on the small overhead bulb to read a recent issue of Time magazine with a cover story called "Science Under Siege" What with the Hubble telescope, fraudulent fusion in someone’s kitchen sink, and misappropriation of funding here and there it seems the egghead in the spotless white lab coat is now perceived as a cross between befuddled flake and cerebral con man. The swells rock the Sproul gently; my small berth is plunged into womblike darkness when I extinguish the light. I think of Kaufmann and Yayanos and try to see them in terms of the public perception Time insists is out there, but what I see are men aroused by mystery. Not obsessed by answers — but hungry for the next good question.

Another hearty breakfast: machaca, tortillas, rice, fruit, donuts, and muffins. Photographer Rickman and Yayanos joke about wearing identical shirts. Ansuso is loudly recounting yesterday’s Atlanta game Engineer Bill Bradley, long sandy haired, bearded, and earringed, is leaning over a mound of food and chuckling at the cook’s baseball commentaries. Heidi Sosik looks tired, as well she might; she was up every two hours to take readings on her submerged donut: midnight, two, four and six a.m. She sleepily tries to explain the necessity for establishing temperature and irradiance differentials at intervals during the night. “It’s boring,” she repeats, and this time I believe her.

She will spend some time in the wet lab today, the work area full of solutions and foul-weather gear, immersing phytoplankton in liquid nitrogen. “Is that interesting?” I ask. She shakes her head from side to side and smiles.

“Well, you’re in practice for getting up every two hours during the night, I guess.” Kaufmann says, peeling a banana. Sosik nods and smiles. She has a six-month-old infant at home

"Anybody see Eric? How’s he doing?” someone asks.

"He’s topside on the bow all stretched out. I think he managed to eat some crackers.” Rickman chuckles but is sympathetic. He talks about the ravages of seasickness on journalists and photographers he has known.

The morning goes by quietly, with little activity. There is not much to do until the traps surface around 11:00. Rickman asks if he can get some shots of the Sproul at a distance. No problem, Comer assures him. “We’ll clear it with Louis, but we can get you out in the dinghy."

"Sexy shots retrieving the vehicles,” a male voice contributes. "Scripps vessel plowing through the swells, diesel smoke, big-assed wake, everybody wearing their life jackets on deck..." An aside to me, "Don’t quote that; don’t quote me.”

"Rapturous expressions on scientists as they dig sea bugs out of confusing technical devices," someone adds, laughing.

Someone else says, "Close-ups of seasick computer hackers!"

Groans. "Hey, just kidding."

"Better airbrush the diesel exhaust... environmentalists, you know."

The atmosphere is one of license and holiday but with the underpinning of work that is implicit, important, and gratifying.

Rickman and I climb into the Zodiac dinghy with engineer Roger Price Rickman hands me down two cameras and a utility bag the size of a small radiator. Price steers the Zodiac around the Sproul in circles. On the horizon, to the port quarter, a yellow flag can be seen. The first of Yayanos’s vehicles is up. Rickman snaps away, pausing now and then to say, "This is terrific, this is great!"

Coming alongside the vehicle Zimm kills the Sproul's engines, and Cabral, Yayanos, and Kaufmann place a cable and hook into one of the shackle rings. Comer starts up the winch, bringing up the trap from 2000 meters. A Learjet cruises by maybe 200 feet off the deck, returns, buzzes the Sproul again.

Price noses the dinghy into the waves, and we come up on the stern of the research vessel. Rickman’s cameras whine and click. Kaufmann steadies one of the trap cylinders while Yayanos releases the surgical tubing that bands it shut. Water cascades from the grey container. From a distance it is impossible to tell if amphipods are present in the sampled water, but Kaufmann is nodding happily. He squirts a plastic squeeze-bottle of icy salt water around the inside of the cylinder to dislodge clinging animals.

A few more trips around the Sproul in the dinghy and Price radios to Zimm. "How about we sit out here off the starboard quarter and you run to us? He wants to get some shots of the boat running flat out and head on."


"That’s me.”

Rickman is nearly delirious with glee. The sky is a cinematic blue studded with cottonball clouds; the water is clean and cobalt but running to a half dozen shades of aqua and sunlight. The Sproul preens for the camera, spewing white smoke from her stacks, cleaving swells into huge shattered snowbanks. The Lear makes another pass, even lower.

Back on the fantail, the dinghy crew has managed to stay out of the water, but we’re not entirely dry. Rickman shoots into the five-gallon buckets, close-ups of the darting, flitting prey we’ve come for. I lift one on my small finger to examine it. Tiny, nearly transparent, very ugly — more so than a shrimp. The thought of one a foot long is grotesque. Kaufmann is happy in his work as he plays the squeeze bottle over the black fiber glass cheesecloth bundle of mackerel bits. "Good haul?" I ask.

"Pretty good, pretty good," Kaufmann says.

An hour later, after another huge lunch (easily worth $20 in a good downtown restaurant), the second trap is hauled onboard. It has surfaced exactly where it was supposed to, but this one contains a surprise. The salt water is permeated with a transparent, viscous gel. The amphipods are caught in clumps of the stuff, and the reason for it comes tumbling out of the cylinder, thrashing into the bucket, seeking escape.

The thing looks like an albino eel. It is some ten inches long, pinkish-white, without eyes, but with fleshy whiskers that resemble fangs. It is, Kaufmann says, a hagfish and looks to be the product of some Victorian horror writer’s fevered imagination.

‘‘What is that goop?” I ask Yayanos. "It’s from the hagfish ...” he says and finishes the sentence in the most unusually honest phrase you will ever hear from a scientist, ”... but I don’t really know.”

Kaufmann steps into the breach, hypothesizing. “It is most likely a defense mechanism. Imagine a predator trying to eat the hagfish; this snot-like stuff might clog a larger fish’s gills long enough to choke it, release the fish.”

“It’s a fish, not an eel?”

"Oh, it’s definitely a fish,” he says. I think of the poster in the galley with depictions of MARINE FISHES OF THE CALIFORNIA CURRENT & ADJACENT WATERS. The illustrator rendered everything from surf smelt to Dover sole. No hagfish. Just as well; who could eat looking at this thing?

For the first time I notice the dark shapes on the Sproul's halyard. They look like odd, black geometric medicine balls, inflated and wafting in the wind. Possibly balls in some strange, as yet unthought of sport. “What are those things?”

Comer explains that they are indeed called "shapes" and that they signal to nearby vessels or aircraft that we are a research vessel momentarily stationary and unable to maneuver.

The traps go over the side again, Sosik drops her "donut” for another series of tests and samples, but for most of the rest of the day, there is not much to do. Early in the evening I look up at the stars from the bow and soon, Eric Brody, early 20s. black coral hair, keen dark eyes, joins me. He is feeling better, eating a danish. I ask him if his seasickness has seriously interfered with the program analysis he had intended to do on the excursion. “No,’’ he says, “I can do all that back at the lab. I just had never been to sea, and I thought I'd like it. I’m not coming out here again though." He smiles and shakes his head. The ocean is calm, the moon has yet to rise, and the stars are a riot of brilliance.

After dinner, on the fantail, Rickman, Yayanos, and I gather out by the winch and exchange stories. Yayanos reminisces about being a student at the University of Buffalo in the ’60s and his first youthful expeditions to New York City with a chess team. I talk about being a bartender in New York City, and Rickman tops us both with bang-bang stories of photojournalism. Rickman describes having a taxicab shot out from under him in El Salvador. After an hour or so, I imagine I am in the pages of a Joseph Conrad novel, listening to Marlow onboard a craft bound for exotic ports, hearing tales of the heart of darkness. I wonder how many men over how many centuries on how many seas have idly exchanged stories on the fantails of ships until it is time to bunk down for the night.

Zimm wakes Rickman and me at 5:45 a.m. We are within a few hundred yards of the southeastern end of San Clemente Island. In the rose and orange smear of pre-dawn, we can see the crater-pocked island used by the Navy for artillery practice. We are looking at Pyramid Beach, and indeed the cliffs and the sides of the 1900-foot-high island seemed to be graded in a ziggurat configuration.

Zimm tells us to get a good look while we can; not many civilians get this close to the island. "The Navy knows we’re here." Zimm says, "but we’ve got maybe another 20 minutes before we’re pushing it." The island has a rugged beauty to it, and we are told it is populated by goats, but there is little to see beyond the guano-capped Pyramid Rock and a very inhospitable-looking shoreline. As the sun rises, the play of color and shadow shift over the lion- and rust-hued land mass. The place looks both beautiful and brutalized. Zimm tells us of how once he had seen half-tracks, tanks, and Jeeps formed into a man-made reef just off the rocks that were used as targets. They have long since been pulverized by shelling.

After retrieving the traps the morning of the third day. another good haul of amphipods — this time, minus malarial-nightmare creatures from the depths — the Sproul is headed back the 56 nautical miles to Point Loma. The scientists secure their equipment, immerse the catch (several thousand amphipods) in chilled coolers, and everyone pretty much goes off to sleep, sun, read, or play gin on the fantail with Comer and Bradley.

The day warms by degrees, the sun is in fierce white shards off the surface of the ocean. Comer deals cards with his T-shirt wrapped around his head like a burnoose, Kaufmann lounges in the dinghy on the fantail reading Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, Rickman’s reading a Dean Koontz novel.

Yayanos leans over the rail watching Point Loma resolve itself out of the horizon’s haze. He talks about the need for better leadership in science, about the collapse of Communism and the possible peace dividends we could see. His optimism is contagious.

Looking out across the seam of the world where the heavens meet the face of the waters, sails grow from the horizon, the Coronado Shores sprout from a hazy khaki chalk line that is the Silver Strand. The salt air is bracing and sharp, the smell of land is sweet, like the breath of an infant or the scent of a woman. The sun is an embrace. Yayanos’s optimism seems considered, sane, correct. The world one senses in his presence — a world of the knowable. side by side with elegance and mystery — seems inevitable.

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