O We Sail the Oceans Blue and Our Amphipod's a Cutie

A Scripps odyssey- deep sea bacteria, plankton, and hagfish

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.

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