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Treasures from the Deep

November 17, 2010
It is a very high tech place inside the control van for the ROV Jason

Inside the control van for Jason II: Photo by Art Howard

The Jason II is the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that we have been using to obtain samples of organisms from the deep sea coral reefs we’ve been studying. Jason is essentially a huge robot, complete with two mechanical arms, which are used to pick up and organize samples at depths up to 6500 m underwater. Our typical dive with Jason is 8 a.m.–8 p.m., with three people from the science team assigned to morning watch, and three people assigned to afternoon watch. The “watch” groups have tasks to perform inside the ROV “van.” The watch groups make DVDs of video taken through Jason’s cameras, log events (organisms collected, interesting features), and the lead scientist initiates sample collection and controls photographs taken from Jason’s high-definition video. On each dive, four or five members of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ROV crew operate Jason – manipulating the arms, adjusting the ship’s location in respect to Jason’s location, and operating the many cameras and technical features with which Jason is equipped.

When Jason is in the water, many people who are not on watch gather around the live video feed in the main science lab. We get to see the organisms being collected, such as coral and crabs, and also see the other organisms unique to these environments that are not collected, like sharks, an octopus, and reef squids. As Jason’s dive comes to an end, everyone starts getting ready for the treasures it will bring back to the ship. Art, Peyton, and Mike get their cameras and lights set up for their close up photographs. The scientists get their cold water and lab areas ready for incoming specimens. Forceps, scissors, and other instruments are laid out in order, containers of ethanol and sea water are set out, and test tubes are labeled.

There is a flurry of activity surrounding the Jason II as it is brought to the surface.­­­­ The ROV crew, donning hard hats and lifejackets, maneuver Jason up out of the water. It is a sight to see…Around 8:00 at night, in complete darkness, water on the port side of the Ron Brown begins churning and lights shine through the dark surface of the water. A crane swings around to hover over the spot where Jason will emerge from the dark waters. After several minutes of anticipation, Jason splashes through the surface right next to the ship. The crane slowly brings the 9,000 lb. Jason higher into the air until the tether is taut and Jason can be brought around and settled on the deck of the ship. The ROV crew fasten Jason to the deck, and soon the “All Clear,” is given.

Bamboo and black coral samples in buckets right off the ROV in from the deep

Bamboo and black corals in from the deep: Photo by R. Peyton Hale

Jana shows a sponge brought up by the ROV

Jana shows a sponge brought up by the ROV: Photo by R. Peyton Hale

Martha Nizinski, our “Sample Commander,” makes labels for the specimens collected and quickly matches the labels to the containers. The quivers (gray collection tubes on Jason) are moved to a more accessible location and specimens from the large Bio Boxes are placed into pre-poured buckets of cold water. Even as the Ron Brown rocks back and forth in the night through choppy 10 ft. waves, the scientists rush toward Jason like the day-after-Thanksgiving-sale at Wal-Mart. A cloud of organized chaos fills the stern of the ship as people carry buckets of samples back and forth from Jason to their own lab areas. As the specimens are brought into the labs, an elaborate process unfolds. Each specimen is photographed with its label for identification, and a ruler for scale. The scientists go about clipping small pieces of each sample and preserving them in different solutions: ethanol, acetone, RNA Later, and sea water. Many samples are quickly stored in either the industrial size refrigerator or freezer for later use. In the end, everyone excitedly discusses the gorgonian, the huge sea urchin, the squat lobster, the sponge with the huge spicules, and all the other amazing finds Jason brought up from the ocean depths.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. liz baird permalink
    November 17, 2010 2:11 pm

    Terrific description – I love the “walmart sale” analogy of the scientists rushing to the ROV!
    keep up the great work!

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