Since third grade, I aspired to be a geologist. In middle school, I was exposed to hydrothermal vents and the remarkable ecosystems they hosted. From then on I knew what I wanted to focus on. While it was a dream of mine, I never really knew when the time would come that I would have the opportunity study and research them. Fortunately for me I was attending a university with Professor Scott White who not only dedicates his research to marine geology but was willing to let me get in on the action as an undergraduate. Now, instead of going to the local library throughout middle and high school to learn about hydrothermal vents and dedicating every project possible to them, I was working on a research project to further our understanding of the distribution of hydrothermal chimneys. A couple of years later, I am aboard Atlantis on my first cruise, hearing the hatch shut on the Alvin submersible that I had read stories about as a teenager.
I did not have much idea of what to expect for my dive, with good reason. No one had ever been to where we were going, nearly 2,700 meters below the surface. This made me nervous, because to do my part I would have to describe things I had never seen or seen only in pictures. From various sources I knew I would see something reminiscent of volcanic activity, likely covered by sediment. As we approached the seafloor I saw pillow basalts (large round tubes of rock shaped like a dollop of toothpaste on a toothbrush) that looked as if they had just been snowed on with sediment. Just as with snow, you could see only what was poking out above the layer of sediment. But as we got closer I saw objects on the basalt and sediment, and some of them were moving! There was a community of organisms slowly going about their business in their surprising pink, orange, red, purple, and white colors.
As all these things sank in, I began to comprehend what I was seeing as time. Fresh basalt would not have had time to accumulate sediment or organisms. What I was seeing was time elapsed from when the lava erupted. In geologic time, eruptions are very brief events with destructive potential. I was seeing not only a snapshot of the aftermath of such an event but its transition to a remote habitat for life. Many features in geology have existed for tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of times the length of our life spans. In my short time as an undergrad, I have visited numerous sites of geologic features that formed millions of years ago. Despite holding rocks and fossils that represent them, time had never struck me the way it did in the first few moments of seeing the seafloor from Alvin. Maybe it was the mystery of not knowing the date of the flows and having no way of knowing how long it takes for sediment to accumulate.
Come time to start recording what I was seeing, I was at a loss for words and had no idea where to begin. There were all these animals I didn’t know the names for. Majoring in marine science and geology, I found everything about the dive fascinating. I had to remind myself that I was wearing my geology hat and had to focus on describing what I was seeing and any changes in terrain.
Everything about my dive was spectacular and included all sorts of new experiences. From moving up steep hills of pillow basalts to investigating craters, stumbling upon a lava collapse, and passing over a fissure, too… It was a real adventure. Along with the sediment, the pale, ghost-like, slow moving fish with open-jaw expressions gave the dive a sunken-ship-turned-artificial-reef feel. There was more life than I expected; many of the animals I saw were doing the opposite of what I would anticipate. I saw polychaete worms swimming through the water, a motionless octopus perched in the open sediment, and mostly stationary brittle stars taking off with surprising speed as we took sediment cores. The whole dive was like visiting another world.
I’d like to thank the crew, the Alvin team, and the scientists for an eye-opening experience. A special thanks to Scott White for bringing me along for this unbelievable opportunity.