sábado, 18 de agosto de 2012

Seamounts

Mountains in the Sea

Hundreds of thousands of seamounts rise from Earth’s ocean floor. Life has been explored on barely 300.

 

By Gregory S. Stone
Photograph by Brian Skerry
 
 
Sealed in our submersible, DeepSee, we wait, watching the crew on Argo’s deck shout orders to each other—a movie without a sound track. Then we are untied, drifting, a tiny dot on the immense Pacific Ocean. Pilot Avi Klapfer floods the ballast tanks, and we sink, surrounded by bubbles. It’s like falling into a glass of champagne, and we feel appropriately giddy. A diver pokes through the bubbles to make a final adjustment to the camera housing mounted on the outside of the sub. Out there with the camera are hydraulics, thrusters, and hundreds of other essential parts that will keep us safe.
Three of us—Klapfer, photographer Brian Skerry, and I—are crammed inside DeepSee’s five-foot sphere, surrounded by communication equipment, pressure valves, controls, snacks, cameras, special bags to urinate in: everything we need for our quest to reach a seamount named Las Gemelas. Its cluster of peaks, rarely seen up close before, rises from the bottom of the Pacific near Cocos Island, 300 miles southwest of Cabo Blanco in Costa Rica. The highest peak here is more than 7,500 feet tall.

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The submersible DeepSee, some 600 feet below the surface of the Pacific, descends into a volcanic vent of the seamount Las Gemelas.


A harbor seal peers from a kelp forest on Cortes Bank, a series of undersea peaks and plateaus off the coast of San Diego. This shallow, light-filled summit supports a wide variety of animals and plants.


Author Greg Stone, aboard the submersible DeepSee, watches a remotely operated vehicle maneuver around Las Gemelas. Braving strong currents, rough terrain, and technical glitches, a ten-person team spent seven days studying the seamount in early 2012.


A prickly shark cruises among the volcanic cliffs and crevices of Las Gemelas. This slow-moving deepwater predator lives on and around the tops of seamounts, capitalizing on the large number of resident fish, crustaceans, and other prey down the food chain.


A diver explores a shallow, coral-encrusted seamount slope near Raja Ampat, Indonesia; the remotely operated vehicle can descend to survey deeper reaches.


An abandoned trawl net blankets part of the El Bajo Seamount in Mexico’s Gulf of California, destroying corals. Overfishing has depleted the once vibrant ecosystem here and at seamounts worldwide.

 Photograph by Luis Lamar

Photographer Brian Skerry, pilot Eli Temime, and author Gregory S. Stone (left to right) start their descent to Las Gemelas seamount aboard the DeepSee in a five-foot sphere with 360-degree views. The submarine, which can drop to 1,500 feet below sea level, does double duty, carrying both scientists and tourists.


An expanse of cabbage coral attached to the slope of a seamount near Raja Ampat provides shelter for crabs, shrimps, and other animals. Passing schools of fish may feed on these invertebrates as well as on plankton brought up by strong currents.


An orange sheephead, slender wrasses, and other fish swim through a forest of coralline algae and kelp stalks swaying in the current around Cortes Bank. “The communities you find on seamounts are like oases in otherwise deep water,” says Bruce Robison, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Dusk falls as the DeepSee returns to the surface and to its support ship, the Argo, at the end of a day of mapping and exploring Las Gemelas.
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