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NATURE
galapagos quest
GalapagosQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect that will take a team of scientists and explorers on a journey of discovery through the extraordinary Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Follow along here for daily reports on their quest.

GalapagosQuest: The realfinal frontier

John Fox
John had hoped he could dive 3,000 feet. Unfortunately, 130 feet is the limit for recreational diving.

     RELATED VIDEO
Real 28K

  

By John Fox

(Classroom Connect) -- People often say that space is the "final frontier." Today I decided to prove otherwise. I attempted to dive 3,000 feet, set a record, and make some scientific breakthroughs in the process. All in a day's work ...

As you might guess, my reasons for attempting to break all depth records must have something to do with geology. About 20 years ago, scientists exploring just north of the Galapagos Islands, at depths of up to 7,000 feet, discovered a strange and wonderful world: the world of deep sea volcanic vents. To get to those extreme depths, they hung up their wetsuits and built a special submarine named Alvin, filled with the latest scientific equipment. Wimps.

This morning, at 6:30 a.m., we rolled out of bed, pulled on our wetsuits and plunged 90 feet into cold, dark water. Diving is an odd sport. You spend more time and energy getting your gear on and off than you spend in the water. Once you're all suited up and weightless in the water, you feel like a spaceman. At very shallow depths, there's plenty of light and nice, colorful fish. The water's pretty warm and it's downright pleasant. But starting around 100 feet or so, the undersea world starts to get strange and eerie.

More on GalapagosQuest
from Classroom Connect:
     • Myths & Legends
     • John's GeoLog
     • Science Stumper
     • Mystery Photo
     • Quest Map
     • What's New
   

Fifteen minutes and one cup of coffee after waking up I found myself at 90 feet, face-to-face with a truly weird creature. It looked like a cross between a bat, a fish and Ronald McDonald. This is the Red-lipped batfish. It crawls and hops like a frog, has lips as red as a fire truck, and a black finger-like nose. Not something you want to confront before breakfast.

I headed deeper and deeper, clearing my ears to equalize the increasing pressure, while darkness and solitude surrounded me ...

The deeper you go in the ocean, the less sunlight there is and the less you see. Light is absorbed by water, but the long wavelengths of light are absorbed faster than the short wavelengths. This means red is the first color to go, at about 15 feet, with blue hanging on much longer. At several thousand feet there's no sunlight at all. Since all life depends on sunlight through photosynthesis, scientists didn't expect to find any life at deep sea vents. Then they reached the ocean bottom and learned they'd been wrong all along.

vents
Deep sea vents occur where the ocean floor is spreading apart. Hot magma and sulfide gasses emerge from huge chimneys at temperatures exceeding 6,500° F.   

Deep sea vents are like miniature, underwater volcanoes. They occur where the ocean floor is spreading apart, pulled open by the Earth's shifting plates. Hot magma and sulfide gasses emerge from huge chimneys at temperatures exceeding 6,500 degrees F! The scorching water at the vents cools rapidly as it meets the dark, icy cold surrounding waters.

Sounds like a great place to live, huh?

When Alvin reached these vents, scientists were amazed by what they found there: Life! Clouds of bacteria fed off the gas and this bacteria provided food for giant clams, 10-foot-long tube worms, white crabs, and eyeless shrimp. Finding these bizarre creatures was so unexpected that the scientists hadn't even included a biologist on their team. Since then, biologists have gone back to the vents and learned more about the life there. Some now theorize that all life on earth may have begun not on land, but deep in the ocean.

Well, I cannot tell a lie. I never did dive to 3,000 feet. In fact, I never even tried to go deeper than 130 feet, the recommended limit for recreational diving. But I have to say, seeing that batfish and learning about the bizarre vent creatures of the deep has convinced me, and many other scientists, that space isn't the final frontier...the ocean is.

I hope you've enjoyed exploring the explosive and cool geology of the Galapagos Islands with me over the last four weeks. Join me and the team this Fall when we head to Asia to explore the ancient mysteries of the Silk Road!

Until then ...

Rock on!

John


RELATED STORIES:
Galapagos volcano eruption forces evacuation of giant tortoises
October 7, 1998

Ecuador OKs protections for Galapagos Islands
March 12, 1998

Tortoise, goat compete for survival on Galapagos Islands
July 17, 1997

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