A Deep Dive into the Sea, Science, and Soul

Dexter Davis | Master’s Student in OEAS

The Logistics

AT50-20 research cruise aboard the R/V Atlantis with HOV Alvin at 9.50°N East Pacific Rise (EPR) from January 11th (San Diego, CA, USA) to February 12th (Golfito, Costa Rica). Part of two NSF Research Grants: EPR Biofilms 4 Larvae – OCE-1948580 (Arellano), OCE-1947735 (Mullineaux), OCE-1948623 (Vetriani), and Inactive Sulfides – OCE-2152453 (Mullineaux & Beaulieu), OCE-2152422 (Sylvan & Achberger).

Chief Scientist for AT50-20 was Dr. Shawn Arellano (WWU). The purpose of the EPR Biolfilms 4 Larvae project is to study the relationship between microbial biofilms and larval settlement at hydrothermal vents. The Inactive Sulfides project aims to explore the life at “inactive vents” off the main axis of the EPR.

Inside the Submersible

Dr. Costa Vetriani (left), Alvin pilot Tony Tarantino (Center) and myself inside Alvin, preparing for a dive!

The hatch closes with a thud. I sink against the edges of the 2-meter titanium sphere with a clipboard and iPad in my arms. I look over to the port side and see Dr. Costa Vetriani, one of the PIs for this project and my fellow observer for the dive, also settling in the for the long haul. Between us, Alvin pilot Tony Tarantino flips buttons, checks sensors, and relays protocols to his team. In an hour and a half, we will be at the seafloor, 2,500 meters (around 1.5 miles) below us. My mind races with images of hydrothermal vents, deep-sea animals, the instrumentation on the sub, and the list of objectives for this dive. This is unreal.

32 days at sea aboard the R/V Atlantis studying active and inactive hydrothermal vents at the East Pacific Rise (EPR) were full of unforgettable and transformative experiences. While this cruise was not directly related to my Master’s research here at OSU, where I’m studying a methane seep in Antarctica, working in remote chemosynthetic habitats unites them. In fact, these two sites couldn’t be more opposite. A high-temp, deep-sea, vent system near the equator to a cold-temp, shallow, seep system under the ice near the South Pole. Yet the skills I learned, the challenges I faced, and the patterns I observed are transferable in making me a better scientist and taught me critical thinking in understanding complex ecosystems.

A view of the dense hydrothermal cent community from the Alvin submersible!

From living isolated at sea and talking with peers and experts, to physically visiting the seafloor and sorting samples all day, deep-sea research cruises are one of the most intensive learning and self-realizing experiences. I learned my limits, my questions, my passions and my strengths, while fostering community, engaging in hands-on learning and being exposed to the remarkable progress of human ingenuity. I mean, humans going to the deep, dark, bottom of the ocean surrounded by immense pressure and toxic, superheated water as a hairless land-ape, is an incredible feat.

The Dream Team

Deep-sea research is inherently collaborative. Reaching sites hundreds of meters deep, and kilometers offshore is not cheap, nor quick. These expeditions are a joint effort between multiple institutions from different countries, with all sorts of disciplines, to make the most of every expedition. On this cruise we had scientists from 8 different universities across 3 countries that were biologists, ecologists, chemists, microbiologists, and geologists. If you had a question about the region, someone on board could answer it. Yet, at the same time, the appeal of deep-sea research is that there are so many unknowns. Just on this cruise we got to visit and name new sites that had only been seen through mapping data, and on the last cruise we discovered new species living at nearby inactive vents.

The incredible scientists on board the AT50-20 expedition in the tropical sunshine!

Being on board felt like such a privilege. While I was out at sea, I tried my best to talk to everyone to take advantage of this melting pot of experts, peers, and crew. I spoke with the captain about fishing over breakfast, prominent vent ecologists about the future of deep-sea mining over lunch, and with my peers about roommate horror stories over dinner. You live and work with these people for over a month, all working under the same goal, and develop close relationships. Some of these turn into friendships, others into future collaborations. Maybe I’ll see them at a conference, a talk, or another cruise. Everyone on board has a unique story of how they got there, what their day-to-day lives are like, and their life mottos. Spending this much time at sea takes a certain kind of person. Some of the crew and Alvin technicians spend 8 months out of the year on the water. While I find being in the middle of the ocean cathartic as a break from societal pressures, chores, and cooking, it’s also difficult to miss out on life achievements, communicate with friends and family, and only have 150 feet in one direction to walk.

Finding my Purpose in the Sea

This cruise was a unique one to me.  I was invited to return to sea with my previous undergraduate advisor, and boss, Dr. Shawn Arellano. I had been her research technician for the past two years, but now as a Master’s student in Dr. Andrew Thurber’s Lab, I thought I had moved on to do new things. Having been on the project’s previous cruise to the same site in 2022, I felt like I had a strong understanding of the project and the at-sea protocols for the lab. I was welcomed back by familiar faces and introduced to new ones. I felt like an asset to the team, where I could lead teams, mentor new students, and contribute ideas from my past experiences.

Small organisms we found attached to our experimental plates. Photos by Dr. Tanika Ladd.

While incredible, the difficulty of these expeditions is often glossed over. Sure, there are lulls in the workload as different instruments are deployed or days of transit with nothing to do, but generally it’s exhausting. The effort required for a successful research expedition means we try to do as much as we can while we’re at each study site. At the end of this cruise, me and a few other scientists sorted under the microscope for 12 hours a day, for 8 days straight. This was necessary to collect any animals that had attached to our deployed polycarbonate (plastic) plates before handing them to our microbiologist collaborators. They would then do microbial analyses on these plates back on shore to assess the bacterial and archaeal groups present. My back might never recover from this microscope work combined with the small, flat, bunk beds we sleep in on the ship. We worked 100-hour work weeks with 20 Alvin dives, sorted 231 of these plates, dissected hundreds of mussels, filtered hundreds of liters of water, and coordinated outreach efforts. It was not easy. The pressures of life outside the ship, being overworked, over socialized, never feeling clean, and limited alone time, can be overwhelming. It’s intensive, but also so rewarding.

As a scientist, I want to understand how it all works, how it became, and what it means, but as an artist, I also just want to share the beauty.

Dexter Davis

It was all worth it because being surrounded by so much discovery and science is inspiring. As we bring up giant tube worms to dissect, put deep-sea larvae into pressurized behavioral chambers, dissolve basalt rocks into solution and swab vent chimneys to culture bacteria, I can’t help but become captivated with the ocean. The uniqueness of these habitats, the adaptations required of the animals that live there, and the complex interactions between them invoke wonder and appreciation. As a scientist, I want to understand how it all works, how it became, and what it means, but as an artist, I also just want to share the beauty. These animals are unlike anything I’ve seen before; with jungle-forming clusters, vivid iridescence scales and tissues, and terrifying mouths and eyes, or lack thereof; each species feels like its own horror movie star or Pokémon design. Through drawing, photography, videography, blogging, or other media, I don’t want to hold on to them for myself, I want to share these incredible creatures and locations with others.

Some of the colorful worms (Polychaetes) common at these hydrothermal vents

Overall, this cruise was incredible, and I thank Dr. Thurber for advocating for me, and Dr. Arellano for inviting me and supporting me to get back out there. If you want to read more about the research that we conducted out there, I would check out Dr. Thurber’s blog that I updated regularly throughout the journey, or Dr. Arellano’s blog and website. If you have any questions, want to talk more about the deep-sea, or share at-sea stories please send me an email!  davisdex@oregonstate.edu. Follow me on Instagram @djdavis123!

Underwater photographs belong to Shawn Arellano, Chief scientist, Western Washington University; Alvin Operations Group; National Science Foundation; © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. EPR Biofilms4Larvae project is a multi-institutional NSF grant: OCE-1948580 (Arellano), OCE-1947735 (Mullineaux), OCE-1948623 (Vetriani). Also find us on Instagram @larvallab, #Biofilms4Larvae.

The Inactive Sulfides project is a multi-institutional NSF grant: OCE-2152453 (Mullineaux & Beaulieu), OCE-2152422 (Sylvan & Achberger). Also find us on Instagram @jasonsylvan, #LifeAfterVents.