Marine scientist Amy Kukulya is standing on the deck of the coastal research vessel Tioga explaining how a small device the size of a five-foot torpedo can map the ocean floor.
We are out in the waters of Buzzards Bay off the coast of Massachusetts, testing a REMUS 100. Various versions of these small devices were used to locate the wreckage of doomed Air France Flight 447 in the deep Atlantic Ocean and now have multiple uses from looking for geothermal traces of underwater volcanic eruptions to tracking the migrations of sharks. Today we are going to “mow the lawn” with a REMUS 100. That means the scientists will send it back and forth over a patch of seabed to record what’s there. We are mapping the remains of a World War II-era Helldiver bomber that crashed into the ocean. Under the direction of Deep Ocean Exploration Institute chief Dan Fornari, the REMUS device goes into the choppy water and then swims off on its own to transmit data back to the ship.
I am in heaven watching the experiment. Ocean science is my passion, and the best scientists in the field are at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I follow every voyage and expedition and am glued to their website—watching their polar discovery work with cult-like fascination. The reports from the Arctic and Antarctica on marine ecosystems and sea ice have inspired my own trips to the high arctic.Some of the most creative work in oceanography is done at the idyllic seaside campus in Massachusetts—a team of geologists, physicists, marine biologists and climate experts dreams up devices to explore the deep ocean. It’s important work. According to NOAA –the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and yet 95 percent of the underwater world has never been explored. This is the last great frontier.
I didn’t come to WHOI – the acronym for the institute – via the science lab. A few years ago I began writing a series of international adventure novels with exploration themes. Casting around for a cool profession for my female protagonist, I came up with the idea of a Woods Hole scientist who worked on the Alvin submersible. I wanted to pick a character with intellect and spunk, who had a glamorous job that was important to the future of the planet. What could convey cool confidence more than a woman who descended in a sphere the size of a Mini Cooper, traveling three miles underwater to study marine life? It turns out there is such a real person. During my research I met Susan Humphris, one of the superstars at the Institution, who helped me fine- tune my character Cordelia. The fictional oceanographer became wildly popular with my readers, who demanded I fill in more information about her job in upcoming novels. So here I am finding out more.
For such a serious research facility, WHOI is remarkably glamorous. These days the Institute is attracting the solid support of many philanthropists, including the filmmaker James Cameron, who recently donated his uber-cool deep sea diving machine to the folks at WHOI. The filmmaker made history last year by helping design a lemon-lime-colored, one-manned underwater “rocket” and riding it down into the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point. Nice, but, I’m an Alvin fan. The Wood’s Hole Submersible brings out my inner Jules Verne. The first one was built in 1964 – one of the first submersibles in the world. The current version can reach 63 percent of the global ocean floor, carrying two scientists and a pilot. The vehicle has six reversible thrusters and can manoeuver over the mountain-like topography, or even rest on the bottom, cutting through the gloom with its quartz iodide and metal halide lights. Take that Captain Nemo. Best of all, the vehicle has video capacity and can transfer its images topside for the world to see. It is truly one of the most splendid things I have seen.
Back on the Research Vessel Tioga, the REMUS 100 has hit a snag. A ruggedized computer in the pilothouse of the ship is showing a grid pockmarked with squares of red. Those bright patches tell Amy Kukulya that water is coming in at a few places in the device. The mission has to be aborted to check out if the signals are correct. It seems that seawater and electronics don’t mix. While the REMUS is recalled, Amy explains the latest fun they’ve had with the REMUS technology. And what fun it is! Tapped by the Discovery Chanel for their famous “Shark Week” programs, the REMUS was fitted out by WHOI with a special “shark cam” to follow great whites. The idea of a shark camera had been under development at WHOI since 2008.
It’s very complicated stuff to program a device to track the random wanderings of such a wild animal. The first open water tests for the great white projects had all the elements of comedy. A scientist in a wet suit and wearing a transponder would play an advanced game of Marco Polo with the REMUS, responding electronically each time the devise sent out an electronic inquiry. Computer algorithms had to be calculated and recalculated to keep the REMUS on track—not too high in the water, or too close to the ocean floor, able to follow a swiftly mving target. A very delicate balance must be found—that takes some serious math!
Back on the Tioga the REMUS is hauled dripping onto the deck. Amy Kukulya smiles and says, “There goes the weekend.” They will haul the REMUS 100 back into the lab to find out what ails it. That’s the non-glamorous side of the field: the long, frustrating hours of try, try, try again. Yet, it is amazing to see it all come to fruition. I am once again struck by the tenacity and intelligence of this remarkable group of geniuses. They dream big. And luckily for all of us who share this little oceanic planet, they think deep. Kitty Pilgrim is an award-winning international journalist whose romantic mystery novel, The Explorer’s Code, features a character who works on the Alvin Submersible at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.