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March 18, 2003: Leg 3, Day #7

Today's update was prepared by Edie Widder as a dispatch to her home institution, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, in Fort Pierce, Florida. If you'd like to read more of her dispatches, please visit http://www.at-sea.org.html. Edie is also an Adjunct Scientist at MBARI and has been working with us for many years.   

An embarrassing question
@sea in the Sea of Cortez
By Edie Widder 

During their collecting mission to the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck and Ricketts and the rest of the crew of the Western Flyer made most of their collections on low tides. With their bent over posture and slow head-scanning movements, they would inevitably draw questions from the locals. 

“What did you lose?” 


“Then what do you search for?” 

Mar18_siphonophore.jpg (34193 bytes)In “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” Steinbeck goes on to say, “And this is an embarrassing question. We search for something that will seem like truth to us, we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relation of things, one to another.”   

But in the end, that was not the answer they gave. Instead, they said they were searching for curios—things that could be sold in the United States. It wasn’t true, but it seemed to make more sense than the truth. 

Mar18_pix2.jpg (35384 bytes)All of us aboard this vessel have faced that same embarrassing question. My seatmate on the flight down to La Paz asked it. We all know from experience that the answer “we search for the relation of things” is unsatisfactory. Acceptable answers are, “We search for a cure for cancer,” or “We search for a cure for global warming.” And so we adjust our answer according to our audience. Seatmates on airplanes are a captive audience and therefore can be inflicted with a bit more than the sound bite they might have been hoping for. My seatmate got an earful about our voyage of discovery to the largest and least explored frontier of our planet, the ocean’s midwater. This is a world filled with magnificent alien creatures, and it seems to me that the thrill of being the first person to see an animal or a behavior never before observed should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. Too many people believe that our Mar18_pix3.jpg (60374 bytes)planet has been explored and that the only remaining frontier is outer space.  It’s not true. Not by a long shot. But it is difficult to connect with an audience that has no experience with the things you describe, so when my seatmate’s eyes began to glaze over, I took pity on him. Perhaps if I’d had pictures, I could have made him understand. 

We have many advantages over Steinbeck and Ricketts in terms of our collecting technology, not the least of which is our imagery. Although the first Western Flyer carried cameras, both still and movie, they lacked a competent photographer in their party and virtually none of their attempts at photo documentation proved usable. The ROV Tiburon bristles with modern cameras that provide instant gratification. We have been out less than a week, and we have already collected almost 100 hours of video and numbers of still images. These images are a big part of what we are looking for as they provide important insight into the relation of things. They are particularly valuable for documenting the fragile midwater fauna—the jellies that used to be known only as the goo at the bottom of the net.  

Mar18_stomias.jpg (40320 bytes)My own particular interest is the animals that make light, so it was especially exciting for me on our very first dive as we collected close-up images of a dragon fish called Stomias atriventer. This fish has a bioluminescent chin barbel that juts straight out in front of its mouth. Three prongs splay out from the end of the barbell. Sometimes these remain rigid, and other times they arch backwards as the fish swims. Using the suction sampler, we captured the fish and brought it back up to the lab, where I recorded the best bioluminescence I’ve ever seen from one of these fish. It probably won’t cure cancer or solve global warming, but it is truth to me, and it is the real answer to why I am here—for the chance to see things that no one has ever seen before and “to search for the relation of things.”Mar18_jelly.jpg (36566 bytes)



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