2010 SouthernExpedition

Day 1 – D-ESP gets underway
July 22, 2010

On the Mound
Latitude N 33° 47.944’
Longitude W 118° 38.852’

"It’s as nail-biting as sending a robot to Mars. Except I hope we get it back in four days." Those were my thoughts as a series of remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots maneuvered the 1600 kilogram Deep Environmental Sample Processor (D-ESP) onto the very pinnacle of an underwater mountain, a 1.8 by 1.8 meter semi-flat table of crust. This maneuver was handled with the deftness of a brain surgeon as these pilots deposited the D-ESP in the best place to study the effects of a naturally occurring methane seep—on the summit of a ‘pimple’ on the sea floor, over 800 meters (2600 feet) deep.

We are a team of microbiologists and engineers who have designed and built a machine, the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), that functions as a complete microbiology laboratory in a can. The D-ESP is special, as it lives in a unique pressure housing, a 1.2 meter sphere of titanium designed by our mechanical engineer extraordinaire, Doug Pargett, to withstand the pressures of the ocean down to four kilometers deep (thus the "D" for Deep). This unique housing has people affectionately calling it the "Death Star," a fact not lost on the Los Angeles harbor patrol and police, as several slow helicopter passes over our stern yesterday in port made it clear we were being "checked out." Despite it's ominous appearance, the real function of the D-ESP is much more prosaic: it will sample water both on top of and off this mound to help researchers understand how methane-enriched waters influence both microbial function and diversity.

Scott Jensen preparing the D-ESP for deployment.

The day began with an uneventful cruise under gray skies to a spot due south of Malibu and due west of Torrance in southern California. The crew of the Western Flyer worked with their typical aplomb at dropping the D-ESP over the side—there is not a science deployment they haven’t seen and there is never a worry that they won't get equipment over the side and back onboard. The 1600 kilogram D-ESP, which weighs only 36 kilograms in water due to the flotation from foam and the sphere itself, took about 22 minutes to reach the bottom. We then launched the ROV and were surprised with some stunning images of the methane "mound" and some equipment from two long-term experiments left on the mound since March. Those instruments seemed to have sprouted hair everywhere. Each was covered in a fine, hair-like mat that, when seen from afar, gave them a ghost-like, other-worldly appearance. These are most likely from filamentous bacteria, but we won’t know for sure until we recover each instrument, slated for later this trip.

The D-ESP being launched off the Western Flyer.
Doug Pargett after the release.

After getting the D-ESP situated, Bill Ussler began some incubation experiments to see the food preference of methanotrophic bacteria. "Why in the world would anyone want to know that?", you may ask. I did. But Bill patiently explained that if we know how microbes metabolize methane and hydrocarbons, this insight might be used to understand how we might harness these microbes to produce food or methanol as an energy source, much as we've harnessed microbes to manufacture insulin and other drugs.

Chris Scholin and Bill Ussler discussing the intricacies of methane production.

We ended the ROV dive finding a small glitch in a critical subsystem of the D-ESP but a software work-around has been developed and will be pushed down to the ESP tomorrow. This was the only tarnish on an otherwise sterling day. The analogy we came up with was we made it through the first inning: they didn’t score, we got some people on base but fouled-out before scoring. Score is still 0-0. Inning two tomorrow.

—Jim Birch

Instruments left for four months atop the mound.

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Leg 1

R/V Western Flyer

The R/V Western Flyer is a small water-plane area twin hull (SWATH) oceanographic research vessel measuring 35.6 meters long and 16.2 meters wide. It was designed and constructed for MBARI to serve as the support vessel for ROV operations. Her missions include the Monterey Bay as well as extended cruises to Hawaii, Gulf of California and the Pacific Northwest.

ROV Doc Ricketts

ROV Doc Ricketts is MBARI's next generation ROV. The system breaks new ground in providing an integrated unmanned submersible research platform, with many powerful features providing efficient, reliable and precise sampling and data collection in a wide range of missions.

Deep ESP

The ESP is a self-contained robotic laboratory that collects samples of seawater and tests these samples for different types of microorganisms, either their genetic material, such as DNA, or proteins they may secrete, such as toxins from a harmful algae bloom. Because of the immense pressure in the deep sea, MBARI's researchers had to build a special pressure housing to protect the delicate instrument. They also had to design and build an automated system to "depressurize" seawater before it could be introduced into the ESP.

CTD Rosette

A CTD rosette is a cylindrical frame holding a group of plastic water-sampling tubes. Attached to this frame are instruments for measuring water temperature and conductivity (salinity) at various depths. Also attached to the rosette are instruments for measuring parameters such as chlorophyll, nutrients, and particulate matter in the water. As the frame is lowered over the side of a ship, water samples are taken automatically at various depths. Then the frame is raised to the surface again.

Push cores

A push-core looks like a clear plastic tube with a rubber handle on one end. Just as its name implies, the push core is pushed down into loose sediment using ROV Tiburon's manipulator arm. As the sediment fills up the core, water exits out the top through one-way valves. When the core is pulled up again, these valves close, which (most of the time) keeps the sediment from sliding out of the core tube. When we bring these cores back to the surface, we typically look for living animals and organic material in the sediments.

 Research Team

chris scholinChris Scholin
President and CEO, MBARI

After earning his PhD in Biological Oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chris came to MBARI as a Postdoctoral Fellow. In 1994 he joined the MBARI staff as a Scientist with a focus on development and application of molecular probes for detection of a variety of waterborne microbes, in particular toxic and harmful algae. Working collaboratively with a team of engineers, his group pioneered development of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), an instrument that collects water samples autonomously, concentrates microorganisms and automates application of molecular probes to detect particular species and substances they produce. In November 2009, Chris was made MBARI's President/CEO.

jim birch Jim Birch
Director of SURF Center, MBARI

Jim joined MBARI as Instrumentation Lead Manager. He currently serves as Director of MBARI's Sensors: Underwater Research of the Future (SURF) Center. The theme for the center is the continued development, extension, and applications of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP).

scott jensenScott Jensen
ESP Systems Lead Engineer, MBARI

doug pargett Doug Pargett
Deep-water Operations Lead Engineer, MBARI

brent romanBrent Roman
System Control Lead Engineer, MBARI

Brent has been playing with computers and control systems since the late 1970s. He wrote embedded control software for video tape editing while attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he earned a B.S. in Computer and Information Sciences in 1985. His main technical interests are computer operating systems, languages and feedback control systems. Brent wrote most of the custom software driving the current generation of the Environmental Sample Processor. He also enjoys sailing.

chris prestonChris Preston
Senior Research Technician, MBARI

bill usslerBill Ussler
Senior Research Specialist, MBARI

burczynskiMike Burczynski
Instrumentation Technician/ROV Pilot, MBARI

Mike has worked at MBARI for over 10 years in a variety of technician roles including Research Technician, Instrumentation Technician, Marine Operations Technician, and ROV Pilot. His current role combines all his previous experience in support of the Marine Operations Division. Mike's main task on this cruise will be to operate one of our CTD rosettes profilers on a hydrowire of the stern of the ship. As the instrument package is lowered through the water column, it will collect a variety of physical and chemical data from the array of sensors that are mounted on the rosette. The package will also collect water samples at specified depths that are brought back to the surface and analyzed in the ships lab by scientists.

Suni Shah
US Naval Research Laboratory

Suni is currently at the US Naval Research Laboratory but soon to be a NOSAMS postdoctoral scholar at WHOI. Her main goal on this cruise is to operate and maintain the in situ mass spectrometer (ISMS) that will be deployed with the D-ESP. The ISMS was developed by Peter Girguis, a former MBARI scientist who was on her doctoral committee at Harvard University in 2008. It will detect dissolved gases in seawater, like methane and hydrogen sulfide.