Zach Coopers' Blog

Monday, August 14, 2017
Zac Cooper

Here, life never sees the sun and boiling towers fuel the ecosystem of strange and majestic organisms.

Zach Sampling Deep Sea Fluids

UW Oceanography graduate student Zach Cooper works to set up a CTD to sample deep-sea fluids and the microbes that thrive in the cold, near freezing waters of the NE Pacific. Credit: Sasha Seroy, University of Washington, V17.

Seas off the Bow of the Revelle

Overcast skies and calm seas viewed off the bow of the R/V Roger Revelle. Credit: Z. Cooper, University of Washington.

The long transit to Axial Seamount was full of ups and downs. Literally. The motion of the ship had me out of it for most of the day. Once we got to the base of Axial and stopped, I was able to get myself prepared to get some work done. The base of Axial is roughly 2600 m deep. At this depth, the water reaches a brisk temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius, which might seem extremely cold, but it is perfect for my interests. I study microorganisms that thrive in the cold, mainly in the Arctic or Antarctic, but the deep sea (below 1000 m) is also relatively cold with a near constant temperature averaging about 4 degrees Celsius. The world’s oceans from the Southern to the Arctic are connected by a vast, frigid environment.

The seawater at the base of Axial Seamount is connected to the Polar Seas in a figurative, slow-moving conveyor of cold water. As the ship arrived at this site, we casted a CTD with bottles that can be triggered to catch water at any depth. I collected water (with the help of my fellow scientists) from roughly 2600 meters, where the water was a chilly 1.8 degrees Celsius. From this water, I filtered a large volume leaving behind only viruses, which I will bring back to my lab to be used to attempt to isolate a virus from the deep sea that infects a polar bacterium. I also collected and plated samples to attempt to assess the ability of deep sea microbes to utilize freely available DNA by supplying them with DNA that would allow them to overcome a potentially toxic environment that I subjected them to. These tests will allow me to gain a better understanding of the connectedness of the organisms inhabiting the deep and polar seas as well as giving me some insight into the ability of deep sea organisms to adapt to their environments. It was refreshing to have the opportunity to conduct microbiological experiments in the midst of a technology-driven physical and geological cruise.

On the opposite end of the temperature spectrum, we arrived later in the day at the ASHES hydrothermal vent field in the caldera of the volcano that is Axial Seamount. The waters in the deep reach temperatures greater than 300 degrees Celsius while remaining liquid due to the pressure of the of the overlying ocean. It has been incredible to see the technology being placed to monitor these sites. I am particularly impressed by the finesse that is involved with placing equipment precisely on the seafloor using a robotic submarine. It is truly immersive to be in the control van of the ROV, where you can see the environment from any of at least 8 different angles. It is like being there in person on the seafloor, up close and personal with the seemingly alien life and structures of the deep. Here, life never sees the sun and boiling towers fuel the ecosystem of strange and majestic organisms.

Sulfidic towers
Extreme heat drives bizarre life
Hydrothermal vents

August 12, 2017

Pickle netting and mosquitoes. Not what I expected to be involved with out at sea, but that’s what I did last night. The pyrosomes or “sea pickles” that I described seeing yesterday were of interest to some scientists that knew about the cruise, and when they heard that we were seeing a lot of them, samples were requested. So, I was instructed to grab a net and scoop “pickles” out of the water. It was a fun task, and with the help of Dr. Kelley and Michelle spotting pickles, we collected a few which were frozen and saved to be sent in for study.

Later, during my watch shift, the mosquitoes came into play. A mosquito is a benthic sampling device that injects needles of various length into the seafloor to measure fluid flow rate within the sediments. Two of these devices, constructed by Theresa, were taken to the seafloor in a basket carried by Jason. They were carefully placed on the seafloor over a mat of Beggiatoa (chemolithoautotrophic colonial bacteria that use sulfide produced from methane consumption in their metabolism) covering an area of methane hydrates. The data from these devices allow us to understand how these bacteria get the elements needed to survive from the sediments below. The deployment process was very delicate, and everyone in the control van was tense for the duration of the process. As soon as the pin was pulled to drop the needles and the deployment was considered a success (after several hours of careful maneuvering) everyone erupted in cheers and sighs of relief.

After all this excitement, I slept in and took the day to read outside and sit on the bow of the ship enjoying the breeze as we continue on our 19 hour steam to Axial Seamount.

A gentle sea breeze
Coffee and a book to read
Relaxed on the ship

August 11, 2017

The midnight to four shift continues to be on my mind, and it dictates how I plan my daily activities. I sleep late and wake up for lunch if I’m not too tired. Honestly, it’s actually not too bad. Maybe I should always work at night. This schedule also allows me to spend my day catching up on some fun activities, like playing ping pong (which is a whole new game on a half-sized impromptu table with the ship rocking) or reading a book. I’ve also had the chance to help with deck activities and to collect animal specimens that tag along on the ride up with Jason.

Sasha and I have collected and preserved two sea urchins and a sea star. We also found a pyrosome (a bioluminescent filter feeding tunicate colony) that came from the water column, but it was too large (and still alive) to keep, so we released it back to the depths. The site we’ve been sitting at today is above Southern Hydrate Ridge, a field of methane hydrates buried in the sea floor that release methane that feeds giant bacterial mats that span the area. One of the most impressive qualities of these sites, to me, is being able to physically see the interactions of bacteria and geochemistry.

A haiku made with assistance from Sasha and Chanelle about the day:

Pyrosome jelly
JASON surfaces again
Things are looking up

August 10, 2017

Today is the second full day we’ve been at sea. After boarding the ship on the 8th, we sat at the dock in Newport for a night, and waited to embark until the following morning at 0900. The weather has been mostly calm and predominately foggy, but even with small waves it takes a while to get past seasickness. I’m getting more used to the constant rocking but the queasiness still comes in waves.

Each of the students aboard in the science party sits a watch shift in the ROV (Jason) control van. My shift is from midnight to 0400 every morning. This was daunting at first, but the shift flew by as operations were continuous through the shift. It was amazing to be present, watching the coordination of the crew members in maneuvering Jason at the seafloor from the surface. Last night the operations during my shift were to place a new Benthic Experiment Package and recover one that had been placed the year before. This whole process takes about six hours if everything goes according to plan, and operations continue around the clock. Tasks that would seem very simple, such as opening a door can be much more complex when there are constant concerns of kicking up ooze from the bottom that can obscure visibility.

During the day, I wander around the ship helping with tasks if needed, such as spraying off recovered equipment, or just enjoying the calmness of the ocean and observing the albatross that have flocked around waiting for scraps. I try to take naps or read if I have free time. We’ll see what routine I get into as the leg continues. Hopefully the bouts of seasickness subside.

A haiku I wrote about obtaining sea legs:

When the whole world shakes,
Everything seems steady.
Always balancing.