National Geographic : 2004 Jun
on our planet, and yet it's still the most unex plored. That's why every time we come out here, we're almost guaranteed to find something new. We're like 19th-century explorers, out here in a world no one has seen before." The team members aren't just trying to bag new oddities from the sea; they're seeking to understand the canyon's overall deepwater ecol ogy and the natural history of the animals they encounter. "There are animals down here that scientists know about because they've caught them in their trawling nets" Robison says. "But no one has seen them swim, feed, or reproduce. Now look at us. We're filming every move this guy makes. We'll be able to study that later and try to make some sense of him." Just then an inch-long, white butt worm (so-named because of its resemblance to a cigarette butt) drifts into view. Instantly Robi son's colleagues break into an eager and lusty chorus: "Eat it! Eat it! Eat the butt worm!" Spurred by Challenger'sbiological trove, other researchers began dragging and dredging to search the seas for exotica. "And that's what people did for about a hundred years," Robison says early the morning after we saw the mystery mollusk, as we watch the ship's crew prepare Tiburon for another dive. "We used to bring up all kinds of dead and beaten-up animals, little bits of white goo and jelly stuck to the nets. We had no idea what they were, although there were tantalizing hints. Things like, 'Wow! This piece of Jell-O caught this fish! How did it do that?'" Other pieces of Jell-O were "breathtakingly beautiful," Robison recalls, "like holding a bit of rainbow in my hand or discovering a feather without ever having seen a bird. What kind of forest ecologist would settle for that?" Robison found a way into the ocean's forest via submersibles, first with a manned expedi tion and later using remotely operated vehicles "We used to bring up all kinds of dead and beaten-up animals, little bits of white goo and jelly stuck to the nets." But the mystery mollusk does not. No ten tacle shoots out. No poisoned dart is launched to grab what other residents of the deep-and apparently some of Flyer's scientists-regard as a tasty meal. The beast merely continues its curious undulations, oblivious to the crea tures from above who so hungrily monitor its every move. Scientists began an earnest exploration of deep-ocean marine life in 1872 when the British government sent H.M.S. Challengeron a three and-a -half-year voyage around the world with a charter to discover what lurked in the waters below. As implausible as it may seem today, researchers then generally deemed the deep-sea environment little more than a watery desert, too harsh to support life. Many were thus aston ished when, after dragging her nets from ocean to ocean and dredging the seafloor, Challenger returned stuffed to her gunwales with more than 4,000 new species. There were bizarrely shaped sea stars and worms, fantastic crabs and fishes, in cluding anglerfish from whose forehead sprout ed a stalk with a dangling, bioluminescent lure. 44 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2004 (ROVs) like Tiburon and its older sibling, Ven tana.With their video and still cameras, remote sensing gear, and collecting equipment, ROVs can gather enormous amounts of data. Robison says he used to tell people what he saw on the manned submersible dives. "No one believed me," he laughs. "Now I show them the photographs-and sometimes the specimen." Below us Tiburon, yellow and blue, and about the size of a small SUV, sits tethered in Flyer's center hull. Two of the crew give the ROV a final check before its dive, and Robison ducks into the control room to man his station. An opera tor seated at a crane above the submersible lifts the vehicle from the ship's floor. The hinged floor opens, revealing a sloshing square of turquoise. He positions Tiburon above the square. It dan gles there, swinging in time with the rhythm of the ship and the sea. "We're ready for release," says ROV pilot David French, radioing to the control room. "Any time then," the word comes back. A moment later Tiburon splashes into the water and quickly disappears.