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Mission Blue: Rough Weather at Roughtongue Reef

On the Survivors of the Spill expedition’s first full day at sea, wind and waves conspired to keep the Deepworker sub out of the ocean–but the Medusa marine lander made a successful first drop onto Roughtongue Reef. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle and Harte Research Institute ecologist Thomas Shirley recount the day.
Medusa coming up from surfaceAfter long minutes scanning the water, the team spots the Medusa bobbing at the surface and prepares to retrieve it.
BY SYLVIA EARLE and TOM SHIRLEY
Earle: We had a rough time at Roughtongue Reef, but a good success story, too. Edie Widder’s wonderful machine, Medusa, went over the side at 7 o’clock this morning and we picked it up at about 5 o’clock this afternoon. It’s loaded with images of what was going on at the bottom of the sea.
Shirley: This was the first test of the Medusa, and it worked: It went to the bottom of the sea–and it came back! It came back flashing red lights that shine for her camera system, looking like a big red-eyed monster as it came up through the water.
medusa's red lightsMedusa’s red lights illuminate deep-sea creatures for its video camera without disrupting their behavior.
Earle: The red is important because bright lights disturb the creatures in the deep sea where it’s typically dark. They don’t know what these bright lights are all about, but a red light is basically not visible to many of these creatures, so it’s less obtrusive. You get more of a natural kind of reaction from the animals that are there, and that’s of course what you want. You want to get some idea of what is actually going on in the sea, rather than a distorted view.
I hope tomorrow we’re going to be able to deploy it in even deeper water.
We were not able to get the little sub in the water today. Tom and I were planning to take the plunge and go off into the same area where we deployed Medusa, but because the wind came up, the waves came up, it was just a little too risky to try to put the sub in with a rising wind, rising waves. If it had been just the opposite–started out a little choppy and then diminished–we might’ve gotten away with deploying it. As it was, we just have to wait it out.
removing Medusa's camera bottleBrandy Nelson and Edie Widder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association remove Medusa’s precious camera bottle after the drop on Roughtongue Reef.
Shirley: I’m glad that we weren’t coming up in these rough waves this afternoon. Once again, Mother Ocean reminded us about her power, and despite our best-laid plans, who really makes the decisions.
Earle: That’s right. And how every scrap of information you actually drag out of the ocean comes with considerable effort. Nothing is really easy. But it’s all worthwhile, and very exciting, when you finally do get results.
Shirley: We spent a lot of time looking at maps, emailing colleagues who have researched in this area, and also philosophizing with my other marine biologists on board.
Earle: Part of the joy of this expedition is the time that you get to spend with people with shared interests, and finding new friends, those with interests that don’t exactly line up with your own. You grow as a consequence.
Medusa's video recorderMedusa records onto a tinydigital video recorder.
Shirley: I met a sub pilot on the boat today I didn’t know was a sub pilot. We had been on a research cruise before, about 40 years ago.
Earle: 40?
Shirley: It was 1974 I think. Not quite 40, but close.
Earle: You were both little kids…
Shirley: Yes–that’s one way to think about it!
We have good plans for tomorrow. We’re underway, steaming to a new site. We have plans to deploy the Medusa again, and we have plans to use the dual Deepworker again tomorrow.
Earle: We not only had rain, high winds, high waves, but we also had a rainbow today. Maybe that bodes well for tomorrow. I’ll just think of it that way.
viewing what Medusa recordedWriter Mark Schrope gapes at marine life recorded by the Medusa at Roughtongue Reef as Edie Widder looks on.
Support for the Mission Blue Gulf of Mexico expedition is provided by the National Geographic Society, Google Inc., the Waitt Institute, and Hope Spots LLC. Follow along in context by clicking on the ship icon near Pensacola, Florida using Google Earth.
Read all Mission Blue expedition coverage here.
Photos by Ford Cochran