Saba joins the Deep-sea Club


This is a funny story about a recent expedition to Saba Bank in the Netherlands Antilles. I’ve been engaged in a few of these over the last couple years, and each trip was funny in its own right. For instance the time we rode four hours each way in 12 foot seas to survey a barren sandy piece seafloor we couldn’t reach (~125′). That was bad. I hovered 40 minutes with a whiteboard squinting at coralllimorphs 20 feet below in an unintended “blue dive”. If you missed past postings on Saba you can find them here and here.

The latest dive expedition was funny because our unofficial job was to help the Saba Bank Project join the “deep-sea club”. The plan was to collect gorgonians and crustaceans down to 200 m using a nifty little robot from Seabotix launched over the side of a local lobster boat. Like most coral reef habitats, most of the seafloor around the Saba Bank occurs in water deeper than 50 m. Scientists know very little about what’s going on in these deep unexplored reef systems.

So here we are on Saba Bank, committed to collecting as many gorgonians and crustaceans as possible in 10 days using two boats, a dive boat for shallow surveys, and a lobster boat for deep-water surveys. Nicky is our deep-water guide. He’s a Saban fisherman looking for a new deep-sea fishery he calls langostino, worth $23/pound. He operates a 30 foot schooner called the Jackie Jane. For a week, we’re gonna fight the weather and the currents with Nicky to drop this ROV no bigger than a lawnmower down to 200 m, hoping somehow to plant the flag of Saba Island in the deep-sea, and retrieve some deep invertebrata.

Nicky’s wired up a few traps to do some experimental fishing with my advisor Tom Shirley, a crustacean guru, Herman Wirshing from RSMAS, and Morgan Kilgour, my fellow doc student. I’m on the dive boat with Juan Sanchez (U Andes) mulling over how best to spoof the Russian antics in the Arctic abyss.

Nicky drops traps off the lobster boat down to 400 m depth, baited with ballyhoo and cat food. The rest of the day the ROV brings up one or two nice gorgonians. They break an anchor line. That night, Nicky welds a new anchor from rebar. Next days, the ROV operators (Wes Toller and Shelley Lundvall) get better and better at fighting the chop, current, and spring in the tether line. They bring up lots of great stuff, including a new species of deep-water sea fan, but the ROV never makes it past 100m. Even under the calm conditions, the little ROV couldn’t make it down to 200 m.

Then, the third or fourth day out Tom and Nicky pull up a giant isopod, Bathynomus giganteus from 400 m depth. Nothing says deep-sea like a creepy-looking reeky-stinking wriggly giant isopod. So, bam!, whattya know, Saba joins the “deep-sea club”.

Here’s to Nicky, Tom, Morgan, and the Jackie Jane, looking ever deeper for their prey. Here’s to crustaceans, pots and traps, and catfood. No deep gorgonian will ever jump in a cage, dangit. Catfood? You gotta be kiddin’ me.

bathynomus_sm%20copy.jpgTom and Nicky like those deep-sea shrimp cooked best on the manifold, very nice, and very tasty. If only those big old morays and conger eels would keep out of the cage, so the $23 we paid for that one pound of langostino doesn’t all go towards the gas. It’s a living, anyway, and a nice day at sea cruising the Bank with three islands on the horizon. Go there to Saba sometime if you get a chance. The water’s crystal clear most of the year.

The Saba Bank story is just starting to get some press now at University of Miami RSMAS.
The local paper called my dinner presentation “enthralling”, perhaps the nicest thing ever said about a sea-fan lecture. There must have been good wine going around that evening?