Back to the future
Bringing the ROV back to the surface today was like coming back to the future… ten to twenty thousand years in the future, to a time where the ocean is now more than 60 meters deeper than it once was. Today’s dive mission was archaeological exploration at an interesting geological formation (noticed on the multibeam maps). Relatively quickly we noticed that the sediments had a larger particle size, and we also passed over a field of larger rocks. To an untrained eye, portions of the topography looked like tiny riverbeds, where there seemed to be patterns of flow (whether moving water in currents, or wind).
Our multi-hour dive took us over what looked like ledges of sedimentary rock that reminded me of sandstone and clay formations I’d seen along sections of coast of the Chowan river in eastern North Carolina. These higher sections of the ocean-bed had a smoothed, pot-marked surface like slightly melted Swiss-cheese or the sand-blasted curves and cavities of the rocky southwest. Often rising rather abruptly from the dimpled (from box crab burrows) ocean floor, at one point the ledges stair-stepped to a higher plateau whose edges occasionally had deep cavities and caves that sheltered small schools of large grouper or conger eels.
Flying up from the plain below, you felt as if you were flying forward in time, tracing the path of the rising waters of the ocean. Seeing the changing layers from above afforded a rare perspective — something reminiscent of the feeling of smallness (but also incredible connection) I get when looking up at a pitch-black sky full of stars. Maybe the similarity came from the sense of ‘seeing the past’. When looking at the stars, the light that reaches our eyes is often from stars that no longer exist; when looking at the ocean floor today, I felt privileged to be able to seemingly fast-forward through the thousands of years it took the ocean to creep up the continental shelf to its present level (approximately 100 meters above our heads). And yet, creep isn’t the right word; the ocean is powerful, particularly at its edges where the waves crash and are capable of moving massive quantities of sand (the dynamic nature of North Carolina’s coast and Outer Banks is proof of this). It was hard for me to see the soft lines of the mud and to imagine the roughness of the procession of time that formed what I was seeing.
Late in the afternoon we dove on another shipwreck, but the highlight of the day for me came in the surprise that awaited us when we inspected the voucher specimens from the dive. Looking at a mussel covered in tiny anemones in the white light of the wet lab, Esprit suddenly had an idea — “I bet these glow in the dark!” She had noticed pale rims of color at the base of their tentacles, and sure enough, after a search for a black light … we discovered that they FLUORESCE under UV light! It was fascinating to see the bright yellow and pinkish-orange glow around the oral opening of these tiny creatures. Esprit told us that other cnidarian species similarly fluoresce to attract prey. How cool!?!