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Entry for October 11, 2007

The humidity has eased up a lot today. The sky is bluer and we sweat far less when working outside. The ocean remains remarkably calm with clouds and islands perfectly reflecting in its surface, and on a day like this I can think of few other places as beautiful as the Celebes Sea. We also saw four sperm whales today. They were spouting and diving deep, probably feeding on squid.

Amidst the beauty and the whales, we continue to work hard and around the clock as we deconstruct the Celebes through our research and observations. Another all nighter for many of the scientists, with a ten hour ROV dive to 3000 meters that finished at 2:00 a.m. We are discovering likely new species, but the final determination will come later once we are back on shore and can confirm our photographs and DNA analysis. Suffice it to say, the deep sea here is revealing many secrets.

Except for the amazing animals we are finding in the deep, the floor of the Celebes is unremarkable. Like most flat deep areas of the world's oceans, it is covered in sediment made up of fine particulate matter that has drifted down for millions of years, making a kind of moon dust or deep sea mud. As
the ROV lands, it creates a cloud that rises up and blocks our view for a few minutes until it settles. Except for steep drop offs and seamounts, there are few rocks visible in the deep sea, because they were long ago buried by this ooze. The ooze is comprised, among other things, of silica remnants
from oceanic plants called phytoplankton. Phytoplankton acquires silica as it grows and uses the silica to build the cell walls. When the plankton dies, the silica remains, and that portion that is not taken up again in the growth of new plankton in shallow water drifts down in this misty sedimentary rain at a rate of about 100 feet a day. It is these ancient microscopic skeletons that we see all over the seafloor mixed in with other material.

Tucker Trawl deployed in Celebes to 3,000 feet
The deep sea is very stable. Because of this and its very remoteness, both physically and psychologically, the deep sea has been an attractive place for the disposal of waste over the years, bringing new meaning to the term "out of sight, out of mind." If people could see under the ocean like we can see on land, we would not use the deep sea for this purpose. The opaqueness of the ocean is partly its undoing. No one can see the depleted fish stocks, the destroyed sea bed from destructive fishing practices or the waste that piles up there--that is, until you bring a one million dollar ROV and a National Geographic expedition on site. A few days ago, we were surprised to see boxes, plastic, bottles, construction waste and other debris littering the seafloor near a coastal community. Mon Romero from WWF, who is on board with us, will be using that observation to help people of the region make alternate plans for their waste disposal. But further out in the Celebes, far from the human presence, where we were diving the ROV last night, the sea floor is pristine, and the environment and animals that live there looks like it probably did many thousands or even millions of years ago.

We are not doing an ROV dive today and instead deployed our 10 meter Tucker Trawl, which is a large net that we will lower to 3,000 feet to collect, hopefully, a new variety of organisms not yet collected by the ROV, including deep water fishes.

Greg and ROV chief pilot Toshi Mikagawa in the ROV control room before a dive
One of the personal pleasures on this expedition for me was getting to know Toshi Mikagawa, the ROV chief pilot and supervisor. Toshi worked at the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center, the same place that I worked in the early 1990s when I was with NOAA. Although Toshi and I were not there at the same time, we know lots of people in common back in Japan, and I am able to practice my Japanese speaking to Toshi each day on this trip.