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ScienceI am a marine scientist. I'm on a boat right now in the Gulf of Mexico doing deep sea research with 9 science buddies (we'll all answer questions!). AMA.

May 27th 2017 by DrCraigMc • 57 Questions • 8164 Points

From Virginia, who ran this AMA

We're finished- thank you so much for your questions today! We had a lot of fun with this. Here are answers to some of the questions we got most often:

1) How to become a deep sea biologist: http://www.deepseanews.com/2009/03/so-you-want-to-be-a-deep-sea-biologist/, http://www.deepseanews.com/2011/11/so-you-want-to-be-a-marine-biologist-deep-sea-news-edition/, and check the newest questions for links to 3 threads in this AMA covering how to get positions on a boat like ours.

2) Phaw on everyone who asked a Titleist question today.

3) There is nothing that we will discover that's bigger than the squid, sharks, and whales we already know about. If there were, we would have seen evidence of it by now. No megalodon, no even-more-colossal squid. We know you want it to be true, but no. Just no.

4) You all are oddly interested in both how the internet and sex work while at sea. Satellite and it doesn't.

5) Yes, there is hope for a bright future and YOU can help our oceans be healthy. Contribute to citizen science on the oceans or even something where you log litter or plastic sightings on land, call your representative and tell them that you'd like them to support science funding and measures that curb our contributions to climate change, and most of all: regularly do something to remind yourself why we all care about and love our oceans. They are enchanting and worth fighting for.

Follow the rest of our cruise adventures at https://twitter.com/LUMCONscience. #Woodfall out- have a good night!

PS: My favorite part of this entire thing is probably this https://twitter.com/vgwschutte/status/868643084048977920

Hello Reddit.

I'm Dr. Craig McClain (http://craigmcclain.com/), a deep-sea biologist and the Executive Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). I've participated in dozens of oceanographic expeditions taking me to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. I've been to the bottom of the ocean at 1 mile deep and have worked with remotely operated vehicles at 2.5 miles deep. I am a connoisseur and contributor of research on the body size of animals, including the Giant Isopod and Giant Squid. But my favorite research topic is the diversity of deep-sea invertebrates, especially snails, and the range of their often bizarre adaptations to the environmental extremes of the deep oceans.

I'm currently on a boat researching wood falls in the deep oceans; logs and whole trees that saturate with water and sink to the deep-sea floor. These wooden carcasses bring a rare commodity to the deep sea devoid of light and plants: food. On the seafloor, these wood falls are covered in unique marine invertebrates wholly adapted to eating wood.

I've got a whole team of people out here on the boat with me that you can also ask questions of. They are:

I am also the founder and chief editor of Deep Sea News (deepseanews.com), a highly popular ocean-themed blog written by marine scientists.

Looking forward to your questions on a life of science, living on a boat for two weeks with 20 other people, underwater robots, body size of marine animals, wood falls, crazy deep-sea creatures, and anything else you can think of. Ask Us Anything!

My Proof: https://twitter.com/DrCraigMc/status/867532477459574785

Q:

What is the scariest looking sea creature you have seen?

A:

I'm the worst to ask because I don't find sea creatures scary. I think some of them are bizarre, like the giant isopod and carniverous sponges. Also bone-eating worms, sometimes called zombie worms.

From Clif: But we don't like that name- the worms eat bones, not brains.


Q:

What are some of the smallest things you've seen, relative to their normal size?

A:

Snails. Some are smaller than Abraham Lincoln's nose on a penny.


Q:

When animals are this small, how are you sure it's an animal and not just a spec of sand or debris of some kind?

Edit: worded what I meant weird. I was mainly trying to ask how they get their samples, as in do they just scoop up a bunch of sand from the ocean floor and then sift through that, or do they sift through the water near the bottom, etc.

A:

microscopes


Q:

Let me try to rephrase my question, whenever y'all are searching for small creatures , how do you collect tiny objects for sampling? Do y'all scoop through the water sifting for creatures, scoop up sand then bring it back to the surface, do y'all attach microscopic cameras to the deep sea vessels?Sorry if that is worded weird

A:

We scoop up the sediment (mostly mud with a little sand). Then we filter it or do something else to get the things we want out of the mud.


Q:

When I get older I'd like to be a (maybe marine) biologist, so I want to ask this: What's it like to be a biologist and what research do you do in a lab, I presume, and how is it when you go on the "field"?

A:

From Virginia: What the job is like depends a lot on what kind of biologist you are (what you study). This depends both on: 1) organism/ecosystem (I studied tropical coastal ecosystems for my PhD and had a very different experience than the deep-sea people on the boat) and 2) aspect (there's a statistical guy, Tom, on board who is coming out into the field for the first time in a long time because most of his work is on computers these days). Going into the field varies widely also depending on what you study. The deep-sea people on this boat are only seeing their study sites through the eyes of the ROV, but I spent hours every day snorkeling for my PhD work. Lab work could be mostly sorting samples and reacting them for chemical work or it could be mostly packaging them and sending them off for the latest genetic techniques. So: figure out what you like. Try out lots of things to help you narrow it down. Then start shadowing and asking people that work on stuff you like. This will give you a better idea.


Q:

When you bring deep-sea creatures to the surface, is there a way to keep them alive instead of having them die due to pressure changes?

A:

Yes. It's not often that pressure is what kills them (though fish are the exception- they usually have swim bladders with air in them). Temperature is more important to control- water down there was registering at 4 degrees celcius yesterday. There are thermal boxes, like coolers, that scientists can put sea animals into so they can bring them up and keep them cool. The box is only about the size of a cooler, so we're not talking about bringing up whales, sharks, or giant squid.


Q:

Do you think a giant squid ever took down a boat like in the legends

A:

From Virginia: I got halfway through asking this question and everyone in the galley yelled "NO!" in unison


Q:

LOL aww, but there are some really small boats out there! I assume it mainly has to do with them not going anywhere near the surface :P

A:

Yes. If you see a giant squid at the surface, it's either dead or dying.


Q:

Have you found the bar?


Q:

Can I help?

A:

From Virginia: The thing we need most is a shave for our 3 bald guys (Craig, Clif, and Original Chase). They don't shave their heads at sea. Could you fix that, please? They're apparently very itchy.


Q:

Why don't they?

A:

the boat rocks too much


Q:

Ever run across a U-Boat?

A:

From Alicia: Yes. U-166 is in the Gulf of Mexico.


Q:

Do you keep mechanics on the boat in case you break down? If yes, how do I sign up for that job?

A:

From Virginia: Yes, we have several types of mechanics. (1) The R/V Pelican is a smaller boat (140 ft long) and the only one of its kind permanently based in the Gulf of Mexico. There's 7 boat crew on board. Everybody knows how to fix things and chips in when something needs to be done. The 2 night-duty deckhands, for example, welded a block the other night so the ROV could go in the water a certain way. (2) Marine techs are like go-betweens for scientists and crew. They are trained a little in both science and boat stuff, so they help get machines in the water, coordinate when science stuff will be done based on boat needs, etc. We have an intern on board now doing this. (3) Alex (boat crew) is a magical technician. He's on board now because it's an ROV operation but he usually stays on land. He makes the internet good, coordinates navigation systems updates and repair, manages our automatic environmental monitors, and does lots of other stuff that seems to make everything better for everyone. (4) The ROV comes with its own operators. There are 3 of them for Oceaneering's Global Explorer (on board with us now). They are responsible for loading it and everything that comes with it (a "van": small container with the operating equipment pre-loaded, a cabinet of spare parts and stuff, and lots of boxes of other spare parts and stuff).

So how you get the job depends on which of those jobs you want. Being a captain is different from operating the ROV (the operators we're working with used to work for the oil industry but they got tired of rigs and wanted to see more animals). The best advice is figure out what you like, then find people doing that and shadow them or start working with or for them. Ask around to see who's going out on boats, even if it's just fishing or shrimping. Or look for scientists at institutions near you that do boat-based stuff. Or start asking questions of IT people around you. UNOLS has a great job/internship board online too.


Q:

With cellulose a relatively odd food source for deep pelagic life, have these invertebrates evolved different processes for metabolizing it, and as a result do they restrict their range to the areas around likely wood falls (river mouths, etc) ?

A:

Many deep-sea wood-eaters have coevolved with symbiotic bacteria in their gut that actually digest the cellulose. The bacteria get a safe place to live and the animals get to eat food that they normally couldn't. These animals are all over, not concentrated at river mouths, because wood falls can happen anywhere. The exception is Antarctica, where experimental wood falls go uneaten. This makes sense, though, because Antarctica hasn't had trees on it for millions of years.


Q:

What is the most amazingly surprising man made object that you've found floating or on the sea floor? Like something that makes everyone onboard stop what they are doing and wonder how it and when it got there.

A:

An entire, intact toilet


Q:

Could a golf ball lodged in the blow hole of a whale really cause it to beach itself? If so, would an amateur marine biologist be equiped to save the great fish?

A:

From Virginia: the sea was angry that day, my friends

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/overthinking-it/costanza-and-the-whale-could-you-make-a-blowhole-in-one/

https://www.hakaimagazine.com/article-short/these-whales-suffocated-when-fish-got-lodged-their-blowholes

ALWAYS call your local wildlife experts when you find an animal of any kind in distress. They are trained professionals and can guide you over the phone if they want you to do something before they arrive. Well-meaning but untrained people often do more harm than good and put themselves in harm's way in the process- it's not worth the risk.


Q:

Are you finding a lot of Corexit left over from the Deepwater "clean-up" and if so, how bad are its effects on the marine ecosystem?

A:

Nobody on board has expertise or experience in oil spill cleanup, but we do know that studies (by other people) on the effects of corexit and the rest of it are active and ongoing.

However, 2 of us on board were exposed to corexit and are now X-Men.


Q:

If you could all have 1 superpower each what would they be?

A:

(1) Craig: gills (2) Clif: swim to the bottom of ocean (3) Original Chase: breathe underwater (4) Virginia: live underwater (5) Tom: breathe underwater (6) Holly: summon fresh, perfectly ripe papayas like you get from tropical islands from thin air (7) River: telekinesis (8) Jason: high midi-chlorian count to use telekinesis to hover strobes above photoshoots (9) Chase: to control matter at a subatomic level (10) Alicia: undecided- she sputtered for a few minutes but there are too many powers that she likes


Q:

Hey team! What has been one of your most memorable wildlife encounters on your sea expeditions?

A:

(1) Craig: I used to do body size work with whale sharks, so I've been snorkeling with more than 300 at once. Also, I once dropped an ROV through a school of aggressive Humboldt squid that were attacking the robot on the way down. (2) Clif: I was on a ship surrounded by 400+ orcas (3) Holly: ripping apart decaying whale carcass underwater using ROV to collect samples (4) Alicia: animal/technology interactions, like sharks and sperm whales checking out an ROV. Also, sometimes fish go through the ROV thrusters and come out in pieces


Q:

Do you guys doing any fishing while you're out there? If you do, is it catch and release or do you eat em? Also, I lost a pair of Gargoyle sunglasses there about 30 years ago. They have one of those floatie things on them. If you find them will you send them to me?

A:

From the first mate: we do fish in our downtime. We keep and eat it if it's legal, in season, and yummy.

From Virginia: I was going to photoshop your sunglasses doing something silly but I don't have time- too many questions to answer! So you'll have to imagine that I did.


Q:

What are some of the interesting adaptions that snails have for deep-sea living?

A:

Below a certain depth, calcium carbonate (which marine shells are commonly made of) goes more readily into solution than out of it. This means that it dissolves at depth and it takes lots of energy to repair and make shells down there. So they grow shells efficiently and then protect them. Deep snails have rounded, spherical shells with overlapping whorls. They don't have any fancy spines, ribs, etc. that would dissolve. In some places like around vents, they have a furry outer material on the shell to protect it.


Q:

How do you have internet access? How far from land are you?

A:

Satellite. 120 miles.


Q:

Has the deep water horizon spill affected the ecology of the area you study? I understand certain products of the oil and the products that were used to disperse it can accumulate on the sea bed.

A:

From Virginia: Warning, complicated and probably unsatisfactory answer ahead. It's really hard to know, but probably. We haven't seen any chemical accumulations on the seabed where we've been so far on this trip (although there's a ton of trash down there!), but this is also the first trip in the Gulf of Mexico for many people on board. So if there were changes that were harder to see, like changes in deepwater fish community composition over time, we're not the people with the expertise to tell you about that. We do plan to visit the deep water horizon site next week sometime and we honestly don't know what we'll find there. There are other people who were on the seafloor around there right after the spill who published on it and know lots more than we do.


Q:

Interesting! Hopefully the ecosystem is resilient enough to absorb any damage.

Are you folks doing manned missions to the sea bed or using ROVs? Is there any benefit using manned subs when ROV technology is so advanced?

A:

We are using an ROV. They are typically safer and cheaper than a submersible. We can also keep longer bottom times as long as the pilots are rested or can switch out. A submersible is bit limited on time because of many constraints including the need for bathroom breaks.


Q:

Ha, submariners catheter bags do seem a little excessive!

Thanks for the replies, hope you folks have a safe, productive journey!

A:

update: Holly, Alicia, and I actually think that the exploration aspect of visiting the deep sea in person is the only reason we still use manned subs. The risk is so great when you can do the same work more easily and efficiently with an ROV. The exception is the bubble submersibles that have great visibility, but they can't go as deep.


Q:

What do you do with your free time when you're out at sea for long periods of time?

A:

From Alicia: What free time?

Yeah, there's really not free time. If the weather throws things off, people will play games or take a nap.

From Virginia: The only free time I've seen so far was when people were adjusting to the sea in the first few days. Many of us were outside up at the bow, looking at the horizon to reduce seasickness. The second day, me and a few other people would work for an hour (until we felt queasy), then take a horizon break. While we're transiting between sites, people will answer emails, edit scientific papers, or work on the other non-fieldwork parts of being a scientist.


Q:

Hello brave scientist folks, I am pretty scared of open water and absolutely terrified of anything with tentacles, so im wondering if you have any tips for dealing with squids and the like?

Also it is actually so cool what you do and I am very jealous/awed(if that's the right word)

Is there any land bound animals who's evolution interests you as much, or nothing compares to the infinite mystery of the sea?

A:

From Virginia: We all like squid. I don't eat them because they're my friends. Holly says she's scared of open water too, but when you're on a boat that doesn't matter. Thanks! Yes, jealous and awed is appropriate. : ) I asked people about land-bound animals: (1) Holly: Nematodes, nematodes! (roundworms) They've switched frequently between living on land and in the ocean and we don't know why. (2) Craig: slugs.


Q:

What's a gross snail fact I can use to bother my boyfriend when he eats them?

A:

Land snails are carriers for all kinds (almost all of them, actually) of diseases and parasites


Q:

Watcha doin?

A:

When I saw this question, I was getting candy in the galley for the 3 ROV operators in the van. Clif was in the van prepping for data collection. The other scientists were in the galley, watching the ROV feed and standing by for more AMA questions. The crew was scattered, making all this science possible.


Q:

Y'all down wit OPP?

A:

From Virginia: Yeah, I attend every Ocean Predator Party I can, I just don't get invited very often. You know me.


Q:

Are ocean sunfish as idiotic a they sound?


Q:

Who's on barrel duty?

A:

From Virginia: We're big supporters of diversifying science, so we brought a horse https://youtu.be/95XQ5Ham-y8


Q:

What sort of training or experience is required to work on scientific research vessels such as this one? I'm extremely interested in doing oceanographic research and would love to work on a ship one day.

A:

From Virginia: See my answer to /u/PmMeGiftCardCodes above about being a mechanic/technician/boat crew. I'll talk here about the science crew. We got here several different ways. (1) Craig wrote a grant that got funded by NSF to do this work. He has a PhD and lots of science experience on top of that, plus he wrote a grant proposal good enough to get funded. (2) Clif and Original Chase work with and for Craig in his lab at LUMCON. Clif has a PhD and Chase is a fantastic undergraduate who volunteered at LUMCON before becoming part of Craig's lab. (3) I'm the Media Officer at LUMCON- I'm a science communicator. My job is to make science fun and useful for everyone, so I'm running this AMA, I manage LUMCON's social media feeds, etc. I have a PhD in Ecology (marine focus) plus lots of diverse experience that landed me the job at LUMCON and therefore a space on the boat. (4) Tom and Holly both have PhDs and collaborate with Craig on deep sea work, though their expertise is in different areas (statistics and genomics). (5) River is an undergraduate who wants to do this kind of work. She pursued networking and research opportunities and was generally excellent so she was invited on board. (6) Jason is a photographer and knew Craig from when they both did marine work on the west coast a while back. Outreach is very important to Craig, so he actually wrote Jason into his NSF grant to make this trip and its research more accessible to people who aren't scientists. (7) New Chase is an undergraduate in a lab that Craig knows and works with. Chase has his own projects and giving him a spot on the boat means he'll have a much more interesting undergraduate thesis. (8) Alicia works for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and their involvement with deep sea boats and research is always a partnership. In this case, Craig and Clif wanted to do some work around a shipwreck (their project is about wood in the deep sea, after all) so they reached out to BOEM and asked how to work around a shipwreck site while preserving the integrity of the ship. What they wanted to do ultimately required an archaeologist on board and Alicia is that archaeologist.

So, to sum up: be generally excellent, network as much as you can, and be flexible. When I decided in elementary school to save the world by talking to dolphins using telepathy, I never imagined I'd be on a boat trip like this. But it sure is amazing now that I'm here.


Q:

Thanks for the response! It sounds like, at least from what I can tell of your answer, that most of the researchers who aren't undergraduates have PhDs. Do you think that getting or at least working towards a PhD is ideal for this field? For reference, I'm currently working towards a Geography BS.

A:

It depends on what you want to do. Many marine labs employ people with masters to help with lab and field work.


Q:

What have you discovered in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico that you never knew?

A:

Most of us are new working here, so we don't have a good response (yet)


Q:

Is anyone here a marine biologist?

A:

Yes, Holly. Virginia is a marine ecologist by training.


Q:

Are there fish that look like dildos there?

A:

From Virginia: I asked the people in the galley. We don't know of any, but there's this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acorn_worm#Lifestyle


Q:

What's up Chase? Just found out that we both went to the same university, from which I graduated this May! I too was part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars program, but for Ocean Engineering. I'm glad to see the kinds of opportunities it gives to our students! For all the high schoolers and college freshman/sophomore out there, would you recommend that they try to get involved in research like you have? Do you feel that the opportunities and experience would be beneficial to other students regardless of whether or not they want to enter the research field as a career path?

A:

From New Chase: hi! yes and yes


Q:

what's your favorite pizza topping?

A:

(1) Craig: onions (2) Clif: green olives (3) Original Chase: bacon (4) Virginia: basil (5) Tom: groaning and indecision (6) Holly: extra cheese (7) River: mushrooms (8) Jason: pepperoni (9) New Chase: "oh no- all of them" (10) Alicia: pepperoni


Q:

Do you have any ice cream on the boat? If so, which flavors did you choose to bring on the adventure?


Q:

The Gulf of Mexico seems like an odd place to study woodfall. Have you done any research in Puget Sound?

A:

Nope


Q:

So where is the biological material coming from? Why the gulf?

Also, tell Alicia to choose a super power already.

A:

It comes from land (see an earlier thread with /u/siblbombs). The Gulf because I'm based in Louisiana, at LUMCON, which has a Gulf-based research vessel.

Alicia says time travel (psh, archaeologists)


Q:

Do you believe there are undiscovered organisms as large, or larger, than the Giant Squid? If yes, is anyone actively looking for them?

A:

From Virginia: I got halfway through asking this question and everyone in the galley yelled "NO!" in unison. If there were something that big out here, there would be evidence of it somewhere. No scientists that we know of are looking for anything like this. This is the same answer we will all give about the megalodon.


Q:

out of all of you if you were in an underwater battle royale who would win?

A:

You have started a heated debate in the galley about who would win.


Q:

Interesting.

Where can I read more about wood falls?

In particular I'd be interested to know what sort of fossil traces from a wood fall might be left, or develop, after burial by sediment.


Q:

How much have we fucked up the Gulf?...I mean considering how much we dump(ed) into the Mississippi and oil spills, and not having the best circulation mixing clearing that stuff out into the Atlantic....I have always imagined it being kinda nasty. Share some cool pics!

A:

Answered above in the thread with /u/LilMissGuided. We aren't all experts in this. We don't have any cool pictures with us to share, but the plos paper linked to in that thread above shows a benthic footprint from the blowout.


Q:

1) Does pH and salinity change as you go deeper into the ocean?

2) How deep do you think we'll be able to explore? I have no knowledge of the technology currently used in this application, but it seems to me that a network of very small high pressure submergables might be our best bet at overcoming high pressure while being able to maintain signal propagation to the surface.

3) What kind of pressures would we be looking at near the deepest abyss?

A:

1) From Clif: Yes. pH is slightly higher at the surface because of exchanges with the atmosphere. Evaporation at the surface increases salinity a little compared to the deep ocean.

2) We have explored oceans to their depths, but the number of times we've visited those depths goes down the deeper you're talking about. Our biggest data collector on currents and changes to them is the Argos float system: buoyant and passive data-collecting machines. From Virginia: Submersibles with people in them are always harder to deal with. Making small submersibles is easier because then they don't collapse under pressure, but you can't cook food in Alvin- there's barely room for a few people to sit in there because it's full of machines.

3) You add an additional "atmosphere" of pressure every 10 m you go down. So at 10 m, you're at 2 atm. Yesterday our ROV was around 2100 m, so we were around 211 atm.


Q:

How long do our oceans have before it's to late to save them?

A:

There will always be oceans to save, it's more a matter of how much we want to save.


Q:

What are the patterns you see as to the distribution of deep-ocean woodfalls in the Gulf? I'm curious as to: 1) How these sources of wood the logs get to where they are in the first place. 2) The species of wood that you are currently seeing. 3) The migration patterns (if any) of the animals feeding on the wood- are they able to travel to different areas if a food source is exhausted, or do they spend their entire lives on one specific woodfall?

A:

1) Wood comes from the land- see the thread with /u/siblbombs. 2) Looking for woodfalls in the ocean is like finding a needle in a haystack- that's why we're bringing our own logs for this experiment. Our logs are species native to the southeastern US. 3) See the thread with /u/countyourdeltaV.


Q:

Have you ever found a Titleist in a whale's blow hole?

A:

From Virginia: you're late to the party- we've already covered this!


Q:

what kind of permission do you need for such research. Are you in territorial waters or EEZ or 'the high seas'?

what's it like to kiss an octopus?

A:

You don't need any permits to throw wood into the ocean. It's generally a good idea to coordinate with the Buerau of Ocean Energy Management before diving with an ROV or conducting a study in general in case they know something about your sites that you want to know. We're in the EEZ. Nobody here has kissed an octopus but Virginia was bitten by one- a baby.


Q:

Is the movie Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou a required viewing for people like you?

A:

From River: it actually was required for one of my undergrad classes


Q:

Have you seen any affects of ocean acidification in any species yet? If I remember correctly, the acidity of the water makes it harder for certain species to produce strong enough shells, causing the eventual collapse of the ecosystem, what are your thoughts on this?

Thanks in advance!

A:

This is true- acidity changes do affect shell-builders and some species like corals and oysters are affected by pH changes like this. But we don't study this kind of thing/those kind of species. We do know that most studies on this issue bring species into the lab rather than working with them in their natural environments.


Q:

Are you on a dolphin doin flips and shit?

A:

Nah, I got off to do this AMA


Q:

Can you buy decommissioned oil rigs to live on?

A:

From Alicia (an actual, serious answer because she knows this): No, by federal regulation, they are required to be decommissioned and removed.