At Sea with Scientists, I Learned What It Means to Be an Explorer
We think of explorers in terms of what they discovered—the Eureka moment, not the search. The search is imperfect and frustrating and owes you nothing.
PelicanBedknobs and Broomsticks
“What is even happening?” This from Herbert: undergraduate, deep-sea enthusiast, member of the family who makes Tabasco—yes, that Tabasco.
The camera inches closer.
“Are they fighting? I don’t get it,” says John, a professor, bear biologist who hates the term bear biologist but is never not wearing a hoodie with a bear on it, whitewater rafting guide, and lover of the outdoors.
“No, it’s a fish,” Jesse says. She is an Oxford post-doc in deep-sea science, a rugby enthusiast, and an accordion and bass player from the Netherlands. “I think he’s eating it.”
We watch a squid being dragged through the sea by a slithery-looking fish called a grenadier. The grenadier gnaws on a single tentacle, committed to eating that squid nibble by tiny nibble.
“Something’s eating something!”
That last contribution is mine. I am not a scientist, but for two weeks, I’m playing one.
This has been the kind of year in which I’m constantly making wisecracks like, “What a year this week has been!” and expecting other people to find it funny. My partner is in mental health diagnosis purgatory, which means I am, too. We’re stressed, we’re trying not to take it out on each other, we’re in the woods, and there’s no light yet. My job is a cesspool of bad feelings and hard decisions, and everyone is getting old, including me. I constantly feel like a moldy, windowless basement. Which sounds like a weird description unless you, too, are forty, in which case you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I know what I’m looking for—a little goddamn peace and purpose, one of those cartoon bulbs to light up over my head—but I’m not sure how to find it. And then, in an act of mercy to everyone weary of my complaining, I get invited on a deep-sea research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.
I met Dr. Craig McClain through luck and the internet. We both attended a conference in January—imagine a cross between summer camp and a think tank—but didn’t actually meet each other until he posted a message on the conference Slack channel: okay the possibility is now a reality for someone to join me at sea in the Gulf of Mexico to do deep-sea work with a remote-operated vehicle . . . What I am looking for is anyone who can help us do outreach to the public. Writers, photographers, artists, makers, creators working in any medium.
I sent an email, full of phony confidence: The research you do is ripe for metaphors about life and adaptability, which is exactly what a good essay requires.
A month and a half later, I got this heart-stopping response: It looks like I have a free spot on the upcoming cruise. Would love to chat with you more and see if you are still interested in joining us. A Skype interview with Craig and his research partner, Clif Nunnally, followed. In my attempt to be charming, I may have accidentally insinuated that I was planning to fuck my crewmates. Somehow, they still chose me.
I’m looking for a little goddamn peace and purpose, but I’m not sure how to find it. Then I get invited on a deep-sea research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.
Craig McClain grew up in rural Arkansas, majored in biology and religion before becoming a doctor of the deep sea, and is writing a book called Science of the South, in which, I’m told, you can learn the scientifically superior method for biscuit-making. He runs a research team, teaches, mentors grad students, blogs regularly about the deep sea, and is Executive Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). Craig’s the kind of guy who would make you feel like a real schlub if his joy and enthusiasm weren’t so contagious.
Did I mention he’s got a wrist-to-shoulder tattoo of a giant squid?
Day One on the cruise: I’m convinced the boat is going to sink. Or else I will be the first human in history to die of seasickness. In reality, I fumble a pack of dry ice, not realizing that it’s dry ice, and burn my wrist badly enough to require the first aid kit before we even leave shore.
The truth is, my fear is comfortable. I’m what therapists call a catastrophizer. I talk a big, adventurous game, but my own joy and enthusiasm comes salted with fear. My own white whale is the worst-case scenario: I’m always trying to harpoon it, but without it, I’m lost.
The first night, I feel like I’ve made a huge mistake. The crash course I gave myself in deep-sea science (i.e., the library book I skimmed) won’t be enough with all these PhDs around. I am up all night, tense and terrified as the boat bounces on Biblical-gauge waves. The next morning, everyone else reports that they slept terrific.
But then something shifts inside me. Instead of feeling ashamed of my fear, I just feel, plainly, that fear has no place here. With that, somehow, I’m free. Curiosity is the antidote to fear—it is harder to be afraid of something if you’re willing to wonder about it.
Historically, deep-sea science meant ogling the wacky things that live down there, or else tossing down a net or a scoop and ogling them up here. So little is known about the deep sea, still, that most research expeditions discover at least one new species. Craig and Clif aren’t satisfied with ogling: They run their experiments a mile underwater.
Here on Planet Dirt, we reach with our hands, see with our eyes, and call it a day. To do deep-sea experimentation, you need an underwater robot—a remote operated vehicle, or ROV. You need pilots to maneuver its robot arms. While your hand can open a lock in ten seconds, underwater it might take the robot an hour. “It’s like picking something up off a forest floor while floating by in a hot air balloon,” Craig says. I’d add: with only a camera, a pair of tweezers, and a flashlight.
Sunlight doesn’t reach a mile under the sea. So even with exact coordinates and sonar, sometimes we spend hours, days searching—and still can’t find what we were looking for. “The science experiment you set up is not the science experiment you get in the end.” This unexpected tidbit of wisdom comes from Kirk—underwater robot pilot, grilling enthusiast, he of the handlebar mustache and Michigan twang.
Science relies on observation and the ability to control the out-of-control, and the deep sea thinks this is hilarious. It’s an act of courage to try anyway.
Curiosity is the antidote to fear—it is harder to be afraid of something if you’re willing to wonder about it.
There are nine in the science crew: deep-sea scientists, a bear biologist, an undergrad, a nervous writer, a high school teacher, a grad student who is planning her wedding, and a fisheries observer who travels the country in an RV with three cats and a dog. The experiments we run seem, to me, genius in their simplicity. Take a bunch of logs, wrap ’em in mesh laundry bags, and drop them a mile deep, to the bottom of the sea. Come back a few months later and see what’s eating them.
Similar “wood falls” happen naturally, too, when trees get swept out to sea, but if you’re a scientist, you don’t wait around for nature to cooperate. We know so little about deep sea ecosystems—these wood falls are a way to get a snapshot. “Ecosystem” sounds fancy, but really what we’re studying is just a Who’s Who of who’s eating whom. In this case—who eats the wood? Who eats the thing that eats the wood? And so on.
But this team’s curiosity doesn’t begin and end with logs. What else can they chuck into the sea? It’s Louisiana, so how about alligators? We’re here to drop a certain poor toothy wretch named Lucky to the bottom of the ocean. He’s currently chilling in the freezer.
The team got the dead alligators (legally!) from the state of Louisiana. A YouTube video of one of the alligators being ripped apart by a horde of giant isopods is getting a ton of media attention, which brings with it angry comments calling the team “Redneck Cajuns” and “alligator killers”—yet Craig and Clif are unable to drum up much public rage over the horrors still unfolding at the Deepwater Horizon site. The 2010 BP explosion spilled 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf for five months straight—the biggest oil spill in history—and the things living down there aren’t doing so hot. Damn charismatic megafauna. Dolphins, whales, octopuses, alligators—scientists call them charismatic megafauna because they do stuff we might do, which makes us care more about them. Who gives a shit about never-before-seen prehistoric worms and sad little oil-slicked crabs when you can peep dolphins?
One night, when the crew hears squeaking through the walls, we leave our bunks and run up to the bow in our pajamas. Dolphins are leaping alongside the Pelican, in waves sparkling with neon blue bioluminescent bacteria.
“I thought you weren’t into charismatic megafauna,” I say.
The scientists shrug. Dolphins are cool. Just don’t tell anyone they said so.
A few days after dropping Lucky to the bottom of the sea, we go back to see what’s eating him. But Lucky is gone, swallowed whole by who-knows-what—probably a six-gill shark. Many obvious jokes are made about the irony of his name.
It’s almost lunchtime. We’ve been up all night deliriously singing along to “Mr. Brownstone” and “Don’t Stop Me Now,” picking deep-sea creepy-crawlies off logs and dropping them in jars of alcohol. A wild neighborhood materializes out of the wood: slimy pink worms, tiny brown clams, white crabs with neon orange eyes called Galatheids (which ROV pilot Jason has dubbed “Galifianakis,” and now none of us can remember their real name). Most important are the eyeball-white Xyloredo—long strings of snot that look like they’re wearing a clam as a hat. The scientists call them bivalves. Xyloredo bore into the wood and eat it like Cookie Monster, spraying crumbs everywhere for other little dudes to eat. Their gut bacteria help them digest wood, which is a bizarre trick of natural selection, since they live under the sea where there aren’t any trees. Pulling a whole worm off a soggy log that smells like sea crotch is oddly satisfying. We all get a bit loopy.
Craig gets up at five another morning and slaps a pair of googly eyes on the front of the ROV, just to make everyone laugh. We draw sea creatures on sixteen-ounce Styrofoam cups. The cups go down into the deep sea with our tools, and when we pull them back up, they have shrunk to the size of shot glasses. This is, in fact, a deep-sea research cruise tradition—to appease the sea gods, or maybe because art projects are fun.
One day I confess that I’m having a midlife crisis. I try to laugh it off, but only because I don’t think it’s all that funny. Craig doesn’t think I should call it a crisis. “You make so many decisions in your twenties, when you have no idea what you’re looking for,” he says. Doesn’t it make sense that later on you’d take stock of the outcomes, make new decisions based on what you’ve learned? “Why is this a crisis? Isn’t it just life?”
Science relies on observation and the ability to control the out-of-control, and the deep sea thinks this is hilarious.
Another day, we search for logs from 6 a.m. until midnight, using sonar and precise coordinates, and still don’t find them. Everyone is tired and cranky, but Craig thanks me. “Today was tense and frustrating,” he says. “You kept everyone sane.”
Is it weird to say this makes me feel cherished? I have no expertise, and yet no less is expected of me. I am taken care of here, and in turn I take care of others. And most astonishing of all, I’m no longer worried about my partner or my future or being forty. Here, I have time and peace; I stare at the ocean for hours, thinking of nothing. This kind of boredom is an endangered state of mind on land, and I’ve missed it.
The deep sea is filled with charismatic megafauna, but we also find subtle amazements that we weren’t even looking for: a new species of worm like a spotted purple gherkin, with a green halo and shiny gold claws, who I secretly call “Prince”; hermit crabs with anemones strapped their backs instead of shells, because shells dissolve in the deep sea; tripod fish that balance on their fins like legs; and marine snow—which is just falling fish poop, but it looks magical.
One day I am put in charge of zoom and lighting for the ROV camera, a privilege usually reserved for someone with an advanced degree. Craig tosses me the remote control. “You know how to use this, right?”
“Not a scientist,” I say. “Remember?”
“Bullshit,” Craig says. “Now give us some zoom.”
Sarah, the fisheries observer, tells me that octopuses used to have shells until evolution snatched them away. Now they’re vulnerable, so they need to be smart to compensate. Here on the R/V Pelican, I know I’m not smart. It makes me feel vulnerable, flailing around in the dark, searching for the right questions. I tried to build a shell, but it was unstable, and it dissolved.
If you ask Clif why he became a deep-sea scientist, he’ll get a little smile and a faraway look. He always wanted to be an explorer—which meant either the deep sea or outer space, and the sea was closer.
It makes me feel vulnerable, flailing around in the dark, searching for the right questions.
We think of explorers in tandem with their accomplishments. What they climbed, what they discovered—the Eureka moment, not the search. The search is days of seasickness, a frustrated scan of the deep sea for two days and a sheepish admission that we have no earthly idea what happened to the alligator or the logs. The search is a three-day storm that means ’90s music videos and a Matrix marathon and no science at all. The search is imperfect and frustrating and owes you nothing. What does it mean to live a life looking for something you might never find? How do you live with the possibility?
An explorer sits in darkness and surrenders to it. She waits to see what materializes. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes a brand-new worm. Sometimes, no one cares at all. And sometimes, if you’re in the right place at just the right time, and you’re looking in the right direction: a fish, eating a squid the hard way.
Eden Robins writes short stories, novels, essays, and decision-making software about health insurance. Her writing has appeared in USAToday, Apex, LA Review of Books, and Shimmer, and she co-produces a monthly live lit series in Chicago called Tuesday Funk. Eden has an uncanny habit of abandoning creative projects just as they're starting to gain traction, including Brain Harvest magazine, and the podcast Should I Worry About This? She lives in Chicago and tweets grumpily @edenrobins.