David Gallo: Life in the deep oceans
February 28, 1998
With vibrant video clips captured by submarines, David Gallo takes us to some of Earth's darkest, most violent, toxic and beautiful habitats, the valleys and volcanic ridges of the oceans' depths, where life is bizarre, resilient and shockingly abundant.David Gallo
A pioneer in ocean exploration, David Gallo is an enthusiastic ambassador between the sea and those of us on dry land. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
David Gallo: This is Bill Lange. I'm Dave Gallo.
And we're going to tell you some stories from the sea here in video.
We've got some of the most incredible video of Titanic that's ever been seen,
and we're not going to show you any of it.
The truth of the matter is that the Titanic --
even though it's breaking all sorts of box office records --
it's not the most exciting story from the sea.
And the problem, I think, is that we take the ocean for granted.
When you think about it, the oceans are 75 percent of the planet.
Most of the planet is ocean water.
The average depth is about two miles.
Part of the problem, I think, is we stand at the beach,
or we see images like this of the ocean,
and you look out at this great big blue expanse, and it's shimmering
and it's moving and there's waves and there's surf and there's tides,
but you have no idea for what lies in there.
And in the oceans, there are the longest mountain ranges on the planet.
Most of the animals are in the oceans.
Most of the earthquakes and volcanoes are in the sea,
at the bottom of the sea.
The biodiversity and the biodensity in the ocean is higher, in places,
than it is in the rainforests.
It's mostly unexplored, and yet there are beautiful sights like this
that captivate us and make us become familiar with it.
But when you're standing at the beach, I want you to think
that you're standing at the edge of a very unfamiliar world.
We have to have a very special technology
to get into that unfamiliar world.
We use the submarine Alvin and we use cameras,
and the cameras are something that Bill Lange has developed with the help of Sony.
Marcel Proust said, "The true voyage of discovery
is not so much in seeking new landscapes as in having new eyes."
People that have partnered with us have given us new eyes,
not only on what exists --
the new landscapes at the bottom of the sea --
but also how we think about life on the planet itself.
Here's a jelly.
It's one of my favorites, because it's got all sorts of working parts.
This turns out to be the longest creature in the oceans.
It gets up to about 150 feet long.
But see all those different working things?
I love that kind of stuff.
It's got these fishing lures on the bottom. They're going up and down.
It's got tentacles dangling, swirling around like that.
It's a colonial animal.
These are all individual animals
banding together to make this one creature.
And it's got these jet thrusters up in front
that it'll use in a moment, and a little light.
If you take all the big fish and schooling fish and all that,
put them on one side of the scale, put all the jelly-type of animals
on the other side, those guys win hands down.
Most of the biomass in the ocean is made out of creatures like this.
Here's the X-wing death jelly.
The bioluminescence -- they use the lights for attracting mates
and attracting prey and communicating.
We couldn't begin to show you our archival stuff from the jellies.
They come in all different sizes and shapes.
Bill Lange: We tend to forget about the fact that the ocean is miles deep
on average, and that we're real familiar with the animals
that are in the first 200 or 300 feet, but we're not familiar
with what exists from there all the way down to the bottom.
And these are the types of animals
that live in that three-dimensional space,
that micro-gravity environment that we really haven't explored.
You hear about giant squid and things like that,
but some of these animals get up to be approximately 140, 160 feet long.
They're very little understood.
DG: This is one of them, another one of our favorites, because it's a little octopod.
You can actually see through his head.
And here he is, flapping with his ears and very gracefully going up.
We see those at all depths and even at the greatest depths.
They go from a couple of inches to a couple of feet.
They come right up to the submarine --
they'll put their eyes right up to the window and peek inside the sub.
This is really a world within a world,
and we're going to show you two.
In this case, we're passing down through the mid-ocean and we see creatures like this.
This is kind of like an undersea rooster.
This guy, that looks incredibly formal, in a way.
And then one of my favorites. What a face!
This is basically scientific data that you're looking at.
It's footage that we've collected for scientific purposes.
And that's one of the things that Bill's been doing,
is providing scientists with this first view of animals like this,
in the world where they belong.
They don't catch them in a net.
They're actually looking at them down in that world.
We're going to take a joystick,
sit in front of our computer, on the Earth,
and press the joystick forward, and fly around the planet.
We're going to look at the mid-ocean ridge,
a 40,000-mile long mountain range.
The average depth at the top of it is about a mile and a half.
And we're over the Atlantic -- that's the ridge right there --
but we're going to go across the Caribbean, Central America,
and end up against the Pacific, nine degrees north.
We make maps of these mountain ranges with sound, with sonar,
and this is one of those mountain ranges.
We're coming around a cliff here on the right.
The height of these mountains on either side of this valley
is greater than the Alps in most cases.
And there's tens of thousands of those mountains out there that haven't been mapped yet.
This is a volcanic ridge.
We're getting down further and further in scale.
And eventually, we can come up with something like this.
This is an icon of our robot, Jason, it's called.
And you can sit in a room like this,
with a joystick and a headset, and drive a robot like that
around the bottom of the ocean in real time.
One of the things we're trying to do at Woods Hole with our partners
is to bring this virtual world --
this world, this unexplored region -- back to the laboratory.
Because we see it in bits and pieces right now.
We see it either as sound, or we see it as video,
or we see it as photographs, or we see it as chemical sensors,
but we never have yet put it all together into one interesting picture.
Here's where Bill's cameras really do shine.
This is what's called a hydrothermal vent.
And what you're seeing here is a cloud of densely packed,
coming out of a volcanic axis on the sea floor.
Gets up to 600, 700 degrees F, somewhere in that range.
So that's all water under the sea --
a mile and a half, two miles, three miles down.
And we knew it was volcanic back in the '60s, '70s.
And then we had some hint that these things existed
all along the axis of it, because if you've got volcanism,
water's going to get down from the sea into cracks in the sea floor,
come in contact with magma, and come shooting out hot.
We weren't really aware that it would be so rich with sulfides, hydrogen sulfides.
We didn't have any idea about these things, which we call chimneys.
This is one of these hydrothermal vents.
Six hundred degree F water coming out of the Earth.
On either side of us are mountain ranges that are higher than the Alps,
so the setting here is very dramatic.
BL: The white material is a type of bacteria
that thrives at 180 degrees C.
DG: I think that's one of the greatest stories right now
that we're seeing from the bottom of the sea,
is that the first thing we see coming out of the sea floor
after a volcanic eruption is bacteria.
And we started to wonder for a long time,
how did it all get down there?
What we find out now is that it's probably coming from inside the Earth.
Not only is it coming out of the Earth --
so, biogenesis made from volcanic activity --
but that bacteria supports these colonies of life.
The pressure here is 4,000 pounds per square inch.
A mile and a half from the surface to two miles to three miles --
no sun has ever gotten down here.
All the energy to support these life forms
is coming from inside the Earth -- so, chemosynthesis.
And you can see how dense the population is.
These are called tube worms.
BL: These worms have no digestive system. They have no mouth.
But they have two types of gill structures.
One for extracting oxygen out of the deep-sea water,
another one which houses this chemosynthetic bacteria,
which takes the hydrothermal fluid --
that hot water that you saw coming out of the bottom --
and converts that into simple sugars that the tube worm can digest.
DG: You can see, here's a crab that lives down there.
He's managed to grab a tip of these worms.
Now, they normally retract as soon as a crab touches them.
Oh! Good going.
So, as soon as a crab touches them,
they retract down into their shells, just like your fingernails.
There's a whole story being played out here
that we're just now beginning to have some idea of
because of this new camera technology.
BL: These worms live in a real temperature extreme.
Their foot is at about 200 degrees C
and their head is out at three degrees C,
so it's like having your hand in boiling water and your foot in freezing water.
That's how they like to live.
DG: This is a female of this kind of worm.
And here's a male.
You watch. It doesn't take long before two guys here --
this one and one that will show up over here -- start to fight.
Everything you see is played out in the pitch black of the deep sea.
There are never any lights there, except the lights that we bring.
Here they go.
On one of the last dive series,
we counted 200 species in these areas --
198 were new, new species.
BL: One of the big problems is that for the biologists
working at these sites, it's rather difficult to collect these animals.
And they disintegrate on the way up,
so the imagery is critical for the science.
DG: Two octopods at about two miles depth.
This pressure thing really amazes me --
that these animals can exist there at a depth
with pressure enough to crush the Titanic like an empty Pepsi can.
What we saw up till now was from the Pacific.
This is from the Atlantic. Even greater depth.
You can see this shrimp is harassing this poor little guy here,
and he'll bat it away with his claw. Whack!
And the same thing's going on over here.
What they're getting at is that -- on the back of this crab --
the foodstuff here is this very strange bacteria
that lives on the backs of all these animals.
And what these shrimp are trying to do
is actually harvest the bacteria from the backs of these animals.
And the crabs don't like it at all.
These long filaments that you see on the back of the crab
are actually created by the product of that bacteria.
So, the bacteria grows hair on the crab.
On the back, you see this again.
The red dot is the laser light of the submarine Alvin
to give us an idea about how far away we are from the vents.
Those are all shrimp.
You see the hot water over here, here and here, coming out.
They're clinging to a rock face
and actually scraping bacteria off that rock face.
Here's a tiny, little vent that's come out of the side of that pillar.
Those pillars get up to several stories.
So here, you've got this valley with this incredible alien landscape
of pillars and hot springs and volcanic eruptions and earthquakes,
inhabited by these very strange animals
that live only on chemical energy coming out of the ground.
They don't need the sun at all.
BL: You see this white V-shaped mark on the back of the shrimp?
It's actually a light-sensing organ.
It's how they find the hydrothermal vents.
The vents are emitting a black body radiation -- an IR signature --
and so they're able to find these vents at considerable distances.
DG: All this stuff is happening along that 40,000-mile long mountain range
that we're calling the ribbon of life, because just even today,
as we speak, there's life being generated there from volcanic activity.
This is the first time we've ever tried this any place.
We're going to try to show you high definition from the Pacific.
We're moving up one of these pillars.
This one's several stories tall.
In it, you'll see that it's a habitat for a lot of different animals.
There's a funny kind of hot plate here, with vent water coming out of it.
So all of these are individual homes for worms.
Now here's a closer view of that community.
Here's crabs here, worms here.
There are smaller animals crawling around.
Here's pagoda structures.
I think this is the neatest-looking thing.
I just can't get over this --
that you've got these little chimneys sitting here smoking away.
This stuff is toxic as hell, by the way.
You could never get a permit to dump this in the ocean,
and it's coming out all from it.
It's unbelievable. It's basically sulfuric acid,
and it's being just dumped out, at incredible rates.
And animals are thriving -- and we probably came from here.
That's probably where we evolved from.
BL: This bacteria that we've been talking about
turns out to be the most simplest form of life found.
There are a number of groups that are proposing
that life evolved at these vent sites.
Although the vent sites are short-lived --
an individual site may last only 10 years or so --
as an ecosystem they've been stable for millions -- well, billions -- of years.
DG: It works too well. You see there're some fish inside here as well.
There's a fish sitting here.
Here's a crab with his claw right at the end of that tube worm,
waiting for that worm to stick his head out.
BL: The biologists right now cannot explain
why these animals are so active.
The worms are growing inches per week!
DG: I already said that this site,
from a human perspective, is toxic as hell.
Not only that, but on top -- the lifeblood --
that plumbing system turns off every year or so.
Their plumbing system turns off, so the sites have to move.
And then there's earthquakes,
and then volcanic eruptions, on the order of one every five years,
that completely wipes the area out.
Despite that, these animals grow back in about a year's time.
You're talking about biodensities and biodiversity, again,
higher than the rainforest that just springs back to life.
Is it sensitive? Yes.
Is it fragile? No, it's not really very fragile.
I'll end up with saying one thing.
There's a story in the sea, in the waters of the sea,
in the sediments and the rocks of the sea floor.
It's an incredible story.
What we see when we look back in time,
in those sediments and rocks, is a record of Earth history.
Everything on this planet -- everything -- works by cycles and rhythms.
The continents move apart. They come back together.
Oceans come and go. Mountains come and go. Glaciers come and go.
El Nino comes and goes. It's not a disaster, it's rhythmic.
What we're learning now, it's almost like a symphony.
It's just like music -- it really is just like music.
And what we're learning now is that
you can't listen to a five-billion-year long symphony, get to today and say,
"Stop! We want tomorrow's note to be the same as it was today."
It's absurd. It's just absurd.
So, what we've got to learn now is to find out where this planet's going
at all these different scales and work with it.
Learn to manage it.
The concept of preservation is futile.
Conservation's tougher, but we can probably get there.
Thank you very much.
A pioneer in ocean exploration, David Gallo is an enthusiastic ambassador between the sea and those of us on dry land.Why you should listen
David Gallo works to push the bounds of oceanic discovery. Active in undersea exploration (sometimes in partnership with legendary Titanic-hunter Robert Ballard), he was one of the first oceanographers to use a combination of manned submersibles and robots to map the ocean world with unprecedented clarity and detail. He was a co-expedition leader during an exploration of the RMS Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, using Russian Mir subs.
On behalf of the Woods Hole labs, he appears around the country speaking on ocean and water issues. Most recently he co-led an expedition to create the first detailed and comprehensive map of the RMS Titanic and he co-led the successful international effort to locate the wreck site of Air France flight 447. He is involved in planning an international Antarctic expedition to locate and document the wreckage of Ernest Shackleton’s ship, HMS Endurance.
The original video is available on TED.com