(VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SHORE)
The StarLedger Archive
COPYRIGHT © The StarLedger 2000
Date: 2000/07/16 Sunday Page: 001 Section: NEWS Edition: FINAL Size: 941 words
Squeeze on in, the view is worth it
VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SHORE
StarLedger Staff ABOARD THE DELTA SUBMARINE
The bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is a neon green world teeming with life.
About 5 inches from my nose, a purple sea anemone resembling a miniature palm
tree undulates, sucking in tiny specks of light called zooplankton.
A thumbsize cancer crab dances sideways. A pudgy sea robin stops and
flutters, as if it knows it’s being videotaped. It preens for a few seconds
in front of us, then moves along.
We are about 100 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near the
Manasquan Ridge, a glorified sandbar about seven miles east of Point Pleasant
Beach. The dive is part of a Rutgers University research expedition to study
sea life in an area that has never before been explored.
I am flat on my stomach, stretched along the bottom of a tiny, twoperson
yellow submarine, pressed against a front porthole. Seated just above my
knees on a low stool is the pilot, 25yearold Joe Lilly, who looks through
another forward window.
All before us is serene. Getting down here, though, was no day at the beach.
Before the dive, the 4,800pound sub was suspended by a hydraulic knuckle-
boom crane and lashed to the side of a work boat, the 110foot Atlantic
Surveyor. To enter the sub, you have to climb to the side of the boat, step
on top of the curved, smoothsurface sub without falling overboard, and
shimmy through its 24inchwide hatch.
I’m 5foot7 and what my mother lovingly describes as zaftig, so that’s no
easy task. Once inside, you must fold your body as if tying shoes, thrust
your legs behind you and yank yourself forward with your elbows. Then the
pilot scoots in. It’s a tight fit.
Kenneth Able, a Rutgers University biologist in charge of the research
project, has spent hundreds of hours in the tiny, steelhulled Delta. He and
another Rutgers biologist, Janice McDonnell, have persuaded me to give it a
”I just can’t wait to get in the sub every time. I’m so excited about what
I’m going to see,” Able said.
With a low thud, Lilly seals the hatch. “Ready below, ready to go,” he radios
to the ship’s captain, Kurt Perl. The winch whines as we are lowered to the
sea surface. Behind me, Lilly pulls knobs and flips switches, and the sub
hums with life.
For a few nauseating moments, the water fills up an air pocket between twin
layers of glass in the front porthole providing ballast, I am quickly told.
The air grows hot and sticky. The light in the sub turns an eerie, frothy
green as we dip below the surface.
I feel as if I have just climbed on the roller coaster at Seaside Park,
anxious, not in control. I know everything will turn out fine but I’m nervous
anyway. Through the glass, the sea world is an endless, formless mint green.
I feel dizzy.
Lilly says we are descending rapidly, but it’s impossible to discern any
movement. It seems as if we are floating. The noises are incredible the
kind of loud gurgling that reminds me of the old television show “Voyage to
the Bottom of the Sea.”
In a minute, we land on the sea floor, soft as a pillow. We bounce gently up.
The scene before us instantly clears, as if someone had turned a knob on a
television to sharpen the image.
All my anxiety melts away, too, as my attention is drawn beyond the sub to
the great expanse. It’s alive out there. No trash, no silt, no sludge. Just
gentle hillocks of clean sand littered with starfish, sand dollars, crabs,
anemones and darting fish. I could be in a small airplane flying low over a
desert dotted with palm trees.
Up on the ship, the scientists are in close communication with us. Able is
listening, via a microphone that sits at the sub’s front, to my description
of the panorama. He will watch a videotape of what I have seen when we return
from the 15minute voyage.
Off and on for the past 10 years, Able has been trying to discern whether
this edge of the continental shelf is biologically important. The sand at
this part of the ocean bottom is regularly mined for beach replenishment. No
one knows whether that is destroying a habitat vital to the ecosystem of
marine life, especially fish.
”We know less about what happens on the bottom of the ocean than we know
about any other habitat on Earth,” Able said.
In recent years, as beach replenishment efforts have intensified, he has
redoubled his efforts to see whether this series of undersea ridges along the
East Coast is vital to fish populations.
On this Wednesday, three Rutgers scientists who would have joined him have
surrendered their berths to an unusual contingent 13 schoolteachers, the
stars of a Rutgers summer enrichment program focused on marine life. All have
taken dives in the Delta and emerged with tales of sea rays and sand crabs
and real data for Able.
Marge Selfridge of Tuckerton Elementary School wept with joy when she climbed
out of the sub. Ann Farr Marchioni of Bloomfield Middle School jumped out
exultant: “I did it! I did it!”
”For every one teacher who has this experience,” Able said, “there will be
1,000 more schoolkids who will benefit as well.”
At the ocean bottom, time travels quickly. Before we know it, we are being
summoned by radio. Since we touched bottom, 14 minutes have slithered by.
Lilly nudges two black knobs, and air whooshes out from the sub, making us
too light to stay down.
We emerge rapidly, though I can’t feel it, until we pop up on the water’s
surface, the way the space capsules do after splashdown.
We are “topside.”
I have always wanted to be able to say that.
NOTES: Kitta MacPherson writes about science. She can be reached at (973)
8775836 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PHOTO CAPTION: 1. The Delta returns
from where no other submarine, yellow or otherwise, has gone before, down
near the Manasquan Ridge. Below, fresh from the ocean floor, it’s The Star-
Ledger’s science writer, who is accustomed to a little more elbow room.
2. Chris B. Ijames prepares to pilot the Delta Wednesday with a schoolteacher
as his passenger. CREDIT: 1. PHOTOS BY ANDREW MILLS/THE STARLEDGER
GRAPHIC CAPTION:DIAGRAM: The Delta submersible </slimages/20000716p11.gif>
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