Through the ages
Marine ecology project unites four generations of scientists to search out lost experiments
Posted September 24, 2010
Paul Dayton remembers climbing up the ladder with only his elbows, his hands numbed and useless after diving in the subfreezing waters of McMurdo Sound. Tears of pain poured down his cheeks.
The wetsuits and gloves he and dive partner Gordy Robilliard used to keep warm in the minus 1.8 degrees Celsius water were inadequate to the task. This was the 1960s. Dive equipment was still primitive.
But the men were making two dives a day, setting out cages for various experiments to learn more about the bizarre world that existed underneath the ice.
Once out of the dive hole, teeth chattering, the men excitedly relived the experience on the surface. “The things we would talk about were the wonderful things we had seen. We were never moaning about the tears running down our cheeks,” Dayton said.
The 71-year-old professor from Scripps Institution of Oceanography is heading back to Antarctica this year to revisit those wonderful things. The experiments — many cages or floats designed to see how the marine community on the seafloor interacted — are now artificial reefs.
All sorts of coral and critters that live on the seafloor have taken up residence over the decades on these long-abandoned experiments. It’s like a timeline of benthic succession, according to Stacy Kim , a researcher at Moss Landing Marine Labs in California.
“From an ecological perspective, there’re very few places where we have a dataset that extends back that far. When you go into marine ecology, it becomes even fewer. And when you go into polar marine ecology, it goes into way fewer,” explained Kim, the project manager for the nearly three-month field study, dubbed Investigating Change in Ecology in Antarctica by Gizmologists, Educators and Divers (ICE AGED) .
“This is a really rare opportunity to get a look at how an ecosystem has changed and developed over that long a time period,” she added.
Setting the standard
Dayton’s first trip to Antarctica was a long one — a winter-over in 1963 working as a science technician at McMurdo Station . He didn’t dive that year, though he had taught himself scuba in the 1950s, inspired like many of his generation by the exploits of French marine naturalist Jacques Cousteau.
“In the ‘50s, it was very different. The ocean was very different. All the predators were still there. It was relatively still pristine when I [started diving],” said Dayton, who grew up in the dry desert climate of Tucson, Ariz., and had to travel Mexico to snorkel and dive.
He built his own dive equipment in those early days. The tanks were scavenged from a junkyard where the fire department discarded the ones they believed might explode. The regulator he bought for $1 from the Army surplus store and rebuilt leaked constantly.
“It probably should have killed me. It almost did,” Dayton mused. “It was a fascination from a very early age.”
By the time Dayton visited the Ice, he was an experienced diver and a budding marine ecologist who recognized that the Antarctic ecosystem offered a unique opportunity.
The deep-freeze that persisted in the marine environment is stable and predictable, Dayton realized. He wondered how such an ecosystem that evolved in relative climactic stability differed from those that underwent disturbances and changes. What was happening with the polar food web? Who were the winners and losers in the competition for resources and space?
He wrote a proposal to the biology program manager at the National Science Foundation , George Llano, as a first-year graduate student after leaving Antarctica — and got the funding to begin testing some of his ideas.
That first field plan evolved as Dayton recognized what would and wouldn’t work as he came to understand the marine ecosystem. The experiments, some designed to cage out predators like ravenous sea stars that feasted on sponges, were set up to define competition.
No one was doing those sorts of subtidal experiments at depths of up to 60 meters on the seafloor at the time.
“That part was creative and novel, I think,” he said. “I put together an ecosystem story that was really contrived from a lot of different approaches. I think it’s pretty good,”
It’s a story he followed and wrote about for the next 25 years, until his last trip to the Ice in 1989. The scientific papers that resulted from some 500 dives and countless hours underwater largely set the standard for Antarctic marine ecology.