A Thousand Metres under the Sea

At depths that could kill a diver, Dr Judith Gobin explores the deep ocean off Tobago and Trinidad. She talks with Dr Anjani Ganase (Twitter: @AnjGanase) about her adventures on EV Nautilus; and pleads for further scientific exploration and knowledge of these areas before they are destroyed

“ I’ve always loved the sea. As a little girl, I enjoyed amazing vacations at Mayaro, fascinated by the sea, its animals and fish. Swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving became passions.”

Dr. Judith Gobin is a senior lecturer in Marine Biology at the Department of Life Sciences and Deputy Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the Faculty of Science and Technology, at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Her passion for discovery in the marine environment led her through university and the experience as a summer intern at the Institute of Marine Affairs solidified her career in marine biology. She spent 15 years in marine research at the IMA. Now she has over 35 years of research experience in marine benthic ecology, focused on animals such as worms, crabs, clams, sponges and very tiny creatures that live in the mud along shallow coastal sea beds. It was only natural that she extended her interest to the deep ocean. About five years ago, Judi (as she is generally known) first ventured into deep ocean habitats particularly those that surround Trinidad and Tobago. 

Dr Judith Gobin (right) and Dr Diva Amon (left) classifying and recording collected samples of deep-sea mussels. Photo credit: Dr D. Amon

“The Ocean Exploration Trust put out a call for exploration participants on the EV Nautilus, and I was invited by my colleague, to submit my name and a project. At the meeting in Miami, I kept on pushing the point that our part of the world is virtually unknown and the deep sea, even less so. Fortunately the volcanologists were interested in Kick’em Jenny, and the rest is history…”

The Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) was founded in 2008 by Dr. Robert Ballard, known mostly for his work in discovering the RMS Titanic wreck in 1985. The mission of OET in ocean exploration is focused on biological, geological and even historical discoveries. Judi was invited to journey with EV Nautilus in 2013 and 2014 on missions to explore the southern Caribbean, including the southeast coast of Tobago and the areas around Kick ‘em Jenny, the submarine volcano off the coast of Grenada. She became the first female marine biologist from T&T on board. 

Dr Gobin and Prof. Ballard on board the EV Nautilus 2013: Photo credit: Dr P. Miloslavich

“The vessel accommodates over 40 people - 31 scientists and 17 crew (pilots, cooks, navigators, engineers and others). I can’t remember the last time I had to sleep in a bunk bed in a small room with three other people, but it was easy to adapt to the dorm conditions. The ship has an amazing kitchen, which served tasty meals, coffee and snacks round the clock.”

The EV Nautilus houses the underwater equipment and technology that can descend kilometres deep to map the seafloor. They fly remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to survey, to photograph with video cameras, and on occasion to collect benthic marine life. They record everything, including the physical condition of the sea environment – temperature, salinity, density etc. 

“The EV Nautilus comes well equipped with a multibeam mapping system, sonar mapping tools Diana and Echo, and two remotely operated exploration vehicles (ROVs), the Hercules and the Argus. The ROV Hercules can dive to 4,000 metres, and has a hi-def camera system, lights, sophisticated instruments, manipulators, and a range of sampling tools. The Argus can dive as deep as 6,000 metres.”

Launching of the ROV Hercules off the EV Nautilus to begin its descent into the deep. Photo credit: Dr P. Miloslavich

Scientific communication outreach is also important to the EV Nautilus; they have satellites on board to provide live feeds of their explorations into the deep. Here is an international exploration effort, marrying life science and technology with communications and adventure. The Inner Space Centre at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography manages all the video and data streams, for the public to see live footage of exploration on the website: www.nautiluslive.com, when expeditions are under way.

“There was no distinction between men and women in their roles on the ship. And the ratio of men to women is fairly even. There’s an international feel, too, as graduate students from the USA, UK, Mexico, Spain and Italy were present on the Nautilus in 2014. And on every Nautilus voyage, local scientists are invited to take part.”

Dr Gobin and the ROV Hercules on board the EV Nautilus 2013: Photo credit: Dr P. Miloslavich

In the deep ocean habitats (3,281 – 5,413 feet deep) off Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Gobin was impressed by not just the abundance and diversity of the marine life, but also the sizes of some of the tube worms, crabs and other invertebrates that lived there. They also discovered deep-sea methane vents, approximately 4000 feet deep, and the unique marine community that depends on these vents, off Trinidad’s east coast in the El Pilar area. Unfortunately, these places are earmarked for oil and gas exploration.

“The discovery of methane-fed life at El Pilar throws new light on the delicate web of life in the deep ocean beds off our shores. It’s a web all too easily disrupted or destroyed by drilling for oil and gas. To date, T&T has no policies regulating deep-sea marine life exploration and exploitation. And T&T also has no specific Marine Protected Areas to conserve any special sites of unique life, whether in shallow seas or the deep ocean. This means that almost as fast as we discover new life and marine habitats, they are at risk of being destroyed by future mining operations. Many countries are vying to come into the deep sea to explore and mine phosphates, metallic nodules, gold and other minerals. If we don’t even know what we have in our nearby deep sea areas, how can we manage the resources? We should be doing our own research and building our own knowledge base of these areas, in order to understand and manage them.”

The largest mussels recorded, Bathymodiolus sp., were collected by the EV Nautilus in Grenada, 2013: Photo credit: Dr J. Gobin

Dr Gobin, together with Trinbagonian deep sea scientist Dr Diva Amon, is keen to do further research on the deep seas off Trinidad and Tobago; and they are finalising a couple of proposals. She wishes to be able to work across sectors with industry, private sector and the government to take the necessary steps to sustainably manage the deep sea, crucial for sequestering carbon and a major buffer of climate change. She also hopes to foster alternative ideas for the use of the Deep Ocean that may open up opportunities in science for Trinbagonians who are interested in the deep ocean environments.

“Many of our sea species are already being used in laboratories to create pharmaceuticals; some cancer drugs, for example, have come from marine products. There’s so much more to learn, and do. The deep sea is a huge resource that we need to know better.”

More information about the project and Trinidad’s deep sea biology from the EV Nautilus can be found in the five-part DVD educational series Deep Sea Wonders of the Caribbean (and an accompanying book) produced by NIHERST and UWI and funded by the German Embassy and Shell.

“To all young scientists, and even non-scientists, we have just touched the surface of this new knowledge of our very own deep sea. There are many more exciting discoveries waiting to be made.”

Dr Gobin, scientist on watch during the Grenada expedition in 2013:  Photo credit: Dr P. Miloslavich

Useful links:
Dr. Judith Gobin, staff profile (UWI): https://sta.uwi.edu/fst/lifesciences/dr-judith-gobin
NIHERST youtube link: 

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