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Illustrating a Deep Sea Experiment

I'm really excited to share this new piece that I've been working on, which weaves together the scientific and literary legacy of the Western Flyer nearly a century ago, with deep sea research aboard MBARI's contemporary Research Vessel Western Flyer. Read this short article about the research the piece is based on and see a sneak peek of the piece below.

About the Piece: Deep Sea and Deeper Connections

About seven years ago, researcher Dr. Jenna Judge and her colleague Dr. Jim Barry embarked on a research cruise aboard MBARI's R/V Western Flyer, with the intention of sinking 28 bundles of wood to the ocean floor in the cold, pitch-dark depths of Monterey Canyon. The Western Flyer was named after the famous fishing vessel which sailed to the Sea of Cortez, home to two a pair of infamous science communicators, writer John Steinbeck and his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts. 

This art piece incorporates not only a piece of pine from the deep sea experiment, but also wood from John Steinbeck's fishing vessel, the Western Flyer. It uses a piece of reclaimed spruce, a reject from Santa Cruz Guitar Company, to tell the tale of the wood from the experiment. I thought it was fitting to use the reclaimed guitar wood not only because it communicates the value and beauty of recycled materials, but also because it adds a whole other dimension to this story of the multiple "lives" these wood pieces have lived. Something intended as a musical instrument becomes an instrument for science communication, trees from the Botanical Garden at Tilden Regional Park go to the deep ocean and back, a fishing vessel carries literary and scientific geniuses across the Pacific and pieces of it turn into art as the vessel is refurbished into a floating science platform (read more about future plans for the Western Flyer here). 

The guitar wood and Western Flyer wood were donated to me as part of an ongoing collaboration with the creative minds of Ventana Surfboards, who believe strongly in this idea of enabling multiple "lives" of wood, to promote sustainability and to tell compelling stories which convey the importance of preserving our planet.

Back to the science: Judge sank 28 wood bundles to a depth of over 10,000 feet, simulating a natural process in which wood from land sinks to the deep ocean and creates a temporary, but vibrant community of deep-sea organisms. Judge was interested to see what organisms would colonize this wood and if the type of wood made any difference to what animals would be attracted to each wood bundle. 

Awesome graphic from an Ocean Bites article on this research.

After two whole years of undisturbed bottom time, Judge returned with the MBARI research vessel and the ship's highly dexterous Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). This ROV, named Doc Ricketts after the biologist, bravely descended beneath the Western Flyer and out onto the dark ocean floor, where rattail fish whipped around elongated tails like eels, and sea pigs (a type of sea cucumber) walk around on tall, water-filled legs.

At the time, as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I carefully sifted through hours of video of these crazy rattail fish, gigantic crabs, and swimming sea cucumbers to figure out what type of wood the megafauna (big critters) liked best. Meanwhile, Judge and a small army of undergrads (Priscilla Chen, Connie Martin, Allegra Nottoli, Chris Castaneda, Jennifer Yu, and Alyssa Kehlenbach) were busy at work extracting and sorting all of the smaller organisms present on and within the wood.

The inside of the wood was where the magic was; hundreds of wood-boring clams (Xylophagids) had created huge networks within the wood, and literally opened up the ecosystem for all of the other other organisms to find a home. As a result, the wood bundles with the boring clams turned out to be quite interesting! 

The type of wood also made a difference in the community of organisms that colonized the wood. For instance, bundles of branches with a lot of structural complexity didn't provide enough space for Xylophagid boring clams to burrow into, however they did provide lots of sheltered crevices for little limpets, crustaceans, and worms to take advantage of.

This experiment tells us a lot about an extremely ephemeral and difficult-to-study deep sea community and gives us insight on what sorts of organisms are really important to allow these communities to exist. For example, we now know that boring clams play a very important role in making a solid block of wood accessible to all sorts of little organisms. To read more about this fascinating story, read Judge's paper published in Ecology here. 

Sneak peek

of the piece!


Although I still have some finishing touches to do over the next couple of days, here is a little peek to whet your appetite.


The piece shows the Western Flyer above, based on a photograph from 1937.


The piece shows the two robotic arms of ROV Doc Ricketts, diligently collecting a wood bundle from the ocean floor at 3100 meters, and some critters commonly found at that depth, including squid, rattail fish, and these crazy things called sea pigs.

Here's a short video at the Ventana Surfboard's headquarters, explaining the story of the wood.

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