Marine Ecology Project Unites Four Generations of Scientists to Track Ecosystem Changes

Divers prepare to dive

Credit: Francois Cazenave
Scuba divers prepare to enter the water to explore McMurdo Sound during the 2008-09 field season.


Paul Dayton, a 71-year-old professor from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 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.

Peter Rejcek reports in The Antarctic Sun, the newspaper ofthe U.S. Antarctic Program, that Dayton is heading back to Antarctica this year to revisit those wonderful things. The experiments — many of them 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.

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