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Take a Stroll Through the Octopus's Garden

February 1996

Most of us will never see the part of the ocean that biologist Cindy Van Dover studies. Associate professor of oceanography at the University of Alaska and a Navy-certified pilot of the submersible craft Alvin, Van Dover explores the ocean's deepest depths, studying life that is supported not by sunlight and photosynthesis but by hot vents and chemosynthesis.

Scientifically speaking, Van Dover works in a new world. In her recent book, The Octopus's Garden, the NSF grant recipient describes discoveries of life forms previously unknown.

Some excerpts follow:


A sample bottle of vent water opened in the laboratory can clear a room in seconds as the ripe odor of rotten egg escapes. A variety of bacteria thrive on the sulfide, using its chemical energy through chemosynthesis in much the same way that plants use energy from light to produce organic carbon through photosynthesis.

The stunning implication is that submarine hydrothermal systems, fueled by the heat of volcanic processes, can support life in the absence of sunlight. Vent water may be the ultimate soup in the sorcerer's kettle. The water has a primeval chemistry that has prevailed along mountain ranges since the breakup of Gondwanaland. ... Deep-sea vents may have been the site where life originated on this planet.

The life from this water is sometimes odd, Van Dover writes, but as she investigates she derives satisfaction not only from her scientific work, but also from the new aesthetics.


A painted tropical fish can be just a lost rainbow among the gaudy carnival of colors of a coral reef; a vividly feathered tropical bird is veiled in a green lace of leaves and twigs. But giant tubeworms [of hydrothermal vents] are 6-foot-long expletives, shouts of brilliance, startling in their vivid simplicity and exposure. Crimson plumes bloom atop long white tubes that emerge from cracks in glossy black lava. Warm water rising up from a vent ruffles the leaf-like lamellae of the plume. There must be a special cue in the vent effluent, a chemical billboard, that causes a cohort of tiny tubeworm larvae to settle out of the water to grow together side by side as dense thickets of tubes because often the tubes are nearly all the same size and growing in parallel array. The growth of the whole guides the growth of one: a chorus of tubeworms.

While the landscape is often desolate, after many dives, Van Dover has found a favorite spot.


Give me a dive where I am free from any obligation to collect samples or data, a day just to do whatever I want as if I were on a picnic on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I will spend that day in a field of black smokers, just looking.

Raw and powerful, black smokers look like cautionary totems of an inhospitable planet. Like the undersea volcanoes that drive them, black smokers are born of primal forces, a consequence of the first-order geophysical processes that control the motions of our ocean's crust. I have often worked black smokers in Alvin and I never fail to be awed by them. Approach the simplest structures: they first loom as tall dark shadows, black against surrounding blackness at the gloomy edge of Alvin's pool of light. ... As you ascend the chimney, watch for hot water. It is usually at the very top, sometimes 6 or more meters above the seafloor. Chimney walls may be leaky and alive with animals drinking up a warm seepage of noxious chemicals, or the chimney might be hot and young and sterile, devoid of life.

From the book The Octopus's Garden. Text Copyright© 1996 by Cindy Lee Van Dover. Reprinted by permission of Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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