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  Field Notes From
Monterey Menagerie

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Monterey Menagerie On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Virginia Morell

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Saadia Iqbal


Monterey Menagerie On Assignment Monterey Menagerie On Assignment
Monterey Menagerie

Field Notes From Author
Virginia Morell

Best Worst Quirkiest
    I was lucky to be on board the Western Flyer for several dives of the Tiburon, the mother ship's ROV (remotely operated vehicle). The scientists and I would spend entire days inside the darkened control room, watching the images that the Tiburon sent back. It was a mesmerizing show, featuring an endless variety of life forms. Everyone had their favorites, and by the end of the first day I had mine: the ctenophores, or comb jellies. Like all jellies, they are predators, but they're as delicate as soap bubbles and covered with tiny lights that make them glow like miniature Christmas trees. Some species had long, trailing tentacles that flowed behind them like the tail feathers of a bird. They were as exquisite as Tiffany jewels, but more fragile than butterflies. When I think of the dives, the ctenophores always come first to mind. For me they encapsulated what I felt about the midwater ocean: utterly beautiful, yet absolutely alien.

    It took the Tiburon about six hours to reach the bottom of Monterey Canyon, primarily because the scientists stopped the ROV along the way to look at all the wonderful organisms that came into view. That was a long time to sit in the control room, but no one ever wanted to leave in case they missed something. When the Tiburon finally did reach bottom, the scientists usually had only a half hour to explore. And that was frustrating. Under Tiburon's lights, we could see the ocean floor extending far into the distance and also catch glimpses of smaller side canyons. There was never enough time to look into these or to go as far along the ocean floor as everyone wanted. So the worst words in the world to me were always, "Time's up. Let's head to the top." No one ever wanted to leave.

    Many of the animals we saw were absolutely unlike anything we know on terra firma.  Their home is an aquatic one and, in the midwater ocean, it is a home without walls or borders of any kind. It's as if they live in space. So sometimes we would see animals, like the long, stringy siphonophores, that had made the most of their endless habitat. Siphonophores are transparent and really aren't much more than a string of stomachs and tentacles attached to a bell-shaped head. Each stomach fishes for itself with its tentacles. Once we encountered one that had just arranged itself in a strong ocean current. It was hanging there like a long, horizontal fishing line, snagging every little shrimp and fish that had the misfortune to swim by. It was so long that we couldn't see its tail end, so Bruce Robison had the Tiburon fly along its length. The siphonophore kept going and going, nothing but stomachs and tentacles. Bruce thought it had to be a good 160 feet (50 meters) in length. It took us over five minutes to travel its entire length—a never-ending animal, perfectly suited to its borderless world.


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