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Deep-sea researchers spot 'unusual creature'

4:05 p.m., Oct. 29, 2002--“What’s the most unusual or unique organism that you can see?” a student from Wyoming asked the pilot of the research submarine Alvin, who, at the moment, was navigating the Pacific Ocean floor more than 2,500 meters deep and more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Costa Rica during a dive Tuesday, Oct. 29, as part of the University of Delaware’s Extreme 2002: Mission to the Abyss.

“There’s a middle school teacher in the submarine,” he answered. “You don’t see too many of them down here.”

The teacher was Hepsi Zsoldos, a science teacher at Talley Middle School who was selected to serve as education coordinator for the UD-led expedition, which began Oct. 20 and will continue through Nov. 12.

The mission is directed by UD marine biologist Craig Cary and serves as both an annual research effort and as a “virtual field trip” for students around the globe.

This year, more than 41,000 students at more than 500 schools are participating via the Internet [www.ocean.udel.edu/extreme2002/], e-mail and telephone conference calls, such as that Tuesday, which was the first of this trip.

Daily, the Alvin is carrying researchers from the mother ship, the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis, deep into the ocean depths to study hydrothermal vents and the creatures that inhabit them.

Craig Cary

On the line and listening in as Zsoldos made her descent were students from Talley Middle, who cheered when they were patched through to their teacher, and from several other middle and high schools across the nation, from Maine to Mississippi to Arizona.

The local students asked Zsoldos if she had seen any visible signs of pollution and she said she had not. The only signs of human intervention, she said, were markers from previous exploratory descents.

Other students asked about being in the confined space of the Alvin for long periods (it is like being in a sardine can), the materials used in construction of the submarine (titanium) and whether hydrothermal vents erupt continuously or intermittently (the hot water flows continuously).

Before communicating with the team in the Alvin, which is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, students posed questions to Cary, aboard the Atlantis.

He was asked about how much science is done aboard the ship and how much must wait until the team makes land (much is done at sea, although some research must wait), preparation for careers in oceanography (hard work, perseverance and a solid foundation in math, biology and physics), navigational tools (global positioning devices and acoustic equipment), shipboard accommodations (rooms are very small) and activities of the topside team while Alvin is submersed (sleeping, eating, working out and preparing for table tennis and foosball tournaments).

Extreme 2002: Mission to the Abyss is sponsored by the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies with primary funding from the National Science Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program, the MBNA Foundation, and WHYY-TV, the Public Broadcasting System affiliate serving Wilmington and Philadelphia.

Article by Neil Thomas