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magazine / apr08

April 2008 issue


FEATURE

Voyage to the slope of the deep dark sea
A crew of scientists and submersible pilots reveals secrets of the continent’s submarine margin
By Annie Mercier and Jean-François Hamel

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson sways to the rhythm of a lazy North Atlantic swell, its red belly barely breaking the surface of the water. The sun peeks through a thin veil of fog. It is a perfect day at sea in July 2007, especially in these moody waters 250 kilometres south of Newfoundland, but there is hardly a soul on deck. All the action is happening deep in the gloomy confines of the overcrowded forward lab. Fans hum and chairs creak as 10 pairs of eyes focus intently on monitors that, for now, display only whitish specks on a deep-blue background. A murmur, a hushed reply and, suddenly, “Bottom!”


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Joyous shouts erupt in almost perfect unison, unleashing a flurry of excitement that transforms the control room into a buzzing hive. Nearly two kilometres below, after dropping for 90 minutes at a rate of 20 metres a minute, the unmanned submersible ropos (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science) has finally arrived at the sea floor.

Canyons, plains, mountains, coral reefs — most of the Earth’s large-scale geographical features have remained hidden in the recesses of the sea, out of sight and out of reach. But not anymore. For the next 20 hours, the sub will roam the fathomless night of the abyss, the cameras and robotic claws helping the scientists above, who are intent on elucidating the mysteries of this never-before-explored tract of the continental slope.

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