Aboard the Starship Alucia

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Meet the Research Vessel Used on the Explore 21 Expedition

This month, Museum Curator John Sparks is leading The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition. A part of the Museum's Explore21 initiative, this three-week research journey is headquartered aboard the Research Vessel Alucia.

Expedition member Chris Filardi, who is the director of Pacific Programs in the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, recently wrote in with this dispatch.

Like traveling in a starship plying a marine universe, onboard Alucia technology is everywhere. 

"Alucia" research vessel at sea in the daytime
The Research Vessel Alucia allowed Museum researchers to explore the waters, mangrove forests, and coral reefs of Solomon Islands in 2013
© AMNH/John Sparks

Flatscreen displays show the positions of the ship, its tenders, subs, and nearby features of the land and sea, digital message boards display daily workplans, seamless telecommunication links folks scattered around the ship and adjacent sea or islands, and even infrared cameras streaming into monitors keep everyone aware (intimately at times) of goings on.  There is little privacy, but remarkably everyone is cheerful and the 40 or so of us are living and working together in good spirits.

Part of what keeps us all so content is that Alucia’s high-tech wizardry is not just for comfort and safety—it’s also an incredible platform to go where no scientist has gone before.

Explore21 David Gruber and Triton submarine
David Gruber entering the Triton submarine for first night deployment dive off Mbulo Island, Solomon Islands.
Ken Corben

Tonight a sub dive came in with water samples from previously unprobed depths, and Museum microbiologist Eunsoo Kim got straight to work filtering for tiny protists. 

Because Eunsoo works on creatures that are so tiny and difficult to detect, simply finding and isolating individual types is really hard. To do this one often needs to find an individual cell with a diameter one-hundredth of a human hair and then culture it into a dense community of individuals. The best way is to hand-pluck a single cell from a petri dish—no easy task and near impossible on a boat.  Well, any boat other than Alucia.

The stabilizing system on Alucia keeps her so steady that Eunsoo has been able to isolate and capture her tiny organisms; by hand using specialized pipets that she fashioned in the galley with a blowtorch for making crème brûlée. 

Special Pipets Eunsoo Kim Explore21

And, because the lab here accommodates cutting-edge microscopy and molecular biology in real time, results should be soon to follow, with newly discovered organisms from her unseen worlds blossoming in the lab like some out-of-this-world flower garden after a spring rain.

Tonight’s deep SCUBA dives also brought up organisms that appeared to reflect fluorescent patterns under the reef walls that fall away hundreds of meters from the verdant, overhung coast.  On the dive, our colleagues David Gruber and Vincent Pieiribone used blue lights that mimic the way the ocean—the world’s largest blue filter—filters daylight. 

David Gruber at the Microscope Explore21
David Gruber aboard the Alucia

They do this at night, with lights mounted on a camera that is five times higher resolution than HD.  With filters that don’t let a single photon of blue light come back into the camera, the camera only sees the transformation of that light by the reef animals—and some of them glow in patterns with a variety both beautiful and new to science.

Soft green coral fluoresce Alucia Explore 21
Soft coral fluorescing, photographed during The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition

Back in Alucia’s labs, we can now better see which animals are absorbing that blue light and rebroadcasting it as different colors to reveal, and better understand, creatures of light.  The team has found fish and crustaceans, squids and corals—all striped and spectacled and swirled in fluorescent patterns that dazzle, redefining the boundaries between species and a new scientific frontier.

See all dispatches from the Explore21 Expedition: