Undersea Adventure

New Zealand schools can sign up for a virtual field trip to the depths of the Pacific Ocean later this year.

The selected schools and their students will be able to take part in Extreme 2004: Expedition to the Deep Frontier, a science mission that will run from November 30 to December 20 this year.

Encouraging the New Zealand participation is Waikato University professor and marine biologist Craig Cary, who also works at the University of Delaware.

“For the last five years, American students have been able to take part in the National Science Foundation expedition and now it’s time to involve New Zealand students,” said Dr Cary, the chief scientist for Extreme 2004, said in a statement.

The Extreme 2004 science team, which includes four researchers from Waikato University, will be exploring how life can survive the extreme temperatures of more than 100 degrees Celsius experienced at the hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. The submersible Alvin, which discovered the Titanic in 1986, will be making daily dives to a 2500-metre deep site about 1500 kilometres off the coast of Costa Rica.

In past expeditions, Dr Cary’s group have made some astonishing discoveries. According to the programme’s website, in 1998 Dr Cary and his colleagues discovered that the Pompeii worm, which lives at hydrothermal vents, is the Earth’s most heat-tolerant animal. It can survive in water as hot as 80°C and beats the previous record holder, the Sahara Desert ant, which is known to be able to survive in temperatures of 55°C. “For most of us, a hot shower is around 100°F (37°C),” says Dr. Cary on the website. “How the Pompeii worm survives the nearly boiling water emanating from the vents is a mystery.”

Other highlights of previous voyages include the 2001 expedition which marked the first time DNA sequencing had been accomplished at sea, and the 2002 expedition when a US teacher joined scientists and crew aboard the Alvin, the programme’s website says.

Last year, Dr Cary’s first year in New Zealand, four New Zealand schools participated in Extreme 2003; this year six local schools have already indicated their interest. In the US, interest in the programme is high: last year, nearly 600 schools in 49 US states participated.

A highlight for schools is to be selected as one of the 50 classrooms who participate in conference phone calls with the scientists as they conduct research on the seafloor. Twelve to thirteen different schools on four different days will be invited to participate in the “Phone Call to the Deep,” which links classrooms in a 45-minute conference call with scientists working aboard the research vessel Atlantis and submersible Alvin.

As well, during the 21-day expedition, students will be able to email the scientists during the voyage, design their own experiments and take part in a Virtual Science Fair. Schools are being offered free classroom materials about the deep sea, including a documentary video, curricula and resource guides for each student.

There is also an interactive website which is updated daily during the expedition with journals, photos and video clips from the seafloor, and interviews with the crew.

Says Dr Cary in his invitation to schools: “With New Zealand’s interest in the ocean and dependency on geothermal features, this programme is a natural.”

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