Oceangrapher reveals Neptune’s secrets

On March 24 oceanographer David Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, presented a lecture to students titled "Beyond the Titanic: Deepest Secrets of Neptune's Realm."

Gallo, one of the first oceanographers to use submarines and robots to explore the ocean floor, described how the landscape underneath the ocean directly parallels that of the geography above water. He showed the audience pictures of undersea mountains, volcanoes, trenches, super-salty underwater lakes and rivers, and even waterfalls. He explained that weather phenomena like tornadoes and hurricanes occur underwater as well.

In addition to showing landscapes, Gallo presented video footage of the life forms found in the darkest depths of the ocean. In his underwater explorations, Gallo has encountered countless interesting life forms including numerous bioluminescent species, octopi that blend into the surrounding algae, and tubeworms and shrimp that survive under intense water pressure.

"We thought no environment could rival the lushness of the tropical rainforest," Gallo said. "By a hydrothermal vent [underwater] we found 297 new species. It has revolutionized the way we thought about life on Earth."

The highlight of Gallo's lecture focused on his work with the doomed passenger liner RMS Titanic. Gallo said he had little interest in the project initially, but decided to replace a colleague that had to drop out of an expedition to explore the sunken ship. He said he began work mapping the ruins of Titanic, experienced the excitement of making discoveries and grew more enthusiastic.

Gallo was responsible for creating a two-by-five mile map of the wreck and the objects scattered at its sinking. "Titanic is slowly falling apart," Gallo said. "Our goal is to create a virtual Titanic with the real data. We're trying to make it available online by next year."

The map of the wreck includes not just the large pieces of the ship that make up the ruins, but the ocean floor littered with tens of thousands of scattered objects.

"When you come across a shoe or a bowler hat, things that are really human, everyone stops," he said. "Everyone would shut up and stare. You get pulled in."

Gallo said that a lot of work remains to be done and that the effects of global climate change make the ocean's situation precarious. "The ship has become a home for many animals," Gallo said. "It's a mini reef. But how long will it last?" He said he is optimistic about the opportunities for knowledge the sea contains.

"Exploring is great," Gallo said of his career's work. "But no matter where you live, you have an impact on the sea. Humanity and the sea share an intimate relationship. It's in our own best interest to understand the sea."

Gallo's discussion was presented as the seventh annual American Rock Salt Lecture on Geology.