Embracing the deep ocean

INK2013, October 25-27 in Kochi, India. Photo: Varsha Yeshwant Kumar

Dr. David Gallo

Deep oceans envelop us in the dark. We swim in shallow waters of majestic light blue. Animals change shape, color, and texture to camouflage themselves then suddenly reveal their true nature as we all sit riveted on the first morning of the annual INK2013 conference, held October 25-27, in Kochi, India. With the third most watched TED talk of all time (over 9 million to date), Dr. David Gallo is the most popular scientist here, and after the talk he is swarmed by people who want to swim with him.

Gallo’s professor once told him he did not have the aptitude to be a scientist. He had struggled through formal schooling and does not enjoy reading. But in science, there are theorists, there are experimentalists, and there are explorers. Gallo became an explorer. Keenly perceptive of patterns and with full access to his sixth sense, his work has given mankind what no brain-intense, over-logical, critical, skeptical reductionist could have given us. He has done so by thinking out of the box, embracing the wonder of discovery, advocating the ability to see with our hearts, and relating to the creatures of the sea with a larger sense of connection with the planet.

Gallo possesses all the qualities of a great explorer: he is adventurous but focused, creative but prepared, deeply honest yet greedy for more. He is confident in what he has seen, and strict in his hunt for accuracy. He is persuasive and persistent with funders and would-be ecologists with large voices. David is a visionary: curious, resilient, with a sense of higher purpose, which is why the founders of most global conferences, including TED, are his friends. They trust his utilization of funds for the highest good, and they can sit safely in front of his large-view screens as his risk-taking missions to the deep explore the 97% unknown territories of the oceans and bring back photos for all of us.

I wonder if that discouraging professor is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an elite bar for the most prestigious group of scientists, into which Gallo was inducted in 2009.

Italian by ancestry, with tanned skin, a hearty laugh, a love for opera, and an odd fetish for Indian achaar, Gallo’s charismatic presence ensures he has a crowd surrounding him at every moment. Nonetheless, he escapes between conferences and expeditions to his nest on the eastern seaboard in the brain-rich town of Falmouth, Massachusetts, where he collects wildflowers, grows tomatoes, and communes with Nature, observing its patterns to understand what he sees in the deep.

He is deeply alone, and he is deeply connected.

David Gallo and Shark

With Navaratri just behind us, I describe the devis of this land: Kali, Laxmi, Saraswati, mother Ganga, and Durga. Gallo appreciates shakti instantly, connecting devi worship as an allegiance to the energy of creation, the magic of new life. The concepts of prakriti and Universal connection with Spirit and consciousness are completely within his reach, though he is a scientist. He makes a passing reference to the force of nature at INK, Lakshmi Pratury, who was part of the TED conferences when he met her in San Francisco long ago.

Instantly, he has a strange affinity for Ayurveda: its awareness of ecosystems and responsible use of natural resources, its application of patterns in the macrocosm with those of the ocean-cosm, and its emphasis on cleansing our jnana-indriyas, or five senses, to increase our perceptiveness of the world around us.

Of course, I engage him in a conversation about the metals and minerals coming up through the volcanoes on the ocean floor, since my PhD work is on medicines made of metals, known as rasa shastra. Ayurveda describes 550 medicinal substances from the sea. Gallo thinks for a moment, then fluidly engages into bioluminescence produced by animals in the pure dark, below the level that light can penetrate water, about half an hour down in a submarine.

Further down, four miles to the bottom of the sea, two-and-a-half hours, there are hydrothermal vents of steam at 700oF and sulfuric smoke currents from spiraling towers at pressures that would crush entire ships. There are microbes that eat the poisonous gases from these vents and convert them into food for the abundant life there. This chemosynthesis defies theories mandating the need for photosynthesis. Spewing volcanoes from the ocean floor send up smoke of metals and minerals that have been created by nuclear fission and fusion in the core of the earth. There are constant earthquakes and eruptions. We discuss tectonic plates and how he and I are floating on a bed of magma miles below our feet.

Gallo inquires how I know all this: I mention the modules on oceanography at khanacademy.org, written by MIT graduate Salman Khan. With no pause, he offers to introduce me to mineralogists and those excavating and mining metals in the sea. This generosity epitomizes the true scientist: always ready to involve another mind to run away with him to the land of curiosity.

While he has spent over 35 years exploring the seas, his sharpness and youth present him more like a 40-year old, vibrant, charismatic, and very attuned with Nature around him. After reading an article on Robert Ballard, who later discovered the shipwreck of the Titanic in 1985, he decided to go to college and completed a BS and MS in geology in New York; he then received a PhD in oceanography doing extensive work on deep sea floor mapping. He has worked with Ballard since 1987, when he joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the largest independent oceanographic research institution in the USA.

Established in 1930, as a private nonprofit research center, Woods Hole OI is also a higher education facility dedicated to the study of all aspects of marine science and engineering, and to the education of marine researchers. Gallo avidly supports mentorship of young explorers, describing the guru-shishya apprenticeship model used to train new engineers, ocean physicists, and divers. He actively engages diligent and prepared young scientists, providing hands-on experience during his expeditions, carrying twenty-five crew and twenty-five scientists who can move safely and productively around his ships.

Gallo has worked not only with Ballard but is familiar with all the famous oceanographers, policy makers, environmentalists, aristocrats, celebrities, and those interested in the health of the oceans. He has traveled each of our seven oceans, which cover 71% of the planet. He has led several expeditions for wreckages, mapping the ocean floor and witnessing discovery of the co-inhabitants of this planet.

He mentions that man touched the mountains of the moon in 1969; but it was only in 1974, that we started exploring the 50,000-mile underwater mountain range of our Earth that dissects the Atlantic Ocean, connects below Africa with the Indian Ocean, traverses it and connects through the south Pacific up toward the western seaboard of North America.

Gallo has successfully integrated three resources that punctuate his reputation for exploring: tools of technology, talent and technical mastery. He has diligently worked with an interdisciplinary team of expert engineers and scientists to apply the latest technology to the waters, combining the use of 3D high-definition cameras, high-power lenses, large screen-viewing, digital technology, and sampling equipment, onto fitted ALVIN submarines that hold three explorers, and onto unmanned rovers that can stay on the ocean floor for weeks. Engineers hand-make the rovers using the concepts of fluid dynamics, waterproofing, gravity, sonar and optics. Gallo only trusts this expensive equipment to people who have been trained properly, and gathers technological expertise from those accustomed both to brainwork and hardy enough to work on the seas. He also seeks out visionary men and women with talent who are dedicated to the health of the ocean.

As director of special projects at WHOI, he has combined ideas with implementation and expertise and mastered the ability that most scientists want, whether they work with microscopes or telescopes: to be able to see, think, and know more deeply, and then bring that to the rest of the world.

Gallo and his “Special Projects” teams are famous for search and discovery of crafts and wreckages “committed to the deep long ago.” His expeditions include a detailed exploration of the Titanic which James Cameron used for the 1997 Hollywood film. He has found airplane crashes against the odds, and unlikely vessels that left few traces. He is able to take us into the dark and “find shoe boxes on rugged mountain terrains at night,” at the bottom of the sea.

Before him, Jacques Cousteau had shared the oceans with the world with his work from 1936 until his death in 1997. Innovator of the Aqua-Lung, the open-circuit scuba technology that allows divers to extend underwater exploration beyond surface diving, Cousteau pioneered marine conservation, discovered echolocation of ocean porpoises, and used the then-new techniques of filmmaking to give us over 120 documentaries, over 50 books, and inspire us to look below.

The French and the Americans are not the only explorers of the sea. In India, the National Institute of Oceanography was started in 1966, and is part of the CSIR, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the largest autonomous research organization in the world. Approximately 200 scientists work at the NIO in four campuses around India. One of the main foci of interest is the marine geology and geophysics of the north Indian Ocean. They have conducted an Indian Expedition to Antarctica. The north Indian basin is strictly tropical and is responsible for strong seasonal winds and currents and an interesting biogeochemistry that create our famous monsoons.

Gallo refers to an old law of modern biology: where there is no light, there can be no life. He smugly adds, “Someone forgot to tell that to the creatures that live down there, four miles below the sunlight.” The diversity of life forms rivals that of tropical rainforests. “We were wrong about how life likes to live on earth.” With his videography, he returns us to a state of studenthood, where we must again be curious about the rhythms and cycles that form this planet.

His share of marine biologist Roger Hanlon’s encounter with a camouflaged octopus is now famous. It shows Hanlon encountering a shallow bush of algae, part of which suddenly and instantly turns into a startled octopus, squirts some ink and swims away. Gallo shows the clip in reverse motion, as the audience oos and ahs in amazement. Thus, the nine million views on YouTube and TED.

Gallo however is not only an explorer. This is one of his camouflages. He is also an ambassador for Squishy, the cute little pink translucent octopus he shows swimming in the dark unlit mid-waters. While many explorers are introverted and incapable of dialogue with common laypersons, this is where Gallo distinguishes himself. He is a true communicator, not only exuding compassion for people and Nature, but using it to create awareness and discussion, activism and policy changes.

Among his best friends are billionaires who lived lives of aimless indulgence; he has scooped them up in his curiosity and taken them on yachts to view the ocean below, inspiring them to invest in preserving the environment, speak on ecology, and focus on creating a new generation of eco-socio-political students who will take on the cause for the coming years.

In a nation of green hypocrites, he knows many people don’t know right action. For example, they drink imported water in small plastic bottles from thousands of miles away and discuss the environment. Or they don’t stop the run-off of pesticide-filled rain from our farmlands and golf courses. Or they ignore the disposal of plastic that is collecting inside deep marine animals thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean. The quick acidification of the oceans is also traumatizing the animals that live there. What should we put into the atmosphere and into the ground, and what is the consequence of doing so? People need awareness using real facts from scientists, not only media-polarized half-truths.

The problem, Gallo says thoughtfully, is that the culture of scientists exerts a heavy peer pressure to not boast. Press conferences on discoveries are not encouraged. Scientists instead are told to work diligently, publish in technical journals, stay out of the limelight, and write grants to do more research. And, they are not allowed to be opinionated. Science requires they separate their objective findings from attitudes and activism.

Gallo pursues another truth. He is using the cool pictures and high-end technologies he has coalesced to bring greater understanding to the thinking and developed people on this planet, those of us who generate pollution and excess “anthropogenic carbon dioxide.“ With his pictures, he is asking you to choose: we don’t have to change things, but there will be a consequence to humanity for that. It is about our ability to adapt. We have to make a decision. Are we going to share the oceans? Will we exploit everything on the planet that we can get to? Will we take all the nature-made resources we find and turn them into big businesses? Is that our mission on the earth? The undercurrents of his message will sweep you away.

As he talks about humanity, I feel tears welling in my eyes. I am having a moment. He notices and admonishes me: don’t do that, young lady. Don’t. Don’t. I look up and see his eyes are also welled, and of course, the two of us release tears together spontaneously, heartfully, thinking about the ocean planet that he has described so eloquently and what humanity is doing to it.

After the interview, he reveals this was his first trip to India. “I fell in love with the people and the spirit.” One-in-a-billion things can happen there. It is a special place. And he has had special moments. By popular demand, he shows up, like Jack, on the bow of the last day and gives a second talk at INK about the Titanic. The crowd cheers.

Gallo has already received several invitations to return to India for conferences with different themes: exploration, innovation, technology, oceans, discovery. Is he willing? It seems so. But just in case: when you send him an invitation, also send him a bottle of your mother’s best achaar: then he will have to say yes.

Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya, MD, MPH, HHC. (Photo credit: Rohit Chawla

Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a physician-scientist and a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar. Follow her adventures at srotamsi.blogspot.in.

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