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Sea Life: Sub Plot

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Courtesy of the Subhuman Project

Sea Life
Sub Plot
One man’s ocean journey could shed light on a little-known ecosystem.

Making a solo trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a 15-foot-long, pedal-powered submarine might sound like something out of a Jules Verne tale. Ted Ciamillo plans to take the plunge next fall anyway.

Ciamillo, who designs underwater propulsion vehicles, figures it will take about 40 days to travel 2,300 miles from Africa’s Cape Verde to Barbados. Along the way, he’ll aid the marine biologists he’s collaborating with by collecting data from the ocean surface—an area scientists know surprisingly little about because it’s so vast and because sampling it usually involves disruptive nets or noisy watercraft with lights and claws that frighten off marine life. “I’ll be silent, looking very similar to a whale,” says Ciamillo, 41.

He’ll likely set out in November 2010, after hurricane season, and a support vessel with several scientists will follow about five miles behind. At night, Ciamillo will surface and sleep in a tent atop the sub. Each morning he’ll eat, pack up, put on his wetsuit, climb inside, deflate the air bladders, and sink to six feet. For two hours, three times a day, he’ll pedal the water-filled sub, breathing through a snorkel. In between, he’ll surface, rest, and eat. “I’m taking it easy,” says Ciamillo. “That way, when I see sea turtles or tuna, I can be really explosive and keep up.”

If he meets a whale, he’ll radio the ship and record the mammal as the vessel nears, helping Erika Raymond, a Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute doctoral fellow, study how boating affects whale behavior. He’ll snap photos of other animals and may even take tissue samples from certain fish. “I’ll monitor the less romantic things, like pollution, too.” At night Ciamillo will mount a camera, called the Eye-in-the-Sea, on the sub’s nose, don scuba gear, and descend to 50 feet for 45 minutes in search of bioluminescent creatures that venture up to the surface to feed. The organisms will light up as they pass through a screen attached to the camera. “It’s like fireworks going off,” he marvels. Edie Widder, a bioluminescence researcher who will be on the ship (or send a grad student), hopes the venture will shed light on how many such organisms inhabit the open ocean.

Currently, Ciamillo is in Georgia, preparing for open water tests: “Pushing the vessel across the ocean gives you the feeling that anything’s possible.”

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