In 1977, a small crew of oceanographers traveled to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and stumbled across a brand new form of life. The discovery was so unusual, it turned biology on its head and brought into question much of what scientists thought they knew about where life can form and what it needs in order to survive.
Today, the Smithsonian Institution houses that remarkable discovery: a pale and fleshy, 4-foot-long worm that floats in the kind of pickle jar you'd see in your neighborhood delicatessen. It might not look like much now, but Kristian Fauchald, the Smithsonian's curator of worms, says that in 1977, this worm had everyone scratching their heads. At up to 7 feet in length, he says, "these are enormous beasts compared to normal worms." And they were thriving in large numbers without any obvious source of food or light.
"This," Fauchald says, holding up the worm, "is something absolutely unique."
An Unexpected Discovery
Kathy Crane and Jack Corliss weren't expecting to find anything alive when they started on their journey to explore the ocean floor. They were looking instead to answer some basic questions about the ocean's temperature and chemistry that science could not yet answer. "Saltiness was a big question," Crane says. "Students used to ask their professors, 'How did the ocean get its salt?' "
Some ocean scientists believed the answers to these questions lay in volcanic vents that they suspected peppered the ocean floor. So they put together an expedition in the Alvin, a tiny submarine operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, to go down and see for themselves.
Crane was then a 25-year-old grad student from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. From the Alvin's mother ship, she guided the Alvin to an area in the eastern Pacific known as the Galapagos Rift. Corliss, a geologist from Oregon State University, rode aboard the Alvin itself.
Kathy Crane, recalling a conversation with Woods Hole scientists after discovering the deep-sea worms
The day of the dive, Crane assumed her position as navigator and Corliss climbed aboard the Alvin. "I slipped through the porthole," he remembers. "It wasn't much bigger around than I was."
As the Alvin began its descent, Corliss watched through the window as the world around him went from blue to black to blacker than black. "We were descending into a different world," he says. Now and again, they saw sudden flashes of light from bioluminescent creatures swimming past the sub.The Alvin Submersible