David Gallo on the mysteries of the ocean floor

David Gallo
Photo courtesy of David Gallo

Oceanographer David Gallo has seen the wreck of the Titanic up close and is one of the few people to have explored the ocean floor.

He was one of the featured speakers at the 48th annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College. The 2012 theme was "Our Global Ocean."

Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, joined The Daily Circuit Sept. 30, 2012 to discuss his research. He says we know about just one-tenth of 1 percent of what happens on the deep ocean floor.

"We're really privileged," he said. "We need to keep in the forefront of our minds that we are entering into this world that we actually have no right to be in, maybe."

Gallo said he hopes that improving technology will allow him to share more of his exploration with the public so they can see it up close too.

"If it's just three of us in a submarine or 50 of us on a boat in the middle of nowhere, I'd like to have the whole world be able to explore Titanic, for instance, the way we explore Titanic," he said. "The technology exists to do that."


The ocean floor is always changing. "The planet's alive, so the planet is constantly moving," Gallo said. "The outside of the earth is constantly changing. Continents come together, they move apart, they come together, move apart. When they do that, they make and destroy oceans between them. I know that sounds odd, but the Atlantic Ocean, for instance, is still getting wider, about the same rate your fingernails grow. Right in the middle, there's a mountain range that's being born; it's being called the Mid-Ocean Ridge."

There are lakes beneath the sea. "It's super salty water, but it looks like a lake on land, except it looks like a nighttime view because they're lit by a submarine," he said. "If you go down to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, you'll find a lake with waves in it, with animals that live in it that don't live in the ocean ... There's a shoreline with animals living along the shoreline." Some of these lakes are a mile wide, 10 miles long, 300 feet deep.

It's not just lakes. There are underwater rivers and waterfalls too. "There's valleys, thousands of them, deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon," he said. The tallest mountains and waterfalls on the earth are beneath the sea. Most of the earth's volcanic activity is also underwater.

"We get hooked on the big things, which is great, it lures us in. But then it's the tiny little things that can capture your imagination too." Gallo said the jellies he sees are beautiful and light up the ocean well below where sunlight reaches. "They all have bioluminescence, so in the deep, darkest places of the ocean they light up like the most brilliant fireflies," he said.

The deepest parts of the ocean look a lot like outer space. "It's almost a dream-like state," Gallo said. "You pass through this world of twinkling animals ... If you turn the lights on, you see like a soupy world with an occasional animal. Turn the lights off and let the animals light up."

"We're getting to a point now that if we don't change course, we're going to be eating our own garbage." Fish collected from the middle of the oceans have micro bits of plastic inside their stomachs and traces of pharmaceuticals, and flame retardants on their flesh, he said.

Are there creatures in the deepest parts of the ocean we haven't found yet? Gallo says absolutely, with no hesitation. "Almost every time we get in the water with a new piece of technology or going to a new place or we just learn to sit still instead of running around the bottom looking from place to place, we see something new," he said. "Different kinds of animals, everything from little bottom creepy-crawling things to swimming things."

VIDEO: Haunting shots of the Titanic under the sea

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