Diving in the Rain

Kelly Lake, British Columbia, Canada
Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday’s story is best told in pictures.

I went out on a Zodiac – think inflatable whitewater raft, but with an outboard motor – to watch scuba divers as they brought up microbialite samples from the bottom of Kelly Lake. In a rainstorm. In 6-degree weather (that’s Celsuis; 43 Fahrenheit; it was snowing at higher elevations).

Scuba divers go out each day to collect microbialite samples from locations identified by the sub pilots during previous days’ sub flights as being of scientific interest.

This morning there were two diving runs. The first run brought back not only microbialites, but also lake water, many gallons of lake water, pumped up onto the Zodiac from near where the microbialites were collected. Curtis Suttle, a Pavilion Lake Research Project co-investigator [tk-verify], is interested in comparing the microbial communities living in and on the microbialites to the communities living in the surrounding water.

I arrived too late to go out on the first run. I guess I shouldn’t have lingered over that third cup of coffee, even if it was raining.

Above is the Zodiac coming ashore with the first dive’s haul. Note the rain gear. Steve Wittig, on the right, is the pilot.

Suttle, only slightly wet at this point, is on the left. Jan Finke, much wetter, is next to him. Finke is one of Suttle’s students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Here’s a better view of Finke. He’s carrying a bin full of microbial samples. While out on the Zodiac he was caught in a hailstorm. (At the time, I was sitting in my rental car, with the heater on, listening to a Beethoven piano sonata, trying to convince myself that the rain was about to stop.)

This is Rick White, another of Suttle’s students, carrying two five-gallon containers of water from the Zodiac. Rick, who has had the good sense to focus his activity on sample transportation, is only member of this small assemblage who will manage to avoid getting thoroughly soaked.

Once all the samples from the first diving run are unloaded, Suttle and I climb aboard the Zodiac, while White and Finke drive the first round of samples back to the lodge. It’s still raining.

There are three divers on this morning’s diving runs: Nick Wilkinson, Susan Winnitoy and Tyler Mackey.

Here Wilkinson (left) and Mackey are about to descend to the lake bottom for samples. Wilkinson is holding several large ziplock-type bags. And when I say large, I mean really large, like big enough to hold a whole roast turkey. These are for collecting microbialite samples.

The syringes strapped to Mackey’s arm are for extracting samples from inside some of the microbialites. These guys aren’t particularly bothered by the rain. They’re waterproofed. The temperature is another story. As chilly as it is on the surface, it’s even colder down where they’re headed, down where the microbialites grow.

This is Winnitoy bringing one of the bags full of microbialite samples back to the Zodiac. In between the previous photograph and this one, about a half an hour has elapsed, during which time, while waiting for the divers’ return, the three of us on the Zodiac – Suttle, Wittig and I – have gotten progressively wetter. There is no coffee on the Zodiac.

Here Suttle and Wittig lift one of the bags onto the Zodiac. The bags are heavy because they’re mostly filled with cold lake water, to keep the microbialites at a comfortable 4 degrees C (40 degrees F).

Once on board the sample bags are stuffed into a picnic cooler for the trip back to shore and then to the processing labs in the parking lot. The scientists don’t want the DNA and RNA in the samples to degrade before the samples can be preserved for transport back to Biddle and Suttle’s home institutions.

We head for shore. Here’s Suttle, trying to lean forward in the Zodiac while hanging on to the cooler full of microbialites, which is pulling him in the opposite direction, as if trying to roll downhill. The Zodiac, weighted down by the samples, and by the rainwater that has been collecting in it for the past half hour, is tilting heavily toward aft. It’s still raining. And still cold.

Note that Suttle is facing away from the direction of the Zodiac’s motion. That’s a good choice. Wittig and I, in contrast, are facing forward – Wittig because he needs to see where we’re going, and I because I’m taking pictures of Suttle. The rain on my face feels like I’m being attacked by a swarm of angry bees. On the plus side, unlike Suttle, I’m wearing gloves (although my fingers freeze anyway.)

Once ashore, the samples are driven back to the sample-preparation labs at the Cariboo Lodge. Jennifer Biddle runs the lab on the left; Curtis Suttle, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the lab on the right.

Now it decides to stop raining.

Amy Chan, who works with Suttle, samples one of the microbialites. The sample is then frozen to preserve its DNA and RNA until it gets back to Suttle’s lab in Vancouver.

That’s the end of my photo essay. But you may be wondering why people do crazy stuff like this, when they could choose instead to lie around in a hotel room, perhaps listening to and being amused by the rain, while snuggling under the covers, watching a movie on the flat-screen TV and eating breakfast in bed. What’s the big deal about a bunch of carbonate rocks with microbes growing on them?

Well, for one thing, they’re old. Really old. Especially the large ones. Although the rocks themselves are not alive, if bacteria are indeed involved in shaping them, in a sense they are among the oldest “living” structures on Earth. Older than ancient redwood trees. The one in the photograph above may have been thousands of years in the making. Which means it’s been slowly growing in Kelly Lake throughout the course of most of modern human civilization.

But not only are the microbialites in Pavilion and Kelly Lakes deserving of respect for their age in their own right, they also offer a valuable glimpse into an even-more-ancient time.

Big, clunky, visible life forms like plants and Portobellos and people are fairly recent evolutionary innovations. For several billion years, all life on Earth was single-celled. During much of that time, structures like the microbialites in Pavilion and Kelly Lakes are thought to have been ubiquitous in Earth’s shallow waters. So all this crazed activity – flying subs in mountain lakes, scuba diving in hailstorms, setting up science labs in vacation-lodge parking lots – may ultimately help scientists understand not only what’s going on in British Columbia, but also what constituted the dominant form of life on Earth for much of the planet’s history.

To put it another way, if we find evidence of life on other worlds – Mars for example – and if that life turns out to be anything like life on Earth, it could well be the fossilized remains of something akin to the microbialites in Pavilion and Kelly Lakes.

So maybe a little rain, a few frozen fingertips and a camera that took several hours to dry out weren’t such a big deal after all. But it was still nice to get back to the lodge for that fourth cup of coffee.

All photos, credit: Henry Bortman