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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Diving to Yellowstone Lake’s underwater world

By Mike Koshmrl Associated Press

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Ocean explorer Dave Lovalvo’s underwater robot Yogi, custom made to probe the depths of Yellowstone Lake, gives him a fancy new tool to find something.

“Something” being the operative word. What it will be, Lovalvo is not exactly sure: His find, perhaps, might be well outside the bounds of what science knows today, or even suspects.

The ambiguity, lack of direction and license to look wherever for whatever reason is all by design, reported the Jackson Hole News and Guide.

“We don’t have to have a hypothesis,” Lovalvo said from the deck of the Annie, a shiny new 40-foot vessel that doubles as a submersible robot command center. “We can go out here, eyes wide open, and look around.

“In some respects,” he said, “it’s better that we don’t know too much about science, because we don’t have a preconceived notion.”

On the Annie on a late August morning, Lovalvo and his colleagues at the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration were out to revisit old deep water discoveries, though this time with the aid of Yogi.

Early on it became clear that the half-ton robot was quite the contraption. Hoisted off of the Annie’s bow with a customized crane, the months-old machine quietly slipped under the rippling surface of Yellowstone Lake in the West Thumb and jetted out of sight.

Yogi’s first target: an 80-foot-deep cone formed by a geothermal vent that Lovalvo discovered as a younger man when scouting for bubbles hitting the surface of the big lake when its waters were like glass. Decades later the same bubbles broke the surface near where the Annie held herself in place with a GPS-based dynamic positioning system.

“Excited?” Melissa Ryan, the foundation’s project manager, asked her boss.

A grinning Lovalvo responded: “I love this cone.”

Clear and crisp

Aboard the Annie in a darkened control room, mechanical engineer Todd Gregory guided the vessel, tethered to a fiber-optic cable, toward the notable fissure in the lakebed.

The view from 80 feet under was surprisingly clear and crisp. Yogi’s four high-definition cameras and dimmable 9,000-lumen beacon showed the six-person research team everything it wanted to see in great detail.

In view was the thermal opening, piping gases from the superheated magma chamber far below. A mat of strange-looking and apparently endemic vegetation, tiny freshwater shrimp and a large hunk of minerals jutting up off the silted lake bottom shared the scene. Oranges and greens dominated the coloration right around the vent, the result of bacteria growing from the 90-degree-plus gases that had sputtered out for years.

Lovalvo, a 30-year veteran of underwater exploration in 394-foot-deep Yellowstone Lake, quickly noted two metallic devices near the cone. They were temperature probes left behind from University of Wisconsin research he had a hand in years ago.

Electrical engineer Dave Wright went to work, trying to snag the instrument with Yogi’s five-function arm so they could be reunited with the Midwestern researchers. After some maneuvering, the first probe was in hand.

“I’ve got you now, my pretty,” Wright said in a raspy, witchy voice.

Into Yogi’s maneuverable bin the probe went.

Underwater volcanology

In the first summer navigating Yellowstone Lake’s waters, Yogi and the crew spent much of their time placing underwater sensors to help better understand the Yellowstone region’s volcanology. While exploration is the name of the game, supporting hypothesis-driven science pays the bills, Ryan explained.

“But we’d like to have more days like we have today,” she said.

Without going into details, Lovalvo divulged that the Annie and Yogi incurred some expense: Each ran well into the six-figure range. Just more than $100,000 came from a crowdfunding campaign. National Park Service funding was nil.

Only two days this season were devoted entirely to unencumbered exploration.

Probing into Mary Bay thermal vents the day before, Yogi lost a finger – or more precisely a polycarbonate temperature probe – in the superheated sediment.

“We went up to 172 degrees Celsius,” Lovalvo said. “We only went about 5, 6 inches down.”

That’s 342 degrees Fahrenheit – frozen-pizza-cooking temps – though the heat quickly dissipates in the 3.6 cubic miles of 40-something-degree water cupped within the 136-square-mile lake.

‘Very interesting’

In the Yellowstone offseason the Annie will stick around in the Northern Rockies, but Yogi is on to other places. It’s capable of reaching 1,500 meters underwater – nearly a mile down – and has plenty of usefulness elsewhere, Lovalvo said.

The second stop of the day was at a so-called “trout Jacuzzi,” unseen in the waters only a stone’s throw from a West Thumb geyser basin boardwalk. The throngs who walked by, oddly, paid little attention to the 5-foot-long, 4-foot-high white robot being carefully lowered into the lake by helmeted engineers and explorers.

Although the lakebed was only 10 feet underwater, at the “Jacuzzi” a depression sank to nearly 30 feet. Intermittently but without failure, in Lovalvo’s experience, the feature has burped up geothermally heated water, kicking up sediment and triggering a chain reaction that draws bugs, freshwater anthropods and, eventually, cutthroat trout.

“It’s almost like a buffet,” Lovalvo said. “And when the thing erupts, it’s like a dinner bell.”

This time around, for the first time, it didn’t happen.

Yogi sat waiting for 15 minutes while the depression was dormant. The cutthroat were nowhere to be seen.

“Maybe things have changed,” Lovalvo said. “Very interesting.”