Voyages to the Bottom of the Sea : Harmon Craig's Adventures With Underwater Volcanoes

Janny Scott is a Times staff writer.

IN THE BUSINESS OF wrenching truth from the Earth, 1987 was a banner year.

It began for Harmon Craig with a descent in a titanium ball into the crater of an active underwater volcano, a place of monstrous monkfish and vast carpets of worms and hot water seeping from fissures that slice deep into the planet.

Then, in April, Craig went two miles down into the frigid blackness of the deepest Pacific, through forests of chimneys spewing boiling water that shimmered like glycerin. Pink anemones, like bits of confetti, hung in the water. Massive mountain slopes teemed with shrimp and snails.

Finally, last October, in the vast stretches of ocean southeast of Tahiti, a volcano erupted beneath Craig's research ship. For two days, he and the crew watched the troubled sea simmer and churn, and fished from that strange soup a sizzling volcanic rock.

"People say, 'Why do you keep going to these Godforsaken places?' " Craig muses one recent afternoon in his lab at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. "The answer is that you find things by going out and looking for them."

Harmon Craig is a gumshoe of geochemistry, a cryptographer of the codes that leak from the Earth. He is a hunter of elusive gases and minerals and rocks, piecing together a map of the Earth's interior from the clues that seep and explode through its crust. For 30 years, he has plumbed oceans and scoured volcanoes in a series of extraordinary expeditions, transforming our understanding of the history and chemistry of the oceans, atmosphere and inner Earth--as he has put it, "wrenching truth from the Earth."

Now Craig has been named one of two co-recipients of the world's top prize in earth sciences, the Vetlesen award, recognizing a lifetime of work that, some colleagues say, would be sufficient for the careers of half a dozen scientists.

"He's really one of a handful of people who invented the field of modern geochemistry," says John Edmond, a geochemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If it wasn't for Harmon, there would be a lot of floundering around going on."

Craig also happens to be a notorious character--a man with the rambunctious spirit and rumpled demeanor of Dennis the Menace at 61; a lover of music, a quoter of Shaw and T. S. Eliot, professing surprise that audiences no longer get his classical allusions. Colleagues call him humorous, theatrical, abrasive, brilliant--a man who pursues problems so relentlessly he ends up devouring entire fields of study. One associate named a mineral after him, Craigite: Under normal temperatures and pressure, it explosively decomposes into hot air and water.

He can also be a fierce and bitter critic. By his own admission, he has alienated colleagues and hurt friends. On committees, he finds himself a minority of one. Called for jury duty, he says, he is invariably thrown off.

"I have a way of thinking, at least, that I see very clearly how things should be done," he remarks, only half-apologetic. "You know, it's that definition of a fanatic: 'Someone who said he was doing things the way God would do it if He really knew the facts.' "

At Scripps, where he is a professor of geochemistry and oceanography, Craig is largely nocturnal. To avoid distractions, he works in his rambling basement lab late into the night. Then he goes home and works until dawn, aiming to fall asleep just before sunrise and the noise of morning.

Matters financial and clerical are ceded to his wife, Valerie, his assistant and expedition companion for the past 20 years. Craig and others credit the couple's collaboration and her patience with making possible his unprecedented work.

They have been mugged at panga-point by Masai tribesmen. They have been shanghaied by Zairean gunboats on Lake Tanganyika. His left foot and ankle are the texture of lizard skin, from falling through a thin layer of earth into boiling water while hunting hot springs at Yellowstone. Once, he gave up a three-pack-a-day smoking habit on a peak in Tibet, caught bronchitis and ended up hospitalized in Lhasa, receiving injections of Tibetan goat horn, which he later brought home for analysis--discovering with glee that it promoted penicillin uptake.

"James Thurber said the definition of a humorist is a person to whom things happen," says Edmond of MIT, who regularly accompanies Craig on expeditions. "Things happen to Harmon in a way that they don't happen to other people. It's just his attitude to life."

"He is a great actor," says Devendra Lal, another professor at Scripps. "He is actually thinking of himself all the time, I'm sure, as a unique Shakespearean actor or somebody on the stage. And each performance is better than the previous one."

But now Craig's peregrinations have brought him trouble. In the past two years, he has led four ocean expeditions. That's nearly six months at sea, in addition to months working in China and Africa. Paper work has mounted in drifts in his lab. Now there are grant proposals to be written to keep his lab funded and his students paid. There has been little time, he says, to analyze his data.

Suddenly, Craig finds himself, as he puts it, "beached" by the National Science Foundation, which funds his work to the tune of about $1 million a year in public money. There will be no more expeditions for two years, he says. In the meantime, he must write up his data.

Equally irksome, colleagues reviewing his grant proposals for the NSF have suggested that Craig is unfocused. "They say, 'Where is he going? He's very confused,' " Craig says.

"I feel that if you can define a goal, you know what you're going to find already," he counters. "Then it's not so interesting. Let the people who can define their goals define their goals. Let's have a few people who don't have defined goals."

One colleague even suggested to the NSF that Craig should settle down and spin theories. He said that Craig should serve as "the Einstein of the earth sciences," a phrase that is flattering but seems especially to rankle Craig.

Craig says he doesn't want to be a pure theoretician. There will be time for making theories when he is too old to go to sea. Anyway, he points out, he discusses his data at meetings and in written abstracts. "People find out about the data," he is sure.

With the Einstein remark rattling around in his head, Craig took time out in mid-expedition last April to fire back a radio retort to his critical colleague: "Sorry to keep finding things at sea but it's what I do; urge you to read Masefield, Tennyson, Robinson and forget Einstein."

As it happens, Harmon Craig sprang from a family of intrepid actors--grandparents who performed Shakespeare in the trenches during World War I, and a grandmother who played Joan of Arc in the cathedral in Reims, squeezed into Joan's own armor. Craig made his stage debut as a child in his family's theater in Boston. The role required ducking to avoid a projectile flowerpot--a subtlety that slipped his mind the first time.

Dinosaurs, insects and test tubes held greater appeal. So Craig found himself in the late 1940s at the University of Chicago as a student in the lab of Harold Urey, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who discovered heavy hydrogen and who went on to nurture a generation of scientists who have since dominated the study of geochemistry.

Craig began by studying carbon isotopes. Omnivorous, he wrote a Ph.D. thesis that might have been subtitled "Carbon and Everything." It covered plants, animals, diamonds, basalts and hot springs and has been credited by University of Chicago geochemist Julian R. Goldsmith with having "developed the foundation for the signature of carbon in nature." Craig went on to do seminal work with Urey on meteorites. Later would come hot springs and analyses of ancient air trapped in polar ice and in amber. But since 1955, when he moved to Scripps, he has devoted much of his time to wrestling a worthy adversary, the oceans of the world.

"I find it hard to know how a person can want to devote his life to studying the fluid dynamics of something if he doesn't have a physical feeling for the ocean itself," Craig observes one evening in his lab. "I have a tremendous feeling when I stand out on the deck and look at the ocean, and I say, 'OK. I'm going to understand you, ocean.' You see, I look at it almost as a one-on-one contest--whether the ocean is going to yield."

That contest led in 1969 to Craig's proof that helium-3, trapped in the Earth for 4.5 billion years, is being released through volcanoes deep in the Pacific--part of a process called "degassing" that is central to the evolution of the atmosphere. Using helium-3 as a "tracer" as it moves with ocean currents, Craig then began following patterns of ocean circulation. That led to the discovery that the deep ocean circulates in the opposite direction from that predicted in theoretical models.

Later, his work with helium and other isotopes led him to explore submarine hydrothermal vents--fissures in the ocean floor where the huge plates of the Earth's crust are in tension. Seawater seeps deep into these fissures, is heated and shoots back up, bringing with it gases and minerals that reveal a profile of the Earth's interior.

As Craig puts it, "It's just like having a big hypodermic needle that you could stick down into the mantle. You're getting a window down into the mantle--by looking at the hot water, which, in turn, is looking at the hot rock."

Which is what took Craig and a team of other scientists last February into the caldera of Loihi, a volcano 3,000 feet below the surface but predicted to erupt into the next Hawaiian island. Plummeting into the chilly darkness, they found themselves in a world Craig compares to a ruined fortress, picking their way along in a miniature submarine, the water pressure bearing down at 1,500 pounds per square inch.

At the crater's rim, they found warm water seeping from a vent, shimmering out over knee-deep red carpets of bacteria. The water was cascading downhill, made dense with carbon-dioxide concentrations 140 times greater than that of seawater. They brought up water samples in bottles that nearly exploded at the surface. Rocks, saturated with carbon dioxide, fizzed like champagne. Off to one side of the caldera, Craig remembers, giant hexagonal columns of basalt were scattered about like building blocks.

"The fish were around on the other side," he recalls of the giant monkfish, a particularly rare type. "They were sitting, just this row of them--it must have been eight or 10. We came up right behind them. We thought, 'Of course, they'll swim away.' And they just sat there. And we thought, 'It's not possible that we could touch them with the arm of the submersible?' You know, that would be incredible.

"And sure enough, we did. The pilot eased the claw right up behind (one of ) the fish and grabbed him by the tail. They have no natural predator. And if you have no natural predator, you're not afraid of anything. Their whole instinct is to eat."

Gape-mouthed and glowering, the fish died on board ship. But, with Craig's help, it made international news--a creature seen by humans only once before. True to form, Craig named it after the voluble former director of Scripps (who professed to be deeply honored).

In April, Craig led the first dives into the Marianas Trough, two miles deep in the Pacific northeast of the Philippines. Scanning vast, bouldered slopes of undersea mountains, he discovered a new field of vents he refers to as "chocolate gardens" and "anemone heaven." There were massive, dark pillow basalts teeming with life--red-gilled mussels, hairy gastropods, and shrimp herding snails toward the vents to snag nutrients in their fur, which the shrimp then eat. There were "snail pits" Craig compared to "woks full of writhing snails, shrimps and crabs." Later, the expedition came upon a forest of "chimneys"--huge towers of minerals brought up from inside the Earth by the clear, hot water. Crabs seemed to have assembled in formation there, as in a "colossal amphitheater," to watch the show.

"It's what every explorer has always liked to have: To be someplace--not just any place, but someplace good--and then be the first one to see it," Craig muses. "It's part of the thing that human beings are still cursed with. They have this idea of being first."

Six months later, he was at sea again. This time, the expedition traveled deep into French Polynesia to the Gambier Islands and Pitcairn. Part of the mission entailed dredging rock samples from the mouth of an undersea volcano called Tamarii, also known as MacDonald Seamount, the youngest island in the Austral chain. Arriving, Craig and the crew found the volcano serendipitously erupting about 120 feet beneath them.

He radioed home in his trademarked hyperbolic shorthand: bubbles bursting, chocolate water, steaming lava balls and "horrendous clangs and clamors"--language that made its way into newspapers nationwide.

"Sheer bloody impetuousness," concludes John Edmond of MIT, half-amused and half-appalled, contending that the ship could have sunk (though Craig denies any risk). "Damn it, he was going to get samples. That's typical. Dangerous man to be with."

But Craig is far more than an adventurer. His work, he says, has both practical and broader value. For example, his discoveries about ocean circulation bear directly on our understanding of climate, which is inextricably linked to the ocean's movements. On a more mundane level, they shed light on such questions as whether and where to dump radioactive wastes at sea. Other findings, concerning such issues as the fate of lead in the oceans, help explain ocean chemistry and the flux of carbon and oxygen, which Craig says are central to our knowledge of the environment.

Scientists or artists, we are cavemen peering into the forest, he reasons. "We are all against the environment. Only now, our desire is to subjugate the environment by understanding it."

Back in La Jolla, afternoon has meandered into evening, then night. Outside, stars glitter in the black sky. Inside his lab, Craig reminisces about his adventures--a diversion from the immovable wall of data.

Suddenly, he fishes a cassette out from amid the chaos of paper. "This is the world's greatest video," he explains with reverence. He slides it into a video recorder and flips some switches. The monitor fills with underwater gloom.

The tape appears to have been shot through the windshield of the submersible. The sub is groping its way along the bottom of the Marianas Trough. Gradually, it slows to a halt and, in the light of its headlamps, a giant form looms into view. It looks like a castle seen through rain-streaked glass, though in reality it is more like a massive cluster of stalagmites--deposits of minerals carried up through hydrothermal vents.

Small pink blobs of hydraulic oil from the submersible begin wafting past the windshield. Then the sound of distant music seems to emerge from nowhere. Two miles deep in the Pacific, Bruce Springsteen is paying homage to fast cars, big dreams and the open road.

"Oh, oh, come take my hand,

We're ridin' out tonight to case the promised land."

From time to time, the hushed voices of the three men in the submersible mingle with the music. Then it fades as sweetly as it had come. Leaning back in his chair, Craig watches intently, in silence, to the very end. Then he turns and grins.

"Now, isn't that one of the world's greatest videos? That is definitely one of the greatest videos ever shot!" he marvels. He murmurs thoughtfully to himself: "I think I'll redub it and get rid of the conversation."

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