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Woman astronauts may be a long time coming, but five women, including a Harvard botanist, will be living on the ocean floor this summer as the first woman aquanauts.
Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel announced last Monday that Sylvia A. Earle, Research Fellow at the Farlow Herbarium, will work for two weeks beginning July 6 from an underwater shelter called Tektite 2, 50 feet below the ocean surface off St. John in the Virgin Islands.
The Department of the Interior and NASA started the Tektite project last summer both to study local marine life and to determine the psychological effects of working in cramped quarters and in an ??alien environment for extended periods.
Who's Eating Who
"I plan to take advantage of the extended period underwater to find out who is eating what algae," said Mrs. Earle, a soft-spoken specialist in brown algae.
"Many varieties of organisms that appear to be separate species may actually have blunt-tipped leaves as a result of grazing," she added.
By observing fish and other plant-eaters at different times of day and for extended periods, Mrs. Earle hopes to clarify the marine plants' classification as well as the local ecology.
Mrs. Earle, who is married to Giles W. Mead, Curator of Fishes at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, first began diving in 1953. "They essentially threw me over the side with a tank on my back." she said. "It's lucky I didn't break something or drown, but that is the way everyone was taught in those days."
Since then she has logged over 1000 hours of diving time, much of that with Navy divers in the Gulf of Mexico. "Instead of going to the movies, I spend money on buying a tank of air." she said.
Mrs. Earle has also worked on sev-eral cruises in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and long before Revolver came out, she dove in a genuine yellow submarine called the "Perry-Link."
Five years ago, while hitching a ride on a ten-man shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico, she encountered her only major incident of discrimination. "The captain thought the thing was going to sink or there was going to be a terrible storm," she said.
"I had to prove myself," she continued. "But in part, that just means not being a problem and not expecting other people to carry gear for you."
Using the plants she collected in her dives in the Gulf of Mexico, Mrs. Earle has analyzed the distribution of brown algae-one of the four major groups of these aquatic plants-and has also traced how the temperature, nutrients, and salt content of the water determine which species of algae are found in any one location.
Bumps on Logs
"Ecologists on land have an easy time of it," she said. "They can stroll around and sit on a log and see what is going on. Before diving became possible, the problem of marine ecology could be likened to flying in a helicopter and taking snips of shrubs. You get a rabbit, a turkey, and a bush and then you try to figure out how they are interrelated."
One common way of studying ecology is to analyze animals' stomach contents, but the aquanauts will avoid taking samples in order to keep the area undisturbed for later scientists.
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