Deep Diver: A Profile of Cindy Van Dover

As the only woman who has piloted the deep-ocean research submersible Alvin, Van Dover is among the few researchers to have explored hydrothermal vents firsthand.

Jul 1, 2018
Anna Azvolinsky
Cindy Van Dover
Professor, Division of Marine Science and Conservation,
    Duke University Marine Laboratory
Director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory (2006-2016)
Fulbright Research Scholar (2004) and Fulbright Arctic Chair (2017)
National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2000)

In April 1982, the first-ever biology expedition to the East Pacific Rise set sail from San Diego. It was an exploration of one of the Pacific Ocean’s tectonic plate boundaries, where, more than 2,500 meters below the ocean surface, seawater gushes down through the plates, deep into the Earth’s crust, and comes out through hydrothermal vents—underwater hot springs that release sulfides and other chemicals from deep within the crust.  

The three-ship fleet headed to a spot in the Gulf of California. On one of the ships was Alvin, a deep-sea submersible built like a space shuttle to withstand the enormous pressures of ocean depths. Also onboard was a young and eager Cindy Van Dover, who, as a lab technician with no graduate training, was “the lowest person on the totem pole,” the Duke University Marine Laboratory professor now recalls.

I remember how strongly I felt that I did not want to leave the ship. I wanted to stay on that boat forever.

She was too junior for a seat on Alvin, which she watched splash into the water every morning and rise from the ocean every afternoon during that month-long excursion. So Van Dover busied herself with getting hold of any sample she could from the submersible. Whenever Alvin emerged from its daily dive, the scientists would dash for Alvin’s rich haul of animals from the hydrothermal vents—clams, mussels, and giant tubeworms (Riftia pachyptila). Van Dover noticed that they ignored the dead and dying squat lobsters—small, flat-bodied crustaceans with long claws and an almost curly tail—wedged among the submarine’s outer crevices.  Having received permission to collect them, she preserved and cataloged her specimens on the boat, waiting to analyze them back on land.

Once in the lab, Van Dover painstakingly dissected the squat lobsters, which belong to superfamilies Galatheoidea and Chirostyloidea, poring over their gut contents to decipher their eating habits and examining how their eggs and larvae develop. She discovered a new species of commensal fungus living inside their stomachs and circulatory systems of a type that had never been found so deep in the ocean before, and also identified a new lobster species, which she and a colleague named Munidopsis lentigo.

That first excursion cemented Van Dover’s commitment to a career at sea. “I remember how strongly I felt that I did not want to leave the ship. I wanted to stay on that boat forever,” she says. “I couldn’t understand people who were ready to rush home, which is why I kept going out to sea as often as I could.”

Van Dover has since logged hundreds of ocean expeditions and nearly 100 dives in submersibles to the ocean floor. She even piloted Alvin—the only woman to have done so. For the last 36 years, she has explored the unique ecosystems around hydrothermal vents all over the world, making 48 of her deep-sea dives at the helm of Alvin. Her fascination with the sea began at an early age, and few who knew her growing up a few miles from the New Jersey shore would be surprised that Van Dover parlayed her sense of adventure, inquisitiveness, and love for the ocean into a career as a professional explorer.

A rising tide

Born in 1954, Van Dover grew up in Eatontown, New Jersey. She spent every summer day at the beach. “That’s where I discovered those strange, crazy invertebrates, horseshoe and hermit crabs. They fascinated me because they looked so different from me and my dog,” says Van Dover.

Her introduction to ocean science came during a ninth-grade marine biology laboratory course that made daily trips to the beach to collect and analyze animals and plants. “It was a very special experience,” she says. Also in high school, she worked in a Rutgers University shellfish research lab, where she collected clams, contaminated them with bacteria, and then placed them into a clean water environment to see how long it would take for the bivalves to flush out the contaminants, a process called depuration.

Despite a guidance counselor telling her she was “not college material and should think about getting married and staying home,” as Van Dover remembers, she was accepted into the first coed class at Rutgers in 1972. While there, she spent a semester at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, working on clam and oyster biology. “Oh, it was just Mecca,” Van Dover recalls. “I felt like I had landed where I belonged.”

Diving deeper

After graduating from Rutgers, Van Dover set her sights on only one graduate program, the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program in biological oceanography, but was rejected. Deeply disappointed, but still determined, she sought experience elsewhere.  

Over the next four years, Van Dover worked as a technician in various labs, including the Duke University Marine Laboratory and the Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida, then followed a boyfriend to Cornell University where she “hung out and read marine ecology papers.” Doing so, she came across the 1977 discovery of hydrothermal vents. Geologists had gone down to the sea floor—where there is zero sunlight and enormous atmospheric pressure—near the Galapagos Islands anticipating utter barrenness. There was not even a biologist on the expedition because no one was expecting to find life there. They were in for a surprise: they found crabs, clams, anemones, and seven-foot-long tubeworms not documented anywhere else on Earth. The discovery set marine biologists scrambling to witness this bustling ecosystem and to understand how these animals survived, let alone thrived, at such depth. Van Dover was instantly mesmerized with this abyssal “Garden of Eden,” as the researchers dubbed it. “It showed me how extreme life on Earth could be.”

Leveraging her experience analyzing crab larvae and eggs, Van Dover asked Austin Williams, one of the first biologists to describe the animals collected at the vents, to send her some eggs of the hydrothermal vent crab (Brachyura thermydron) so she could tell him how the larvae fed.

Williams took her up on the offer, and Van Dover found some lab space at Cornell to do her analyses. The embryos, Van Dover discovered, had mouthparts that indicated they were planktotrophic, feeding on plankton, rather than lecithotrophic, eating maternal egg yolk deposits. She suggested that the larvae likely don’t migrate to surface waters to feed, but instead meet their caloric needs at depth because their low-temperature environment means they have a low dietary requirement. Van Dover published her findings two years later. In the meantime, she went to a hydrothermal vent science meeting in Washington, D.C., where she met all of the celebrity vent scientists. There, Van Dover found out about the 1982 OASIS cruise to the East Pacific Rise and asked the organizing researchers if she could come along. “They said, ‘Sure!’” Van Dover says. “It was amazing—just by asking, I could live my dream.”

When she returned from sea, Van Dover went on to earn a master’s degree with an emphasis on theoretical ecology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1985. That same year, she had a unique opportunity to be a passenger on Alvin, even though she did not yet have a PhD, which at the time was practically a prerequisite to travel on the submersible. Van Dover joined an expedition to the “Rose Garden” hydrothermal vents just north of the Galapagos archipelago. One night, she saw her name on the next day’s dive list and was stunned. “I couldn’t sleep. I remember looking over the side of the ship imagining what I would see on the sea floor.”

The next day,  Alvin, carrying Van Dover, landed among hundreds of tubeworms, the quintessential Pacific Ocean vent animals whose long bodies are encased in white tubes with bright red plumes sticking out of the tops. “It’s astounding how clear the water was down there. Seeing the vibrancy there completely changes the way you see the world.”

Greatest Hits

  • Discovered a novel species of squat lobster that dwells within the hydrothermal vents of the East Pacific Rise tectonic plate boundary
  • Became the first woman (and the first PhD scientist) to be a certified pilot of Alvin, a deep-sea research submersible
  • Discovered infrared-sensing “eyes” in an “eyeless” shrimp species
  • Organized a large, multidisciplinary expedition to newly discovered deep-sea vents in the Indian Ocean, where the team collected a new kind of snail with scales on its foot
  • Served as the first female director of Duke University’s Marine Laboratory

Becoming an Alvin pilot

Following the cruise, Van Dover received an offer to work with one of the expedition scientists, Carl Berg, at WHOI. With him, she sorted and analyzed the first plankton samples collected at deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

While at Woods Hole, Van Dover met Fred Grassle, a professor who told her to apply again to the MIT-WHOI joint graduate program. This time she was accepted, officially beginning her PhD in 1986 and finishing in 1989, an almost unheard-of time frame.

Globally, these vents only occupy an area the size of Manhattan. They are really rare and extraordinary habitats that we need to preserve.

At the time, hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean, along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, had just recently been discovered. In the Atlantic, the most abundant animal was not the tubeworm, as in the Pacific, but the 2-inch-long swarming shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata). Now a graduate student with Grassle, Van Dover focused on the shrimp and noticed an unusual paired organ connected to the animal’s brain that turned out to be a novel type of eye.

“It was a terrifically exciting finding! What were the shrimp looking at?” says Van Dover. She knew that water spewing from these Atlantic vents—called “black smoker chimneys” for the dark iron sulfide particles they release—reaches nearly 350 °C. The eye organ, Van Dover posited, might detect the near-infrared light emitted from the vents as a result of the high heat. “We think they use their eyes as remote heat sensors, so they can avoid getting cooked in the chimney stack,” she explains.

Toward the end of graduate school, Van Dover was working closely with a team of Alvin engineers at Woods Hole, helping them draft the first written Alvin maintenance manual. Then she took the next step: training as an Alvin pilot. After nine months of intensive studying, she passed three grueling, multiday exams, followed by a solo dive without another pilot on board the submersible. She was officially certified in 1990 and, as was tradition, threw a big party at Kansas City BBQ in San Diego Harbor (where parts of Top Gun were filmed).

Following her time as an Alvin team crew member, Van Dover returned to academia in 1992. She first joined the faculty at the University of Alaska and then at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and continued to dive to and study deep-sea vents.

Van Dover researched intertidal mussel communities in Virginia while at William and Mary, and collaborated with other researchers to analyze the geology and ecology of hydrothermal vents around the world. But her most substantive efforts in the 1990s, she says, involved authoring two books: The Octopus’s Garden, published in 1996, and a textbook, The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents, which came out in 2000. “The Octopus’s Garden is a memoir and a way I shared with the general public how wondrous the deep sea is,” says Van Dover.

In 2000, while at William and Mary, Van Dover organized a large, multidisciplinary expedition to the hardly explored deep-sea vents in the Indian Ocean to document their fauna. There, the team discovered a new kind of snail the size of a ping-pong ball with scales on its foot. “There is no snail in the history of the planet that has scales on its feet, so that was exciting.”

Collaborating with industry

Recently, Van Dover has become a pragmatic conservationist. In 2004, following a meeting at the Jamaica-based intergovernmental International Seabed Authority, Van Dover was approached by Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian mining company considering digging for copper and gold in the deep sea, with questions about the resilience of deep-sea vent communities. Between 2005 and 2014, the company gave her modest funding and some time on Nautilus ships for her students to collect samples. Van Dover’s research helped shape Nautilus’s environmental management of vent habitats. As part of this work, she characterized the intricate food webs at hydrothermal vents, including at the Manus Basin, an inactive vent near Papua New Guinea where Nautilus obtained the first-ever permit for a deep-sea mine.

Van Dover doesn’t have a “don’t mine the sea floor” mindset as long as there is enforcement of solid environmental regulations. But make no mistake: she is adamant about protecting active hydrothermal vents. “Globally, these vents only occupy an area the size of Manhattan. They are really rare and extraordinary habitats that we need to preserve,” she says.

In 2006, Van Dover moved to Duke University, becoming the first woman to head its Marine Laboratory, which she did for 10 years. “It was a different kind of challenge, of planning and implementing, that I really enjoyed,” she says.

These days, still at Duke, she is spending all of her time on seafloor management and conservation, working with the International Seabed Authority and other stakeholders to consider proper regulations and monitoring of this dark, underexplored part of the world.

Seeing and studying these remote corners of the globe has changed Van Dover forever. “Experiencing the strangeness of the vent ecosystems freed me from thinking in a prescribed way,” she says. “I was able to look for the unusual.”