Into the abyss: Divers discover new world deep below the Connecticut River

By BRUCE WHITMAN for Sentinel Source

GILL, Mass. -- Imagine standing on the edge of a 130-foot cliff. Your eyes are closed and your ears are plugged. You step off the cliff and free-fall for four long minutes. No sight, no sound. The only sensation you feel is your heart beating in your chest. Total sensory deprivation; four long minutes, straight down.

Jumping off a mountain? Try jumping into the Connecticut River.

Two years ago, researchers from the biology department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst discovered a 130-foot hole, estimated to be up to 30 feet in diameter, in the river about a half-mile south of the French King Bridge in Gill. It's been dubbed the King Philip's Abyss.

This discovery led to the findings of a whole new ecosystem beneath the river -- an ecosystem rich in life and one that may give rise to new species of plants and animals. Already, researchers have discovered a rare species of freshwater bryozoans -- ecologically similar to coral -- and a community of huge freshwater sponges living 40 feet below the surface.

University of Massachusetts biology professor Edward Klekowski, the lead researcher at the site, called the abyss perhaps "the last environment in Massachusetts whose biota is unknown."

The impact of what has been discovered may not be known for many years.

The abyss is located about a mile upstream from the town of Turners Falls, in a rural section of Franklin County known for its agriculture. Here, farms, not factories, dot the landscape. Route 2, a main east-west highway for Massachusetts, carries commuters from western Massachusetts over the French King Bridge on their way to the more industrial towns of Gardner, Fitchburg and, eventually, Boston.

The remarkable hole in the river sits at the end of what is known locally as the "Horse Race." Starting at French King Rock, just upstream from the French King Bridge, the Horse Race was a narrow section of rapids that was impounded when the Turner's Falls Dam was built in 1916. Rocks sticking out of the water looked like racing horses as torrents of water washed over them.

The abyss was the finish line for the Horse Race.

It lies about 20 feet below the surface and less than 60 feet from shore. It is a sheer rock cliff that plunges 110 feet to the river bottom. A small camp hugs a hill on the shore, dangerously close to this precipice.

"Imagine a cliff that goes across the Connecticut River 20 feet below the surface. That's the abyss," Klekowski said.

It was Klekowski and his graduate research team who discovered the abyss quite by accident in the fall of 1997. While shooting a video for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, their boat drifted slowly over the hole. A sonar depth-finder on board went off, indicating a very deep spot in the river.

"They (the graduate students) were on the boat to do some back flips for some stock shots for a video basically extolling the virtues of Franklin County," Klekowski said. "Being the students that I have and having the quality of recognizing something when it goes by, they found the site and said it was spectacular. It was serendipity."

"We were sitting on the boat," said graduate student Sean Werle, who was one of the first divers ever to dive the abyss, "and the depth finder goes from 20 feet to 30 feet to 120 feet and then back up to 20 feet. We said 'Well, isn't that interesting.' If we had been going any faster we would have missed it."

The find has proved to be a scientific Shangri-La for Klekowski and his crew.

Klekowski's research has focused on the wall of the abyss. Plants and aquatic animals living on the cliff wall are protected in the lee of the current. Large colonies of white fresh-water sponges dot the wall and small microorganism, some looking like creatures from outer space, float in the protected pocket.

"The abyss is like a freshwater coral reef but it's not coral," he said. "They are ecological analogs but it's sponges and bryozoans acting as the filter feeders."

In two years, Klekowski's research has produced some exciting results. His team has discovered a rare fresh-water bryozoan, Lophopodella carteri, and common planarians and hydras, small microorganisms, living at depths not thought possible.

"When you get deep in cold water there is less oxygen," Klekowski explained. "It's anaerobic. The river is a mixed system -- there is no thermocline," he said, referring to the fact that water temperature remains constant from top to bottom. The organisms were found at much deeper levels than expected." Since the water temperature is constant, it appears that these microorganisms do not require sunlight to live.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all the discoveries are the sponges. Huge sponges, some the size of dinner plates, cling to the cliff wall, creating an eerie polka dot tapestry. Sponges on the Connecticut River are not rare, Klekowski said, but the size and nature of these colonies make them unique.

"It is the biggest community that I have ever seen," Klekowski said.

It's the unknown that keeps his team coming back again and again. For Klekowski, the abyss is his undiscovered country, his personal marine rain forest.

"This is a very special site ecologically and contains some very rare species. Most of us have always been travelling afar, and what it turns out is right in our backyard is one of the most undiscovered habitats that you can imagine. Exploring a tropical rain forest, you don't know what you'll find; we don't even know the biotic diversity in our own back yard," Klekowski said.

"I've made over 300 dives on the river and this is the only site I know of like this," he said.

Problems have arisen, however. Research has been hindered by the fact that Klekowski -- or any divers -- have not been able to map out the abyss. Because of its depth, divers can safely stay on the bottom for only 20 minutes. Coupled with the fact that it is so dark, getting accurate measurements on its dimensions is nearly impossible.

For a scientist looking to do precise research, this is extremely frustrating.

"The whole geometry of the thing I don't understand," he said. "All we know is it's a cliff on one end and current flows over it. Why isn't there 70 feet of sediment in the bottom?"

"The problem is that you're looking at the elephant and you can only see so much," graduate student Werle said.

Despite the problems, research will continue. UMass biology professor Doug Smith and Werle will take their Aquatic Invertebrates class to the abyss next Saturday, Sept. 18. Werle and Klekowski will dive the abyss, collecting samples in five gallon pails for the students to identify.

In addition, Werle plans to do his doctoral thesis on the underwater habitats of the Connecticut River, with the site being included in the study.

While further research may determine what is inside the deep hole in the river, there are two questions that may never be answered: What is it? Where did it come from?

Klekowski is reluctant to speculate on what it is; the mystery adds to its allure. The most popular line of thought is that the abyss may be an ancient waterfall created during the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The bottom of the cliff is hollowed out as if by the scouring action of rushing water and gravel -- not muck -- found on the abyss floor.

"A lot of water has been moving around this valley in the last 10,000 years," he said. "The glacier came through and Lake Hitchcock (an ancient glacial lake that once covered the Connecticut River Valley from St. Johnsbury, Vt., to Rocky Point, Conn.) blew out 12,000 years ago."

The origin of the abyss might be a little easier to explain.

During the Triassic Period 230 million years ago, there was one great land continent, Pangea. North America, South America and Africa were connected. Keene, if it existed, would be found near the equator and Rio De Janeiro close to the South Pole. Eurasia was connected to Canada and formed the polar ice cap.

As Pangea began to break up around 200 million years ago, a fault -- a rip in the earth's crust -- was formed in the Connecticut River Valley. This rip, called the Eastern Border Fault, is more than 100 miles long, stretching from New Haven, Conn., veering from the river valley at the French King Bridge, before ending in Keene.

The fault line is easy to see traveling down the river. The rolling, rich farmlands of northern Franklin County end abruptly at the French King Bridge. Rock ledges rise up menacingly above the water, looking rough and jagged like they don't want to be there.

The abyss was likely created by this geologic upheaval.

"Just think, Keene could have ended up attached to North Africa if it continued," Klekowski joked. "Or, it might have been on the Atlantic Ocean."

Klekowski is writing a book on his work, called "Beneath the River." He said it should be finished this year.

He has also created an Internet web site called the Connecticut River Home Page, which looks at the history of the river, its habitats, its geology and the various animals that live in the river. There is also a photo gallery that has some wonderful underwater shots of the river, including the abyss. The Web address is: this

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