Growing up in Maine during the 1960s and 1970s, Mike Coffin spent as much time as possible near the ocean.
He loved sailing and being on the water. Still, he couldn’t have dreamed that one day he would travel 2 miles beneath it, descending in a tiny submersible to the bottom of the sea.
Coffin, 64, a marine geophysicist and professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania, Australia, is an expert in plate tectonics, volcanism on the seafloor and more. He has led or participated in 31 deep-sea research voyages in the Pacific, Southern, Indian and Atlantic oceans.
But his trip to the ocean floor was special.
“It’s a pretty intense experience,” he said of his journey in the submersible, a titanium sphere just 6 feet in diameter which he shared with two other scientists. “If something goes wrong, you can stay down for maybe two or three days, awaiting probably an unlikely rescue.”
They descended slowly, with the lights out to conserve energy, and watched the colors change through the windows.
“You start with this gorgeous turquoise water,” he said. “As you descend, you go through every possible shade of blue, getting darker and darker blue, until you get to no light, only a few hundred meters down.”
Once on the seafloor, he and the others jumped into high gear, observing everything they could through the porthole. On the slow trip up, they consolidated the information while waiting for the first glimpse of blue through the black.
“I feel very fortunate to have been to the bottom of the ocean,” Coffin said.
These days, though, he’s working more remotely. The scientist came home to Maine for a nine-day visit in mid-March. He’s been stuck here ever since because of the pandemic.
It’s not a hardship, however. Coffin has always kept his ties to Maine and recalled the experiential learning program he took part in during the early 1970s at Bangor High School, which seems radical by today’s standards.
“We only had formal instruction two days a week,” he said. “It was independent learning. I did not thrive on that. I liked to go off campus and go skiing.”
Other students would head down Broadway to the nearest restaurant that served them beer. You could drink at 18 those days.
The program didn’t last long, but it was memorable.
“It was a very interesting time,” Coffin said.
He got more serious about science as a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he participated in a geology field program. He did mapping in the Catskill Mountains in New York, then traveled to Utah, Arizona and Central America, where he performed gas sampling on active volcanoes and watched eruptions.
“That really sparked a love of volcanism,” the scientist said.
Later, he went on two long expeditions with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, helping the scientists aboard the ships measure earthquakes and more. On one of the voyages, the ship hit a gale in the North Atlantic and responded to an SOS call from a freighter that was sinking nearby. All the people aboard the freighter got into life rafts and safely made it to the Woods Hole ship. Then they all watched the freighter sink.
Between the science and the adventure, he was hooked.
“That sealed the deal for me,” Coffin said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my career.”
And that’s what he’s done.
“It’s the exploratory nature of science that really excites me,” he said. “Working in a lab or doing modeling doesn’t interest me that much … I just love going places where people haven’t been before and looking at them for the first time.”
Coffin has spent more than 20 years studying the seafloor. On his most recent expedition aboard The Investigator, his institute’s research vessel, he led a group mapping two regions of the seafloor in the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica, that had never been mapped before. Among other techniques, they used acoustic energy to penetrate the ocean floor and tried to understand the structure of the earth.
On such trips, Coffin is often far from civilization. On every voyage, he’s seen whales, even rare species such as blue whales, and is acutely aware of the vastness and power of the ocean. He’s also aware that it is threatened.
“The health of the ocean is intimately tied to the health of the whole planet,” Coffin said. “The more we can do to improve and reduce that trend of declining ocean health, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”