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Submarines probe depths of Flathead Lake

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In a small two-man submarine, David Colombo took a 200-foot evening dive below the surface of Flathead Lake. “I saw millions of Mysis shrimp. It was like a blizzard in front of the lights,” he said.

Colombo was part of a crew from Innerspace Science aiding researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Yellow Bay. Together, they spent the past week exploring the bottom of the lake. Ordinarily, the biological station’s scuba divers can only go so far down before temperatures get too cold, which is about 100 feet. 

“Having a submarine that can go down and see what’s below the level that is uncomfortable for our divers is terrific,” said Jim Craft, a research scientist at the bio station. “The subs are able to get down to those depths and show us what’s there.”

Access to the subs marked the first time the bio station had utilized submersibles for collecting samples, taking measurements and recording videos. The mini-sub is a 22-foot long vessel that an average-size adult can’t stand up in once the hatch closes. 

While taking more than 20 dives in various places, Colombo caught glimpses of Flathead Lake’s depths that no one has ever seen before, according to the biological station staff. In one particular deep-water dive, at a depth of about 215 feet, Colombo came across some vertical rock faces that went straight up from the bottom. “That was really cool,” he said. 

Colombo said the fish in Yellow Bay didn’t seem bothered by the sub while the crew collected sediment and algae samples. “We have video of where the fish just swam up to the glass face of the submarine and around the glass dome of the hatch.”

Using searchlights to penetrate the lake’s darkness during an evening dive, the crew also filmed fish swimming up from all directions and striking a column of shrimp in a feeding frenzy. Colombo said that during the feeding encounter a “very curious” large fish was captured on camera, which requires further video analysis and examination to identify.

According to the website for Innerspace Science, submersibles are typically very expensive to operate. The cost prohibits many scientists from their use. Innerspace Science is an organization that facilitates the use of privately owned submersibles for scientific and educational purposes on a non-commercial basis.

On Friday, the Flathead Lake Biological Station held its annual open house, which provided an opportunity for the public to view and interact with the submarines and their crews. The event also offered tours of the biological station facilities, interactive exhibits, presentations by research scientists and boat trips on the station’s research vessel. 

For more information about the bio station, visit https://flbs.umt.edu/newflbs or www.facebook.com/UMFLBS  or call 406-872-4500.

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