The Incredible Shrinking Cups: Welcome to the Cayman Abyss


One of the great traditions among deep-sea scientists is the shrinking of polystyrene cups by sending them down to our research sites. Polystyrene (or Styrofoam) is mostly empty space. When sent to the bottom of the sea, the massive pressure (an additional atmosphere for every 10 meters depths) squeezes the air out of these empty spaces reducing the cups–or, in some more dramatic examples, mannequin heads and prop skulls a la Hamlet–to a fraction of their former size. With a little bit of creative doodling during down time, we end up with a nice illustration of this physical phenomenon that is undoubtedly an insufficient gift for our loved ones, of whom we’ve abandoned to spend 30+ days mucking about on a boat*.

Fortunately, on my last expedition, I had the wherewithal to get before and after photographs of each cup the went over the side. So, for your enjoyment, for the next few weeks I’ll be posting some of my favorite shrunken cups. Enjoy!


Welcome to the Cayman Abyss!

*Though, it could be worse. Rumor has it one group of researchers was so confident in their ability to deploy and recover remote deep-sea landers, that they all affixed their wedding rings to the deepest rig before sending it over. Fortunately, it returned, rings unscathed.


  1. Liz Lombardi · April 5, 2013

    Hi Andrew,

    What a great article. I would like to include a small copy of your picture with a link to this article in my next newsletter to my readers of Is this OK? I have lots of divers who love this type of article and I am sure they will visit other pages on this site after they read this article. Thanks!

  2. Greg Barron · April 5, 2013

    Hmmm, I don’t think I’d have sent down my rings but cups were a fun distraction for each AUV launch in the Bahamas. As a comment on social science, the cup shrinking is appropriate. That’s boat folks being nerds with hi-tech toys.

  3. Toby Hewson · April 6, 2013

    Andrew – your cup doth runneth over! But that ith becoth it ith tiny!
    Seriously – did all Shakespereans talk like that?

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