Last night, I went to explore the main science laboratory after our Web site transmission to shore. Dr. Craig Cary, Kevin Portune, Charles Lee, and Tom Niederberger were making some final adjustments to the "Sipper," a
device used to take water samples from the area surrounding
the hydrothermal vents. The Sipper is a series of syringes and
tubing, which can draw 10 ml of water. Scientists record the
time of firing and the syringe number to document the water
sample before returning to the surface. It was getting late,
and Kevin, Charlie, and Tom had been working together for hours
setting up this particular piece of equipment. After consulting
with Craig, the group decided that the Sipper was ready for
mounting on Alvin's basket.
Kevin carried the Sipper, which was no easy task considering its weight and, more importantly, the rocking of the ship. Tom carried the Sipper's wiring and a sensitive probe, which I'll discuss in greater detail later. I opened the doors and allowed the parade to pass into Alvin's hangar. The Sipper sits on the backside of the basket on the port side, so the pilot can use the basket camera to confirm that a syringe has fired and filled with a water sample.
The next mission was to affix the Sipper to the basket, which required Craig and Kevin to climb underneath the basket and attach the Sipper with hose clamps. Mihailo Kaplarevic, our computing engineer and database manager, Tom, and I assisted from above by passing tools and holding clamps. So, there we were at 2 a.m., attaching the final piece of equipment to Alvin's basket before the dive.
I arose this morning with great anticipation of the launching of Alvin. Many of the scientific party and several crew members gathered to witness the event. The deck was slick from a rain shower last night, and I slipped on some stairs. Fortunately Karen was there to save me. Riding in the submersible today as "observers" were Craig Cary and Charles Lee. While Craig has been down many times over his career -- this was Charles' first time. The launching went well.
After Alvin was safely deployed, I got a chance to chat with Alvin technician and pilot-in-training Greg Speer. Greg explained to me a little about the weight system on the sub. Alvin carries four 250-pound weight stacks, for a total of 1,000 pounds. The sub needs this weight to become negatively buoyant (heavier than the water it displaces) and sink to the bottom. Greg said that once on the bottom, the sub drops two stacks of weights and can float weightlessly in a state of neutral buoyancy (in which the weight of the sub matches that of the water). At the end of the dive, Alvin drops the other two weight stacks, becoming positively buoyant (or lighter than the water) and floats to the surface.
Before spending some time out on deck, I looked all over for my new Extreme 2004 hat. Although I searched high and low, I really couldn't find it. So, instead of taking a walk on the deck in my new hat, I sat to process some of the video I shot of this morning's launch. Well, when I saw the video of Charles getting into Alvin, I realized where my hat had gone. Charles had taken it with him by mistake!
In the early afternoon, I took a trip up to "TopLab," a lab located directly behind the bridge, where the helmsman controls the ship. As I climbed up the stairs, I met pilot-in-training Anthony Berry, whom we call A.B. for short. A.B. explained some of the noises that I was hearing and some of the data appearing on the screens in front of him. These screens are part of the system that tells the ship where Alvin is, even though they're separated by 2,500 meters of water.
As I left TopLab, I approached the bridge and asked permission to join able-bodied seaman Raul Martinez. (It's always a good idea to ask permission before entering the bridge.) The view from the bridge was spectacular, and Raul was kind enough to speak with me briefly before I met second mate Craig Dickson. Craig helped me understand the phone system that we'll be using for our "Phone Call to The Deep." Tomorrow we will be conducting our first call for this expedition, and I wanted to be sure that we were all ready for the call to come in.
At 4 p.m., we received word that Alvin would be surfacing in about an hour. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see video and pictures of the retrieval of Alvin and the scientists' first look at what was retrieved from the ocean floor.
"We're going to send some of your traps down with Alvin tomorrow," Dr. Craig Cary tells Dr. Astrid Schnetzer.
"Awesome!" she says. "Cool. Sweet. Fantastic. Yes!"
||Eric DeChaine decorated this Styrofoam cup for his nephew.
||It won't be this size when his nephew finds it under the Christmas tree.
the night before the first dive, and R/V Atlantis is
steaming along steadily, heading southeast at a speed over
ground (SOG) of 9.2 knots. We're due to be on site at 9º 50' N, 104º 17'
W by 5:30 a.m. The ship is buzzing with activity.
main lab, a group of biologists including Ian McDonald,
Barbara Campbell, and Kevin Portune have their heads together
over the sipper, adding its protective mesh and making
sure all systems are go before it is deployed with Alvin. In the hydrolab, Dr. Horst Felbeck and his colleague Steffi Markert prepare a high-pressure aquarium that will allow tubeworms to survive. Charles Lee is walking around with a little smile on his face; he's been asked to take part in the first dive of Extreme 2004, along with Dr. Craig Cary. Mention it to him, and he grins with excitement. And many in the science crew are giggling over one of the most popular activities on Atlantis: they're decorating Styrofoam cups.
right: the scientists are doing artwork with my rainbow
collection of Sharpies. (Writers like pens.) The finished cups
are placed in a net bag hanging on the door to Alvin's
hangar. The bag will go down with Alvin. As the sub
sinks and the pressure rises, the spaces between the Styrofoam
close. The result is a pile of shrunken cups, good for a very
tiny cup of cocoa, but better for a souvenir. Mihailo Kaplarevic
sketches a little Alvin on his, along with a map of
Mexico and an American flag. Eric DeChaine stops by the computer
lab with the cup he made for his nephew, decorated for Christmas.
Shellie Bench gets everyone to sign a cup for the upcoming
birthday of Shannon Williamson. I color my first cup orange,
with white letters saying ALVIN, the way it appears
on the sub itself (see Alvin's Porthole in Neat
Stuff on Dec. 1 for a picture of that).
In the morning, everyone is up early to see the launch of Alvin. When I arrive on deck, Alvin's bow has just begun to poke out of the hangar as it starts its way down the track toward the fantail. The stern of our ship is bustling. Once Alvin reaches the fantail, Ian McDonald and Tom Niederberger, wearing PFDs and hardhats, carry 20-liter bottles of filtered cold water out to Alvin's basket. They'll fill the "coffins" they're sending on the basket to the bottom to collect bacteria. The filtered water helps ensure that any bacteria that come back up originated at the hydrothermal vents, not in the lab!
Ordinary seaman Jennifer Hickey operates the crane that lowers the motorized raft into the water. Charles Lee stands watching with the rest of us, waiting for his signal to climb up the ladder to the catwalk above Alvin. When it comes, pilot Bruce Strickrott goes in first. Charles follows quickly, then Craig, waving cheerily to everyone on deck. Down comes a 4 1/2" diameter (thick!) eye of braided rope from the A-frame. Atop the sub, pilot-in-training Mark Spear passes the eye around Alvin's lifting tee and guides a hook into the waiting tee on Alvin's top.
Then the excitement begins. Third mate Adam Seamans and pilot-in-training Noel Masias climb to the top of Alvin and pull on swim flippers. They're the "swimmers," who will help unhook Alvin once it's in the water. "Catfish" Popowitz and Tony Tarantino board the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) to accompany the sub to the place where it will be submerged. Alvin begins to rise, lifted up by the A-frame. Adam and Noel stand up on either side of Alvin's top, balancing there on flipper feet as the sub is hoisted out and down into the water behind the ship. The deck crew use the attaching lines to control Alvin as it's released from the ship. The RIB zips around, and Tony dives into the water and swims across the gap to observe Adam on his final required launch as swimmer-in-training.
At the end of this launch, Adam will be a qualifed swimmer. What's it like to dive into the open ocean? "Sometimes you think, 'Wow, I'm swimming in over 2,500 meters of water," Tony says later. He reported that there were lots of jellies in the water today, long ones that look like blobby chains. "They're called salps," he says.
Sometimes the swimmers see white-tipped sharks, and in other, colder places where Alvin sometimes dives, such as the Straits of Juan de Fuca off the coast of western Canada, there are seals. "You need a wet suit there," Tony says. "Here, the temperature of the water is a relief." It's 27.68 ºC. (Check out the metric conversion page on the Web site to find the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.)
Finally, Alvin has moved a safe distance from Atlantis and everything is ready for it to go. Almost before we know it, the orange sail disappears below the surface and the ocean looks as it did before: vast and unpeopled. But our people are down there. What's it like? What are they seeing? I, for one, am looking forward to the report -- and the video. For a few minutes, nobody leaves the deck. We're all so impressed with what we've just seen, with the confidence and skill of the crew in dealing with the difficulties this deployment presented. Alison Kelly says, "Imagine what it was like the first time they dove."
It's true; we wonder how the procedures for deploying Alvin evolved over time. I think about that first launch of Alvin in Eel Pond, just a few feet deep. Today our dive will reach the ocean bottom a mile and a half from the surface. And just think: In a few years, there will be a new Alvin, capable of going even deeper than that. It's so exciting to feel the boat rocking beneath me and know that Alvin is down there. I wonder what the expression on Charles' face will be when he comes back? He'll have visited another world.