I had set my alarm early, so I could jump up, run down to the Alvin hangar, and place my pillowcase full of essentials in the box of things to be loaded into the sphere: wool sweater, wool socks, the laptop for operating the Sipper, a clipboard with the dive plan, and Kleenex. I expect to get emotional when I see the ocean floor ... or when I catch sight of my first bioluminescent creatures during our mid-water descent ... or just when I climb into Alvin, and we hit the water ... or just when I climb into Alvin. As it turns out, I didn't have much need for the alarm. Who could sleep on such a night?
At 7:45 a.m., Dr. Craig Cary and I walk up the stairs to the catwalk, leave our shoes in the sack hanging from the rail and climb into Alvin, joining Pilot Anthony Tarantino. We've been advised to wear long pants, but Tony has shorts on. In the course of the dive, Alvin pilots do a lot of moving around. They need to be able to change position quickly -- from standing up to change a videotape to leaning almost horizontally to peer out the observers' portholes to spinning around to change a carbon dioxide scrubber to turning back to look out the front porthole to check on Alvin's progress.
Alvin swings out from the A-frame and sets gently down in the water. From outside, this looks as if it would make you queasy, but it's really no different than stepping into a rowboat. Outside the windows there is green water, bubbles, and feet with flippers. The swimmers are with us, unhooking us and setting us free. Alvin begins to drop into the ocean. The view becomes bluer.
"Watch out the top," says Craig. I look up to see a small round port in the ceiling, which turns even bluer as I watch.
"At about 500 meters, the light show starts," Craig says. By that point, the windows are black. And sure enough, sparkles appear. I had thought I might see the glowing details of bioluminescent mid-water animals, but we're falling too fast; they are glimmers, streaks, and an occasional transparent flash.
Tony navigates us to the bottom by following coordinates given to him by Atlantis. We aim for the area that the Large Volume Water Sampler (LVWS) is sending a signal from. The LVWS was dropped into the ocean last night; we're setting off to rendezvous with it near Michael's Vent. This is a new vent, found by the Extreme team, so we have the opportunity to name it. Michael was the son of Captain George Silva, and the new vent has been named in his memory.
Tony turns on the sonar to help with the landing. Immediately, he and Craig get excited. I am sitting under the sonar screen and can't see what they're looking at. Apparently, the sonar shows a big dip in the ocean floor, and, sure enough, we are coming down into it.
"A huge collapse!" Craig exclaims. Outside the porthole, I see what looks like a canyon, a place where the basalt has caved in. Are we still on planet Earth? Yes, amazingly so. Light from Alvin mixes with ocean water to send blue-green light and shadows around us for hundreds of feet.
My first deep-ocean creatures are starfish with long thin arms, some with five and others with ten. They're scattered over (and under) lumpy rocks, some of which have globs of shiny-looking basalt. The ocean floor continues to remind me of asphalt. You know how new pavement is black and shiny, but older road surfaces are grey and hard? The textures and colors of this rock are a bit like that. Here, the bottom rocks are rounded and lumpy, but in other places it looks like a road that has been broken up by a jack hammer -- slabs of basalt are tossed about and some are standing on their narrow edges.
Whoa! What's that bright light? It's the LVWS, up ahead, flashing into the dark to guide us toward it. Tony uses Alvin's manipulator arms to pick it up and carry it along. One of our jobs today is to deploy the LVWS near a vent flow, so we'll tow it along until we find a likely spot. Now we're off to Michael's Vent, a chimney covered in the little blue-white tubes of Alvinella
pompejana, the Pompeii worm. At Michael's Vent, I get my chance to fire the Sipper.
Last night, Charles Lee coached me on how to use the little laptop computer that operates this water-sampling machine. I'm a little anxious, but I balance my clipboard on one knee, the laptop on the other, and I manage to set up the computer to the right syringe and fire it, while keeping track of the time and the temperature of the worm tubes the sipping wand is inserted into. After ten successful sips, we go on to collect Alvinella. Tony uses the manipulators to scoop up clumps of Pompeii worms and deposit them into Artie, the cylinder system that allows Pompeii worms to survive the trip to the surface.
While we're still sampling worms, the Phone Call from the Deep comes in. Michael League takes the call from Toplab on Atlantis. Expedition Leader Pat Hickey mans the control board that relays the call down to the sub. It's amazing talking to people at such a great distance, and I felt an enormous responsibility to describe things clearly. (You can listen to recordings of the Call to the Deep.)
As we went along, I did a lot of quick sketches of creatures I saw and studied them carefully as I drew. It's important for me to remember and drawing and writing help me to do that. I sure wish I had time to stay and paint the whole scene! The photographs from Alvin's cameras look absolutely beautiful. I plan to do some artwork using both them and my memory. I'm incredibly glad the Extreme team included a writer and artist in their number. I'll be writing about this experience for a long time, and I know I'll dream of it tonight.
Our last job at Michael's Vent is to deploy the LVWS. We park it next to the chimney we've been working at and drop its probe over the colony of Alvinella. Then we motor gently above a bare, rocky area until we get to the mussel bed.
WOW. Imagine a hillside covered in rounded, brown mussels, scattered with white and gray vent crabs, yellow curly-headed sponges (that is my description of them, not a scientific name!), and incredibly large and long white clams. Yowza! As I stare, something with an oval-shaped top and long dangling legs swims, pumping its way along, past the porthole. An octopus? It sort of looks like that, or like an umbrella, opening and closing slightly as though it's getting ready to open all the way. And then it does, spreading out horizontally. It's a little crustacean - a galatheid crab. I watch as it stretches out its body and legs and glides down as if parachuting.
We collect mussels here, using the claw of the manipulator to gather a few clams and lay them in the top of the box. The clams, a foot or so wide, take up most of the space. I ask Tony if he'll come to our local diner back in Connecticut some time, and help me win toys out of the claw machine: there's a SpongeBob SquarePants I've lost about a dollar trying for.
Who drives in a submarine under the sea? We do. On we go to Tica, a big black smoker -- our last stop of the dive. Tica is a beautiful garden of tall, white tubeworms called Riftia
pachyptila. The ones I've seen arriving on the deck of Atlantis are about two feet long, and we gather some more about that length. But the Riftia field has many that are much bigger. Some extend all the way down the hillside, like a bundle of white hoses. They are so thick in some spots that you can't see the ocean floor beneath them. We nestle right into the field in order to take our samples, and Craig gets an especially close view out the port-side porthole. The Riftia wave and bob, their tips looking like big lips set sideways, with one corner of the mouth deep inside the tube. White crabs climb up and down the tubes like monkeys on bamboo.
Tony moves aside so Craig and I can get a peek out his front porthole at the smoker. Astonishing: purplish-black smoke billows as though something were on fire; it's the water from the chimney combining and reacting with the sea water from the blobby, gold, and brown chimney. The claw scoops up nearby Riftia, and loads a rock from below it, a little package of information for the scientist who requested it, Monika Bright. This looks like the perfect spot for the frying pan that Ian McDonald and Tom Niederberger want to deploy, so we set it on a flat spot on the chimney.
"All weights away!" Tony sends the message to Toplab that we're leaving the ocean floor. I kneel at my window and watch as the bottom of the ocean disappears in the darkness.
Check out today's movie in Neat Stuff to find out what happened to me when I returned to the deck of Atlantis.