This is far from polished… or even complete… but I wanted to share something, and show that I actually have been thinking of you all! This is first rough draft of my description of my Alvin dive… It is more of a collection of thoughts than a complete narrative so far.
01:49 7.12.10 Steaming back towards Astoria, continued 01:15 7.14.10
What a day. I woke up before my alarm filled with those butterflies that tend to pay visits before new exciting adventures. I ate a small breakfast (trying to minimize intestinal activity while in the sub) and kind of hovered until it was time to go. Kiana and Charles were there to see me off. I walked up the stairs to the sub, took off my shoes (not allowed in) and climbed down the hatch into the titanium sphere. It was comfortable and cozy (for me much more so than the extremely tall person I was diving with). The sub was hoisted up and lowered into the water and the swimmers did all of their safety checks while we bobbed around on the surface. Eventually we were cleared to go and the decent started.
One of the first things that I noticed was a small drip of water on the bottom of my window. It really looked like water was seeping in, but I didn’t want to be that noobie who seems scared, so I didn’t mention it. It turned out to just be condensation, so I am glad I decided against asking the pilot about it!
The water began a pretty bright blue, I was surprised at the blueness of it considering it was a dreary gray day above the surface. Over the next 500 meters (which took about 15 minutes) the blue faded almost imperceptibly to black, and then, somehow, to darker black as we descended even lower. For most of the drop (and we were literally dropping… Alvin descends simply with weights that it sheds at the bottom when it is time to ascend) my face was pressed to my small (8”?) window with my hands cupped around my head to block out the lights from inside the sub.
The one bummer was that we (technically the pilot, but I feel partially responsible for not checking) forgot the laptop that is supposed to communicate with one of our instruments. This meant that we could not use the instrument on the dive, which is a bummer because it would have provided us with chemical data to go along with the samples that we took. The upside was that it meant we had a bit more time to explore and collect.
I sat with my back to the foam pad that separated me from the chilly titanium wall, looking over my right shoulder through my window. Literally the entire way down there was a bioluminescent light show. It is easy to think of the mid-waters of the ocean as empty, but I can now tell you first hand that this is not true. Scientists used to think that it was, but this is because most of the organisms that inhabit this vast area are soft and fragile and nearly invisible with lights on, so they are not well studied. It was interesting to begin to tell different types of light apart, much like at the fireworks. There were some umbrella shaped ones that literally looked like the sacred seeds from Avatar, strings of light, lights that seemed to explode when we got near, tiny dots, larger dots, and trails of light. It seemed that you often saw most of one kind or another, but the dominant light form would change with depth. All were exactly the same blue color. Occasionally I could almost make out the shape of a larger animal from the bioluminescence, but the light always dissipated before I could be sure.
Just by chance, we landed literally on top of one of the places we needed to sample. It was a total coincidence, but very cool. We had to do some other things before we collected that sample, though, so we flew over a bit to find the cameras we were supposed to collect first. The bottom was basalt that looked like it was covered with a thin layer of brownish dust. It alternated between pillow like flows, and jagged chunks. We even passed a few crevasse-like features. In the relatively bare open areas there were lots of small snails, creeping around with a long white protuberance, much like an elephant trunk. The other organism that appeared common in these non-venting areas were Picnogonads (sp?) – very cool little sea spiders.
Periodically we would pass by areas of diffuse flow (warm water seeping up through the crust) large bushes of skinny tubeworms. Each worm was a foot or two long and maybe a centimeter across, but they certainly seemed to dominate the landscape wherever warm water was flowing. When I was able to look closer I realized that these worm bushes were actually dense mats of multiple types of animals. There were scale worms, non-tube worms, small white fish – they made up communities just like I have seen in photographs… go figure.
Randomly throughout the dive I would notice that there was music playing softly in the sub, the playlist had a lot of dispatch and familiar female vocalists. The mellow upbeat tubes that were perfect for the mood of the dive.
The highlight of the dive was seeing the hydrothermal vent chimneys. I was astounded by the sheer mass of some of the structures. At times, I would look out of my window, and not be able to see the top of the structure we were looking at. Other chimneys were smaller, and more what I had expected. We saw a lot of warm flowing white smoker, and a few hot black smokers. One we measured venting fluid that was 306°C. We were able to get an awesome sample from that chimney (names Hulk) that had beautiful pyrite growing throughout its inside. It was especially cool to visit Hulk because that is where one of the samples I was working with all year comes from. It is actually the one sample I have DNA from so far. Having seen the structure in person certainly makes me feel more connected to the work I am doing!
Collecting samples of the sulfide rocks that make up these chimneys is an almost stressful experience. Much of the rock is pretty soft, and more than once the sample that I was sure would be amazing, simply crumbled in Alvin’s claw before we cold collect it. Each time I watched with anticipation and held my breath waiting to see if we would be able to collect the desired sample. We had a lot to collect, and ended up putting two sulfide samples in non-conventional places for the trip back to the surface. We were not entirely sure they would make their way up. I was thrilled to learn that they did, despite the rough waters waiting for us at the surface.
In addition to collecting sulfides on our dive, we were tasked with searching for two different specific types of worms. One was a specific variety of tubeworms that Alvin could grab with its claw. The second was the smaller non-tube worms that we collected with a “slurp”. A slurp is basically a large hose that literally slurps up whatever we put it next to. We actually took the slurp sample while hovering in the water rather than sitting on the bottom like with most sampling. This was another impressive feat by the pilot.
Additionally, we had to find 3 cameras (as I mentioned earlier). This was no easy task. Even with coordinates and directions finding something on the bottom of the ocean gets tricky. I certainly have better appreciation for people who are able to locate things like ship wrecks with much less information. Our final objective (although we didn’t do them in this order) was to collect a series of bags of substrate (bone, wood, rock) that had been left out to see what types of organism collect on them, and if the material itself determines what organisms end up there. These were surprisingly easy to find (partially because we had accidentally landed right on top of one of them). The interesting part to this was watching the pilot deftly manipulate Alvin’s arms to grab the rope ring that was attached to each bag, and place the bag in to the correct compartment of the sample collection box. Things that seems incredibly simple (like picking something up) are much more complicated with a large robotic arm, under water (duh!).
Throughout the dive I was tasked with operating a video camera that is constantly recording as well as sharing a hand held camera and video camera with the other observer. It was certainly a challenge to juggle watching, recording, photographing, and paying attention to sample collecting.
The end of the dive came too quickly, and I will describe the rest of the dive later. However, I will tell you that there were jellies, bubbles, and porpoises!
Deepest depth: 2206 meters!