The EPR Chronicles X

For background on the EPR Chronicles, see this post. The expedition was also recorded online at the Field Museum during this time (before science blogs!) and includes dispatches, videos and photos!

Sunday 11/16/03 3:00 am
Wow, I just realized I haven’t written for  awhile & haven’t written about my diving experience. Now that the euphoria has waned a bit perhaps I can speak of it in a different hindsight. It was definitely quite the experience and a highlight of my life thus far ranking high on my list along with getting married to the lovely woman that is my wife. The sub is very small, 8 feet diameter and 3 people go inside it., 2 scientist observers and a trained Alvin pilot. The buoyancy is balanced by syntactic foam and weights attached to the bottom. It takes about an hour or so to get to the bottom. We just drop down without any help to conserve power. It is neat to descend into the blue abyss. The water turns a darker blue as we go down until you pass the thermocline and the grows blacker with every meter.

Gelatinous creatures and pelagic shrimps greeted us on our way down as well. Some bioluminescence in deeper waters. It is awe-inspiring feeling to poke through the “cloud” and see the bottom approach closer until you finally reach it and land on it. Upon landing a large anemone waved its tentacles to welcome us to its home. Harsh, cold and ancient is the environment much like the creatures that inhabit it. This is not a place abundant with various animals, much like a rain forest would, but is covered in basalt flows from a time not too long ago when the ridge was active and creating new earth upon which the present fauna have colonized. Sparse are the fauna’s distributions, yet relentlessly fascinating are the forms and the ways in which they have evolved to fit their respective niches.

While we were on the surface, one of the water bottles fell off the front basket. These are very expensive bottles & we had to adjust our dive plan to allow a search for them. We searched the general area where they should be for about an hour then proceeded with the dive plan. Time permitting at the end we would go back & search some more.

We proceeded to visit a few black smokers in the area by the utterly creative & thoughtful names P-middle vent, P-vent & Bio 9 vent. We planned to visit Breea’s mussel beds to make descriptive measurements but hadn’t the time. We took water samples from the P vents, 2 bottles were misfired which pissed the pilot off even more since he was already upset he lost the 2 water bottles prior. So we ended up with about 6 water samples.

My job on the sub was mostly to take notes for Karen & try to remember to take pictures with the handheld digital camera & get good video footage. Each observer has a camera mounted on the front that they control. Videos are important because they are the only documentation of what goes on down there for both us & everyone on the ship. Being my 1st dive & that things weren’t going well & having to take down notes on the water samples I’m afraid that the footage might not have been up to par. I haven’t reviewed it yet so it is hard to say.

After sampling from the P-vents we went to Tica vent to get final water samples & some samples of the chimney. The pilot slurped up some vent Chimney critters with a suction device called the pelagic sampler. We proceed toward Bio 9 vent and noticed a huge cloud of dust and debris. Bio 9 vent had totally collapsed right in front of us! This was very amazing. Vents come and go, lasting from a year or two to around 12 years. They eventually collapse naturally under heir own weight as they grow in height with minerals being deposited. Of course Alvin collapses a lot vents accidentally too. But we were witness to extraordinary event of mother mature & when the dust cleared was the beginning of a new vent. Over time, this vent will grow and collapse again as long as there is hot fluid coming up through cracks in the earth.

We measured the temperature of the ‘new’ vent and it was the highest  one there at 385°C. At Tica vent I also got to see some rich gardens of Riftia tubeworms, some up to a meter or more tall. Also saw galatheids, brachyuran crabs, huge swarms of amphipods above the tubeworms and mussels. I saw an octopus float by earlier and as we left one waved its tentacled arm as the sub pulled away. After all the black smoker site-seeing we proceeded to the area where we lost the water bottles to search again but with no luck. The pilot was confident they will be recovered because they go here a lot. 9° 50′ N is a well-studied area & they go back often.

We ran out of battery huice so we cut-out Breea’s measurements at the mussel beds. They let me flip the buttons to drop the weights & we lifted up and away. Karen & Pat took short naps as we floated slowly back up to the surface. I think I might have dozed off too. Eric Clapton was on the sub’s CD-player. We started to slow down as the sub approached the thermocline. We were able to pass through it & proceeded to surface where we bobbed around in the ocean and were greeted by divers who checked things on the sub & rode with us on the outside till we reached ship. They then attached ropes to the sub & we were hoisted aboard.

When I got out of the sub I was greeted by everyone & I purposely left my shoes in the bag because I knew I was going to have cold water poured over me as is the tradition for someone who has had their 1st dive. But they played a mean trick on me & led me to believe they forgot to ‘christen’ me. I stood their waiting like a dumb-founded fool. Karen then took the shoes I left in the bag and threw them in the pool where upon Z threw me in the pool & then Breea & Julia proceeded to pour cold ice water over me. Though Breea was too short & nearly fell in the pool to the weight of 5 gallon bucket of water! Which Z & I tried to pull her in unsuccessfully though she did get wet too. Everyone got a good laugh at me & I had wet shoes, so I’ve been wearing my steel-toed boots around for 2 days. My shoes are dry now & I have baking soda in it to try & get rid of the seawater stink.

So that was my experience with my first submersible dive! We went to a little over 2.6 km and were underwater a little over 7 hours. It is very exhausting to in the sub and you don’t realize it until you’re out. The working conditions are very stressful but you are rewarded by the beauty lying underneath the ocean. The sub is cold and wet inside. the space is very cramped, so if you cannot be in small enclosed spaces for very long don’t bother going down. Constant attention must be given to seeing outside the 6 inch diameter porthole while remembering to take good notes & good video & lots of pictures with the handheld camera. All of which I was novice in, but this was not an ordinary dive due to the stress of losing expensive equipment & not firing 2 water bottles properly. All of which are the pilot’s responsibility, so he used a lot of very colorful language. He is probably the most experienced pilot with over 500 dives under his belt since he started in 1988. Also, the port observer, Karen Von Damm, is very experienced in diving in subs. She has been on cruises and dives every year since 1991, except for 1999. Some years she goes on 2 cruises. She is a water chemist at Univ. of New Hampshire.

Anyways, we are now at 11° 24′ N & Janet & Lee Hsiang dove today. They brought back many exciting creatures including huge clams & mussels. The clams were larger than my forearm & filled with hemoglobin & had white shells. The mussels were huge also but not as large as the clams. They brought 2 different types of anemones, lots of small critters like polychaetes, amphipods & limpets. Also a rock with a starfish & lots of stalked barnacles . The stalked barnacles are really cool & beautiful. I hope to be able to take some back to study their composition & see what vent metals they are sequestering.

Weather was rough last night, but cleared up for the day and is currently rough again. We are moving into an area where there is frequent storms. I hope all goes well & we are able to get all our dives in. Today Stepháne will go down and a pilot-in-training will go down. I love helping out with the critters that get brought up. This is what biology is really about. Finding, observing, sampling, looking at in depth, studying and enjoying the splendid diversity that is life.