Aboard Atlantis

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Alvin descended two miles below the ocean surface to explore the wreckage of HMS Titanic. It hovered like a spacecraft over scalding hot hydrothermal vents to document black smoker “chimneys” near the Galapagos Islands. Its hydraulic claws can pluck a tubeworm off a rock, place it in a pressurized container and return it to the surface, alive. A uniquely capable craft, Alvin’s exploits have won it world wide fame, but even with all its capabilities, there’s one thing it still can’t do. It can’t launch itself.

Alvin is no lightweight. Ten feet tall and 22-feet long, it weighs 17 tons. Launching and recovering it are no small tasks. It requires the coordinated efforts of Atlantis’ captain, a surface controller, launch coordinator, A-frame operator, several line handlers, and an Avon operator. In rough weather it demands precise timing and keen anticipation. And it involves risk; someone has to accompany Alvin into and out of the water. Water that on Atlantis’ sailing schedule is frequently cold, windswept and rough. Water that’s dark and deep and prowled by shadowy terrors, real and imagined.

That someone is an Alvin swimmer. During launches Alvin swimmers ride the sub into the water. They cast off the main lifting line and tail line, and they maintain communications with the pilot, sealed inside Alvin’s passenger sphere. During recoveries they are the first responders. They inspect the fiberglass sample tray mounted beneath Alvin’s cycloptic central view port. If a piece of equipment is in danger of being lost, they secure it. If a biological sample needs special care, they provide it. They direct the Alvin pilot into position for recovery, they reattach the tail line and main lift line, and as the sub’s pulled from the water they dive off with varying degrees of grace.

Alvin swimmers are Atlantis crew members - cooks, deckhands, engine room oilers, Alvin pilots, electronic technicians, officers. All voluntarily trade the safety of Atlantis’ steel decks for the uncertainty of the open ocean. Why? Some do it for adventure. Some do it for fun. I did it for love - love of swimming in the warm blue waters of the Equatorial Pacific.

But before I could swim in the balmy, neon blue seas off Mexico, I’d have to train in the cold, murky waters of the North Pacific. Training for prospective swimmers occurs over three days, during which the swimmer participates in three morning launches and three afternoon recoveries. On day one, the trainee watches the swimmers from the Avon inflatable boat. On day two the trainee accompanies the swimmers into the water. The trainee is encouraged to climb aboard Alvin and to speak to the pilot over the sound-powered telephone. The trainee may also attach and detach basket safety lines. On day three the trainee solos, working alongside a veteran swimmer during launch and recovery.

The third day of my training began on cold, damp morning off the coast of Washington State. The normally tempestuous waters were becalmed. The glassy surface betrayed no hint of wind. Thick fog enveloped Atlantis, obscuring her behind a curtain of white that moistened her metal skin with beads of water.

At 7:30 am, a half-hour before launch time, I descended the stairs into Alvin’s hanger. Alvin, housed in its two-story hangar, sat stoically, one of its fiberglass side panels removed and its innards exposed, while Alvin engineers inspected its electrical systems, its battery function and hydraulic fluid levels, its ballast system, its communications equipment. Each vital system checked and rechecked.

I wore my usual attire - swim trunks, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. My wetsuit, damp and cold from the day before, hung in the back of the open hangar. Water temperatures off the Washington coast hover in the low-50s. To prevent hypothermia, all swimmers needed wetsuits. Atlantis carries a collection, sized to fit a variety of body types. Hung inside the hangar’s tiny dive locker, suits ranged from the new and privately owned to threadbare, garishly colored communal rags with stretched necks and torn knees. I’d chosen a black suit with gold striping and gold knee pads. It was well-made and understated, and its thick neoprene provided at least some protection from the cold water. I wore a mask with a comfortable, watertight fit, and a snorkel I hoped no one had used recently. On my feet I wore a pair of neoprene booties with nylon zippers up their sides, over which I strapped a pair of black rubber flippers. To help me sink, I wore four lead weights, each weighing five pounds, on a stiff canvas weight belt around my waist.

As I stood next to Alvin and struggled into my skintight wet suit, pre-launch preparations hastened. From the “doghouse,” a control station mounted atop the Alvin hangar, the A-frame operator finished his tests. The 30-foot-tall steel structure eased outward and inward, pushed and pulled by shiny hydraulic rams. The main lift line, as big around as an anaconda and coiled onto a large spool, reeled and unreeled.

On the main deck the Avon driver inspected his craft. He checked the 17-foot rigid hulled inflatable boat’s fuel supply and engine oil level. He turned the key, and the Honda outboard started. Its propeller, submerged in a water-filled 55-gallon plastic garbage can, spun slowly. A message from the bridge crackled over the driver’s walkie talkie. Prepare for launch.

Using hand signals, the bos’n mate directed the crane operator to position his hook directly above the Avon. Meanwhile Alvin, seated in its cradle, slowly rolled out of its hangar on its railroad tracks toward launch position under the A-frame. Spectators gathered. They talked and laughed and snapped photographs with tiny digital cameras. Exhaust fumes from the Avon’s outboard fouled the air. Bob Marley played on the hangar’s speakers.

A short blast of the ship’s fog horn. Game time. The crane hoisted the Avon, lowered it over the rail, and stopped. Line handlers pulled their lines tight. The Avon driver, wearing a life vest and a hardhat, climbed in. A hand signal from the bos’n, and the boat descended to the water below.

The dive coordinator motioned for the passengers to mount the steps up to Alvin’s embarkation deck. Under his watchful gaze, they removed their shoes and climbed over Alvin’s red fiberglass “sail” and descended one by one into the sphere. The pilot closed the hatch and sealed it. Our cue to take our positions. I felt pensive. Was I really ready to solo? Carrying my flippers and mask, my fellow swimmer Ken Rand and I ascended the steps to the embarkation deck and boarded Alvin.

From its forward resting position, the A-frame leaned backwards, and Alvin slowly rose off its cradle, the main lift line popped loudly under the strain. Rand and I watched the A-frame’s lattice of piping, hoses, and hydraulic fittings for leaks. The sub floated across the deck until it hung over the stern. We stopped with a jerk. Slowly we descended into the water.

Cold seawater lapped at our feet. Atlantis’ stern towered above us. The Alvin rolled in the water, its bulk, like an iceberg’s, largely submerged beneath the surface. Rand unhooked the tail line and together we threw off the heavy main lift line. We were free. The Atlantis maneuvered away and disappeared into the fog. We were alone. Rand, a 62-year old former Navy submarine veteran, talked to the pilot through the sound powered telephone mounted inside Alvin’s sail. Take off the basket safeties, said the pilot. I strapped my mask to my face and bit down on the snorkel. I took a deep breath and dove in.

Even with a thesaurus, it’s difficult to convey just how painfully cold 52-degree water feels. It focuses the attention like an explosion. It seizes the heart like a fall. Within the first one to four minutes, rapid skin cooling decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Immersion (or even just a stream leaking down the neck of a wetsuit) triggers a reflexive gasp, a sharp, involuntary inhalation through the mouth. Doctors call this the Cold Shock Response. Cold water constricts the body’s blood vessels, forcing the heart to pump harder. Blood pressure increases. Hyperventilation and an inability to breath-hold follow. Drowning and sudden death from heart attacks can occur immediately or within minutes.

Visibility narrowed in the murky green water. I had to feel my way down the basket safety line. At its end, a stainless steel carabiner clip attached to a ring on the corner of Alvin’s sample tray. Together with a second carabineer clipped into a pad-eye on an upper corner of Alvin’s “face,” the safety lines supported the sample tray’s weight. I unclipped the bottom carabineer and then the top and pulled the line free. Rand did likewise and together we rose to the surface. Even though I’d been underwater for less than a minute, a pain like an ice cream-headache stabbed my skull. My hands felt stiff, and my fingers tingled. I had entered stage two of the cold water response - Loss of Performance.

We clambored aboard the sub. On the pilot’s command, we opened a vent valve and activated an electronic identification beacon located inside the sail. We swam to the Avon and watched the sub descend beneath the waves. My last day of training was half over.

Around ten o’clock the weather began to change. A fresh breeze emerged out of the northwest, dispersing the fog enveloping us. Sullen daylight descended from a gray, overcast sky. It grew colder. The sky turned black, and rain squalls lashed us with stinging showers and willy waw gusts. By noon the wind had strengthened to nearly 30 knots. Whitecaps appeared atop fast moving swells streaked with foam.

I grew uneasy. Launching Alvin is a relatively straight forward procedure. Put the sub into the water, open the vent valve, and let the pilot do the rest. If the wind is blowing more than 25 knots, the launch is scrubbed. Launches are easy.

Recovering Alvin is another matter. Lifting a seventeen ton object out of moving sea is inherently dangerous. Rising and falling swells create shock loads that can snap lines and bend metal. In rough seas the danger increases. While graceful beneath the waves, Alvin rolls and pitches like a mechanical bull on the surface. Crashing waves batter its submerged bulk, creating instability dangerous to swimmers. Care must be taken to avoid the sub’s mechanical arms, which can knock an unwary swimmer senseless. Complicating matters, the sub’s mass generates swirling clouds of effervescent bubbles that make vision all but impossible. Swimmers must
feel their way around the bucking sub.

At 4 pm, Alvin’s pilot radioed his estimated surface time and location. My fellow swimmer on the recovery was Anton, an Alvin Group member. Anton had swum in similar conditions before, and he appeared unconcerned. He posed for pictures and talked easily to spectators gathered inside the Alvin hangar. My mouth felt dry. Fear gnawed at my stomach. The weather had not abated. The wind was blowing above 30 knots, and the turbulent seas churned and heaved. It would be a difficult recovery. At 4:30 we climbed into the Avon, and the crane dropped us quickly to the water.

A 12-foot swell, its translucent peak as sharp as chiseled green glass, lifted us nearly as high as Atlantis’ main deck. We plunged so abruptly into the trough behind that I nearly levitated. As the inflatable heaved beneath me, I struggled to pull on my flippers. We motored forward into the oncoming swells, tall enough to obscure the horizon. Atlantis’ bridge radioed the Avon driver and directed him to a spot 500 meters ahead. Amidst the peaks and valleys, we searched for Alvin’s red sail.

It appeared about 100 meters away, a splash of color against a backdrop of gray. We pounded toward it. Cold sea spray soaked our faces and stung our eyes. My stomach felt tight. I realized I was panting and tried to fill my lungs with slow, deep breaths. I’d need all my air to attach the basket safeties. The Avon stopped 20 feet from Alvin. Time to go. Anton jumped over with the sound powered telephone. He swam on his side, stroking with one hand while trying to keep the moisture sensitive phone above the waves. I took the basket safeties and leaned backwards out of the Avon. Silence. The waves overwhelmed me, tossing me like a rag doll in a washing machine. Beneath the waves, I heard myself gasping breaths though my snorkel. Pain like a frozen knife stabbed the middle of my forehead. I fought to focus.

I dove down. I grabbed Alvin’s light bar, a bank of flood lights attached to a tubular steel railing atop the sub. I held myself away from the sub’s metal arms. I felt for the pad eye and clipped in the first carabineer. My snorkle filled with water, and I inhaled burning saltwater into my lungs. I surfaced and coughed and wave broke over the top of me. I held tightly onto the gyrating sub. My lungs seemed incapable of inflating properly. They felt leaden, inflexible. I gathered my wits, took a deep breath and dove down again, deeper this time, to the rings on the corner of Alvin’s sample tray. I should have been able to clip the carabineer in my hand into the tray’s ring, but to my horror the safety line was too short. I fought to pull the ring and the carabineer together. I fought until my lungs felt
about to burst. I failed on two more attempts. The line was two inches short of the ring.

Having attached his line, Anton was standing atop Alvin in the howling wind struggling to hear the pilot through the sound powered telephone. I called to him. As the Atlantis crept slowly toward us, he grabbed the carabineer. He immediately noticed a second problem. A strip of black electrical tape was holding the carabineer’s spring loaded latch shut. In my adrenalized confusion, I hadn’t noticed. Unable to remove the tape with his dead fingers, Anton gnawed at the tape with his teeth. He disappeared beneath the waves, and somehow he attached the clip.

The Atlantis drew closer. Her three thousand tons of iron and steel cleaved the waves like an ax, her great angular bow rising and falling with dreamlike languor. Sheets of salt water, wind whipped and frothing, cascaded down her blue hull and across her gray bottom paint, exposed to the thin and unfamiliar environment above the swells.

Basket safeties attached, I returned to Atlantis for the tow line. Anton stayed aboard Alvin and guided its pilot to position the sub’s backside perpendicular to Atlantis. I swam over to the Avon and pulled myself aboard. The driver engaged the outboard, and we surfed down the faces of following seas toward approaching Atlantis. We stopped and held our position just behind her stern.

The bridge ordered the tow line passed. Coiled on a reel mounted near the waterline on Atlantis’ stern, the tow line pulls the Alvin beneath the A-frame and the main lift line. The tow line was tossed overboard. From the Avon’s bow, I reached into the water and grabbed its yellow float. The Avon driver pulled slack line out of the water and piled it in the boat. I clipped the tow line’s locking hook into a pigtail, a five-foot line itself ending in a hook. We maneuvered closer to Alvin, now nearly even with Atlantis’ stern. I jumped into the water landing without injury upon the blades of Alvin’s maneuvering thrusters. I clipped the pigtail’s hook to the pad eye on Alvin’s back end. Simple. It seemed to go well. I had no idea it had all gone terribly wrong.

I emerged from the waves and flashed the thumbs up sign. Hook attached. Tow away. I swam alongside Alvin and looked up at Anton. His face wore a curious expression. Neither a scowl nor a grimace, his stiff lips and blank eyes conveyed equal measures of regret and pity. Dread emerged from my chest like the Alien.

“The line came off,” he said.

Some mistakes can be overlooked. Clerical errors, for example, or construction oversights can lay undiscovered for years. Other mistakes, however, like an errant missile or a grounded oil tanker are, well, unmistakable. Even casual observers and small children notice immediately that something’s wrong.

I had committed perhaps the most egregious of all swimmer mistakes. The tail hook was idiot proof, deliberately designed to eliminate any possibility of failure. Clip it onto the pigtail and forget about it. Nobody could remember it ever coming undone. Now they could. I had missed the small line inserted into the tow line’s hook. The thin yellow line blocked the “locking” clasp from closing prematurely. I should have pulled the line free before I clipped the hook onto the pigtail. Because of my inattention the fool-proof locking hook failed. Because of my inattention Atlantis would have to make another pass in poor weather. And because of my inattention the passengers inside Alvin - those poor passengers - would have to endure additional minutes of vomit-inducing carnival rolling atop agitated seas.

My stomach dropped. The line came off? How could the line come off? What do you mean the line came off? I watched in horror as the tow line snaked through the water toward Atlantis’ stern, slowly receding into the distance. I could do nothing to but wait and watch. Atlantis crept ahead on its long, slow round turn. Anton said nothing. Through the sound powered phone, he explained the situation to Alvin’s pilot. His grim face reflected the mood inside Alvin.

The remainder of the recovery went flawlessly. The Atlantis eventually completed its second pass. For a second time I swam to the Avon. For a second time I plucked the hook from the water. For a second time I clipped the tow line’s locking hook into the pigtail. And for a second time I leapt into the heaving seas, and this time the hook, yellow line removed, locked shut. But the damage was done.

I returned to the Atlantis a diminished man. I had to answer to the bos’n, who informed me that he had inspected the hook and found nothing amiss. I had to explain myself to Atlantis’ captain, who appeared sympathetic but said little. And I had to explain myself to launch coordinator, Pat Hickey. Hickey wore the aggrieved expression of someone just involved in a collision with a wrong-way driver. He didn’t as much as look at me as look through me. I didn’t exist. I would swim no more that trip.

My tattered reputation would not recover until the following trip, when I swam without incident on nine dives in the cold, rough waters off northern California. But by that time Hickey had left on vacation. The day after my “incident” I met with Hickey in his room. It was a short, terse meeting. Like the supplicant I was, I again offred mia culpas. Hickey, able now to see me (though only through a lens of polished skepticism), said only “check the hook every time.” He certified me as an Alvin swimmer.

Standing atop Alvin beneath the blazing equatorial sun, I think back to that dark day. Warm water, as transparent as liquid glass and as blue as Aqua Velvet, washes over my legs in waves that gently swell and recede like the breathing of a sleeping giant. The pulverizing mid-afternoon heat fills the air with evaporated water that moistens my skin with droplets of moisture. No hint of wind creases the water’s surface. Dazzling sunshine adorns approaching Atlantis. Her navy blue hull and pistachio green superstructure emit waves of radiant color that saturate the sea before her like a dye.

I am in love.

Monday, October 23, 2006

They appeared out of the west, a white smudge on an polished blue horizon. About a mile long, the smudge appeared fuzzy and indistinct, like a mirage. It was moving toward us, fast. As it neared, its appearance began to change. The white smudge broke apart, dissolving into smaller individual elements, like shimmering pixels in a digital picture.

White-capped waves appeared. Plumes of whitewater erupted like geysers. Are those explosions? What is that? It was as if a storm had focused all its energies on a specific area, an oval about the size of a soccer pitch, and was roiling the surface. But there was no storm. The surrounding waters remained placid.

The white caps drew closer.

And then we saw them. Hundreds upon hundreds of Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. They had spotted us, and they were galloping to intercept us.

They were upon us in minutes. Six-feet-long and 200 pounds, dark gray on top and white underneath, they easily matched Atlantis’ 12 knot cruising speed. Several dozen approached for a closer look. Scouts perhaps. They swam alongside, coming almost close enough to touch. Their curiosity was palpable, and they seemed pleased to see us.

Propelled by frenetic strokes of their tails, they sliced the water’s surface, throwing up rooster tails of foam and spray. With astonishing agility, they veered from side to side at break-neck speeds. They swam in layers, two and three deep, separated at times only by inches. But like the Blue Angels flying squadron, they flew wing tip to wing tip but never touched. They alternated trips to the surface to breath. Every half-minute, in a tightly choreographed maneuver, the top layer parted.

Dolphins on the bottom rocketed to the surface and soared into the air. Their momentum carried them 10 feet and more. In that instant of flight they exhaled - pfffffft - and sucked a breath though their blowhole.

We lined the ship’s railings, enthralled. The dolphin’s enigmatic smiles seduced us. Their athleticism thrilled us. We laughed, giddy voyeurs peeking beneath the skirt of perfection. Perfect adaptation. As we watched, they soared through the air like touchdown passes. They hopped across the water like Olympic triple jumpers They skipped over the waves like flat stones thrown by Davy Jones Himself. And when they could soar no more, they nose-dived back into the blue waves. Smack! Their bellies
slapped the water. Hundreds of dolphins belly smacking the water around us created a pitter patter sound. Smack smack smack smack. Smack!

The dolphin scouts investigated Atlantis, interrogating her with their sonar, their eyesight and their big mammalian brains. But others had less intellectual motivations. Like all ships, Atlantis pushes though the water like a snow plow. Its bow cleaves aside tons of water in a great churning wake. Surfer dolphins looking for a ride found the forward face of the pressure wave. With flicks of their tail rode it like champion body surfers. But with one exception: they were surfing the inside of the wave.

And then they were gone. All of them, all at once. Poof.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The chimney appeared out of the blackness, an apparation bathed in halogen light. Mark Spear fired his thrusters and manuvered his craft closer. He wanted a sample. The chimney stood 20-meters tall. Black smoke billowed out of its crown, and white shrimp crawled around its base. He reached out to it with his mechanical arm. With a skill born of hours of practice, he grasped a chunk of basalt laying at the smoker's base with his steel pincer. A valuable piece. He eased the rock onto his specimen tray and gingerly set it down.

As if in a dream, the chimney collapsed in slow motion, as if falling through syrup, creating a swirling cloud of smoke and ash that lingered like a fog.

"Err..." said Spear.

"Did you just knock down Giraffe?" a voice on his radio inquired. "Tell me you didn't just knock down Giraffe," the voice implored.

"Ummm..."said Spear.

Everyone has an off day, even Mark Spear, Alvin pilot. Alvin is a manned submersible - a mini submarine - owned by the Office of Naval Research and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Since its construction in 1964, only 39 men and one woman have ever piloted it. Spear is the 36th. Since he completed his pilot training earlier this year, Spear has made more than 50 dives.

It was during one of those dives that he imploded Giraffe, a sulfer chimney on a hydrothermal vent more than a mile beneath the sea. He just touched it, he said. Just tapped it, really. "It was astonishing how fragile it was, but in a matter of just a few months it had completely rebuilt itself."

On another of his dives he descended to more than 2,000 meters - more than a mile deep. At that depth, the hydrostatic pressure is nearly two-tons per square inch. That's enough to unnerve most people, but to Spear, a former commercial diver, tight spaces are nothing new. He once spent 36-days in a deep-diving complex 980 feet beneath the surface.

While Spear doesn't mind spending hours sealed inside Alvin's six-foot titanium passenger sphere, others may not find it so relaxing. To quiet any fears, Spear and the other Alvin pilots conduct pre-launch interviews with each scheduled passenger. On a tour around the sub, Spear points out video monitors, flood lights and other equipment mounted on the sub's bow. He's asked questions about safety, hazards, and emergency procedures. He explains protocol and do's and don'ts. And he answers the one question that naturally occurs to anyone about to be confined up to 10 hours sans toilet.

Alvin descends at a rate of about 25 meters, he continued. A descent to 14,764 feet, Alvin's safe operating limit, takes about three hours. The ascent back to the surface lasts about as long, leaving about four hours for "bottom time". Alvin carries three tanks of compressed air, enough for three people for 72 hours. If there's a fire, we'll put it out with the fire extinguisher. If one of Alvin's hydraulic arms becomes entangled, explosive bolts will sever it. It will be recovered later, repaired and reused. Has Alvin ever been trapped underwater? No, but in 1968 it was lost during recovery. One of its lifting cables snapped, and the 17-ton sub fell back into the water. The three passengers escaped, but they left the hatch open. Seawater flooded in and Alvin sank. It layon the seafloor 5,000 feet down for nearly a year before it was salvaged. But that was an unusual circumstance. If Alvin were ever to become trapped, explosive bolts would jettison the passenger sphere. It will float to the surface, and its passengers would be rescued. Spear, a quiet, self-possessed man with a direct gaze and sky blue eyes, said this with a contagious certainty. Everything's going to be fine. Just fine.

All equipment (and all passengers) entering Alvin must fit though its circular hatch, barely 18 inches wide. Inside the sphere's cramped interior, unused space is non-existant. Electrical panels bristling with on-off switches and red indicator lights consume the sphere's entire forward-facing section. The panels control propulsion, ballast, hydraulics, carbon dioxide scrubbers, laser range finders. A bank of communications equipment mounted overhead allows the pilot to radio Atlantis. Small computer screens display sonar and navigational information. LED readouts glow ghostly green and red in the dim interior light.

Everyone must shower before launch. Everyone must wear clean clothes. Pilots have aborted dives mid-launch because of someone's funk. No one wants to breath someone else's stink all day. And go easy on the perfume and cologne, please. No shoes inside the sub. Stocking feet only. Remove all jewelry, wrist watches, rings. Alvin's titanium hatch was painstakingly milled to seal watertight without a gasket. At depth, even a tiny scratch could compromise that seal.

And of course Spear fielded The Question: What do I do if I need to, well...go? Alvin has no toilet, but a bottle suffices for emergencies. For emergencies that require more than a bottle, the options are limited and awful. A plastic garbage bag can be and has been used by the gastrically challanged. It's an imperfect solution, but it's better than the alternative - going in your pants. This latter solution has been used by at least one Alvin pilot, who shall reman nameless out of sheer pity. Perhaps the only consolation for those unfortunate enough to endure such an experience is the knowlege that it's probably even worse for those sitting just a foot away. A blanket can provide a veneer privacy, but it's just a veneer. So please, go before you go.

Alvin pilots sit on a tiny seat before a small forward-facing porthole. Solid metal, soda can-sized electrical penetrators encircle the porthole. The watertight penetrators allow bundled electrical cables to pass through Alvin's sphere. The cables connect Alvin's batteries to its floodlights, television cameras and other electrical equipment. Two T-shaped toggles mounted on either side contol the movements of Alvin's hydraulic arms. Dials above the pilot's head monitor the amperage and voltage of the batteries. Battery powered thrusters allow Alvin to go up, down, sideways or hover in place. Water ballast and 500 pounds of mercury control the sub's attitude and pitch. Alvin's range, five kilometers. Cruising speed, two miles per hour.

Passengers sit or lay on either side of the pilot. They recline against foam pads attached to the sphere's naked metal interior. Upholstered in a smooth fabric, the pads help insulate against the cold. Occupants can observe their strange new world though one of Alvin's three portholes. Like a giant squid's eyes, Alvin's portholes are dinner plate-sized corneas set in bowl-shaped sockets bored into Alvin's nearly three-inch thick sphere. Light passes though smaller holes - irises - in the middle of the socket. Bored directly though Alvin's sphere, the irises allow light to pass through the polished glass portholes, nearly four inches thick (the hull is thicker around the portholes). In addition to their own porthole, each passenger has their own drop-down television screen. The size of a laptop computer screen, the monitors receive live-time video from Alvin's high-definition cameras.

During its 42-years of service, Alvin has carried more than 8,000 researchers to the seafloor and returned them safely to the surface. But even this legendary explorer of Earth's inner space must eventually retire. In 2009 Alvin will be replaced. A new, deeper diving submarine capable of descending to 6,500 meters is planned. It will have increased visibility, better fields of vision, and more portholes. And it will be bigger. The sphere's diameter will increase by four-inches, making it 30-percent larger. The new sub will be capable of exploring 99 percent of Earth's seafloor. So, where does a manned submersible with more than 4,100 dives under its belt, including the first on the wreck of the Titanic, retire to? The likeliest destination is the Smithsonian Institution. But that won't be for a while. In the meantime, Alvin and pilot Mark Spears will continue to do what they do best - explore the alien world beneath our seas.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In the still darkness more than a mile beneath Atlantis' keel, a battle is raging. Pitted against each other, earth's elemental forces - plate techtonics, volcanism, the biological imperative, and the sea. The Atlantis has traveled to the front line of this timeless conflict, the Juan de Fuca Ridge, 135 miles northwest of Astoria, Oregon. Alvin pilots returning from the battlefield recently surfaced with evidence of the conflict.

At first glance, the samples on Min-Hiu Lin's sample table appear ordinary enough. A dozen rough hewn fragments, charcoal black and streaked with a lattice of white marbling. A thermos-sized geode, split in half, burnt to ash and lined with fool's gold. The blackened stump of a stalagmite. Identification tags inscribed with blue ball point pen lay alongside each sample. They say "Finn," "Hot Harold" and "Hulk."

Smelling of brimstone and sulfur, the samples appear unlikely objects of scientific curiosity. In this case, however, appearances are deceiving. In oceanographic circles they are among the most sought after of prizes, trophies still so rare that scientists are willing to descend to depths of the ocean, and hope someday to travel into the depths of space, to obtain them.

Lin, a dimunitive Taiwanese researcher with spiky black hair, said that the Juan de Fuca Ridge is an area known for its tectonic activity. "The Axial Seamount on the Juan de Fuca Ridge has been studied continuously since 1983," she said. It has given scientists an opportunity to study the dynamics of volcanism and tectonism on Juan de Fuca's hydrothermal vents."

On a recent dive, Alvin explored "Faulty Towers," a complex of what scientists call polymetallic sulfide chimneys. Composed of metal, sulfides, mostly, chimneys form along undersea mountain ranges called mid-ocean ridges. Ridges form when tectonic plates collide, or in the case of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, separate. As the plates pull apart, the seafloor spreads. Fissures or cracks form, and magma rises to fill the gap. The magma heats invading seawater to more than 700 degrees F. Hydrostatic pressure at 2,500 meters is two tons per square inch, enough to prevent water from boiling.

The superheated water erodes and mixes with surrounding minerals, forming a fluid rich in metals and sulfides. Pressure pushes the fluid up though the seafloor in hot springs called hydrothermal vents. The hot fluid meets and mixes with the surrounding, cold salty seawater. Metal sulfides in the fluid condense into plumes of black "smoke." Over time, the particle-rich plumes precipitate, forming smokestack-like structures called black smoker "chimneys." The samples on Min-Hiu Lin's table are pieces of three such chimneys - Finn, Hot Harold and Hulk.

Over the years many chimneys have been identified along the Juan de Fuca Ridge, part of the Ring of Fire. Roane, Giraffe, Mothra, Salty Dawg, Sasquatch, Sully. Giraffe is 22 meters tall. Barren in 2000, Sully now sports a luxuriant carpet of 2-meter-long tubeworms. In 1977 when hydrothermal vents were first observed near the Galapagos Islands, scientists first documented the existance of giant tube worms. Some grow to 10 feet in length, and bright red blood - iron-rich hemoglobin - courses though their bodies.

In the decades since their discovery, scientists have sought an answer to a fundamental question: How can tubeworms and the other denizens of the hydrothermal vent community - giant clams, worms, shrimp, and bacteria that survive on sulfur - exist at the bottom of the ocean, in darkness, in freezing tempertures and under crushing pressures, close to energetic plumes of superheated fluid saturated with lethal amounts of methane, manganese and iron?

To answer that question, Dr. Jeffery Cramer, a scientist from the University of Washington, studies heat-loving bacteria called thermophiles. "Thermophiles are representations of earth's earliest life forms," he said. Though they have evolved over the eons, he said, compairing contemporay thermophiles to Formula One racing cars, and their primordial ancestors to horse and buggy, "some scientists believe that life on this planet began billions of years ago in
hydrothermal vents just like the ones we see now, and that every organism on earth - including us - evolved from thermophilic bacteria."

Thermophiles live inside hydrothermal vents. They line the narrow chambers and arteries of sulfur chimneys, clinging to deposits of pyrite - fool's gold - coating relatively cool passages filled with a sand-like mineral. Unlike plants, which anchor a food chain based on photosynthesis, thermophiles are chemosynthetic. They derive their sustenance from the chemicals spewing from the vents. Able to tolerate temperatures of 212 degrees F, they eat sulfur and exhale ferrous iron. Oxygen poisons them.

Thermophiles also thrive inside the bodies of tubeworms like those living on Sully. Tubeworms have a specialized organ that contains billions of thermophillic bacteria. From the sulfur they absorb, the bacteria generate organic material that nourishes the host worm. The worms have no need for a mouth or digestive tract, which they lack. This symbiosis between organisms and bacteria extends to the clams, shrimp and other chemosynthetic organisms living near the vents.

The existance of such a specialized ecosystem has raised other questions. If life on earth arose from chemosynthetic bacteria living in hot springs billions of years ago, where did the bacteria come from? Comets or asteroids? Perhaps, said Cramer, although he cautioned the answer may never be answered irrefutably. Besides hydrothermal vents, thermophile-like microbes called extremophiles have been discovered living in the beds of dried alkaline lakes, under glaciers, and in methane seeps. Some thrive in radiation that would quickly kill any other organism. Others eat hydrocarbons - oil. Because of their tenaciousness, "it's possible that some extremophile may be able to survive in the freezing vacuume of space also," said Cramer.

Could thermophilic bacteria exist elsewhere? Scientists speculate that the moons of Jupiter, particularly Europa, may contain two ingredients that vastly increase the possibilty of life - volcanism and liquid water. The Hubble space telescope has observed volcanic eruptions on Europa, and under Europa's icy crust liquid oceans may flow. Nasa has proposed sending a probe to Europa. It may be equipped with a radioactive heat source that would melt through the ice and descend into the ocean below. The probe would seek out heat sources like hydrothermal vents.

"There's a very real possibilty that Europa could sustain chemosynthetic life similar to our terrestrial versions," said Cramer. "If it does, then life may be much more common than we thought."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Among the misfortunes that befall ships at sea, none inspires more fear than fire. Storms, collisions, grounding - they're mere princes in the kingdom of hazards. Fire is king. One spark, one smoldering ember, one short circuit. An oily rag, a tuft of insulation, a greasy oven. It only takes a minute. And in that minute a fire can grow into an inferno hot enough to warp steel, boil paint, and incinerate anything it encounters.

That's why Atlantis holds weekly fire and boat drills. Regular emergency training, it is hoped, will instill a reflexive response to the smell of smoke. A response, that is, that diverges from the usual reflexive response - panic. Nothing seizes the attention like the smell of smoke. It stimulates the adrenal gland and stokes the imagination. It quickens the pulse and elevates blood pressure. Pupils dialate, hands shake. The mouth dries. The lizard brain stirs. Fight or flight, except there's no where to run.

Word of the drill spread. The crew gathered in the galley, dropping their life jackets and survival suits beside their chairs. At precisely 10:20 am, the general alarm bell mounted on the galley bulkhead erupted in a shrill, ear-splitting metallic clatter. Simultaneously, the ship's horn sounded a 10-second blast, the standard alarm for fire and emergencies. The captain's voice sounded over the intercom. "Fire, fire, fire. This is just a drill. Fire, fire, fire. Go to your fire and emergency stations."

The crew jumped to their feet, purpose guiding their movements. Atlantis' 22 crewmember (and 6 Alvin crewmembers) must quickly extinguish any fire or risk the loss of the vessel. Each crewmember is assigned a fire and emergency station. Each station has a designated meeting place - the bridge, for example, or outside the damage control locker - and each crewmember must perform a specific duty. Engineers start fire pumps and close the ship's water-tight doors. Cooks search all cabins for unconscious personnel. Electronics technicians send out distress signals. Able-bodied and ordinary seamen crew the emergency squads. Led by ship's officers, the emergency squads are the early responders. They must find and extinguish any fires.

Atlantis' damage control lockers contain a managerie of firefighting equipment, everything from firefighting suits and oxygen breathing apparatus, to fire extinguishers and extra fire hoses. Everything a squad of amateur firefighters needs to fight a fire. But without adequate training, they might as well just launch the life rafts.

And so we train. For our voyage's first drill, Atlantis' chief mate, Carl, volunteered me, fellow deckhand, Steve, and galley messman, Brendon, to don firefighting suits. While I peeled off my sweatshirt and kicked off my boots, other squad members unzipped the heavy canvas bags containing the suits.

My suit was the classic firefighter's ensemble - thick rubber boots, yellow insulated pants, red suspenders, and a heavy jacket with shiny metal clasps and leather elbow patches. The plus-sized pants hung from my waist like clown pants. Balaclava for the head and neck, check. Thick leather gloves and shiny yellow helmet with drop down visor. Check. Someone placed an oxygen breathing apparatus on my back, and hands guided my arms though its straps. I leaned forward, felt the weight, and pulled the staps tight.

A face mask filled my hand. Check the seal. Place mask against the face, hold palm across bottom of the trunk-like air hose hanging beneath. Inhale. Should create a vacuum. The mask sucked tight to my chin, cheeks and forehead. Good. An airtight seal. Unseen fingers pulled the mask's straps tightly around the back of my neck and head. The air hose is connected to the air tank, and the valve is opened. Cool, dry air floods my mask. I breathe deeply. I sound like a scuba diver. I put on gloves and a helmet. I'm ready to go. I feel empowered, capable, competent. I glimpse my reflection in a crewmate's reflective sunglasses. Oh well, you can't have everything. I look away. Standing men crowd the galley. They orbit Steve and Brendon like attendents dressing a Venetian courtesan. The two men, encased in their face masks, helmets, and silver, pseudo-aluminum fire suits, look like spacemen in a 1950's B-movie.

Meanwhile, in the main science lab, Atlantis' complement of 24 scientists gathered for an orientation. In the event of an emergency, you'll muster here in the main lab, a ship's officer tells them. Bring your life jackets and survival suits, as I see you've done. Good. Your primary job will be to stay safely out of the way. But if needed, you may be asked to relay messages between ship's officers and members of the emergency squads. Of course that means someone's probably died, ha ha. But no, seriously...

The horn and emergency alarm sound again. Seven short blasts followed by one long. Abandon ship. "Now hear this." The captain's voice again. "All hands, abandon ship. Go to your abandon ship stations."

If fire is the king of the kingdom of hazards, sinking is queen. The royal pair nearly always travels as a couple. While the crew dispersed to their assigned stations, science's orientation continued. The ship's officer fingers a cherubic University of Washington undergrad. Put on the survival suit? His cheeks redden, but he's game. He kneels and considers the "gumby" immersion suit.

Thick, orange neoprene adorned with strips of reflective tape. Flat, formless feet, and baggy, shapeless legs. Voluminous midsection bisected by waterproof metal zipper. Two shapeless arms terminating in two insensate gloves. Tight fitting hood, Velcro face flap. Inflatable floatation bladder behind neck. Ugly, distorted and unfashionable, the gumby suit nevertheless assumes a beauty that grows in proportion to the proximity of the invading sea.

Designed to be entered fully clothed, the survival suit's thick neoprene acts as a barrier between the human body and hypothermia. Cold water steals body heat. The body responds by drawing warm blood from the extremities and pumping it into the lungs and vital organs. Deprived of blood, the arms and legs stiffen and cramp. Staying afloat becomes difficult. Fatigue sets in. Respiration shortens into shallow gasps. Panic rises. Hard to breath without swallowing salt water. The end nears.

The cherub opens the suit and jams his boot into one of the legs. It catches on a fold and stops. He pulls harder, but it's no use. He tries again, aware of the eyes watching him. He pulls so hard his face grimaces. The ship rolls, sending him hopping one-legged across the deck. Sit down and try working the suit over your boot, says the officer. It works. Good, now the other. Good. The cherub stands, pulls the suit up to his waist and plunges one hand and then the other down into the suit's arms. He hops up and down several times. He stretches and reaches and swings both arms until his hands seat in the gloves. Good. Now the hood. He misses at first. He's working by feel, but he can feel nothing through the neoprene fingers. He succeeds finally and the hood swallows his head. He grabs the zipper cord near his crotch and yanks it upward until just his face is exposed. He closes the face flap over his mouth. Good. It's just that simple. Sympathetic applause rewards the wheezing student. Now everybody try...

Three short horn blasts and three rings of the general alarm signal the end of the drill. Fourty minutes have passed. The Atlantis continues at full speed on its westward course.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's just after dinner and all is quiet aboard Atlantis. On the other side of the sliding partion separating the library from the galley, dim mumurs and muffled conversation. Overhead, fresh air whistles through an air vent. A wave slaps the hull. A forward hatch is shut and latched with a metallic clack!

But for the fog obscuring the mouth of the Columbia River, we would have departed Astoria at our posted sailing time of 8:30 am Friday. Instead, on the advice of the pilot, we waited alongside the dock. By 10:00 am the fog had lifted, and the ship traffic stacked up at the river's entrance had dispersed. We cast off our lines and started downriver.

The Columbia River's olive green waters ebb and flood at three knots or about 3.3 miles per hour. Though it sounds slow, its flow is measured in millions of gallons per second. The Columbia's inexorable current scoured its eponymous river gorge out of the surrounding table rock. It has swallowed ocean going ships and drown swimmers. The Columbia River is a graveyard.

We threaded our way through an armada of sport fishing boats drifting downstream. Men holding fishing rods watched our approach impassively. Despite the danger of collision, some refused to give way, forcing Atlantis' captain to sound the fog horn. Ten short blasts, danger close. The signal sounded again and again. That they would be crushed like tin cans beneath Atlantis' 3,000 tons seemed to concern them little. They moved grudgingly, with a palpable sulleness.

Sunshine glinted off the water's surface. Wind wrinkled and tide ripped, the river swirled and churned, its heaving swells capped by frothy white rollers. The far shore nearly a mile distant, with its rolling, tree stubbled mountains and rock-strewn ravines, mimicked the river it shadowed. The first ocean swells began to lift our bow. Up ahead a fog bank, opaque and dazzling white, stretched across the horizon.

A cold, damp twilight descended. Colors faded. The horizon vanished. We zipped our jackets and raised our hoods. Our fog horn sounded, a sudden, skin tightening sonic boom lasting five seconds. Moisture had seeped into the horn. Its blast began as a honk, more air than sound. Only gradually did it find its full throat. We laughed at the peculiar two-toned note. It reminded me of my junior high school chorus. Sometimes my voice would give out mid-note, making me sound like a braying donkey. Eeeyhaaaa.

In between blasts, nature reasserted itself. Squawking sea gulls floated overhead. Water rushed beneath our bow. A fresh wind blew. I stood alongside chief mate, Carl, and fellow deckhand, Steve. We stared into the blinding whiteness. Nothing. Occasionally, a navigation buoy materialized out of the mist. We'd call it out, and Carl would notify the bridge on his walkie talkie. Sometimes we'd hear the deep hum of a distant ship's fog horn. Time passed slowly.

Keep an eye out for the pilot boat. It'll be coming alongside any time now. We strained our eyes, but we saw nothing but mirages and ghostly after-images produced by glare. The pilot remained on the bridge.

Unlike ship's captains, who are equal measures diplomat, despot, and CEO, river pilots are solitary introverts who rely on memory and intuition. More horse whisperer than celestial navigator, pilots know a river by feel. They know the river better than anything except their wife's body. Pilots know the location of every sand bar, mud flat, and swirling eddy. They've memorized every turn and bend, every rock and shallow, the times of every ebb and flood. Their education is continous; rivers like the Columbia change constantly.

The pilot boat appeared, a phantom from the shadows. As it drew near, it revealed its handsome lines. One hundred feet of smooth molded steel. Long sleek foredeck. Angular bow, sharp as a guillotine blade. Two story superstructure mounted aft, painted canary yellow and perched above twin water jets. We walked back to our pilot ladder and waited for the pilot.

Pilots leave a vessel by rope ladder. Not surprisingly, its called a pilot ladder. Secured to two pad-eyes screwed into the deck, the pilot ladder is slung over the railing, the lowest rung hanging just above the water surface. Atlantis' embarkation deck is one level above the main deck and about 20 feet above the water. The pilot boat matched our course and speed. It drew closer. Its captain turned slightly and pressed his vessel against ours. Heavy rubber bumper rails attached to its hull cushioned the collision. Pressed together, we sped along at 10 knots.

The pilot stood next to us. He said nothing. Dressed in waterproof overalls insullated with buoyant foam rubber, he peered over the side to the pilot boat below. It rose and fell like an air mattress in a wave pool. He cursorily inspected the ladder, gripped the hand rail, and lowered himself over the side. A crewman on the pilot boat helped him step safely onto the boat's non-skidded deck. This is serious business. Just last year a Columbia River pilot lost his grip, fell between the two vessels, and was crushed to death.

The pilot safely aboard, the pilot boat veered and disappeared into the fog. The roar of its engines soon faded. Quiet desceded. We were alone.

Night has fallen. The fog has lifted. Outside the library's porthole the vast, satin black sea blends into the infinite, diamond dusted universe.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I began my first day aboard Atlantis the same way I finished my last day aboard Atlantis seven years ago - hung over. The crew of the Atlantis, most of whom I hadn't seen since 1999, saw to that. I reunited with them in the dank, smoke-choked Portway tavern shortly after my arrival in Astoria.

I drank a micro-brew with Patrick, Atlantis' bosun mate. He and his longtime girlfriend had finally married. They'd bought a house in Cape Cod. My friend Paul, the third engineer, had vacationed in the Philippines. A scuba diver, he'd gone there to complete a course in rescue diving. Besides earning the certification, he'd found a girlfriend. Her bronzed skin and lithe body beguiled him, and he had decided to buy a house for them on a verdant, white-beached island north of Manila.

I sipped a $15 shot of Glenmorangie Scotch whiskey while I chatted with Atlantis' captain, A.D. Beneath a collection of orange life rings decorating a ceiling support beam, we reminisced about the Knorr, Atlantis sister ship. We'd sailed together on her three years ago on an expedition to the North Atlantic. Our bow thruster burnt up in Glasgow, Scotland. They cut gaping holes through two decks above the thruster and craned the motor up and out and onto the bed of a tractor trailor. During the two weeks it took to repair it, the Knorr's crew developed a fondness for scotch whiskey and for the Park Grove House, a downtown brothel masquerading as a aroma therapy clinic.

The bartender placed a rum and coke before me. Who had bought it I didn't know. I overheard Greg, ex-Alvinite and my long-time friend, trying to explain his new job to Kazumi, Atlantis' Japanese electronics technician. His hand flew through the air, mimicking the helicopter that flies him into Mt. St. Helens. Kazumi nodded her head vigorously. If she didn't understand that he maintained seismic equipment for the United States Geological Service, she didn't let on. She appeared wide-eyed, a smile frozen on her face.

Greg lives on a boat just outside Portland. He picked me up at the airport, and we drove from Portland to Astoria in his Jeep. As we headed west along route 26, Portland's urban sprawl gave way to forests of spruce and pine. The air cooled and thick clouds obscured the sun. Greg's Jeep lacked doors and a roof, and as we sped along the winding highway goose bumps rose on my forearms. As we neared Astoria, isolated homes gave way to rural communities. Restaurants and businesses sprouted. Meadows disappeared, replaced by strip malls and fast food outlets. The road widened. Traffic increased. Ascending over a rise, the wide brown waters of the Columbia River appeared before us. And then we saw her. Atlantis' pistachio-green superstructure loomed in the distance. Even in the muffled daylight, it glowed with a noxious incongruousness.

A stranger bellied up alongside me at the bar. Short, stocky frame. Unkempt goatee. Crooked, Nickelsonian grin. Recognition yawned in my brain. I knew this guy. Andy, Knorr's oiler, now aboard Atlantis. I hadn't seen him since Bergen, Norway. We squeezed each other's hand, the measure of our grip the sum of our mutual delight. He hadn't changed in three years. Like then, pints of ale had blushed his cheeks, and the combed cornrows of his blond hair hung limply over his head. We caught up over a pint.

Paul bought another round of rum and cokes. I began to sway on my feet. Simple words were becoming hard to pronounce. I sounded like a man in the early stages of hypothermia. My eyes kept wanting to cross. Jet lag pulled at my eyelids. My ears rang from loud conversation and cackling laughter. Time to go. Paul and I walked along a winding road past port buildings and canneries shrouded in mist illuminated in a pink halogen glow. I crawled into my bunk's womb-like darkness and evaporated.