Aboard Atlantis

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.