This summer I spent an afternoon at the bottom of the ocean, 1,260 feet below the surface in a tiny metal ball filled with computer boards and switches. At the Alvin pre-dive briefing I learned what to do in the event that the solo pilot onboard became incapacitated; flip six silver switches to drop weights and surface, use sound transmission to radio for help, open two blue valves to send oxygen to the emergency breathing apparatus. But these life or death scenarios were absent from my conscience as I climbed into the submarine and watched the metal hatch cinch shut. I settled my mind for the ride of a lifetime, to the deep, dark, bottom of the ocean.
Alvin is one of the world’s first human operated deep ocean submersibles. Since its first launch in 1964 the vehicle has undergone multiple renovations to fit the needs and demands of modern science. Giant robot arms and vacuum tubes allow scientists to collect sediment, water, rock, and animals from 4,500 meters deep – that’s about 2.7 miles below the surface.
Once myself, pilot Bob Waters, and dive partner Colleen Hoffman were sealed inside the sub, Alvin was lifted off the deck of the R/V Atlantis and lowered into the ocean. Two support swimmers sit on top of the sub to detach lines from the ship and do a final safety check in the water. These swimmers wear nothing but a bathing suit, snorkel mask, and fins – a stark contrast to the steel toe boots and life vests required on deck. With the safety check completed we began our decent. Hundreds of zooplankton, tiny clear organisms of all shapes and sizes, swarmed around the sub. As we lowered beyond the reach of sunlight, the darkness of the deep ocean enveloped the sub revealing a dazzling display of bioluminescence. Everywhere I looked there were tiny flashes of light, like fireflies in the night’s sky.
At the seafloor we switched on the lights and got to work. I was after a deep sea coral, amazing creatures that thrive in cold dark water and live for hundreds to thousands of years. These coral incorporate carbon and mercury from seawater into their skeletons, and we can learn a lot about the history of the ocean by studying these elements. Four hours later with our science objectives completed, we ascended to the surface and Alvin was craned backed onto the ship.
Check out this video to learn more about Alvin and watch me climb into the sub- make sure you watch to the end to see the traditional first dive ice dunk!