Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Almost !)

by Will Halpin

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in an exciting adventure aboard the research vessel Atlantis of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This vessel is not only one of the most advanced scientific ships in the world but it is also home of the deep submersible submarine the Alvin. While I was away visiting relatives over the Christmas holiday WHOI left a message on my answering machine that they needed a thirty day relief for the position of communications electronics technician (COMET) which was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up so on January 5 th I flew out of Bangor to join the Atlantis docked at Manzanillo, a small town on the southwestern tip of Mexico.

The main scientific objectives were to determine the post-eruptive distribution of hydrothermal activity and nascent biological assemblages, examine the temporal and spatial changes in benthic communities through in situ observations, sampling, and manipulative experimentation. Or to put it simply, to investigate the bottom of the ocean where there was active volcanic vents and study the sea life there both plant and animal.

This is no easy task as at this location roughly 300 nm south of Manzanillo the ocean floor is 2500 meters (over one mile) down.

For twenty-one days on station we launched the Alvin each morning at 8 AM and retrieved her at 5 PM. A full day’s work for the Alvin pilot and two scientists on board her. Meanwhile the other scientists on board (twenty-six in all) conducted other experiments with the help of the ships crew such as launching a remote “tow cam” camera and other scientific instruments. One scientist even had numerous remote seismic instruments on the bottom of the sea measuring volcanic activity.

One interesting aspect of this cruise is that a middle school teacher from Lexington, Ma was aboard on a research grant to interface with school children all over the world via her interactive web site www.ridge2000.org/seas. Here students can interact with the scientific staff and crew on the Atlantis. A bio page is even listed on the site for all those who participated. From my own personal viewpoint I really enjoyed interacting with all the various scientists who literally were from all over the world. We also had the pleasure of a famous National Geographic photographer, Emory Kristof, aboard. He is a pioneer of innovative, high-tech underwater photography.

We had two very exciting events during my month aboard. The first occurred on January 26 th when astronaut Suni Williams aboard the International Space Station was able to talk to Tim Shank (WHOI Chief Scientist) in the Alvin on the ocean floor. A phone call from outer space to deep space. Quite a feat! The second was during one of the last dives the crew on the Alvin was able to capture several ocean bottom fish, bythitids, which was another first for science.

So for an entire month it was like being back in science class watching the entire goings on of the scientists and crew. Captain A.D.Colburn and the other members of the crew were real professionals and it made for a pleasurable experience. You can learn more about WHOI, the Atlantis, the Alvin, as well as many more interesting facts on the WHOI web site. I would also encourage kids of all ages to visit the ridge2000 website to learn more and even actively participate.