Diving to an Underwater Volcano – NSF Cruise AT26-17A, Day 1-3

We arrived at the Astoria, Oregon dock just before sunset. It’s a small unassuming place, as far as ship yards go, reeking of fish, timber and diesel fuel. A complex maze of fences and small buildings delineate the busy activity of sailors and dock workers. Today, huge stacks of logs, harvested from the wild Oregon forest are being loaded onto ships bound for Asia. The small port is easy to miss from the main road, and were it not for Ken’s past work here, we would have had trouble finding it. Ken, a friend and colleague from previous cruises, picked Tim, Amanda and me up in Portland for the hour and half drive here from the Portland airport. Once we arrived at the gate we presented identification which they checked against the manifest and we were directed onward to the vessel. The ship glowed magnificently against the dark backdrop of the Columbia River.

R/V Atlantis at night.

R/V Atlantis at night.

Seven years of development, more all-nighters than we care to count (too many in the past week), and now it begins. Once on-board, we sought out the captain and were assigned space to drop off our gear. Ken bid us farewell and began his lonely drive back to Portland. The rest of us settled in and got dinner at the karaoke bar at the end of the road. The colorful bras on the ceiling are a testament to the wild times had by sailors and locals. Back on the ship that night we slept soundly in our berths, dreaming of the work to be done the next day and the adventure ahead.

Karaoke bar in Astroria, Oregon.

Karaoke bar in Astroria, Oregon.

In just two days we are heading out to sea, 500 kilometers off-coast and 1.5 kilometers down. Research at sea, and on the Atlantis in particular, is a mixture of both tradition and dream. Most of the procedures and equipment on-board were designed decades ago, born of hard learned lessons from the stormy sea – a stark juxtaposition to the advanced technology and robotic cargo we carry. This balance between old and new, sea-worthy and delicate, are part and parcel to everything here, especially the people.

Alvin Submersible

The Alvin Submersible.

Each research group is assigned space on the ship’s main level.  Alvin and crew are permanent fixtures on the Atlantis and they take up the whole fan tail and loading bay. The rest of us squirrel away where we can. While everyone helps each other whenever needed, each group is an island. You carry everything you will need for your research and personal needs, sans drinking water and food. Your research field kit is a source of pride and arguably competition. Of course, organization is key: “the micro-hex drivers are in Pelican case number eight, layer three, fourth row over as listed in the packing log book”. Groups from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have a fifty year head start in the kit competition. Still, I’m proud of ASU’s School of Earth Space Exploration style and we rarely have to ask for anything. That said, we needed a “slotted socket driver” today and the ship’s machinist was kind enough to oblige us by making one.

We don’t leave port for another 24 hours. In that time we are preparing our experiments, getting to know each other, and coordinating dive plans. For our work, we are busy installing the latest firmware on our microcontrollers, attaching connectors, charging batteries, and preparing lines and cables. At 14:30 hours today we had a meeting to plan the upcoming Alvin bottom time for the next two weeks. Every dive is numbered, and every piece of equipment and passenger to be carried on that dive is accounted for before we leave port. Dates are not assigned to the dives because weather dominates all considerations at sea, except for perhaps considerations of human life. If a dive is delayed (or worse yet scratched), who cares what day of the week it is anyway? None of us have purchased our return tickets home yet for that same reason. We are committed to the mission and are flexible to change and opportunity.

As luck happens (for us anyway) a member of the science crew got very sick and couldn’t make it. The chief scientist offered the room to another student at the last minute and I took the opportunity to argue our case. I’m happy to say we are flying Greg from my lab out tomorrow morning to join us. He’s been with the project since the beginning and he’s deeply knowledgeable of the instrumentation. That and his calm-under-pressure attitude are just what we need to make things work. Some of the boards are not programming as they should and we may have to go to back-up boards at sea. But with Greg, our chances go way up. Tomorrow we will be welcoming Greg and together we will attempt to finish our preparations.

We leave port early Monday morning and will be diving in the Alvin on Axial Seamount two days hence. We will keep you updated through this blog on the experience, engineering and discovery to come!