08/15/09 – Liz's Dive
By Liz Baird
“For centuries, the only ocean man knew was the sun-drenched, wind-tossed surface. It was a two dimensional element upon which he sailed his ships, on the fringes of which he built his cities. The world beneath the waves was a nether region, inhabited by monsters too fearful to contemplate. Nature had not seen fit to make the water as clear as the atmosphere. Man lived with the stars but the deep sea was beyond his ken." —Auguste Picards, Seven Miles Down, 1961
On Saturday afternoon, the three dimensional world beneath the deep blue of the Florida current was mine to explore as I participated in my third dive on this mission. "Third time's a charm," as the saying goes; and for me, the saying held true. During my two earlier dives, I rode in the stern of the sub, an oval just big enough for two people to sit in with their legs crossed and heads tucked as if they have terrible posture. For today's dive I was assigned to the front of the sub, a large Plexiglass sphere that provides a nearly 360° view.
Being the scientist in the front carries a great deal of responsibility, not only in working with the sub pilot to determine the direction to take the sub, but also in running the external video camera and choosing what to collect. During the dive you take an audio recording of everything you say, and when you return to the surface you transcribe the audio onto a paper log. Excerpts from my audio recording:
- 1000 ft: Red shrimp went by – is bigger than appeared
- 2400 ft: Coral rubble, sand looks coarse, few little eels
- 2370 ft: Some glass sponges on stalks, squid ink in water
- 2302 ft: Gotten more diverse
- 2245 ft: Huge structure of dead coral, terraces off to side
These notes don’t capture the wonder of being on the sea floor. There is an inky blackness that surrounds the submersible. The bright arc lights illuminate what is in front of you, but you always wonder what is just beyond the spotlight. You cruise along a flat bottom and in the distance a steep slope appears. Closer inspection reveals sponges and corals living on the slope and urchins, eels and brittle stars hiding in the slope's crevices. Your eye is distracted by the small things that swim quickly into view: pulsing jellyfish, silvery flashes of hatchetfish and curious Coral Hakes that swim towards the camera. You try to decide what to sample for the researchers waiting on deck: a small branch of coral, a crab removed from Bamboo Coral, a sponge snipped from the sea floor. There isn’t time to sit in wonder during the dive. The task of collecting data and capturing the area with video, photo and audio recordings occupies most of your time on the bottom. At the end of the dive, the lights are turned off and you ascend through the bioluminescent show in the water column.
It never fails to amaze me that we can explore the depths of the ocean. As we bob on the surface, waiting for the swimmer to attach a line from the ship and the A-frame to lift us up out of the sea, I marvel at the earliest explorers, like William Beebe, who set out to probe the depths with little more than a concept and a lot of courage. He described his feelings about the privilege of descending into the sea in “One Mile Down:”
“If one dives and returns to the surface inarticulate with amazement and with a deep realization of the marvel of what he has seen and where he has been, then he deserves to go again and again. If he is unmoved or disappointed, then there remains for him on earth only a longer or shorter period of waiting for death.”
With every dive I return with an appreciation of where I have been and what I have done, knowing that each dive of the submersible adds to our collective knowledge about the sea that was once “beyond our ken.”
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