To the Edges of the Earth (Part 2 of 3)

To the Edges of the Earth (Part 2 of 3)

This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter from his archive. This is the second part of a three-post series. Read the first post here.

The ALVIN submersible floating astern of the research vessel Atlantis

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Chief ALVIN pilot, Bob Grieve, was busy reading instruments and flipping switches as he ran through his final pre-dive checklist: “Hatch is shut, O2 on, scrubbers scrubbing, tracking on 8.1, PC check . . . I’ll do it on the way down, request a launch altitude and permission to dive as soon as you’re clear.” And as my mind tumbled in and out of focus in the novelty and excitement of my situation, the almost lyrical response of Bobby Lee Williams back aboard the R/V Atlantis II came over our speaker saying the words I’ll never forget: “ALVIN, you’re launch altitude is 2531 . . . You are clear to dive when the swimmers are clear.”

The year was 1994. Dive No. 2584 of the world’s best-known deep-submergence vehicle, ALVIN, was underway, and I was aboard, bracing for the most mind-blowing experience of my days on planet Earth. Why I was there is a more than two-decade-long story of career changes, enduring friendship and my eyes-always-open search for wondrous things. Suffice it to say, that October I was on the crew list of 44 aboard Atlantis, one of a group of 14 scientists, and was the guest of Rich Lutz, chief scientist. Rich is Director of the Center for Deep-Sea Ecology and Biotechnology at Rutgers University. He and I go back a long way. At this moment however, we were going a long way DOWN. Three of us, including Bob Grieve, were descending one and a half miles to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

To orient you, the R/V Atlantis II is owned and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 210 feet in length, she is the mother ship to ALVIN. Everything aboard her is geared to the launch, retrieval and maintenance of that amazing submarine, including her extremely able crew of 23 men and women, who work like well-oiled machinery day in and day out in a very complicated and hazardous routine that they take in their good-natured stride. The ship is stuffed with electronics, machine shops, laboratories, scientific equipment and hustle-bustle workaholics who operate around the clock.

Besides the regular ship’s crew were seven young men (attached to the U. S. NAVY), average age 34, who comprise the “ALVIN Group” – 4 of them certified pilots, all of them crack mechanical and electrical engineers – whose whole attentions and energies were devoted to keeping that fat, little white submarine operational. They were under tremendous pressure the entire three weeks of the cruise, not only to perform flawlessly, but to keep themselves and their scientist passengers alive in the face of the most hazardous extremes of environment on this planet. They did so as total professionals, highly motivated and with great good humor – a very impressive group.

The real “why?” of this voyage was human curiosity… an intense curiosity about the deepest, darkest secrets on Planet Earth. My companions were some of the world’s leading ocean scientists and their students, from various institutions. Our location was 500 miles south-southwest of Acapulco, Mexico, 9 degrees north of the equator, holding station in mid-ocean, “suspended” so to speak, one and a half miles above what is called the “Axial Summit Caldera” (or ASC) of the East Pacific Rise, which is just one segment of the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire” – those firey, geologically active junctures that mark the very edges of our planet’s tectonic plates and which, themselves, are but mere scabs on the surface of Earth’s horrendously hot and molten interior.

Geologists, chemists and zoologists, the Science Crew were feverishly occupied in sampling, measuring, testing, filming and recording everything. Their primary interest in the “9 Degrees North” site, which they have visited many times, hinges on its being a very active spreading center between the Cocos plate to the east and the Pacific Plate to the west. It offers exciting, almost frightening, insights into those processes at work that define the world we know, and it has also revealed surprising and strange life-forms, some never seen before, that derive their sustenance ultimately from the center of the Earth, through chemosynthesis, rather than from the Sun, through photosynthesis, as does the balance of all other known life. To go there, to see this place, eyes wide, mouth open, is to visit the bowels of a planet… churning, growling, heaving with the red heat of its celestial beginnings. These, literally, are the edges of the Earth. The only way to get there is in a submersible like ALVIN.

I was aware of all these things, and, as I boarded Atlantis in Mazatlan, Mexico, I knew there was a chance I might be making a dive. The moment I first saw ALVIN in its hangar on deck, I was brought up short – by its gleaming whiteness, by its reputation, by its immediate reality… and by apprehension. This, before me, was the same little submarine that was first to visit the Titanic in 1986, found the first deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1977, that had retrieved the atomic bomb lost off the coast of Spain in 1966, that had made the first explorations of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and that had ferried very many famous people into the deep and back from the Mediterranean to Japan. And there were stories, hair-raising stories, of the ALVIN’s once sinking during a launch, of being wedged between rocks and stuck on the bottom, of being attacked by a swordfish and once rumbled by an undersea eruption. This was the incredible machine I had heard so much about over the years. In the following weeks, I learned a great deal more.

evolution of the ALVIN

Evolution of the ALVIN submersible over several decades. Courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (E. Paul Oberlander)

Alvin is a self-contained, untethered submersible, engineered to keep people alive and working at great depths. That’s basically it – 18 tons of high-tech equipment, material and hardware to take its crew as deep as three miles down and, in theory, keep them breathing for 72 hours. The sub is 25 feet long and is battery-powered. It can cruise at 1 knot as far as five miles, submerged, and its front-end bristles with powerful lights, video and still cameras, sampling equipment, collection baskets and two highly articulate, mechanical arms with grasping claws. The most important feature, however, the thing I most focused on, was the 7-foot-diameter, 2-inch-thick, titanium sphere, peeking from under ALVIN’s white skin through three 4-inch-diameter portholes, glazed with 3½-inch-thick, acrylic plexiglass.

“The Ball,” as the pilots call it, is rated to withstand pressures up to 8467 pounds per square inch (p.s.i.), putting its collapse depth at 18,767 feet, or three and a half miles, though no one plans ever to take it that deep. It is shockingly simple – no more than a big round, glorified steel buoy with a manhole in the top – and it looks claustrophobically small on contemplating 8 to 10 hours (the duration of an average dive) stuck inside of it.

The Ball, or personnel sphere for the ALVIN

Working on “The Ball,” the personnel sphere for the ALVIN submersible. Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

All rookie members of the Science Crew were required, two at a time, to go through a “dry run” in the Ball. Most of the talk had to do with safety, redundant backup systems and where all the thousand switches, buttons and valves were located… and what they did. The subject of FIRE was brought up repeatedly, and, looking at all the electronics and oxygen bottles packed in there, I knew why. We were told to wear only cotton clothes and stockinged feet – no synthetic materials, deodorant, hairspray or anything that might encourage combustion. A sweatshirt was a good idea, because the sphere was not insulated, and it would be very cold and clammy on the bottom where the water temperature hovers just above freezing. Everything we took down, including our bodies, had to be approved and weighed the night before the dive.

Though a marvel of engineering, ALVIN’s sphere was hardly designed for human comfort. The two Science Crew “observers” must sit facing each other on a small, steel deck, their backs against the curved outside wall in a half-reclining position, their legs intertwined, their feet in each other’s crotches and their rear ends cushioned by only a thin pad. Each observer has a single porthole to look through, and it is cruelly located just at armpit level, requiring that he/she roll and maneuver repeatedly on sore hip and shoulder bones, puncture his/her skull on the sharp corner of a black instrument panel and, all at the same time, battle his/her equally uncomfortable crewmate’s flailing stumps.

The pilot is somewhat more comfortably situated, sitting on a small box, facing forward with his front porthole located so he has only to hunch a little to see through it.

As it chills, the sphere sweats with condensed breath, which trickles down the walls, over portholes and under the deck into a growing puddle of what the pilots call “lung mung.” Add to this scene a disorganized jumble of extra clothing, flashlights, cameras, notebooks, tape-recorders and lunch boxes, not to mention the huge proportion of space taken up by fixed equipment and instrumentation. Throw in a ladder and turn out the lights, and you just about have it… all inside a 7-foot ball, underwater.

Bodily functions are another matter, glossed over by the dry-run instructor in the hope they won’t become an issue. In the rare event they do? He held up a small, red, plastic pee bottle and a plastic bag. My question had to do with how the CO2 scrubbers handled methane. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “This is a very intimate place. Just take a shower, wear clean socks, and don’t eat any beans. And no chewing watermelon gum.”

One final point got my attention. “See this?” said the instructor. He held up a 2-foot-long, Tee-handled wrench. “This goes to the ‘Jesus Bolt’ down there in the bottom of the Ball. If the sub should become incapacitated on the bottom, one turn will release the Ball to make a free ascent to the surface on its own. No one’s ever done it. In theory it should work. If it doesn’t, as a last resort, the pilot can use this thing to beat the two scientists to death… to conserve air.” He smiled.

I was told, later, that one reason for this indoctrination was to “weed out any borderline claustrophobes by the size of their eyes.” I’m a borderline type, with small eyes. No one noticed.

For better than two weeks in hot, clear weather, Atlantis basically treaded water over the study site at 9 Degrees North. Each morning after breakfast, everyone gathered on the afterdeck to watch ALVIN go over the stern, dangling from the huge A-frame by a 4-inch-thick, nylon rope. Every afternoon at 4:00 or 5:00, two toots of the ship’s horn signaled ALVIN’s reappearance on the surface and the much-anticipated recovery. Once it was back on deck, everyone scrambled for the sub’s collection baskets to see what they held: stinking sulfurous rocks, octopi, strange white crabs with blue claws and orange eyes, giant tubeworms, 4 and 5-feet-long. The chemists grabbed their water-sample bottles. And the ALVIN crew – they were all over that submarine, removing access-panels, disconnecting cables and hydraulic hoses, checking this, testing that – the intensity of their attentions to that marvelous machine were… I guess the most apt word is “reassuring.”

Thanks to the heroically generous spirit of the Science Crew, my opportunity to “go down” came on October 30th, our last day on-station, the last dive of the cruise, #13. I did not sleep very well the night before. It was to be an early launch, 7:00 a.m., so that the ship could get a jump-start that evening on its 70-hour steam back to mainland Mexico and home.

Dawn came with the first heavy overcast of our cruise and squalls of rain. I went to the mess and had half a cup of coffee, a piece of toast and no beans. One of the ALVIN technicians, a Filipino named Socrates, came to hurry me along. On deck, I looked out over the sea to see a huge, slate-grey, donut shaped cloud hanging over our spot of ocean, its edges feathered by wispy showers. Through the perfect hole in its center, a great shaft of golden sunlight beamed down on the silvery waves. I have never seen a cloud like that before or since.

Rich Lutz, Bob Grieve and I climbed to the short catwalk that led to ALVIN’s bright orange “sail,” pausing to remove our sneakers and stuff them into a canvas bag tied to the catwalk railing. That bag had privately come to symbolize for me these people’s faith in their machine and technology – their belief in the worth, to mankind, of descending to where we were now going … to witness “the creation.”

Then we climbed down through the sail and squeezed through ALVIN’s hatch, taking great care (as ferociously instructed) not to scratch its precisely machined seal, which, in a matter of minutes, would be warding off thousands of pounds of water pressure. I ensconced myself at the starboard porthole while my veteran companions, despite their own important preparations, pelted me with advice, reminders and handy tips. I was so busy and excited that I barely noticed as we lifted, swung and went over Atlantis’ stern. Suddenly, outside the portholes, there was nothing but bright blue water, the color of Aqua Velva, and a blizzard of bubbles.

After a few minutes, Bob began calling out his pre-dive checklist over the sonar communications system. For years, I had tried to imagine this, never expecting it would actually happen to me, and then… Bobby Lee’s go-ahead from the ALVIN “navigation lab”… “ALVIN, your launch altitude is 2531 meters… You are clear to dive when the swimmers are clear.” Godalmighty, I was going down!

I was mesmerized, glued to my 4-inch porthole window into the great Pacific Ocean. Gradually the bright blue became midnight-blue and Rich said, matter-of-factly, “Barn, you are now deeper than you have ever been before.” He was right. I looked at my data readout screen – 100 meters already. In SCUBA gear, I’d never gone deeper than 150 ft.

Bob busied himself with navigation and readouts. Rich fiddled with his cameras. I philosophized into my pocket-tape recorder and just looked out the porthole. For the next 90 minutes, we would descend to the ocean floor in a gentle spiral, guided by tracking technology far beyond my experience. To save power, all outside lights were turned off, and inside was lit in a low red glow like an aircraft cockpit.

It got darker. Then it grew black. At 200 meters, numerous tiny, bioluminescent lights appeared, floating upward. We were falling at roughly half a meter per second. Some of the objects were bigger and looked like jellyfish, two or three inches in diameter, others like the so-called “dandelions” I had seen on the video tapes from earlier dives.

The blackness outside the sphere was now absolute, and, because of my electrified awareness of where we were, I felt the overwhelming sensation of swooning in an ethereal calm as we and our little “spaceship” journeyed into the blackness of the Universe, no more than a speck of plankton adrift in a planet’s ocean.

One element of this adventure I had not anticipated was the music. The crews of both Atlantis and ALVIN being rather young and happily addicted to popular music, the thrum beat of instrumental and vocal stimulation was ever-present and generally loud. It didn’t bother me – I rather liked it – but it was a dimension of this experience that I never expected. Just as soon as the sub had begun its descent and we had settled in, Bob inserted one of his collection of CD’s into the disc player, the only item of luxury onboard. From that moment on, we were bathed in the acoustical perfection of a bathysphere.

The voice and music of Eric Clapton became the theme of my journey to the bottom of the sea – such songs as Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out; Tears in Heaven; Lonely Stranger; Rollin’ & Tumblin’; Running on Faith and Layla. Others were Credence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain; Heard It Through the Grapevine; Susie Q and Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up. As ALVIN sank deeper and deeper into blackness, these harmonies, unchosen but wholly appreciated, where THE tether to the world we’d left behind. I did not mind the intrusion at all; it was merely one more sensation added to the bewildering total heaping themselves on me that day.

Other sounds filled the sphere as well: the sounds of electric motors, hydraulic pumps, mechanical clicks and clanks, the beeps and pings of our navigation system, and, perhaps giving more sensation of being lost in the depths than anything else, the multiple echoes of voices and transponder beeps as they bounced up and down from ALVIN to the surface and back – wonderful, cavernous, metallic echoes that gave the impression they would ricochet forever in the ocean’s endless “hall of mirrors.” And our remoteness from the world of air and light grew with every moment as Bob, Rich and I leaned back and stared at each other and thought and just listened.

When my data readout screen indicated we had descended over a mile, I began to ponder more seriously the forces at work on the Ball. At 1732 meters, the outside temperature had fallen to 2.6º C, and the pressure was 2490 p.s.i. The bare walls of the sphere were in full sweat and felt chill and clammy to the touch. Beads of moisture dribbled down the face of my small porthole. Bob had indicated we were picking up speed as the sub’s floatation and the sphere itself shrank with the temperature and the building pressure, thus occupying less water volume and losing buoyancy. I watched the screen intently now; it was my only frame of reference as to where we were.

As my sense of anticipation heightened, I talked to my tape recorder: “1835 meters, 2636 p.s.i., 2.4º C… 2039 meters, 2938 p.s.i., 2.1º C… 450 meters to go… 2237 meters, 3230 p.s.i., 1.92º C… 2300 meters, not too far to go, the Kid is getting excited… window temperature 1.86º and hovering, pressure 3354 pounds… (and to Bob) I will never forget this day the rest of my life, I guarantee you… (Bob’s and Rich’s laughter)… 130 meters off the bottom… I am anxiously awaiting my first glimpse.”

Then, at 100 meters off the bottom, Bob suddenly turned on the outside floodlights and called up to Atlantis, “A-II, ALVIN, depth 2411, 100 off the bottom, I’ll tell you when I get there.” The acknowledgement from above was the characteristic short-long-short series of transponder beeps (used to conserve energy) that indicated “Roger.” Next, he flipped a magnetic switch to release one of our four stacks of sacrificial steel weights (each stack weighing 250 pounds) to slow our descent.

I looked out my porthole. All around the sub was a hazy corona of light scattered off small particles of stuff in the water. Just what that stuff was, I wasn’t sure. My eyeballs were glued to the porthole at this point, and as all of us tried to achieve new body positions conducive to viewing what was going on outside, the discomfort of our close-quarters became quite apparent. Rich and I struggled to find non-existent places to stick our legs. Mine were cramped, my tailbone was sore, and I complained bitterly to my otherwise good friend to not spoil this moment. (I had been warned by others that he was notorious for his wild leg-flailing.) Somehow, we managed a momentary truce, and I was able to concentrate on the view.

Forty meters off the bottom, I saw “my first organism of consequence,” a zoarcid fish, or eelpout – primitive-looking, pure white, its flanks wrinkling and unwrinkling as it snaked through the water in our lights. At this point, our descent was painfully slow as Bob began to trim the sub to neutral buoyancy so we would be able to hover. His targeted landing site was 50 to 60 meters from a volcanically active spot in the ASC called the “Hole to Hell,” so named when it was visited on the immediate heels of a violent eruption – an occasion when the pilots refused to enter the area.

As he occupied himself with preparations for landing, Bob called up to the ship, “A -II, ALVIN, depth 2468, 31 meters off the bottom, DB neutral trim, 3377 p.s.i. at 3.2º C, weight 266, Over. ”

And from Atlantis, “Roger that… I show you with target bearing 230 at 51 degrees.”

I peered expectantly through the porthole, watching for any sign of what lay below. A cloud of whitish detritus or plankton now surrounded us, perhaps born on plumes of warm water issuing from volcanic vents (which might account for the temperature Bob had just recorded). Our final descent was very slow; Bob was using the vertical thrusters to “put on the brakes” and counter the negatives of steel weights and water ballast. Five meters to go! My eyeballs were aching from the effort of trying to look around the edges of my all-too-tiny 4-inch porthole.

And then, as I spoke into my tape recorder, “I am beginning to see shapes!” – one of the most remarkable moments of my life arrived. THERE was the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, just like that!

I was first struck by ALVIN’s shadows, drifting across the bottom like cloud shadows, then another eelpout, two feet in front of my face. And I could see we were over a huge collapsed lava pit. It looked like the broken shell of a giant egg, shiny black, the gloomy cavern within big enough to swallow our submarine with room to spare.

I was amazed at the colossal scale of the features I was looking at. One of my jobs aboard ship had been to review each dive’s videotapes, five to six hours’ worth per day, to make archival and working copies and to make notes on anything of interest. In effect, I had seen more of the bottom than anyone else on the cruise, having viewed over sixty hours of tape so far, but I was in no way prepared for the monstrous size of everything, even keeping in mind the magnifying effects of water.

I dug deep into my barrel of everyday exclamations, and still I could not find the words to voice my emotions at that moment. The tape recorder caught it all – I was a babbling idiot, reacting in awe to every feature as it came into view, bathed in ALVIN’s powerful lights.

As we settled on the bottom, I could not help being overwhelmed by my awareness that we were now one-and-a-half miles down on the bottom of the Pacific, the greatest ocean on the planet. How many ships-of-old had sailed over this very spot without ever being able to imagine the wonders below? What amazing events had occurred to create this undersea seascape with never an intelligent being to witness them? How representative was this hostile and dangerous “otherworld” of the uncounted “worlds” in the solar system… the universe? I felt I was looking under the covers at God’s deepest secrets in the very bowels of the planet. It was like witnessing “the creation.”

ALVIN had landed in a field of volcanic rubble and collapsed “pillow lavas,” which are the mounded shells of lava-flows whose exteriors had cooled and frozen on contact with the cold seawater and whose innards then retracted with the pulse of volcanic activity, leaving hollow “pillows,” or what looked to me like a chaotic growth of giant mushrooms. They were made of shiny, black glass and, because they were quite recently formed, had only a light dusting of sediment on them. Many were fractured, and the broken edges of their shells looked surprisingly thin and fragile, perhaps only an inch or two in thickness.

It was here that I saw the first crab, a galatheid crab – sort of a combination of shrimp, lobster and crab, pure white except for it’s weird, “day-glow”-orange eyes. Then I saw a spectacularly elegant shrimp as it “rowed” past my porthole, all spidery with 10-inch-long legs and antennae – a beautiful orange and pink vision.

As Bob dropped the second stack of steel weights and made his final trim adjustments, I checked my data screen. We were sitting at exactly 2500 meters. We then lifted off the bottom again and set out in the direction of the Hole to Hell. It reminded me of helicopter flight, minus the noise, vibration and heaving motion. Bob asked Rich and me to keep our eyes open. He – all of us for that matter – had a very limited field of view through his tiny porthole, and every pair of eyes was a help.

“For what? ” I asked.

“EVERYTHING,” he said. “Hot water has a high priority in my book.”

Our itinerary for the dive was to take us from a starting point at the Hole to Hell a mile or so along the bottom of the Axial Summit Caldera (or ASC) in an effort to take continuous video footage of both sides. The ASC is essentially a giant crack along the ridge of the East Pacific Rise. It is, in fact, the actual spreading center between the Pacific and Cocos plates and therefore the focus of the major volcanic activity along that low, mounded ridge where the two grind against one another. One of the more common features in such a place is the gushing of superheated (400º C) water from the sea floor, generated by the horrendous heat of the Earth’s interior as seawater infiltrates the crust, heats up and is then regurgitated through fissures and spectacular chimney structures called “black smokers” that are built by the continual deposition of minerals and “smoky” sulfide solutions spewing out of the top.

The risk of such superheated water coming in contact with the submarine represents a serious hazard and could not only do severe damage but, worse by far, could cause a catastrophic failure of the Ball by melting the plexiglass out of the portholes. I kept a sharp lookout for smokers.

Presently, Bob announced he could see the ASC just ahead. In slow motion, we sailed over the brink, and I looked down into a murky chasm, perhaps 40-feet deep, our flood-lights washing over a chaos of grotesque, lumpy shapes whose shadows moved eerily with our progress. Another eel pout and a rattail fish swam by, unperturbed. I couldn’t see the far wall – the ASC is anywhere from 50 to 150 feet wide for the most part. The general impression was one of descending into a spooky canyon.

On the floor of the ASC was confusion. My view was about 45 degrees to the right of our direction of travel, and slightly downward. If I could have stuck my head out the window, it would have been great, but, as it was, I couldn’t get my eyes closer than 4-inches from the outside aperture of the porthole (because of its thickness) and so couldn’t really see where the sub was going. I simply took in the sights as they passed me by.

Pretty soon, we encountered the first small black smokers. They were only about 6-feet tall. In amongst them was a hydrothermal vent community of sedentary tube worms amid clouds of white bacteria. The bacteria form the basis of the food chain. Through chemosynthesis, they are able to sustain themselves on the ordinarily highly toxic solutions issuing from these hot vents. The tube worms are some of the strangest looking creatures in the world. Like giant bouquets of feather-shaped, blood-red flowers, they grow inside long white sheaths or stalks that are stiff and leathery. Some of them were four or five feet tall. Entwined with them, we saw more writhing eelpouts and, scavenging about, were various shrimp and crabs, including some snow-white beauties with blue claws. A golden-white swarm of tiny amphipods hovered nearby. Our proximity and bright floodlights gave us a very clear view, made all the more dramatic by the mercurial shimmering of the superheated water just inches from each grouping of creatures. (Much hotter than boiling, perhaps 375º C, the seawater is unable to actually “boil” because of the great pressure at depth.) It was very pretty to behold, a bizarre and beautiful ecosystem that could well have been of another world. A small white octopus slithered out of sight behind the base of a gushing smoker.

It was at this moment, with this shimmering “Garden of Creation” before me, that I looked up at the near wall of the ASC… I was staring at the edge of the Pacific Plate! Somewhere, only a few feet behind us, was the edge of the Cocos plate. It gave me an especially eerie feeling. I was, in effect, seeing the Edges of the Earth!

This was the deepest point in the dive, 2511 meters. I put my hand against the wall of the sphere. The outside temperature was 1.89º C. It felt very cold. Inside was rather chilly as well. The pressure was 3633 p.s.i., which meant that our 2-inch-thick Ball was holding back a total of over 40,000 tons of deep ocean, something I did not want to contemplate for very long.

The rest of the dive went as planned. For five and a half hours, I had seen sights I will never forget: 40-foot-tall black smokers; acres of shiny, black volcanic glass; giant white clams; anemones bigger than I am; a spectacular, tube worm-encrusted pillar, 30-feet tall with a huge mushroom-shaped colony of the creatures at its top, which appeared suspended on a shimmering mirror-pool of 375º C water; vent after vent of dirty, sulfurous “smoke” jetting out of the seafloor; myriad colonies of golden mussels, 6-inches long; pale, prehistoric-looking creatures; even a never-before-seen species of polychaete worm just minutes before we left the bottom for good.

I sat back at last. The past seven-and-a-half hours had only seemed like two! To behold this amazing and strange and beautiful world, unseen and unknown since its creation… the uttermost wilderness in the absolute blackness of Inner Space… my senses were numbed.

Bob flipped some switches, and the remaining two stacks of steel weights dropped from ALVIN. Then he turned off the floodlights.

We begin our ascent with no sensation, other than, perhaps, one of finality, knowing a ship, a sky and a bright Sun awaited us. Rich handed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple. I leaned against the cold wall of the sphere and smiled.

I had done it.

ALVIN being hoisted out of the water

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


[AFTERWORD: That night, back aboard Atlantis, Rich and I were lying on our backs on the afterdeck, looking at the stars, rehashing the day, when a huge meteor, trailing a fiery tail, plunged into the atmosphere overhead. It exploded, high up, without a sound, billowing orange flames and even visible smoke. Neither of us said a word for a moment… then probably something akin to “Holy Smokes!”]

~ That was The End to a most remarkable day ~

Read the next post: Seeds and Fleeing Daylight (part 3 of 3)

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.

Feature image: The ALVIN, courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution