Reporter's Diary: Diving in a Deep-Sea Sub

Chad Cohen
National Geographic Today
July 8, 2002

National Geographic Today sent science producer Chad Cohen on a mission to explore underwater mountains (seamounts) in the Gulf of Alaska. He joined up with a team of scientists on the research vessel Atlantis and traveled to the Patton Seamount, 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Kodiak Island, Alaska. In a brief missive direct from the ship Cohen describes his journey in a deep-sea submersible called Alvin to explore an unknown world of bizarre spider crabs and exotic corals. The mission is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration.

Well, I don't even know where to start. To begin, the day was just beautiful—blue skies, blue waters.

The way Alvin is launched from the deck is an experience in itself. The 24-foot (7-meter) white and orange sub is slowly rolled out of the hanger on the deck, and we climb in. A giant A-frame lifts us off the deck and swings the sub into the water.

A small rubber powerboat is waiting just off the stern and swimmers dive into the freezing water to disconnect us. When they're done, the ship, the R/V Atlantis, pulls away and within minutes our pilot fills our pressure chambers and we begin to go down.

As soon as we're off the surface, the sub stops rocking back and forth with the waves and becomes eerily stable, supported on all sides by the Pacific. The color of the water descends through an entire spectrum of beautiful blues, gradually getting darker and darker until finally, about 30 minutes into the dive, it is pitch black.

We don't turn lights on until we hit bottom, or the desired research area, in order to save power—which is the limiting factor for every activity in the deep ocean.

Within minutes there was a firestorm of bioluminescence—tiny jellyfish, bacteria, and who knows what else were flying erratically around the entire sub, glowing like a flurry of stars.

After 45 minutes, we continue to descend, getting deeper and deeper till we hit a patch of the slope 3,000 feet (914 meters) below the surface. The base of the seamount, which is rising off the bottom of the seafloor, still lies about 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) below. It's cold now—from 60ºF (16ºC) on the surface to just a degree or two above freezing. There is no heat, again because of power. (It is interesting, that 3,000 feet (914 meters) below surface near the Gulf of Alaska the temperature is the same as 3,000 feet below the surface in the Pacific near the Galápagos.)

Lights come on about a hundred feet from bottom. Peering down, we still see nothing, and then it appears, like landing on the moon—first a barren landscape, or seascape rather, of rocks and sediment, then long squiggly gray rockfish, crabs, and corals. For the next six hours, starting at 3,000 feet (915 meters) and working our way up, we maneuvered around on this lunar landscape, picking crabs with the robot claws (claw against claw) and clipping corals for genetic studies.

Our resident crab expert, Brad Stevens, found what he was looking for. He had taken dives near here previously in search of a variety of crab species, but he could never find any juvenile crabs. He found them today.

Continued on Next Page >>


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