Saturday, Sept. 8 - 2200 hrs
This morning I asked my cabin-mate, Venetia (our resident Educator,
from Oatland Environmental Education Center, near Savannah), to
wake me up if George needed me for anything special. I hadn't
slept well and yesterday morning Venetia and I were dutifully
up at 0600 hrs for our watch to find not a soul on deck! Ten minutes
after she'd left - just as I was drifting off to sleep again --
she burst into our cabin and said, "They need you now --
you're going on the first dive!"
I'd been scheduled for the Sunday morning dive, so I was quite
surprised! It turned out that Saturday's sub pilot, Tim Askew
is the heaviest of the 3 pilots, and the two observers (Drs. Reed
Bohne and Henry Ansley from Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary)
who were scheduled to go on the dive were also large men, equating
to a weight overload! So Michael Jordan (the "TV Guy"
from Savannah who was documenting our voyage) and I were rousted
from our bunks, briefed for 5 minutes (seriously brief!), and
told to take one last visit to the 'head,' or restroom (PB4U Go)!
There was no time to think, plan, or even consider fear - I was
in a daze of adrenaline-fueled excitement and disbelief. I was
about to descend more than 200 ft to the unknown seafloor!
I climbed the ladder to the open hatch and entered the sub (Fig.
20), then positioned myself in the starboard front "seat"
- a poorly cushioned ledge - within the observation bubble (Fig.
21). Michael sat with his little video cam behind me, and Tim,
our pilot, sat to my left. As soon as we were settled, Tim instructed
us on how to get back to the surface if anything happened to him
while we were on the bottom - an eye-opener of the potential danger.
He did a quick run-through of the procedure for the launch and
dive, tested the sub's giant mechanical arm (which consists of
a two-fingered grasping claw, a vacuum device and a sediment scooper),
and showed me how to operate the all-important video cameras mounted
externally on our port "bow."
With all my new colleagues cheering us on, we were lifted from
the deck (Fig. 22) by the enormous A-frame. I made a little sign
that read "NO LEAKS!" and held it against the window
for them to see (Fig. 23). and were very gently lowered to the
sea surface. With a little jerk and loud foosh, we were released
from the ship's grasp and made a splashdown into the water, bubbles
and froth filling our view (Fig. 24). Everything was quiet and
peaceful as we gently started to descend in a slow and steady
freefall. As I looked up at the sky -- viewed through the water's
surface -- and watched it grow blurry and dim, I thought simply
that this must be something like how it feels to drown; yet there
was not an ounce of fear - only peace - in my bones. Peace and
I focussed my gaze on the material floating just outside the bubble
and was absolutely thrilled to see a living pteropod "flying"
with its "wing-foot" toward me (Fig. 25) as if to wave
hello. What a wonderful greeting to this undersea world - a good
omen! I have seen hundreds of pteropod shells in my sediment traps
and deep-sea samples over my 20-year career, but have never seen
the graceful and beautiful living organism.
It only took a few minutes to descend the 210 ft to the seafloor.
We watched the natural light fade progressively and felt the temperature
begin to drop to a more comfortable degree. The water was a light
greenish-brown and the sub's lights showed an amazing "snowstorm"
of tiny marine snow particles - silt-sized suspended sediments,
plankton, and organic debris. Visibility was still only about
20 ft, but that would prove to be just fine.
The seafloor then came into our view and the Clelia completed
the descent and rested her sleds on the sandy floor. A few sponges
and "corkscrew" octacorals were nearby, and several
amberjacks - large fish who are notoriously attracted to subs
- (Fig. 26) circled around us and peeked at the curious yellow
metal beast that was visiting their quiet home.
After communicating with the ship we turned on our sonar (Fig.
27) and headed for our first waypoint - a small blip on the fathometer
traces that indicated a possible rocky outcrop. As we glided across
the seafloor, hovering just a few feet above it, we became accustomed
to our surroundings and settled in for the "3 hour tour."
At first, all we saw was a nearly featureless sandy bottom. There
were no ripples to indicate continuous currents affecting the
bottom. We stopped briefly to suck-up (vacuum) some sediments
(Fig. 28) to get a feel for their consistency and thickness. A
hard pavement - probably limestone - lay like a rock mattress
just 10-15 cm below the sediment blanket. We got a nice "sucker
sample" but knew that box coring would be impossible there.
We motored for a few hundred feet and began to see little "fuzzy"
areas on the seabed (Fig. 29). These were invertebrate-coated
rocky rubble areas. No rock was without a dense community of attached
organisms. When the first rocky outcrop ledge came into view (Fig.
30). I caught my breath. My eyes were open wide, jaw dropped,
and I was literally on the edge of my seat. "I am seeing
this. I am here." I had to remind myself that this was not
the Discovery Channel!
The small rocky outcrop reefs were each completely covered with
encrusting and sessile invertebrates: bryozoa, sponges, and possibly
some coral. Fish swarmed in and around each reef (Fig. 31). Gag
grouper (Fig. 32), scamp, tattlers, two-spot cardinals, yellow-tail
reef fish, wrasses of several varieties, triggerfish (Fig. 33),
angels and butterfly fish (Fig. 34). Most of the reefs had 20-30
cubbyus - small-to-medium black fish that never seemed to stray
from the rocks (Fig. 35). Apparently they are nocturnal and wander
at night in search of food. On one reef we found a huge oyster
toadfish hiding under the rocky ledge (Fig. 36). We tried to stun
it with a drug called rotenone so we could collect him, but it
only made him happy and silly, and he eluded us. We captured him
on film instead, which suited me fine. We settled on collecting
two cubbyus. George Sedberry had never caught a cubbyu in his
fish traps before, so I was glad to take him a gift since he'd
brought me a rock from the previous day's dive.
We found an octopus in his small rocky den (Fig. 37), with mollusk
shells littered all around it. Two gray triggerfish hovered above
him. We saw arrow crabs, and a few single fish including a snowy
grouper, a large red snapper, and a barracuda! Good thing Tim
is a fisherman, as he knew a lot more fish names than did I!
On the sediment plains we saw garden eels pop back into their
burrow dens with our approach. Feathery tubeworms were common
sediment inhabitants during the second half of the dive. They
were also very retractable and shy. In some areas there were tens
of these in our view (Fig. 38). Among them lived purple and orange
starfish. We scooped up a starfish and two tubes (Fig. 39), along
with the surrounding sediment. We "caught" 6 samples
of sediment from various locations throughout our dive.
Using the giant mechanical arm we tried to lift one of the very
few loose rocks ("rocky rubble"), but it was too heavy.
This was my BIG one that got away! However, we were able to pinch
off a small end of it which we named "Chip" (Fig. 40).
We also tried our "arm" at taking a box core sample
(Fig. 41), having found sediment that was a little thicker than
elsewhere, But, when the mechanical arm twisted the handle that
closes the core doors, the entire core rotated in the sediment.
We got some sediment, but they were very disturbed, defeating
the purpose of the box core technique.
The last third of the expedition we did not find many outcrops,
but roamed across the nearly barren, flat plain of seafloor, encountering
and following a skate for a few minutes (Fig. 42), finding a huge
hermit crab (Fig. 43), and watching the feather-duster tube worms
quickly disappear into their sandy homes. We turned the camera
on ourselves for a "Hi, Mom!" shot (Fig. 44).
When it was time to leave we slowly lifted off the seafloor and
soon saw the brightness increase. It really did seem like we were
ascending toward Heaven. Michael switched places with Tim - not
an easy task! - and filmed our surfacing. We bobbed at the sea
surface and slowly moved toward the ship (Fig. 45).
Positioning ourselves at the ship's stern, we could see the two
big screws (propellers) before us. We seemed very close, but did
not worry. Then one of the crew dove in to attach the sub's "leash"
(Fig. 46). We discovered that we'd been fooled by the water's
magnification and refraction of light. The diver was about 50
ft away from us! He swam towards the sub and attached the towline
and, eventually, made the A-frame connection.
Very quickly we were re-secured to our mother ship (Fig.47) and
hoisted upward, dripping, into the air, with a terrific view of
the SJII. How exciting to return from such a successful dive!
It only took a few minutes to settle us on the deck, take a few
welcome-home photos (Fig. 48), open the hatch and climb out, with
smiles HUGE on our faces.
We eagerly examined our treasures collected from the deep, including
the starfish (Fig. 49), a fossil keyhole urchin (like a sand dollar)
(Fig. 50), a huge lion's paw scallop shell (just one half) with
a small community of dead horn corals attached (Fig. 51), and
the invertebrate-encrusted "Chip". Somehow all these
items returned to the surface intact! Chip was covered with all
sorts of critters (Fig. 52). It was a beautiful specimen that
enthralled the biologists.
The cameras and colleagues crowded around us to hear our tales
and see our interesting samples. My adrenaline was pumping and
I felt light-headed. Sitting all folded up, knees to chest, for
three hours hadn't bothered me a bit. I was starving, though,
and had to use the restroom!
During the afternoon we were busy documenting our dive and bagged
all the great sediment samples. These samples are going to be
gorgeous under a microscope. For dinner, we grilled steaks and
fresh tuna on the fantail (stern) deck, celebrating our day's
success (Fig. 53). That evening the sun made a magnificent show
on the steel gray horizon. Red sky at night, sailor's delight
We stayed up late, working hard and getting punchy in the lab
as we annotated the dive tapes. We got some excellent footage
on the dive. What a treasure to have the entire experience on
videotape, including views of us in the submersible on the seafloor.
During the night the two guys from the Beaufort NOAA lab made
beam trawls of the seafloor. On the first one they caught a small
hand-sized octopus and a wonderful little 4" seahorse. I
held the seahorse in my hand and he wrapped his tail around my
finger, and he simultaneously stole my heart. So we immediately
set up a mini aquarium in one of the collection bins and added
my small rock, Chip, that had a soft coral "tree" attached.
The seahorse quickly secured his tail around the coral and rested.
John Brooks, the videographer on board, took half an hour of incredible
close-up film of the seahorse and feather-duster tube worms on
Chip. These tube worms would slowly venture from their homes and
open their "feathers" in a beautiful display, then POP!
back in when startled. We soon added the octopus to the aquarium
and allowed them all to cohabitate for a while (Fig. 54).
What an incredible adventure it was - an incredible journey that
has only just begun. I'm glad to know that I'll be returning to
the Seward Johnson II in a couple short weeks for another leg
of this expedition - the Charleston Bump leg. I hope to dive again
to even greater depths. This has been an incredible trip and I
am grateful that Dr. George Sedberry and NOAA gave me this opportunity.
"Awesome" is the best descriptor of my experience. Truly
awesome. (Fig. 55).
Fig. 23 (video)
Fig. 37 (video)
Fig. 40 (video)