Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghosts in the machine?

All clear: Here’s Andy checking for stow-aways in the tool sled prior to Nereus launch. Could that have been the cause of the excess baggage? Or was it just a Halloween haunting?

Please, please, please, let me get what I want (with apologies to Morrisey and the Smiths). Here goes Nereus, back to the seafloor late Sunday afternoon.
Position at 16h00 EST – End of CTD 48
Lat: 18° 33’N Long: 081° 44’W
Water depth: ~5000m


We had a bit of an adventure on Halloween, but not a specially fun one. The launch of Nereus went extremely well and the pay out of our depressor to 2500m went well too. We worried, briefly, whether the release of the fiber-optic tether that would be used for Nereus to get the rest of the way to the seafloor would work OK - we quickly dubbed this “separartion anxiety” - but that too went flawlessly as well.

And so we continued, over 4 hours, all the way to ~5000m, where we dropped our descent weights and aimed to put Nereus into hover-mode. But instead, we kept descending slowly. Even when Chris had the thrusters trying to drive the vehicle up as hard as they could. All the way to the seabed.

We’re still not sure quite why, but the vehicle had arrived at the seabed heavier than expected – not by much, but by enough to have us rooted just where we sat. National Geographic is out with us for a few days at present, filming, but this was NOT quite the kind of drama we had wanted to share with them.

Of course, our engineers are not easily left stumped for long and after 15 minutes or so we already had a first plan of action lined up and put in motion. We jettisoned some of our “ascent weights” (the ones we normally would only drop at the end of the dive, so Nereus would float back to the surface) and that allowed us to start to head south and explore the seafloor from our launch point on thick soft sediment toward our proposed work area (and hydrothermal vents?) about 600m distant and 150-200m shallower.

As we headed south, and began to climb quite steeply uphill, we came across fields of large boulder-sized blocks of basaltic lava and, further uphill again, intact tongues of basaltic lava that had been frozen in place as they had poured over and flowed down the rock face toward the direction Nereus was arriving from.

This already gained us useful information – we now know the hill that we are heading toward must have previously been a site of active and extensive volcanic eruptions. You might think that obvious if we’re working on a mid-ocean ridge (i.e. an underwater volcanic chain), but there was actually something like a 50:50 chance, since the Mid Cayman Rise is a very slow-spreading ridge, that at any given site the local geology would be dominated by long-lived and deep rooted faulting extending all the way down from the seafloor toward the underlying mantle. Sadly, however, that is also where the tale of our first ROV dive to the Mid-Cayman Rise ends.

After some rapid and earnest conversations among the Nereus team, Andy was able to advise us that the consensus was this: the only way to be SURE that we could get Nereus back on deck safely and ready to dive another day was to conserve power (i.e. leave the seafloor immediately) AND to also shed more weight to make sure we came all the way back and didn’t run out of buoyancy while Nereus was still submerged – i.e. never to be seen again. So, unsurprisingly, that’s what we did.

Making sure we had excellent navigational fixes, we lifted one of Jeff Seewald’s titanium vent-fluid samplers carefully off the basket and placed it on the seafloor. The moment it was released from the manipulator arm, Nereus rose up from the seabed. We released all the remaining ascent weights and the vehicle began its long flight upward and home. Happily, the rest of the recovery went smoothly and just around sunset Nereus came back up to the ocean surface where it was promptly recovered and lifted back aboard ship.

Overnight and into this morning we slotted in two more deployments of the CTD rosette, each of which measured the strongest sets of hydrothermal anomaly data we have seen all cruise confirming (surely!) that we really DO have our target narrowed down now. And tonight we are back in the water with Nereus and heading back down. Once again, we’re telling ourselves: this really COULD be the one.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Getting Ready for the Big One

Suit up! David is our chosen victim of Leg 2 who gets to don one of the immersion suits we are all issued with in case of emergency.

Getting ready. Nereus team preparing the Depressor (looks like a large missile with its covers off!) for deployment over the rear end (nautiacal speak = aft, or stern) of the ship ahead of tomorrow’s Nereus dive when it will be used for real.
Position at 16h00 EST - Testing Nereus Depressor Weight
Lat: 18° 33’N Long: 081° 44’W
Water depth: >3000m


Exciting times! We sailed slowly south overnight to arrive on station this morning to see just how bad the weather was compared to the forecast. Great news! The weather here is just fine for working in and the forward look says it will only stay the same or better for the next 4 days. So that means we can plan to launch tomorrow.

With that in mind we have taken it slow and steady today. Boat drills and safety briefings for all the newbies on board came first. Then a deep test of the depressor weight we use to carry Nereus’ optical fiber as close to the seafloor as we can reach before we pay that out – about 2500m down (i.e. halfway in this case!). Finally, a final tow-yo of the CTD across the northern limits of our target site from West to East (a line the weather has finally) allowed me to run, to confirm that the strongest plume signals do indeed coincide with where we think that vents are sat, ready to be dived on.

Final operations were done just after 10:30pm so then it was off to bed ready for a HUGE day tomorrow. Nereus pre-dives begin at 4:30am and Julie and Jeff are due up at 5am to load their science gear but happily James (chief Navigator) has told me he won’t be ready to talk through the final mission plan with me before 7am- so if I can stay asleep that long, I get a lie-in.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back on the road again

Here’s where we left off – running ahead of the seas into port last Monday evening.

Does this tool sled make me look big? Nereus put on a bunch of weight while we were in port – but in a good way, we reckon.

Becky (jumping) and Evan (already in the water) came by for a while this afternoon to take advantage of the wonderfully clear waters here and shoot some HD video of Nereus in action underwater.

Did I mention that Nereus is an unmanned vehicle? You couldn’t always tell that before today’s first dive. Here’s Phil (pilot) booking his space early and Jeff (geochemist) working hard to make sure he could get in there too. That only left Julie looking on – surely they could make room for a micro-biologist?
Position at 12h00 EST - Test Dive: Nereus 023
19°17
N and 81°33W
Water depth: 20+ m


Did you miss us? After a very busy two days in port we have now changed out our scientific personnel, converted Nereus from an AUV to an ROV, done a bunch of interviews with everyone from the local press to Astrobiology magazine and headed back out to sea again. Even managed time for a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir along the way somewhere too.

The most bittersweet moment, of course, was having to say goodbye to the folks who worked so hard on Leg 1 to get us to where we are and who now have had to head back home and leave the new guys in town take over as we head back to the seafloor. So for the record: heartfelt thanks to all.

To Dana, Louis and Mike for all their efforts in keeping Nereus running and getting us as far along in the mission as we have, and especially to Tina, Sean, Doug, Carla & Ko-ichi for their sterling and enduring work with the CTD without which we still wouldn’t have much of a clue where to look to find venting.

Dana and Louis were the first to escape to a conference in Biloxi where Dana was receiving the IEEE Oceans’ Lockheed Martin award at a dinner Wednesday night. Happily, all of the rest of the Leg 1 team were still around the ship working late yesterday when we finally got far enough along with our data processing to work out that Nereus flew through anomalously warm water on four separate occasions while making us a detailed map of our dive site last Sunday/Monday. Not bad for the last thing we managed to do on Leg 1 – we are now in REALLY good shape for Leg 2.

Today we headed back out to sea for all of a mile along the coast to a mooring in deep enough water to give Nereus a good testing in ROV mode. While Nereus has been used as an ROV before – last June it managed dives to >10,000m in Challenger Deep, Marianas Trench, the deepest point on Earth. Even so, with a new ship and a new team to work with, practice makes perfect so it was a good use of the day. Added to that, we know that the weather back in our work area isn’t super calm right now so probably won’t be ideal for Nereus for at least a day or two. So instead, we decided to take advantage of our good weather today to get some of that practice in, make sure we really could get everything we wanted to into the science basket, and check out other new things like the manipulator arm and our video cameras.

Tonight we’re off to our work area, but taking it gently so our new arrivals can get their sea-legs well before we arrive on site. We’ll be keeping busy over the next couple of days but don’t expect our first Nereus dive to the seafloor until Sunday or even Monday – but be sure we’ll keep you posted when we do!

Monday, October 26, 2009

If fools rush in, it's the wise man who heads to port - right?

Heroes of the High Seas. Medal of the day goes to all involved in the safe recovery of Nereus aboard ship in rapidly deteriorating conditions. Both our Captain, Dale, and Andy have decided that since they have now proven that they can get the vehicle back safely in bad weather, they don’t need to do so again. I’m all for that – we’d just like nice weather for Leg 2 now, please. Thank you!
Position at 16h00 EST - Headed for Grand Cayman
Lat: 18° 40’N Long: 081° 35’W
Water depth: >6000m


Late on Saturday I was reading part of Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” - I bought this after a visit to China a couple of years ago and have found it can be a good travelling companion. That probably counts as my equivalent to Ford Prefect’s recommendation to “always know where your towel’s at” in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (although, for the record, I also make sure I always bring my own towel on research cruises too – at least one home comfort you can take on the road).

Anyway, on Saturday night I was reading the section of the Tao Te Ching that includes one of the more well-known sayings I had heard long before I knew of its provenance: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Just two lines down was a couplet that struck home even more keenly:

“People on the verge of success often lose patience
And fail in their undertakings.”

I’ve been flirting with making that kind of mistake a lot these past few days. When our Nereus dive 19 didn’t go as planned last Wednesday, but we intercepted a weak buoyant plume sample, I tried to make up for lost time on Nereus 20 by focusing on a small area, near to the seafloor, rather than doing the more cautious thing and repeating what we had planned for dive 19. As a result we didn’t make much progress on Nereus 20 either, especially after the thruster fell off!

So Nereus dive 21 was exactly the right thing to do. Drop back and do the more cautious thing and wait. And presto, that decision paid off and we completed the survey I described yesterday and closed in on our biggest hydrothermal signals.

So have I learned from my mistakes? Yes, I have, and apparently given the opportunity, I can repeat them exactly! Well, not quite, but I did make a decision yesterday that 20:20 hindsight suggests could have been better.

Knowing that we could only survey a fraction of the remaining seafloor in the time left (we only had one dive left before we headed to port), I decided to focus all our attention in the southern half of the remaining area, rather than focusing on the seafloor area right under the strongest plume anomalies we had seen. Basically, I was gambling that any vent sites were sited on top of the shallowest part of our remaining search area. Nereus is now back on deck (see later) and the data suggest we have passed over some areas of diffuse chemically enriched flow but have not yet found the hot vents we’re after. But they MUST still be there because Nereus passed through two dispersing plumes of smokey, chemically enriched water on its way to the seabed on Sunday, and passed through both those plumes again, on its way back up to the surface, about half a mile farther to the south east, around 8 o’clock this morning. But wherever those vents are, it seems like they aren’t where Nereus just went :(

To add insult to injury, the weather turned against us overnight – indeed, it started getting worse almost as soon as we launched Nereus yesterday. So I was immensely relieved when we had the vehicle safely back on deck today, just before lunch. The weather today, without question, is the worst we have had all trip, so quite frankly I thought everyone involved – both the Captain and ship’s crew as well as Andy and all our Nereus deck team - were quite magnificent pulling that off. Nereus got a kiss of green paint from the ship’s hull and a piece of 4x4 timber gave its life in the cause of science but other than that we recovered unscathed with no major dramas. That is always a good thing.

This afternoon we ran ahead of the waves for an hour or two and then turned and faced into the weather for a further hour to keep the ship on a comfortable heading while evaluating whether we should try one or more further CTD stations to trawl through our search area one (or more) last times. But the weather certainly isn’t getting any better so (finally) heeding the cautions of sages down the ages, we’ve decided that (i) since we still have an intact vehicle and an intact CTD system on deck, and (ii) that we’ll expect to have at least SOME better weather on Leg 2 - at least, that’s what I ordered when I booked this cruise ;) – then discretion is the better part of valor. We’ll take what we have achieved already, thank you very much, and live to fight another day.

So we’re off to port, now, where our Leg 2 scientists and a National Geographic film crew await us. They’ll all be coming back out with us toward the end of the coming week. Since I’ll have a dozen other things to attend to in port I’m going to sign off now for a while, but will aim to be back on-line again on Thursday, when Leg 2 of the expedition gets underway. Don’t know about you guys, but I can’t wait :)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Its good to be wrong (in moderation)

After two weeks of dives, I finally found a new vantage point to get a clear shot of Nereus being lifted outboard on the ship’s crane.

A picture that tells more than one story. On the right hand side of this map is where I had THOUGHT Nereus should search for hydrothermal activity on the seafloor on its latest dive – the dark red circles show how wrong I was – strong hydrothermal signals are coloured yellow, green and blue. At the top of the page and all down the left side are the EXTRA lines that got added. The ones at the top were ones I had pre-planned in case things didn’t start well (note to self: all those red circles show that I was wrong again!) but down the left hand side is where we finally struck gold… or sulfide… of whatever it is down there that remains to be investigated in Leg 2.. Since each of these lines is only 1600m long and spaced 600m apart we really SHOULD be getting close by now. Shouldn’t we?
Position at 08h00 EST (Launch of Nereus 021)
Lat: 18° 33’N Long: 081° 43’W
Water depth: 4650m


If you read the previous blog you’ll remember it ended: “But don't hold your breath - no part of the expedition has been quite that predicatable yet!”

When Nereus came came back Friday night, with one thruster hanging on by its cables and only a subset of the data I had hoped we would collect, I asked that we turn the vehicle around as fast as possible and send it back for a short and simple dive next day that would at least confirm we were searching in the right place.

While it was easy for me, as chief scientist, to say that’s what I wanted to happen, it was Andy and his team who had to stay up past 1am that night running repairs… …and the same guys who were up again just four hours later to conduct the extensive tests needed for Nereus prior to re-launch.

So down the vehicle went, right after breakfast, running the shortest mission possible that I thought was guaranteed to pay off. By 10am Nereus was at the seafloor and by midday it had seen some great hydrothermal signals. Wonderful!

Then it drove around in clean, hydrothermal-free ocean water for another 4 hours. Hmmmm…. And those “clean” waters were in the center of my survey areas, the strong signals were along the western-most flank i.e. not anywhere near where they “should” be. Hmmmmm again…. I went back to the map. I was SURE that I knew that the vents had to be along the ridge we were searching because, obviously, there was no way they could be even deeper, on the deep valley floor at around 5000m. Unless they were, and my judgements to that point were all wrong…

By the third Hmmmm it is always good to question whether you really know what you are talking about or whether it is time to think again. And if everything you predicted in science came out just so, how would you learn anything new? So I don’t mind being wrong too – so long as I doesn’t happen too often. Specially not if it leads to discovery of something nobody has ever seen before… But I digress….

In the “old days” of vent exploration by AUV (since we have only been doing this for about 5 years, that means any time up until about a month ago) the only thing to do when you are chief scientist in a situation like yesterday is to:

a) confess to the engineers that your interpretations were quite wrong
b) compliment them that their new machine is working quite beautifully
c) then add that, even so, since the AUV is working in quite the wrong place, you would now like them to abort the whole mission and start over, elsewhere.

(PS: I’ve found that it’s best if you do remember to say “please”, at that last point…)

But welcome to the future…

In keeping with our NASA funding (how often can a space scientist ask if they can have their rocket fetched back so they can re-program and launch again?) our Nereus team pulled off their most cunning new trick, yet, yesterday afternoon. After listening to my problem and discussing with me what the proposed mission plan SHOULD have been, they simply reprogrammed our submarine while it was driving around on the seafloor, using signals beamed down from the ship via sound waves.

No kidding!

It was during the first dive of this cruise that I had seen little snippets of data coming up from the sub via the same technique and I remember Louis remarking to me: “We think this could be extremely useful in the future… …but it may take us some time to work out how to use it to full advantage.” Make that two weeks, apparently.

During the 2nd half of yesterday’s survey (the part that was sent down AFTER the sub was launched), Nereus not only doubled the size of the area of seafloor investigated but, about an hour before its batteries finally ran out of power, it flew directly over the core of a rising hydrothermal plume some 700m up above the very deep seabed down at around 5000m depth. Our map of the plume-sensing data shows us a clear bulls-eye to aim for, with weaker signals on all sides in a survey that means we now have our source tracked to a fraction of 1 kilometer squared.
I think!

Given that I didn’t know where we would end up within 2000 square kilometers of seafloor when we started work, just two weeks ago, that’s not bad. And of course, we’re not done yet. We heard last night that our Leg 2 scientists are already in port in Grand Cayman, awaiting our arrival. But we plan one last dive, starting Sunday, before we head for dry land.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wild Mood Swings

Home with a tale to tell. It had been predicted, before Nereus made it up from the seafloor, that there was a problem with one of its thrusters. But can you guess which one? Hint: this is NOT a trick question!!!
Position at 18h00 EST (Recovery of Nereus 020)
Lat: 18° 33’N Long: 081° 43’W
Water depth: 4650m


Where to begin with a recap of the past 2 days – including two Nereus dives and two new CTD tow-yos along the ridge axis? First, the good news: using our CTD tow-yos we are confident that we have narrowed down our search area to around 4 square kilometers. That feels pretty good, since when we arrived on the evening of Sunday 11th Oct we had a mapped area of more like 1500 square kilometers to search in.

Second – more good news. Through a very happy piece of good fortune, we are confident that Nereus flew through the rising cone of a hydrothermal plume sometime on the morning of Thursday 22nd which means we should now have all the data needed to track its source down to within less than 1 kilometer. But you may ask yourself – Well, how did we get here?

You’ll remember that on Wednesday night we deployed Nereus to the seafloor. It arrived on bottom at around 8pm local time, but its main compass failed almost immediately. So while the first part of the dive seemed fine, hovering near the seafloor and adjusting ballast, it then started out its mission heading in the wrong direction! Through acoustic communications we did have the ability to try and compensate for that but, to compound things, we also had a problem with the main foil that sits amid ships on the vehicle and controls a lot of the vehicle’s vertical motion as well as forward thrust. After about 3 hours of trying to come up with strategies that could overcome all of this we decided that it would be more effective to recover the vehicle and fix it and get it ready to go again. So just before midnight we sent down the “abort” command, acoustically, and by 2am Nereus was back on the surface.

Our CTD night watch immediately leapt into action, and through the rest of Wednesday night and into Thursday we completed two more towed surveys from South to North through the area that we originally planned for Nereus to map out to prove that there were no signals there. This in itself was significant progress – it halved our remaining search area at a single stroke. Once Nereus was on deck, Dana also took the time to look at the data that it did collect while it was at depth, however briefly.

As luck would have it, since we had programmed the vehicle to start its work by driving along the ridge that we were betting was the most likely source for the vents, Nereus had indeed intercepted a patch of chemically unsual and particle laden water while hovering close above the seafloor for a few minutes. When Dana came to find me and tell me this my immediate question was “Was it warm, too?” Sure enough – it WAS. So Nereus was sat no more than ~100m above the seafloor (400m deeper than the dispersing plume we have been mapping out with our tow-yo surveys) when it passed through chemically enriched, smokey, warm water. Following the logic of: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… I think we are getting very close.

Suitably encouraged, we reprogrammed Nereus for a new mission flying close above the seafloor in our now much smaller search area and sent it back down last night. I hung around until midnight by which time the vehicle was at the seafloor driving to and fro in closely spaced lines and making a map. All seemed well so I took myself off to bed. Mistake. Apparently Nereus must have known I wasn't paying due attention, because when I woke up today things had NOT continued as planned. Instead of continuing to survey at a speed of about 1m/sec, it had slowed right down. At time of writing our engineers’ best guess is that one of the thrusters might be damaged or broken. We’ll know when we get it back on deck.

So the first decision of the day, today, was whether to continue the dive or send down the abort command right away. With the vehicle moving slowly we knew we would have trouble flying close enough to the seafloor to continue to make maps OR to complete all the rest of our planned survey. But we persevered and between 8 and 10 am we figured out how to get Nereus to fly a little higher in the water column and raster backward and forward, clear of the rough topography, and sniffing for more rising plume signals across more of our targeted ridge. I think I got full value out of our AUV brains-trust today. It's really impressive when I just ask innocent questions like, can we make it go up a little higher, can we make it go further West etc etc and either Mike, James, Dana and Louis (working in shifts but it seems there are always three or more of those 4 to hand) very quickly says: yes we can - and then make it happen.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote something along the lines that in the future, if we were to encounter some alien culture enriched in advanced technologies, the experience should be indistinguishable from watching magic. I feel like that's the kind of privileged company I have been keeping all day!

Finally, at 4pm, we called Nereus home. With the data set currently being carried up from the seabed we expect to learn two key things. First, we will know if we have found any more places where Nereus has flown through warm, smoky water (because it is warm, it must be buoyant, which means Nereus must have passed through the rising part of a plume which can only be a few hundred meters across). Second, because we have been flying close to the seafloor, we will be able to distinguish which part of the vehicle’s motion has been due to forward progress over the ground and which has been due to currents pushing the vehicle through the water column. The latter is important to calculate because that can help us deduce which way the current was blowing, and how strong, at any time when we have flown through rising columns of smokey water. And knowing that, we should finally know where to go next, tracing those columns of smoke down toward the seabed where they came from - seafloor hydrothermal vents.

But time and weather may still be against us. First, we need to get Nereus on deck and make sure we have guessed correctly what the problem is. If it is a simple matter of replacing a thruster then we are in good shape. We have a spare on deck that has already been checked out this afternoon in preparation and is ready to be installed tonight. If all goes to plan we’ll be launching Saturday, early, and getting Nereus back on deck in late afternoon ahead of a storm that is due to pass by tomorrow night. That may yet leave us enough time later on Sunday and early into Monday for one more dive before it is time to head to port, switch out science teams, and change over to ROV mode with Nereus.

But don't hold your breath - no part of the expedition has been quite that predicatable yet!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back in the Game!

AUV-ROV mind-meld. James (left, wearing ABE AUV T-shirt) and Chris (right, wearing Jason ROV T-shirt) deep in discussion during pre-dive deck-tests of the Nereus Hybrid vehicle.

Once more unto the deep. In this photo, Nereus is just visible as a green-yellow blur directly beneath the arm of the crane that it was just released from.
Position at 16h45 EST (Launch of Nereus 019)
Lat: 18° 33’N Long: 081° 42’W
Water depth: 4800m


The last thing that Andy Bowen and I discussed late yesterday was that we would take a look at the weather first thing today and consider our next Nereus launch. So when I was woken from a sound sleep by a flash of bright lightning around 6am – so bright I thought someone had come into my cabin and turned the fluorescent light on, I didn’t consider the omens specially promising.

Which was a shame, because after 36 hours of essentially groping in the dark we had had a major success around 6pm on Tuesday. Then, for the first time since we returned to this area, we managed to pick up sensor signals in the deep ocean that were comparable to what Nereus found on its first science dive here 4 days ago. Really? Was that only last Saturday afternoon? Wow – seems like ages!

Anyway, the good news is that we now think we have narrowed down what we thought was a ~10 mile by 10 mile box to an approximately 3 mile by 2 mile box: not bad for 48 hours’ work - but talk about grinding out a result!

To add to the good news, our forecasts came in on schedule this morning and all confirmed that there is nothing bad expected to happen, weather-wise, until Saturday at the earliest. The passing storm was just one of a series of squalls we are having to contend with, but in between conditions are not too bad now – certainly better than they had been last Sun/Mon/Tues. So we completed a last CTD survey around 3:30pm today and no more than an hour later, Nereus was off the hook and slipping gently down toward the seabed to track down and map out (we hope) a dispersing hydrothermal plume. We’ll hope for good things to come back tomorrow.

Finally, it’s time for you all to put your lungs to use again - Friday this week (23rd) is my wife, Romey’s birthday. This is the 2nd time I have been at sea for her birthday (bad) but the first time in 18 years (not quite so bad). For the record, I also missed each of my older children’s birthdays once each – but they were bad ones: Martin’s 18th birthday and Helen’s 16th (I was in the Antarctic for the latter). When I was growing up, my Dad always told me about his Dad (who was in the Royal Navy) being posted to China for 2 years straight in the 1920s so he didn’t see him from when he was 2 until when he was 4. At least modern day oceanographers only go to sea for a month or two at a time, tops – but even so, the families we leave behind are the ones that have to cope without us (maybe mine does better when I’m not around?). Cumulatively, over the past 23 years, I have spent between 900 and 1000 days at sea. That’s more than most spouses have to put up with so I can genuinely say that Romey takes a large chunk of the credit for any of the discoveries I have ever been involved with: this expedition included.

Monday, October 19, 2009

All we seem to do is talk about the weather

Position at 12h00 EST (CTD 38/Tow-Yo 3)
Lat: 18° 30’N Long: 081° 43’W
Water depth: 5100m

Maybe it’s the curse of being English (as well as Doug and Carla, both Andy Bowen and I are also UK passport holders) but weather seems to have become a key topic of conversation lately. Yesterday morning, after a seriously poor night's sleep, I came down from my cabin to find waves breaking over the back deck. So first order of the day was to get the tool-sled for Nereus (essential for anything we want to do in ROV mode next Leg) moved away from the very back of the ship where it was in danger of getting damaged.

Next job: talk to the Captain about what kind of direction we could move the ship while lowering the CTD (because trying to hold position in this weather was a REALLY bad idea) and agreeing that WSW-ENE was worth a try. So that’s what we did: we picked the shallowest point on the map and lined up a survey that would allow us to pass slowly directly over the top of what we take to be a young volcanic feature (not a stupid place to look for a vent-site) – pushing back the frontiers of science at about 1 mile per hour while lowering and raising the CTD as we went.

For the first 6 hours nothing happened and then, just as we passed over the top of the ridge we saw some small but significant plume signals for about 30 minutes – then back to nothing again. The whole plume cannot have been more than a mile wide and then we were back to seeing nothing else for a few more miles before we quit. By then the weather had changed and so, rather than run a 2nd parallel line, the only option was to choose a new route running from South to North. Happily, that was easy to do – we simply chose a line that ran right across the previous survey and around 10:30 last night that was just getting underway as I headed to bed. Doug, Carla and Koichi had that survey wrapped up by 7am this morning and, teasing through their data today, Dana and I have shown that the one time that THEY saw any plume signals occurred right when their survey line crossed ours – apparently we’re making progress.

But then came more good news – not. Every twelve hours we get our own dedicated weather updates from a team in New Hampshire called Commander’s Weather and this morning’s bulletin started: Must be very careful. (Uh-oh!) Apparently there’s a reasonable chance that a tropical storm could strike up in our area any time Wed-Sat this week. It might not happen but if it does then we’ll be right out of luck. During the course of the morning we also got an update via the ship’s base saying much the same thing based on an 8am dispatch from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL: there is an area of low pressure centered at 11N, 82W (i.e. about 700 miles south of us) that is drifting slowly North over the next few days (i.e. towards us) with a low (30%) chance of becoming a tropical cyclone in the next 48 hours. So needless to say, we’re going to be talking about the weather a lot (and checking the email updates soon as they come in) in the next day or two.

P.S. The title of today’s blog coincides with a line from a Blow Monkeys song dating from the late 1980s. It is half of a couplet that continues: “I’m just a man at the end of his tether”. Hmmmm…. Not yet, I'm not - but lets see what tomorrow brings.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Running Up The Score

My fair-weather friends: Tina and Sean putting the CTD outboard in bright sunshine, Sunday morning.

There goes the neighbourhood – this is what our view is gonna be like for the next 48-72 hours. So THAT’s why so few devote their lives to deep-sea oceanography!

Welcome to the Caribbean? This is not like the Johnny Depp movies, and no, that bottle I’m holding is NOT full of rum - shame. Actually, the key to sampling in the rain is to make sure you don’t get any water in your seawater. Or, if you listen to Sean, the key to sampling in the rain is to get all your samples taken before it starts and then photograph your chief scientist who was following along behind you.
Position at 12h00 EST (CTD 33, end of our initial survey)
Lat: 17° 50’N Long: 081° 50’W
Water depth: 4650m


Come to the Caribbean, they said. Enjoy a sunshine cruise, they said. Bah humbug! In the past decade I have out-run typhoons in the southern Indian Ocean and been snowed on, out on deck in the Norwegian-Greenland Sea, in pursuit of hydrothermal activity on ultra-slow spreading ridges. Heck, I’ve even had friends go and break holes in the ice in the high Arctic. So I thought heading to the Mid Cayman Rise, by comparison, was one of the smartest scientific ideas I ever had!

Actually, I’m not sure I’m wrong, either, because while the New England Patriots were winning 59-0 (a little snippet of news that DID make it through from Woods Hole this weekend) we were busy running up our own score too. When I got out of bed this morning I knew we had found one set of hydrothermal plume signals but by breakfast, Doug, Carla and Koichi had shown me their overnight results for a 2nd source and by lunchtime, Tina, Sean and I had found evidence for a 3rd. Slow down, I can’t handle that much information in a hurry.

By the end of the day we had managed to take stock at a science meeting to coincide with the watch change and agreed that we had evidence for two high-temperature sites – one in the northern half of the ridge, the other right at the southernmost end (showed up in all 3 of our last 3 casts across the southernmost end) – as well as some kind of low-temperature wispy thing that is leaking methane into the water column at a very shallow depth near the top of the highest point on our maps, not too far from the first deep plume.

So after a quick emailed consulation ashore with the other half of our PIs who are joining us in Grand Cayman next week, we are going to set to work Monday trying to track the northern Hi-T plume to its source.

Trouble is, the weather is now against us. It is blowing hard and the seas have risen with no sign of improving enough for a Nereus launch until Wednesday and no guarantee of decent weather persisting beyond Friday. So while we have a week left to track things down we may only get one or two more dives with Nereus. Which means a bunch more use of the CTD. At least now we can get creative with that. Instead of just “parking” the ship at a certain spot and lowering the CTD down and back up again, we’re going to see how the weather is set and then attempt to drift across our target area, raising and lowering the instrument package as we go to collect data in a saw tooth pattern across the depths we’re interested in.

Of course, if we were really smart, we would design and build some kind of robotic instrument that could do that kind of work for us. Oh wait, we did!!! So now we just have to wait for what Nature will provide for us in the week ahead. Wish us luck!!!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Welcome home. Nereus being lifted out of the ocean at the end of its first AUV-mode science mission.

No room for error. There isn’t a lot of spare space on the deck of “the little ship that can”. From left to right: Casey, Daniel, Andy and James carefully lower Nereus into place in its cradle. We had to add the wooden uprights because otherwise, whoever is driving the crane from the deck above cannot see where Nereus is being landed.

Caught in happy nerd land. Here’s me, Ko-ichi, Dana & Louis, at the very moment that Dana plotted up the Nereus data, freshly downloaded from the vehicle, confirming that what we are on the trail of a high-temperature “black smoker” vent.
Position at 12h00 EST (Nereus Dive 18)
Lat: 18° 22’N Long: 081° 42’W
Water depth: 4350m


OK, so the mission did not go quite as planned and we also ran out of battery power earlier than expected (around 11am) but we don’t care too much about that because during the 20 hours that Nereus WAS submerged we made a major breakthrough.

Just around 2 miles north of where we had seen potential plume signatures during a CTD cast a few days ago, Nereus intercepted some new plume signals, at exactly the same depth, but much stronger – i.e. we’re getting closer. Not only that, but the combination of signals we got from our optical sensor, as well as Ko-ichi’s sensor that detects for chemical anomalies confirms, for the first time, that what we are on the track of must certainly be a high-temperature hydrothermal vent, also known as a “Black Smoker”.

We still have plenty to do to track the plume back to its source but at least now we have a much better clue of what it is we’re on the trail of. And we also know we now have an excellent additional tool to help us with the search.

Tonight we are back to completing our systematic survey to the southern end of the ridge, because we still don’t know if there’s anything bigger and better still waiting to be discovered. That will be completed by Monday morning and then it’ll be time to start chasing down whichever signal seems like the best bet at that point, with whatever the sea conditions will allow us to set to work with.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Riddle me this…

Stowaway!!!

Optical illusion. Believe it or not, this is a picture of the CTD package already beneath the ocean surface – that’s how calm it was earlier today. Don’t believe me? Look close and you can see a “kink” in the wire where it cuts the ocean surface.

What’s BIG, cute, yellow, and currently >4000m under water?
Position at 18h00 EST (Nereus Dive 18)
Lat: 18° 22’N Long: 081° 42’W
Water depth: 4350m


Q: What’s yellow, cute, and rarely found out in the middle of the deep ocean?
A: A stowaway! I was up early this morning and Carla and I found we had a visitor as we were waiting to watch the sun come up. We think it’s a warbler but hope there might be an ornithologist out there can tell us what kind. Answers on a postcard to…. Oh no, that won’t work. Anyway, surprisingly enough, this isn’t the kind of bird you find in a book of marine life! Presumably swept here by one of the series of squalls that seem to be passing by with increasing frequency (a bit ominous!).

Anyway, after breakfast it was back to CTD stations again. Sorry if that’s getting a bit repetitive but think how it feels for us – 12 hours a day making sure that most of the ocean out here DOESN'T have a hydrothermal plume signal in it!!! Did I mention yet (the team out here are sick of hearing it) that I once did 176 stations in a row on a single cruise and didn’t see a plume for the first 150??? Now that really was quite dull. Happily we wouldn’t have time to do that many out here if we tried ;)

But getting back to the main order of the day. There’s something else out here that is also yellow and quite cute. (Which could well be a sign that I’ve already been at sea too long). Can you guess what it is yet? Correct: Nereus in full racing trim.

Today saw the launch of our first dive in pursuit of a hydrothermal target that is programmed to last well into Saturday afternoon. During that time, Nereus will survey more than 20 miles over the deep ocean floor undulating through the water column to collect data equivalent to more than 20 CTD casts and, hence, doubling our total data-set in a single day. Don’t know about cute, but you have to agree that’s quite ambitious. No doubt you’ll be hearing all about it here, soon, once the mission is complete. Just can’t wait to get back to more CTD stations after that. Hmmm….

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Under Pressure

Not just a blogger. Here’s me (left) and Sean (right) putting the CTD outboard in mid-afternoon: our 2nd deep cast of the day.

Savour the moment. After a very heavy rain squall in late afternoon we had a beautiful evening. This photo was taken right after dinner during a 10 minute break waiting for the CTD to come back up to the surface. Pretty phenomenal view, huh?
Position at Midday EST (CTD Cast 19)
Lat: 18° 22’N Long: 081° 42’W
Water depth: 4350m


It has been a long day today and time has been on my mind. Amazing to think that we have only been working on the Mid-Cayman Rise for 4 days so far, we haven’t yet started our science missions with Nereus either, but even so I’m already worried about the days running out. This may seem bizarre because we only expected to be halfway through the CTD program by the end of Day 4. Instead, we are currently mid-way through our 22nd CTD cast, we only have about 10 more stations to complete and we already have one known target to follow up on (I wasn’t really expecting more than one). So why the hustle?

Well, there are three things trying to gain prominence in my mind: first, we have near perfect weather right now (winds down to 5 knots, seas of less than 1 foot in height) that we want to take advantage of; second, we want to build confidence in and gain experience at using Nereus in AUV (free-swimming) mode sooner rather than later; third, we want to complete the systematic search of the Mid Cayman Rise as soon as we can, because while we already found one site to follow up on, we don’t want to spend all our time there if it turns out that the southern end of the ridge has something even bigger and better to chase after.

So today we have been burning through CTD stations as fast as we can to get south sooner rather than later whilst, at the same time (in a 12 hour shift I typically only get 2 occasions when I get 1 hour of peaceful “quality time” as the CTD is being lowered to the seafloor) trying to work with the likes of Dana, Mike, James and Louis to plan out exactly what the mission should be for tomorrow’s Nereus dive.

It is now 10:45pm and we are working to a Plan A and a Plan B mission because we know we’ll be ready to launch tomorrow afternoon and we know we’ll have great weather for as long as Nereus’ batteries will last (we’re expecting a 14 hour mission or more overnight from Friday into Saturday morning) but squally weather is due to reach us on Sunday that will preclude any further Nereus work on Sunday or Monday. That’s as far as our weather forecast goes but if it is going to be lousy at that point, chances are it’ll take at least another day or two for the seas to lie back down – in the best case scenarios.

So we know we can get one good dive in, starting tomorrow, and that we can take advantage of the remaining good weather to complete all our remaining “survey” CTD casts between Saturday midday and Sunday midday while the weather remains good (this is also a key component of the Captain, Chief and 2nd mates being able to keep the ship stationary to within 100m for up to 5 hours at a time as we lower the CTD 5000m or so to the seafloor and back).

After that we’ll still have more than a week to play with and we’ll also have all the information we need to know exactly where we want to focus the rest of our efforts. But what will the weather allow? Its at times like this you just have to take a deep breath and accept that when working in the deep ocean – no matter how good your planning – you just have to accept what Nature brings your way and be ready to make the most of it… …whatever that may be.

Oh, and one last thing preying on my mind (Blog-writing as therapy?) – it’s my big brother Tim’s birthday this coming weekend (Sunday 18th) and I’ve forgotten to send him a birthday card. It was him who first got interested in Geology when I was much younger and I completely missed the opportunity to pick up on it at the time (hard for a 10 year old to see the bigger picture beyond digging fossil ferns out of Thames estuary mud-flats!). So now, to help make amends for being an ingrate back then, I want everyone reading this blog to set their alarm clocks for around 10am (UK time) on Sunday (5am East Coast USA; midnight in Hawaii?) and shout so loud that he can hear it all the way across the Atlantic “Happy Birthday, Tim!”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Inside: Outside - You’re OK to Launch


Just say when! From nearest to farthest wearing hard hats, the “outside” half of the Nereus team (Chris – Mr Green hat; Andy - Mr Yellow; Daniel - with the pull-pin, Mr Red; Casey – Mr Orange; and last but not least, Mr Versatillity, Mike: he not only handles the lines for Nereus launches & recoveries but is also the 4th member of our AUV brains-trust. In 2004, he taught an AUV to think the same way that I do (such cruelty to a robot!) but today he’s just been busy making “phone calls” to the seafloor to interrupt Nereus and upload new mission programs on-the-fly.

Night fishing. Under the cover of darkness, Nereus PI Andy Bowen (yellow hard hat) leads the deck crew getting ready to snag Nereus and crane her back aboard ship.
Position at Midday EST (Nereus Dive 17)
Lat: 18° 24’N Long: 081° 49’W
Water depth: 2150m


In yesterday’s blog you met James, Louis and Dana: three of the core team who run Nereus’ software (hence, “brain” when it is decoupled from the ship). So now its high time I introduced you to the rest of our 8-strong team of engineers. Photo 1, here, was taken just at the moment when those working “Inside” (in the lab) had given the signal to Andy and the rest of the team “Outside” (on deck) that it was OK to go ahead and launch Nereus.

We’ve had a great day with the vehicle today which has us all set for the rest of the science program. After launching around 10:30am, Nereus descended to the seafloor (the guys don’t like it when the Captain says”sinks”!) over about 2 hours and then spent about 6-7 hours going through a series of maneuvers to test out all the different systems we might want to use for science in the next week and a half.

First it did a series of speed runs so we can calculate what its full endurance is likely to be and what will be the most efficient survey speeds for different kinds of operations. After that Nereus went through some bottom following mode operations at around 40m off the seafloor (ideal for making detailed sonar maps of areas of interest), then it ran a series of yo’yos where it will undulate up and down as it swims through the ocean – e.g. if we want to send Nereus down sniffing out new hydrothermal plumes for us. Finally, Nereus did some low-level runs, driving around just 3-3.5m above the seafloor in the mode used for taking photographs from the seafloor.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the day for me was how the mission kept getting longer! When we launched Nereus, I definitely knew that the seafloor mission was for 5.5 hours of operation on the seabed. But the little piece of masking tape across the top of the main computer that had “end of mission time” written on it kept getting updated by 20-30 minutes at a time. How do you make a mission last longer, when everything is uploaded into the vehicle’s computers before you launch it? Turns out that our engineers have found a very cool way to cheat. If they come up with better ideas while Nereus is on its way to the seafloor, or just decide they’ve seen it do enough of any one activity and want it to do something else, they just call it up and re-program it. Seriously!

They have found a new way of doing things that I have never seen done before where the vehicle can be “interrogated” via underwater acoustics and, when prompted, it sends a series of information back telling us aboard ship what is it up to: where it is, where it’s headed, how fast its moving and what its busy measuring at the moment: stuff like that. Then – and this is really VERY cool – if they have any new programs they want to send down, they can do that too! Turns out, there is only one completely untouchable “home time” sub-routine in the mission program that they can’t over-write and that cut in around 7pm. If it wasn’t for that, I think they would still have Nereus down there now. And by the twinkle in his eye, I don’t think Louis was joking when, as Nereus was finally rising back up to the seabed, he suggested that maybe they’ll be wanting to fix that, soon, too.

Tonight, our CTD system is back in action as we head further south along the ridge-crest continuing our search for stronger hydrothermal plume signals. We plan another day and a half of that so that tomorrow, while I am on CTD watch, I can also start planning our first Nereus science mission. I’m sure we haven’t even begun to think through all the ways we can make use of our acoustic communications with Nereus, but the best way to find out is to get stuck in and start working.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If you want to make Chicken Soup…

Dana showing off his birthday present, featuring a robot he really admires (clue – he was made in Mexico, smokes cigars, and likes bending things). Looking on are two more members of our AUV brains-trust: James Kinsey & Louis Whitcomb.
Position at Midday EST (Dana’s Birthday)
Lat: 18° 31.6’N Long: 081° 40.0’W
Water depth: 4950m


First, get a chicken”. So said Dana Yoerger today and we had to listen: it was his birthday! Dana has plenty of tales to tell, the sign of a true Grandpa, I reckon – and I should know: for this trip he is Grandpa Senior and I’m Grandpa Junior. Anyway, Dana’s more pertinent point is that we can’t use Nereus to find a vent-site until we use the CTD to first find some tell-tale signs that there is something nearby to chase after.

So this morning, Dana announced that this year, for his birthday, what he would like would be for the CTD team to find us a plume signal to chase after. And right toward the end of the afternoon, in fact just around dinner time, I think that may well be just what we found.

So while most of the team were enjoying their evening meal – complete with birthday cake, a few of us were almost completely distracted looking at traces on a computer screen from Ko-ichi’s in situ sensor that showed us a layer of water, down below 4000m, that is chemically different from everything else we had seen in our previous 10 casts. Lying that deep, just a few hundreds of meters above the seafloor and in a layer a few hundred meters deep, is exactly the kind of setting we might expect to find the effluent from a hydrothermal field. That’s not proof positive, but it is a start. And we certainly know this is something that we have not seen anywhere to the North or East of us – so now we need to continue South and West (we are only about 1/3rd of the way through our survey) to see what the rest of our exploring brings. But after 10 sets of results that showed absolutely nothing at the bottom of the ocean, this new profile is certainly encouraging. Or, to quote Tina (and returning to the message of the day): Sweet, Sweet, Chicken-Feet!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Silent Running…

A typical view of the CTD these days: all you can see is the wire descending into the depths. Because we are using it round the clock, the instrument is never going to be on deck for more than an hour at a time until Nereus is good to go again.
Position at 23h00 EST (Launch of CTD 09)
Lat: 18° 36.3’N Long: 081° 41.4’W
Water depth: 5087m


Not much to report today. With Nereus on deck our small but perfectly formed science team is running flat out running CTD casts round the clock. With only 5 miles between stations we get from one sampling site to the next faster than we can draw the samples and get ready to put the CTD back in the water, so we grab moments for things like food, drink etc when we can during the 12 hour shifts when we are on watch. Doug, Ko-ichi and Cara are doing the heroes’ watch from 8pm to 8am local (midnight to midday on Greenwich Mean Time, which we use as our time standard for recording all our science data at sea) and Tina, Sean and I are doing the day-time shift, 8am to 8pm.

We started this late Sunday and will keep going until Wednesday morning by which time we’ll be at least a third of the way down the ridge and ready for our next Nereus dive: repeating the engineering tests we first started on Sunday. That seems like a long time ago already!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

We’ve only just begun…

Up at dawn. The Nereus team were up and prepping the vehicle today long before the sun came up.

Over the side. One quick pull of the slip pin and Nereus was off to the bottom of the ocean.

Deployments 1, Recoveries 1 = the sign of a good day with any AUV. Nereus is snared and then lifted back on board using the ship’s crane.
Position at 11h00 EST (Launch of Nereus Dive 16)
Lat: 19° 17.6’N Long: 081° 37.9’W
Water depth: ~1000m


Busy day for Nereus today. By the time I got on deck, just before 7am, the entire Nereus team were already up and prepping the vehicle. So while I helped out with Louis and Andy, working with our Chief Mate Bobby and Captain Dale to run echo-sounding surveys to find ourselves a sweet (flat) spot for our trials – about 15 miles West of Grand Cayman, the rest of the team continued working through all the various vehicle subsystems until it was time to launch. Just after 11am we were good to go and Nereus was lifted outboard, lowered into the water from the ship’s crane and then, with a quick tug of the pull-pin it was off and down to the seabed.

Right around midday the data coming back acoustically from the sub confirmed that Nereus had completed its descent and was sitting tethered to its anchor line just a few meters above the seabed at around 1080m. So far so good and time for lunch.

I won’t pretend I know exactly what happened next – that’s for our engineers to decipher, and also why we have so many of the smartest on the planet out here (they out-number “mere-mortal scientists” like me nearly 2 to 1). Suffice it to say that things didn’t go 100% as planned but at the end of the afternoon we had Nereus safely back at the surface where our radio beacons helped us track it down in short order and lift it back aboard.

Tonight, Nereus is safely back in its cradle and our engineers are busy downloading its data and setting to work on the forensics of what happened when: CSI Cayman Islands? To paraphrase James: in real life it may take longer than a one-hour show to find out the truth - but they’ll be ready to get Nereus back in the water before long, I don’t doubt.

And in the meantime, it is time for the CTD team to roll back into action: talk about coiled springs! This evening we have a 35 mile steam to get to the top end of the Mid-Cayman Rise but by midnight the systematic search for hydrothermal vents will finally have begun.

P.S. Captain’s Dale’s saying for the day (He seems to have plenty but we’re going to be checking for repeats between now and the end of the cruise): “Robots are like dogs: they’ll do their best, but neither one is any better than the person who trained them.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Close… but no cigars

Close, but no rum either! This was our clearest view, approx 12 nautical miles (22km) off the western-most coastline, of Cuba.

Happiness is a wet (and working!) CTD. We’ve carried out two 1000-meter test deployments on our transit South. Each of the numbered bottles goes down open with their spring loaded caps pulled back, top and bottom. At depth these springs are released, one bottle at a time, to collect seawater samples from whatever depths we want them.

Doug (left) and Sean drawing samples for dissolved methane analysis through the taps at the bottom of each CTD sampling bottle, following the first test deployment. A pair of spare syringes for taking methane samples can be seen, bottom left, resting on our all-important park bench.

Sean getting ready to do battle with his Gas Chromoatgraph. This is the instrument that we will use for all our shipboard methane measurements so getting practise in early is an important part of our preparations for when we get on station.

It’s big, its blue, and if it isn’t deeper than 3000m then it isn’t important. More than half our planet is covered by water of at least this depth – so how come so few people spend their lives studying it? There’s still so much more to be explored.
Position at 14h00 EST
Lat: 20° 16.3’N Long: 083° 39.1’W
Water depth: 4450m


Yesterday and today we have mostly been driving past Cuba. I think everybody on ship knows exactly what time we changed course and left the sheltered waters of the Florida Keys (2:30am Friday, thanks for asking) because that was the first time this trip when just staying in bed became something of a challenge! The higher you are in the ship, the more the swing, so the four of us in the upper cabins, along with the Captain and Chief Mate are the ones who notice this the most – and the absolute short straws go to James and Doug who are in the upper bunks in our cabins, above Andy & me, respectively.

Apart from pounding along through the waves, the other main “achievement” for the past two days has been to test out the CTD-rosette with all its new sensors to make sure everything is working properly. We had a first trial on Friday morning that went pretty well and then a second dip, also to 1000m water depth, right after lunch on Saturday. Not only has that given us the chance to “shake down” the electronics of the system completely, it has also given us the chance to flush through the water bottles with clean un-contaminated ocean water, far from land and collect first seawater samples for practicing our shipboard analyses with. As I’ve been writing this, Sean, Doug and Carla have been actively running analyses for dissolved methane – not only an important greenhouse gas but also a key diagnostic tracer of hydrothermal plumes in the deep ocean.

Yesterday was when we reached our point of closest approach, just a hair’s breadth over the 12 mile minimum necessary, rounding the Western end of Cuba (if you look closely you can just see mountains on the horizon). But today we are out in the wide blue yonder – and that’s a good place to be if you just spent two hours in your cabin working on your laptop and have made yourself queasy!

Too much information? Its an interesting point to remember – so don’t be surprised if you hear it more than once from me – that more than half our planet is covered by oceans more than 3000m deep (that’s about two miles down for those of you reading in old fashioned units). Perhaps that’s why there is still so much to explore.

Like I say, I’m sure I’ll return to this theme again in the weeks ahead but for now let’s end with a thought that turns Astrobiology on its head: if a civilization no more intelligent than ours were to send a probe from some other solar system to visit our planet, there’s at least a 50:50 chance that this is the kind of view they would first report back.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Driving South (and West)



Clearing the harbor wall at Port Canaveral, Wednesday morning.

Casey donning his immersion suit during safety training.

Sunset over West Palm Beach on Wednesday.

Nothing but blue skies and sparkling seas as we continue South
Position at 20h00 EST
Lat 24° 23.4’N, Long 082° 04.2’W
68m water depth

After leaving port on Wednesday we sailed out past the harbor wall with the Kennedy Space Center launch site in the distance. Sadly, the only NASA mission launching today was ours, so no fireworks to see us off but on the upside, we headed out into beautifully calm waters and immediately turned south to follow down the east coast of Florida, passing West Palm Beach around sunset.

Other than our continuing science preparations, the main order of the day was a briefing on safety at sea, including a refresher course on what to do in the event of a fire or an abandon ship alarm – a basic safety requirement for any cruise, and a good thing to be acutely aware of, at the outset of every research cruise. Casey was our volunteer to don one of the immersion suits that we all have, as well as standard life-vests, for just the kinds of emergency that we’re all prepared for, but hope we’ll never see.

But of course, no first day at sea is complete without… …watching yourself on TV!? As luck would have it, Weds.7th saw the first airing on the Science Channel of a new documentary made during Nereus’ dives to >10,000m in Challenger Deep, Mariana Trench last May-June. So, thanks to the miracles of satellite television, at 9pm we were all able to gather in the ship’s mess lounge and watch a show starring many of our colleagues out here putting Nereus through its paces.

Right after supper I had given the ship’s officers and crew a quick run-down on what we wanted to be doing, scientifically, on the current trip so it was great that, on the same night, we could all sit down together and watch exactly how we would be planning to use Nereus to do it! You can’t ask for much better visuals than that – so thanks, Science Channel!

Today we continued south, wiring up the CTD-rosette with all the added sensors we have brought with us – Koichi’s Eh sensor that can detect for freshly emitted chemical signals from hydrothermal plumes and two new optical sensors provided by the ship to detect for fine particulate material erupting from any black smokers.

Tonight we had rounded the southern end of Florida and were headed due West, passing the Florida keys by sunset with dolphins playing around the bow. These are the kinds of “bonus prize” you can’t predict will happen on any research cruise but strive to savor when they do. Sadly, I was in my cabin, working, right after dinner this evening and nearly missed the lot! (Note to self: must try and get out more!)

Later tonight we’ll be past the Tortuga islands and at that point, around 2am, we’ll be heading out into deep water, veering southwest until we are past the western end of Cuba and then back to the south-east towards the Mid Cayman Rise and action. But before that, we need to test our gear out. First up, tomorrow after breakfast, will be a test of the CTD system down to around 1000m depth.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Houston, we have left the harbor


Nereus’ tool sled with manipulator arm being craned aboard.

We brought everything but the kitchen sink!

Lifting the gang-plank ashore.

Tina secures the CTD while Steve—who will be rejoining us for Leg 2, and our local agent Malcolm (right) watch on from dry land.
Lat 28° 24.5’N, Long 080° 36.3’W

We were all up early again today ready to set off, but first we had to load a few last items.

First aboard was the underside of Nereus – the tool sled with its manipulator arm that we will use on Leg 2 of the cruise. That is when we expect to convert Nereus from its free-swimming AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) mode into a tethered remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for detailed seafloor investigations and sampling. Next (almost as important to some minds?), came… the garden bench - because even the smallest creature comforts at sea can make a difference.

With that on board it was time to roll the gangplank ashore and sever our links to dry land. Then and only then did we have space to lift our CTD-rosette aboard ship and land it right where the gangplank had been. A definite case of last but not least, because we will rely on this CTDs enormously to start our search for new hydrothermal vents. As that slogan from a certain credit card famously says: Don’t leave home without it!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Getting Ready, Part II: We're OK to go!


Pictures 1-3, Nereus being lowered into the water for first “wet-tests” in port.Nereus on the end of a tether, going through its test program this afternoon.
Lat 28° 24.5’N, Long 080° 36.3’W

A quiet but busy day on the ship today – all the engineers working intently and intensely leading up to a moment of truth with the first wet-test deployment of Nereus off the port side of the ship early this afternoon.

All went very smoothly and Nereus remained in the water for several hours running through a series of tests before being lifted back aboard ship just around dinner time. We’ve also had folks taking trips to town all day picking up any last few items we can think of (how did we ever do oceanography before the age of cell-phones?) and even shipping gear across country to a different cruise in San Diego.

Tonight we’re working our way around the ship, in the labs and out on deck, tidying up as much as we can and making sure all our equipment is lashed down tight ready to head out to sea tomorrow. After all the years of planning it is hard to believe this is finally going to happen.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Getting ready – where preparation meets perspiration


The RV Cape Hatteras—the little ship that can—in Port Canaveral. In this photo, Doug Connelly is still working hard shifting boxes while I am goofing off with the camera.

Taking Nereus for a spin. Here is Nereus being driven (in reverse!) across the dockside from the warehouse in the background where it had been assembled.

Safely delivered. Nereus being deposited as close as can be to the ship at the very edge of the habor wall.

Gently does it. Nereus (bright yellow) and its scarlet metal frame being lifted gently aboard ship. Note that Nereus engineer was wearing a matching T-shirt for this lift. Color coordinated or just very clever camouflage?

Welcome aboard! Nereus snug and safe in its new home, safely aboard ship.
Lat 28° 24.5’N, Long 080° 36.3’W

A huge percentage of the success of any cruise hinges on how well you prepare in port. When you’ve been waiting as long as we have for this cruise (Cindy and I first started discussing this in 1998) then there is no excuse for not taking the time to be ready well ahead of departure. For that reason, most of our Nereus engineering team flew to Port Canaveral late last week to start unpacking boxes, assembling the vehicle in a warehouse next to where the ship would tie up and checking out its various subsystems.

On Saturday the ship arrived from its home port in Beaufort, North Carolina, and on Sunday the 5-strong team of Leg-1 scientists (me included) showed up from various parts from the world (me & Sean from WHOI, Ko-ichi from Japan and Doug & Carla from the UK – talk about a convergence of time-zones!). How come we scientists left it so late? Well, to be honest, with the size of lab we will all be sharing, this proved to make a lot of sense. On Saturday and Sunday the Nereus team took the lead in moving their boxes of equipment on-board, unpacking their gear, and then moving their empty boxes off the ship. If we had been there too we would have been completely in their way. There was hardly room to turn around when I showed on Sunday afternoon!

So today was our turn. We counted up and made sure that all the science gear that had been shipped from all over the world had arrived safely then set to work. Funnily enough, the first thing we had to do was carry equipment OFF the ship! About half of all our science gear is not going to be needed until Leg 2 so to make room to work, we organized all our gear on the quayside, separated out what was essential gear for Leg 1, and reloaded and unpacked those boxes. Then we went through the remaining boxes for Leg 2 and sorted between what needed to be stowed safely inside the laboratory and what could be stored outside on deck for the first few weeks. By the end of the morning all that was done.

Then, this afternoon, while Ko-ichi was preparing his Eh sensors and Sean and Carla took care of setting up the chemistry lab, Doug and I (ever heard of areally old song called “Mad Dogs & Englishmen Go Out In the Mid-Day Sun”?) spent the afternoon out on the quay, repacking plastic boxes, sealing up every edge with water-proof tape, and loading them one at a time into three large and sturdy crates which were loaded back onto the ship’s deck, out of harm’s way, battened down and covered with tarpaulins. We figure that going to those extreme lengths should be just the kind of insirance we need to make sure we don’t see any rough weather or rain-fall for the next few weeks!

But where did we get all this hardware, you might ask? Well – some we brought with us, some we acquired in port – and for the rest, we sent Mike Jakuba out with a very large rental car and an even larger shopping list! Poor guy – he travels all the way from Australia to join us and this is how we treat him! By the time Mike got back, Doug and I had just about filled our wooden crates (If you look carefully you can see Doug still shifting boxes while I goofed off to take the top photo!).

But it wasn’t all hard work. Halfway through our afternoon we took time out to watch a sight you don’t see every day – a submarine being driven around on a fork-lift truck! Just to add interest, they drove Nereus most of the distance from the warehous to the ship in reverse. Reassuringly, they at least turned around and drove the right way when parking Nereus on its scarlet metal frame up next to the harbor wall – as close as they could get without getting wet! Then it was the ship’s company’s turn to show us their skills, lifting Nereus and its frame gently off the quayside and placing it delicately down on the ship’s deck in the only place it will fit.

Tonight, our brand new robot is sitting firmly bolted to the deck of “the little ship that can” and I think we’re all feeling reasonably calm – or as much as we can when there is so much complexity to what we’re trying to do. We still have plenty to get ready and there is always a lot that can go wrong – but with one complete day in port before we head out to sea on Wednesday what we can say is that we do have all the equipment we wanted to have with us here in port and we do have everyone who is coming on the cruise in town and accounted for. It’s not every cruise where that is the case, 24 hours before the ship sets sail. Tomorrow we hope to carry out a test dip of Nereus, lowered from the ship and into the water. This is always an important moment when everything has been stripped down to transport the vehicle to the ship and then put back together again – and to help make sure I don’t pester the engineers too much about that, I’ll still have a few more science boxes to help stow. Somehow, I fear I might still be saying that in about 5 weeks from now!