Monday, September 15, 2008

Diving in the DEEPSEE Submarine

This post is by expedition team member Alan Dynner.

Dawn quickly brightened into a cloudless sky over a flat Sea of Cortez after a 12-hour overnight trip north. We came to this spot because Avi Klapfer, our ship's owner, reported that there is a small seamount venting hot water and covered with sea life. For me, this day became one of sensory overload.

First was a SCUBA dive along the rough, rocky coast, starting in 25 feet and dropping off to 80 feet. The volcanic rocky bottom was teaming with fish, albeit small ones. Schools of snapper, pairs of butterfly fish, gorgeous angel fish, small groupers, a trigger fish here and there and a lot of boxy, pouting, bristling porcupine fish. I spent the last 15 minutes of a 50 minute dive hanging at 15 feet by a cavern full of all kinds of fish, back lit by a large hole in the rear of the cave.

A mother and calf short-finned pilot whale pair.
Photo by the NMFS Southwest fisheries science center.

Upon surfacing we were picked up by our dive launch and sped away towards an amazing sight--several pods of pilot whales rolling across the surface of the sea. We all quickly put on masks, fins and snorkels and slid quietly into the water, moving slowly towards the advancing whales. Most of the whales avoided us, but three (a big male and two females came right towards me. I turned and tried vainly to swim beside them; while they were too fast for me, I had the thrill of the two females, perhaps 15 feet long, coming within a few feet of me. We climbed back into the launch, only to speed ahead of the pod for still another visit. This time the whales dived beneath us, but I dived to 20 feet and again had a close encounter with these graceful, powerful animals. What a thrill!

But the thrills were only beginning. Greg Stone asked me to go on the first submarine dive on our expedition with Brian Skerry, Aquarium overseer and National Geographic star photographer, and our pilot, Schmulak. The sub is unique. It is a big bubble clam shell that can descend to 1,500 feet, maneuver on a dime, collect specimens, and take video. Most importantly for our mission, the sub is outfitted by National Geographic with a high resolution still camera that Brian operates to take photos for the coming article on seamounts.

I'll admit that I was unbelievably excited about my first dive in a sub. After donning a cotton jump suit and socks, Bryan and I gingerly entered the sub. As the sub descended, the water color changed from bright sunny blue to twilight blue to purple to black. Then ahead of us loomed a rock surface, like a small version of Everest covered with crevices and caves. In most of them swam foot long scarlet fish. Wow! A small, strange looking shark! An ugly giant frog fish! And then, a series of miniature volcanoes spewing boiling hot water that shimmered against the cold sea water. Many of the vents were surrounded by fields of white bacteria that feed off of the chemicals that are emitted. After Brian finished taking pictures, we surfaced with a feeling of awe and exhilaration.

-Alan Dynner


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