Networked Blogs
Search this site
Twitter and News feeds

Entries in Submersible (7)


As promised, more of the Johnson Sea Link

When we were on the Abrolhos research cruise aboard the HBOI/CEPEMAR ship Seward Johnson recently, I posted a little clip of the outside of the sub.  In that post I promised better quality and longer clips when I got back to land.  So here, (in HD goodness if you want it) is long-time pilot Don Liberatore giving a neat history of the Johnson Sea Link 2 submersible.  What I find most interesting is his comment about how he got into being a sub pilot in the first place: sitting on the dock in the 70’s he and some buddies saw the HBOI ship pull into port with the original JSL1 or Clelia (not sure which) on the deck and he thought “how cool is that?”.  This comment is exactly what I meant in my recent post about the importance of Human Occupied Vehicles (HOVs), or submersibles, for inspiring people to careers in marine science.

The 500pixel column width here on the blog is a bit limiting; if you want to see it in HD, roll over to the YouTube channel and check it out


To go boldly, or go remotely?

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.  - RW Emerson

In early 1962 Deke Slayton was diagnosed wth a heart condition, which was lucky for Scott Carpenter, because Pilot Slayton was withdrawn fron the Mercury mission, clearing the way for Commander Carpenter to become in May 1962 just the 2nd American to orbit the earth after John Glenn.  After only  three laps of the earth, the Mercury 7 capsule returned, landing over 250 miles off-target.  But the job was done, Americans had entered the space race and begun to explore near space in earnest.

The original 7 Mercury astronauts, including Scott Carpenter

All of this is, of course, very well known to many Americans, and the names are even household (we’ll come back to Cmdr Carpeneter in a minute), especially for the Baby Boomer generation.  But, two years before Mercury, two other pioneers achieved what I consider in many ways an even more profound achievement.  Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh went to the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, over 35,000ft down in the crushing hadal depths of the western Pacific Ocean, onboard the bathyscaphe Trieste.  Why was it more significant?  Perhaps because it was done without the same sort of social/political zeitgeist as the space race (married, as it was, so inextricably to the cold war), and the tremendous resources that came along with that.  And perhaps also because the technical challenges are no less daunting.  While astronauts had to deal with the vacuum of space, the aquanauts had to deal with incomprehensible crushing pressues of the deep ocean.  These challenges are so profound that they contribute in large part to why we have never been back to that inky place.

I’ve had several opportunities recently to consider ocean exploration and to do so in light of space exploration and the achievements in both spheres over the last half century.  In Brazil a few weeks ago I had the good fortune to watch engineers from Harbor Branch deploy one of the most well-traveled of all submerisbles, the Johnson Sea Link II.  More recently, I participated in the first annual meeting of the Cooperative Institute of Ocean Exploration Research and Technology in Fort Pierce Florida.  There, some of the brightest minds in ocean exploration discussed all sorts of aspects of modern exploratory oceanography, including HOVs (Human operated vehicles), ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), AUV’s (autonomous underwater vehicles), buoys, landers and sundry other engineering marvels that are helping reveal a deep ocean far more diverse and wonderously engaging than we ever thought possible (like the Okeanos Explorer).  Consider that hydrothermal vents, methane seeps and brine pools were unheard of just a few short decades ago.  The biology uncovered at these sites has revolutionised the way we think about how animals work, especially the unexpected abundance of chemosynthetic organisms - indeed, entire ecosystems  - depending on chemical energy and not the power of the sun.

The NOAA Aquarius Reef BaseTowards the end of the CIOERT meeting we were treated to a terrific session where Bill Todd, the project lead for NASA’s underwater training and research program gave an excellent and thought-provoking talk about the parallels of space and undersea exploration.  After it, he and the aforementioned Scott Carpenter and HBOI associate director (and CIOERT principal) Shirley Pomponi held an impromptu panel discussion with the other CIOERT investigators.  In addition to his space missions, Carpenter was also a SeaLab II aquanaut in the 60’s; one of very few people to both orbit the earth and serve a lengthy mission living at depth, so he’s qualified to speak to both topics.  The session was a real treat.  Todd, who is a dynamic and convincing speaker, argued that many of the stated reasons for exploring both sea and space (tech development, resource prospecting, naional defence etc) are little more than smokescreens for the real reasons (to be first, to make a mark, to satisfy curiosity) and yet the real reaons are somehow so much harder to defend against the scrutiny of the uncurious and unscientific.  He also didn’t shy away from the incongruous difference in perception between astronauts as national heroes (thoroughly deserved, of course!) and the unsung status of essentially all undersea explorers.  His best example was that the astronauts with the most hours in space are recognised with uniforms, titles and medals, whereas the aquanauts with the most hours (the ones who maintain the NOAA Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of Florida, the only permanent undersea research station left in existence) are still referred to as “hab techs” (habitat technicians) and fill a service role in support of visiting scientists.

The now-defunct Isis ROV (Southampton UK)At the end of the session I asked the panel the perennial question that now plagues exploratory research in both space and sea: manned or unmanned?  The outrageous success of NASA missions like Cassini, Spirit, Opportunity and Hubble and the near-uquiquity of ROVs and AUVs in modern oceanography (and the dwindling number of HOVs) argue for staying home and letting technology do the hard work.  Somehow though, this just doesn’t sit right with me.  The inspiration of watching Brazilian scientists return from their first dives on Abrolhos just a few short weeks ago simply doesn’t gel with the idea that ROV’s can take over for manned missions to the deep.   Yet the trend is undeniable in both sea and space.  To my relief, Commander Carpenter answered that of course it is a false dichotomy; it’s not an either/or situation.  We need HOVs and ROVs to explore the depths, and AUV’s, and landers, and anything esle the boffins can come up with; we need to do it all, because there’s a lot of ocean yet to explore.  Just the same, we can’t allow space exploration to become the exclusive realm of robots and probes.  At some point there is no substitute for astronaut as geologist-with-a-rock-hammer.

While I agree with Commander Carpenter I am rapidly becoming a shameless HOV fan.  At a time when science so often loses the struggle against the vapidity of pop culture and when so many folks - bloggers included - talk so much game about inspiring young people to pursue careers in science, the human aspects of exploratory research cannot be ignored or allowed to atrophy because of budgetary concerns or rigorous adherence to logic.  There are hardly any active HOVs operating now compared to the explosion of ROVs in recent times, and yet we can’t expect the next generation to be as besotted with technological solutions as we have allowed ourselves to become.  Why should they?, they grew up with technology.  No, there is still room for people to explore, not just machines, and for the Cousteaus, the Piccards, the Links and the Carpenters to inspire the rest by showing us that the emotional/aspirational reasons for exploratory research can compliment the objectivity of the research itself, because they lie closest to the truth of human nature.


The Briny Deep - a post by Kristie Cobb Hacke

Yesterday morning on a tour of the bridge of the Steward Johnson following the deployment of the submersible, we had the opportunity to chat with some of the sub crew and a pilot. During our chat they were sharing stories of other dives. One in particular was incredibly interesting to me because it continues the idea of worlds within worlds (the sneeze theory). Craig Caddigan was mentioning that he piloted the submersible to a location in the Gulf of Mexico that contained an “underwater lake.” The lake was a dense brine pool, made up of water with an incredibly high density due to salinity and found at over 2000 feet depth. Craig described landing the sub on the lack and bouncing along the surface and creating ripples. The brine area has its own waves and “beach”, in this case surrounded by a 10’ ring of mussels. The mussels use methane as their primary food source. The submersible was unable to descend into the brine lake because it was too dense, but they did take along some tools that could sample the contents.

A brine pool in the Gulf of Mexico

What is amazing to me is that this brine sea is contained within the ocean. Do the animals that live around this area know that they are living in a sea within a larger ocean? When I sit on the beach am I merely sitting on the edge of a pool within someone else’s greater ocean. Am I at risk of being someone else’s sample? These big thinking questions are what keep me going but the scientists aboard the Abrolhos are focused on the small things that make up the ocean. Right now they are collecting small coral samples, sediment, rock, fish and other items. During the cruise other members of the HBOI staff have been creating maps so that the scientists can use them for future trips or they can clearly note the location of sample and sediment collections. The CTD collected water at the same locations where the submersible was deployed, so that bacteria and viruses can be measured and identified in the water column. The hope is that each of these small pieces can create a larger overall understanding of the structure and biology of the Abrolhos reef.


The moonpool

Generally-speaking, holes in ships are A Bad Thing, but in the center of the R/V Seward Johnson there is a hole, a really big hole, that’s both deliberate and critically important.  It’s called a moonpool and it’s used to deploy the device that allows the Com-Track (see previous post) to talk to the sub: the transducer.  This acoustic tool (basically a combination speaker and microphone) could just be dangled over the side, but the hull of the ship would interfere with the signal, so they lower it through the moonpool well below the ship.  It’s a lot like putting up an antenna, only upside down.  As I stared down into the blue glow, Sully the Com-Track officer was using the transducer to speak to the sub pilot, 800ft further down into the depths below…


PS - If you’re wondering why the water doesn’t rush up through the moonpool it’s because the water in the moonpool is level with the surrounding sea level, so there’s no pressure to push it up into the hull.


A *bit* of a tour of the Johnson Sea Link

Kristie Cobb Hacke and I were given a royal tour of the JSL submersible today, by longtime pilot Don Liberatore.  Unfortunately the ships satellite internet won’t handle the 20+ minutes of 1080p goodness, so these two snippets will have to do.  I’ll splice together the full vid when we get back to a wired internet connection. In the first video, Don describes the sample bucket system and in the second, I poke my head into the rear observation chamber


Abrolhos, here we come!

Mussismilia braziliensis at the Abrolhos Reefs, BrazilThings have been a little quiet around here over the holiday break, but that’s about to change in a big way.  In just under a week’s time, I’ll be representing Georgia Aquarium in a new international consortium of scientists for an exciting expedition to explore the Abrolhos reef platform off the coast of Brazil from January 20-28.  The Abrolhos are completely unique reefs: they’re the largest and southernmost in the South Atlantic and biologically very different from perhaps more familiar Pacific or Caribbean Reefs.  You’d think they might show some similarity to Caribbean reefs, but not so, possibly because unfavourable currents and the influence of the Amazon pouring into the ocean between the two may serve as an important barrier to animal dispersal (more on that in future posts).  There’s tremendously high endemicity there, which is to say that many of the resident critters are found nowhere else in the world.  Of key importance is the main reef-forming coral Mussismilia braziliensis, a massive species that forms an unusual bommie-like reef structure called a mushroom reef; we’ll meet this species in more detail later too.

The main aim of the expedition is actually to go a bit deeper than the known parts of the Abrolhos, and look at the depths where light starts to get dim: the mesophotic zone.  These parts of many reef platforms are poorly known and nowhere moreso than at Abrolhos, where these areas are completely unexplored.  That’s because mesophotic reefs are beyond comfortable SCUBA diving range and therefore hard to get to.   To study them between 300 and 3,000ft in depth, we’ll be using the Johnson Sea Link, a submersible that operates from the R/V Seward Johnson, which is on a 5 year assignment from it’s home at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Insitute to CEPEMAR, a Brazilian environmental services company.

The Johnson Sea Link and R/V Seward Johnson

There’s much more to come in future blog posts here and in my tweet stream @para_sight or using the hashtag #Abrolhos2011.  We’ll discuss the Abrolhos reefs, mesophotic reefs, some geology and biology, as well as meeting the people and partners and exploring the logistic challenges of making a complex expedition like this happen.  So, I encourage you to follow along and also to share this information with colleagues and (especially) students of marine science so that they might also follow and share in the excitement of discovering new parts of the ocean floor, never seen before, in tropical Brazil.


Gallo on Titanic

Me and David (right) at the Capital City ClubI had the very good fortune on Thursday to see a talk by David Gallo from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which he delivered to the Atlanta chapter of the Explorers Club.  David, who is Director of Special  Projects for WHOI and a prominent speaker on, mixed it up between general ocean wonders and some stuff about Titanic.  He opened his talk with a lot of the stuff in that TED link, but the Titanic stuff was all new because he had just returned from a research cruise where they mapped the entire debris field in unprecedented detail using ROVs and AUVs


Not the RMS Titanic, but a good example of the side-scan sonar effect. In this case the sound is coming from the upper right, creating sound shadows to the lower left. Image: NOAASide-scan sonar featured prominently in the survey work, which makes for really cool imaging.  Side-scan is an increasingly popular technique that uses sonar signal deployed at an angle to generate images with a sort of bas-relief effect.  This is in contrast to regular sonar which pings vertically and reconstructs a sort of plan view of the area in question. A lot of the sonar data was pretty raw, but rather than make it hard to interpret, it actually added a layer of excitment; as I understand it we were among the first folks to see any of those data.

They also took down 3D and HD cameras and filmed/photographed every square inch of the visible parts of the bow and stern sections, which lie some three quarters of a mile apart and 2.5 miles down in the icy waters off Newfoundland.  We were treated to snippets of that footage, which shows undeniable deterioration of the wreck, including the mysterious disappearance of the crows nest, distortion of windows, disappearance of walls and a huge profusion of “rusticles” (like icicles made of rust) on the bow section.  Estimates of the complete disintegration of the wreck range from 20 to 200 years, but there seems little doubt that the unsinkable ship will be mostly gone in our life-spans, which was one motivation for the painstaking documentation; they plan to develop a sort of “virtual Titanic” to be made available so that the public can explore her too.

Gallo closed his talk with a section on their next big project, which is a search for the wreckage of Air France flight 447, which crashed in the west Atlantic in June 2009.  Hope remains that the flight data recorders from the crash are still intact and the consortium involved in the operation is apparently very confident that they will find the wreckage and the black boxes and bring closure to the families of the 228 victims of the crash.

The submersible Alvin. Image: NOAAAfter the talk I asked David about recent news that China is making a big move into the world of deep sea exploration.  I asked him whether the deep sea and China would be to the next decade what space and Russia were to the 60’s.  He replied that if you want to view it that way, then the US is already well behind.  He confirmed that the Chinese government has made a huge investment, as has South Korea, and he added that its kind of crazy that the US still relies so heavily on Alvin, a submersible that - while capable - is very old (commissioned in 1964!) and certainly far from the cutting edge in deep sea technologies.

It was a terrific talk and I was very excited to have the chance to finally meet David.  I teach every year in Woods Hole, but our paths have never crossed there.  We made an agreement to share a beer at the Captain Kidd next time I am up there for AQUAVET, and that is something to look forward to.