Special Report: A Visit To Atlantis
by Peter Tyson
June 29, 1998
You have to be on your toes around here. I was typing at one of the lashed-down
computers in the main lab, lamenting the fact that I wasn't joining the zodiac
heading over to visit the nearby research ship Atlantis II, where the
submersible Alvin was about to return from a daylong mission, when Susan Lewis,
the producer of the NOVA film, came running into the room, yelling my name.
"Peter! Aren't you going to the Atlantis?"
"No, there wasn't room," I said.
"Well, they're up there ready to go, and they're waiting for you."
I abandoned the e-mail message I'd been writing in mid-sentence and flew up to
02 level, where five passengers stood beside the orange zodiac, draped
head-to-toe in raingear. Turns out the one space offered to a crew member was
unfilled, and I was next in line. "You have two minutes to get your camera and
a life jacket," Captain Drewry said. I was back in one.
In the rush, I neglected to put on my raingear. An unfortunate oversight, as
it transpired. As soon as the zodiac was lowered over the side and
unceremoniously dropped the final few feet into the roiling sea, the roiling
sea started coming over the side and into my lap. The winds were 15 to 20
knots, the seas four or five feet, and we were heading straight into both of
them. Every time I chanced a glance forward to catch a glimpse of the Atlantis,
a cold slap of seawater greeted me in the face.
It took 20 minutes to cover the mile and a half to the Atlantis, a blue ship
against a gray sky. By then I was wetter than a drowned rat, but I was too
caught up in it all to worry about it. A rope ladder was tossed over the lee
rail, and soon we were climbing it. You held onto the ladder with one hand and,
when a wave lifted the zodiac to its highest point, you put a foot on the
highest step you could reach, to ensure that the next time the zodiac came up,
about three seconds later, it didn't squish your foot against the hull.
Soon we were aboard. Dr. Alan Chave, chief scientist on the Atlantis, kindly
took us under his wing. First he led us into a lab room, where Sherry White,
one of his graduate students at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told
us how her team was studying the mysterious light that emanates from black
smoker chimneys. On a computer screen, she called up some photos taken the day
before by Alvin, which had to sit still, turn off all its lights, and open the
shutter for a full five minutes to get the exposure. The screen showed nine
separate images in nine different wavelength bands; the longer the wavelength,
the brighter the light. "We think the light is thermal radiation," White said.
Chave's team is now trying to figure out if any microbes or other creatures
live off this eerie illumination.
Then we were off to the Alvin control room, up several flights of stairs.There
Steve Faluotico, one of the Alvin pilots, was monitoring the progress of Alvin
more than 7,000 feet below the ship. We could hear the ping of the transponders
on the seafloor, and whenever the Alvin pilot spoke from far below, his voice
echoed through the deep sea as if inside a vast auditorium.
"You're clear to surface," Faluotico said into the mike. Soon the sub had
dropped its weights—500 pounds of them—and began rising at about 100 feet
a minute. At such depth, it would take them an hour and a half to reach the
The Alvin returns to the Atlantis.
So Chave invited us to a science briefing in the main lab. We saw a highlights
tape of yesterday's dive, complete with billowing black smokers and forests of
tubeworms. Dan Rittschof, a biologist at Duke University, showed us some
tubeworms in a white plastic bucket. They were about the length of earthworms
but thinner and infinitely more interesting. Of the paralvinelid genus, which
is named in honor of Alvin, these worms had graceful plumes jutting from a
soft, greenish tube. "I've spent all day dissecting them and looking for their
gonads, but I can't find them," Rittschof told us. I really didn't know what to
say to that.
Then we were on deck, watching a zodiac race out to meet Alvin, which had
surfaced the mandatory 1,650 to 3,300 feet from the Atlantis and was now
bobbing about in the waves. As a diver climbed onto the sub, the ship carefully
pulled near. The retrieval of the sub is a tricky procedure, and, like kids on
a schoolbus, we were told to stay behind a yellow line painted on the deck. As
the ship drew close, a second diver who had climbed up to join the first
fastened a leg-thick line to the top of Alvin.
When the sub was about ten feet in the air it began swinging, and the divers
quickly dove off (see photo). Just as quickly the deck crew had it under
control, and soon Alvin was safely stowed on board. Two of three people on
board, including Chave's wife, were first-time divers and thus, upon stepping out of the sub, got the
requisite dousing with a bucket of ice water.
Minutes later the Thompson's zodiac returned to pick us up. This time someone
handed me a yellow rainjacket and pants. I put them on, but it hardly mattered.
Like those Alvin first-timers, I was soaked and lovin' it.