I'm leaning on a rail high above the fantail of the Tully. A mile away, the
Thompson hovers in a nimbus of mist. It's 11:30 a.m., and a number of us
have been here since about 8 this morning. The sun is trying to force its
way through a damp cloud cover. There's a chill in the air, which my life
vest does little to hold at bay. I'd like to fetch my windbreaker, but I
can't take my eyes off the thumb-thick yellow line steadily weaving its way
through a winch on deck. In the half hour it's been trailing up from the
depths, every pair of eyes on the fantail have been glued to it.
For if all has gone according to plan, the other end of that line will hold
the sulfide chimney known as Phang.
Phang on the seafloor.
Phang's evolution from just one of hundreds of sulfide chimneys on the Juan
de Fuca Ridge to the chimney that might one day stand in the American Museum
of Natural History began yesterday afternoon around 3. That's when ROPOS,
gurgling and spitting, went into the water for Dive 443. By 7 p.m., its
three-chip video camera was imaging this black tooth jutting from the seabed
a mile and a half down. An hour later, ROPOS had slid the special metal
frame over Phang and begun tightening the cables, garroting the chimney in
three locations. The chainsaw then did its work, slicing into "the
structure." (Package, structure: the scientists have their own lingo.)
Around 9, the saw suddenly gave out. Had it cut deeply enough that Phang
would snap free when the time came? No one had an answer. John Delaney had
a tough decision to make. Should he bring ROPOS back to the surface, fix the
saw, go back down, and cut some more? Or should he rely on a hunch that
chimneys tend to fracture along certain lines anyway and go for it as is?
The former would take too much time, he decided, and the risk of the latter
was worth it. No stranger to taking chances, Delaney had ROPOS go on to the
next step in the procedure: attaching the yellow line that snaked away to
the line basket. It was the very basket that Le Olson had his wife help
him set up and that we lowered off the Thompson yesterday. Phang was now
ready for removal.
Phang sees the light of day for the first time.
All we could do was wait for morning. ROPOS was back on deck just after
It's now approaching noon, and the chill has finally gotten to me. I race
down the metal steps to the Tully's main lab, throw on my windbreaker, and
race back up to my spot two stories up. Reeking of diesel, the air shakes
with the lawnmower-from-hell sound of the winch engine. (An earnest man
named Duke, who seems more cowboy than first mate, handed around earplugs
earlier.) Every now and then, hot exhaust from the winch shoves the cold
breeze aside. Below me, the yellow line has just turned into a blue line, a
signal that we're halfway. Even though it will take a good hour to reel in
all 8,000 feet of line, everyone stares at the water just off the stern.
Everyone's waited too long for this.
Phang on deck.
Olson, the man in charge of this first-ever operation, darts back and forth
across the fantail, walkie-talkie in hand. Every now and then he reaches out
and palms the line, like a trainer patting his favorite horse.
I was up till one last night finishing up my last dispatch. Ten minutes
after I lay my head down (or so it seemed), my alarm went off: 6:30 a.m.,
time to go to the Tully. The NOVA film crew and I rode over on the zodiac;
this time I was ready with raingear. Then we began the long wait while the
release on the line basket 7,000-plus feet below was acoustically triggered
and the front end of the yellow/blue line floated to the surface. Delivered
to the Tully by the zodiac a bit over an hour ago, it was tied onto the
winch line, and then a new wait began.
It's now ending. From the very back corner of the ship, where Olson and
Duke the cowboy have kindly allowed me to stand, I suddenly see a flash of
color in the silver-blue envelope of the sea. It's the orange glass floats
attached to the top of the frame that ROPOS placed last night over Phang.
Then it's out, Phang, hanging in the air below the A-frame like a treasure
chest. Which, if you ask the scientists now gaping at it dripping on the
deck, it most assuredly is.
Seamen and scientists alike gather around the chimney.
I'm surprised at how moved I feel seeing it come out. After all, it's just
a rock. Or is it? Somehow it seems more like a thing from another planet. It
and all its hangers-on—fingernail-sized mussels, tiny tubeworms, mats of
microbial life—have entered a strange new world. Everything's different
for them: light, temperature, pressure. Air! I'm not alone in my awe: I see
wonder on the faces all around me.
Viewing the seafloor through ROPOS' cameras is as thrilling as watching the
rover on Mars. But this is like being there.