In our final three days, the emotional yo-yo that this voyage has been just kept on
On Wednesday evening, with news of yet another storm on the way, we rushed to get
ROPOS ready for a final dive. We were pumped up by our successes over the past week
and fully expected to pull off one final, glorious dive. Our target was the stump
of Finn, which had astonished us on the most recent dive by revealing a
beehive-shaped, five-foot-tall cone of sulfide that, in a matter of days, had
grown up on its stump. The goal of this final dive was to place a "stump probe"
over what remained of Finn. The device would measure temperatures at seven points
on the chimney for a year or more before it was retrieved.
Alas, the weather had the final say: no dive. By Thursday morning, we had 20-foot
seas, with winds gusting over 30 knots—the roughest conditions yet. Delaney
waited until just after noon before deciding that it was time to batten down
the hatches and head home. We spent the next hour lashing everything not
already bolted down. If it's hard enough to keep your balance now, we were told,
wait till we're underway. Expedition members took their Dramamine and watched as
the crew put heavy-weather procedures into effect. We saw why as soon as the
captain fired up the Z-drives, propelling the ship due east at 13 knots. Those
20-footers reared out of the south as if in a bad dream. I stood in the staging
bay, which was half-boarded over, and watched waves break over the starboard rail
and rush across the fantail like waves up a beach. The ship groaned as it leaned
into foam-flecked troughs. The yo-yo dipped. As with the previous storm, people
sullenly retreated to their cabins for a touch of the horizontal. It would be at
least 14 hours before we reached the calm of the Juan de Fuca Strait. The heavy
seas, queasy feelings, and an unspoken disappointment seemed to cast a pall over
the entire ship.
Juan de Fuca Strait, early Friday morning.
But Friday morning the yo-yo started back up. After three weeks of mostly cloudy
days with occasional lashing rain, we woke to a glass-smooth sea and a blue sky
overhead. The air was balmy. We were back in the Strait, and back to feeling proud
of what we had accomplished. We paused in Port Angeles, a lumber town perched
at the foot of the Olympics, to pick up the sulfide chimneys, which the CCGS John
P. Tully had left in a shed there. We also welcomed on board a number of
luminaries, including Ellen V. Futter, the president of the American Museum
of Natural History, which had put up much of the $3 million-plus spent on this
expedition; Dan Evans, a regent of the University of Washington and former
Governor of the state; John Noble Wilford, the New York Times science reporter;
and my boss, Paula Apsell, the executive producer of NOVA. All had come to help
usher our prizes triumphantly into Seattle.
A press frenzy takes over the fantail.
Within minutes of sidling up to the University's dock around noon today, the ship
was swarmed by three or four television crews, a handful of newspaper reporters,
and dozens of colleagues, family members and friends, eager to admire the structures
laid out on the fantail. The weather—sunny, 70s—couldn't have been more
pleasant if the university PR staff had personally choreographed it.
The yo-yo rounded the top—at least for John Delaney—at a press conference
held in the nearby oceanographic building just after lunch. Richard L. McCormick,
president of the University of Washington, introduced Futter, who gave an eloquent
speech on "the challenging and highly successful venture" that "beautifully
represents the human quest for knowledge." What her speech held in pragmatic
praise, Delaney's held in an outpouring of emotion. Sweeping about the room
like Caesar at the Forum, he volubly thanked all the key players of the expedition.
As he introduced Veronique Robigou, fellow oceanographer at the university,
colleague on many a research cruise, and founder of the REVEL teacher program,
he said, "I'm likely to get emotional" and suddenly got all choked up. As the
TV cameras zeroed in and flashes flashed, he put his arm around her and mumbled
his thanks and praise. Quiet and unassuming, Robigou had stayed out of the limelight
on this cruise until dragged into it—like the chimneys themselves.
The Thompson sails into Seattle.
Tonight the university is throwing a barbecue, and then all those people whom the
Thompson had brought together will go their separate ways. Only the memories will
remain. Oh yeah, and four big rocks.
Note: Watch for the NOVA film on this expedition, airing next April.