National Geographic

DEEPSEA CHALLENGE

Expedition Journal

A Hive of Work

Apra Harbor, Guam

For the past four days, 30-knot winds and big seas have kept us in port.

From the stern of the Mermaid Sapphire we can look past the narrow harbor entrance and see a cliff where white spray rises 25 feet (11 meters) into the air. For most of the day, the 3-D film crew drove along the coast and shot footage of the wind playing havoc with flags and palm trees. At one point they went down to the shore and filmed huge seas breaking against the eastern side of the island. The sky was overcast and the ocean was irate. Row after row of white-capped waves rolled in from the horizon, climbed the sloping seafloor, and curled over the reef with the force of collapsing houses.

The Mermaid Sapphire is moored firmly to the outermost pier at the eastern end of the harbor. The ship is a hive of work and animated conversations. At lunch in the mess hall, you hear Suzy Cameron and Dr. Kevin Hand talking about science and schoolchildren, Antaloly Sagalevitch describing the first dives he made in the Mir subs to a science writer, and Kevin Hardy and Walt Conti discussing equipment they plan to use on the landers. A few steps away, Don Walsh, Larry Herbst, and Dr. Patty Fryer are talking about the risks of flying a research sub too close to a hydrothermal vent. Don casually mentions that the water boiling out of some vents at 700 degrees would melt a sub’s viewport.

The main deck is busy. Robby Seid is taping slim black hoses to the struts of lander Mike. Nick Hannekun is carrying a heavy case out of the sub hanger, and Chris McHattie, John Turner, and Manny Tillman are hauling camera gear up to the bridge.

If you enter the sub hanger and walk toward the crew sphere, you see two legs under the lower pod. Climb up the port ladder, look down into the pod, and you see a man working under the light of his headlamp. For four days Ty Boyce has been plugging away at a list of tasks that must be completed before the next dive. His main focus is on the hydraulic system that controls the science door, manipulator, and camera and light booms. He’s replacing the filter plumbing, reinstalling an auxiliary manifold, restoring the manipulator manifold cap, replacing the boom and door valves and installing and plumbing the suction motor and sampler cylinder. It’s a long list, but everyone on the sub team, from Ron Allum to John Garvin to Nick Bingham to Adam Gobi, has a similar list.

These are men working on a prototype sub that must operate safely in an interconnected, uncertain environment. Over the past year they have greatly expanded their understanding of electrical systems, mechanical systems, biological systems, and team systems. They are on intimate terms with feedback loops and networks embedded within networks. Thanks to the places where the sub has gone and where it’s going, they’ve become beyond-the-abyss systems thinkers.

Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Joe MacInnis

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam