The Washington State University biologist, who retired in 2001 after decades of studying marine worms, was shorebound when the stubby little submarine called Alvin first carried humans to the bottom of the sea.
Schroeder remembers the excitement in his lab when scientists aboard Alvin discovered vents in the ocean floor, where three-foot-long tube worms and other weird-looking animals lived on the mineral exhalations of the earth’s interior.
“I had a graduate student working on worms then,” he recalls, “and it was in Time magazine, these guys with these giant worms, and [my student] came running into my office and said, ‘What the hell are these things?'”
That was in the late 1970s. Since then Schroeder has avidly followed the discoveries of researchers fortunate enough to see the vents and their strange life forms in person. He never expected to make the trip himself.
Then last summer, WSU biologist Ray Lee invited Schroeder and three WSU colleagues on the cruise of a lifetime. Lee was chief scientist on Alvin’s mother ship, the research vessel Atlantis. Part of his job was choosing who would get dive time. In addition to his grad student Ray Andrell and post-doc Christian Rinke, who are studying deep-sea creatures, Lee offered slots to about 20 scientists from other institutions, to Schroeder, and to John Rutherford, a master craftsman in WSU’s technical services department who has designed and made high-pressure chambers for Lee’s lab. Of the WSU divers, only Andrell had been to the bottom of the sea before. He joined Lee on a 2006 cruise when he was an undergrad at Whitman College.
So in late August, the Atlantis sailed out of Astoria, Oregon, bound for waters about 200 miles west of Vancouver Island. Once there, the Alvin would make a dozen trips to hydrothermal vents along the Juan de Fuca Ridge on the seabed more than a mile below the surface.
Alvin made its deep-sea debut in 1964 and is still going strong, thanks to frequent upgrades. Only the seal around the hatch is original equipment, says Rutherford. Everything else has been replaced at least once. The sub’s shape is due to a fiberglass shell that provides stability and houses hydraulic and electrical lines, sampling tools, and five small motors, three aft and one on each side. Under the fiberglass is a thick layer of syntactic foam, which provides buoyancy and cushions the craft against bumps and dings.
“They’ve got rocks down there,” says Andrell.
“There are currents down there, too,” says Schroeder. “If you’re not aware of which way the wind is blowing, so to speak, you can get blown right into something.”
Inside the fiberglass-and-foam shell lies the spherical cabin. Made of inch-and-a-half-thick titanium, the cabin looks much like the original diving “bells” of the late 1800s. It has an interior diameter of about six feet; with a pilot and two other people aboard, the cabin is, shall we say, cozy. Schroeder, who stands about five-foot-four, says it’s no problem for him. Rinke, at six-foot-five, has a bit harder time.
“You have to sit like this,” he laughs, drawing his knees up near his chin. “It’s very crowded, but it works.”
Divers wear casual clothes (nothing acrylic, which would release toxic fumes if it caught fire); many bring gloves and a stocking cap. Surrounded by near-freezing water, Alvin cools quickly. Heat from the people on board keeps the cabin at about 50° F, which is a bit chilly when you’re sitting in one place for up to eight hours.
Then there’s the issue that arises on any all-day trip: what do you do about bathroom business? Let’s just say the overly shy or fastidious need not apply. If you do go, you take a capped container along—Schroeder calls his a “thunder mug”—and when the time comes, you simply use it. With luck, you won’t have to use it often. “It’s better if you don’t drink too much,” advises Schroeder.
Weighted with 800 pounds of iron plates, Alvin takes about an hour and a half to drop to the sea floor. After the first few hundred feet, the craft descends in a profound darkness punctuated only by flashes of bioluminescence from jellyfish and other denizens of the middle depths. Most creatures there light up when they’re disturbed, says Schroeder, and as Alvin brushes past them on its way down, they spark briefly and wink out again before you can get a good look at them.
“In some ways it’s unreal,” says Lee. “You do sense the distance you’ve traveled. You definitely feel like you’re separated from every-thing else.”
During its dive, Alvin is on its own. The crew is in phone contact with the mother ship, but the sub is not tethered to the Atlantis. On-board tanks hold enough oxygen to keep the divers alive for 72 hours if the sub gets stuck somewhere. Everyone does safety drills for emergencies on the big ship, but if an accident happens on the Alvin, there aren’t many options.
“There’s one lever in the bottom of the Alvin that releases it from everything,” says Rutherford. “When you turn this handle, all the cowling and everything comes away, and all there is, is the sphere—and up it goes.”
“But that’s the last thing you should do!” laughs Rinke. He says the cabin would probably spin as it rose, tossing its occupants around and making them royally sick. So far, no one has ever had to pull the lever.
As Alvin nears the bottom, the pilot jettisons ballast until the craft is able to hover, and he turns on the exterior floodlights. Each diver has a Plexiglas porthole to peer through, but at three inches across and five inches thick, the portholes are more peepholes than windows.
Most of the sightseeing is done by remote control. Each diver controls a video camera that can pan 360 degrees. Each also has a screen on which to view what all three cameras are pointed at.
What the divers saw depended on the specific area of their dive. Some saw mud flats populated by clam-like creatures called ocean quahogs, recently discovered to be the longest-lived animals on earth. Others saw towering “chimneys” encrusted with snails and tube worms. In some places, says Schroeder, the snails are stacked so deep “they look like gravel. It’s astonishing.”
Directed by the lead diver—the one with the most experience—the pilot manipulates mechanical arms to scoop up sediment and creatures to be taken back to the ship for study. Andrell, having dived before, found himself in the lead chair on this trip.
“Last time I was just sitting there watching, basically, and this time I was actually responsible for getting some things done,” he says. “It worked out fine, but that was partially thanks to the pilot.”
When it’s time to return, the pilot unloads the rest of the ballast. During the trip back to the surface, which takes about as long as the descent, some divers talk about what they’ve seen. Others wait quietly. One pilot, a veteran of dozens of dives, takes a nap.
On days when they didn’t dive, everyone stayed busy with other duties. Rutherford helped maintain pumps; Schroeder sorted organisms collected earlier in the cruise; Rinke, Andrell, and Lee worked on experiments in Atlantis‘s lab.
As chief scientist for the cruise, Lee could have scheduled himself for a dive but chose not to. He hasn’t taken Alvin‘s magical mystery tour since 2006.
“I’ve seen it,” he says of the undersea world. “I’d like to go again, but compared to someone like Paul Schroeder getting his first dive, unless there’s a scientific reason why I should go, I’d rather let someone else do it.”
To mark their return from the deep, first-time divers are greeted with a certificate and a ceremony—a thorough drenching. Rutherford teases Schroed
er about getting hit with clean, warm water from the ship’s tap. His own dousing “was cold salt water that had worms in it. And it was smelly. You got the royal treatment,” he says.
“I did!” says a beaming Schroeder.
On the web
To learn more about Ray Lee’s work and life at the bottom of the sea, visit “Hot Stuff: Deep Ocean Fauna.”