Interview with First-time Alvin Divers

by Ken Kostel

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Pen-Yuan Hsing inside Alvin during his first dive.

Andrea Quattrini and Pen-Yuan Hsing made their first dives in Alvin during this cruise. Dive and Discover reporter Ken Kostel sat down with them to find out about their experiences.

How many times have you both been down in deep submersibles?
Pen-Yuan: This was my first dive ever.
Andrea: Since 2003 I’ve done ten or so dives on the Johnson Sea-Link off the U.S. coast between South Carolina and Florida. My first dive was down to a coral reef area at 750 meters.

Was it similar to diving in Alvin?
Andrea: No, Alvin is the true deep-sea experience.

What’s it like that first time you dive to the deep ocean?
Andrea: I just remember having this overwhelming feeling that I was going somewhere no one has seen before. I remember descending into the water column and watching everything turn completely black before turning on the lights. It’s really hard to put into words.
Pen-Yuan: It’s definitely hard to articulate. There’s no common point of reference to help people understand what it’s like.

Andrea, the night before your dive you mentioned feeling humbled by the opportunity. Could you explain that?
Andrea: I think of all the great people who have been down in Alvin since 1964, have sat in those exact same seats that we were in. They were true explorers. That’s kind of overwhelming.

It must be difficult balance the desire to look out the window with your need to do work while you’re down there.
Pen-Yuan: I had to flip through my notes the whole time. There was a part of me that just wanted to be a tourist because it’s so awesome just being there.

You’ve both been looking at two-dimensional images of these corals  for so long, what was it like to actually see them up close?
Pen-Yuan: Even though I was seeing almost the exact same view in the window that I’ve looked at on paper, it’s not the same. You get a strong sense for how close you are and how big they are.
Andrea: You can really put yourself there.
Pen-Yuan: It’s an exhilarating experience.

Have you e-mailed anyone to tell them about your trip yet?
Pen-Yuan: I haven’t had a chance yet. I’ve been too busy.
Andrea: I e-mailed someone right before I went to say a good guy named Walter gave me his spot and to say I love my job. [Editor’s note: Walter Cho pulled himself out of consideration for a spot on a dive to give Andrea the opportunity to make her first trip in Alvin.]

Is this something you always wanted to do?
Pen-Yuan: It was more by chance for me. I remember seeing a National Geographic cover once of three red-eyed tree frogs and thought it would be cool to work in a place like that [the rainforest]. A decade later, I went on a research trip to Costa Rica and saw those same kinds of frogs. In the same way, about 10 years ago, I saw another article about Alvin and thought it would be cool to dive in it. Now here I am.

When you were young, did you want to be an oceanographer?
Andrea: Definitely. I used to go fishing with my dad in Pennsylvania, but my visits to the ocean were limited to the trips we took to the Jersey Shore every year. I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors and for the unknown. Marine biology was a natural fit.
Pen-Yuan: You know that’s interesting, because when you’re on a cruise like this, you’re not really outdoors much, which is difficult because I love being outside.
Andrea: That’s right, you’re inside the ship on the computer working a lot.

Were there any influences that helped guide you toward a career in science?
Andrea: I had a teacher in tenth grade who instilled a passion for taxonomy and zoology in me. I think that’s where my passion for science started.
Pen-Yuan: It’s really hard for me to name just one. Along the way there were so many little things that happened, whether it’s something I saw on the Discovery Channel or something a teacher said in class—each of them were not very big events in themselves, but they were all critical pieces that came together and kind of nudged me in this direction. I don’t think I’d be here without all of them, and I’m very, very grateful all of them brought me here.

We received a lot of e-mail from kids who are very interested in the ocean. What do you say to young person who might want to be an oceanographer?
Andrea: Don’t give up. Work hard.
Pen-Yuan: I think over the years the thing I’ve found that’s mot important is, if you feel you like doing something just go ahead and do it and don’t let anyone stop you.

Were there any moments during each of your dives that really stand out in your mind?
Andrea: Eating a sandwich at 1,500 meters while we were coming up. And I saw a chimera [a primitive fish related to sharks].
Pen-Yuan: I wish I ‘d seen something like that. I don’t have any one thing that sticks out. One of the reasons I got into science is because I’ve always been a science fiction fan. At some point, I realized that this is probably the closest I can come to “going boldly where no one has gone before,” because, you know, only four people have been to that part of the seafloor. More people have been to the moon.
Andrea: What amazed me even more is how good the pilots are. All their knowledge, from mechanical to electrical even to the science that we do, is all so important. We wouldn’t be able to get there without them.




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