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Sunny with some clouds
82.9°F (28.3°C)
Wind Direction: NW
Wind Speed: 4-6 Knots
Sea State: 0
Sea Temperature: 58°F
Swell(s) Height: 0 Foot
Barometric Pressure: 1015.1 MB
Visibility: Excellent

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Setting Sail for an Undersea Volcano
May 24, 2004
By Amy Nevala

Latitude: 47° 41N
Longitude: 122° 25W

The ship’s horn blares every few minutes tonight as we motor through fog northwest from Seattle, drawn to a black, cold undersea world two miles under the surface of the Pacific Ocean, to learn about organisms invisible to our naked eyes.

Twenty-one scientists set sail at 9:15 Sunday morning on the research vessel Atlantis, men and women who converged on Seattle from their homes and research institutions in Washington, California, Massachusetts, and Switzerland. Despite shifting weather that ranged from dazzling sun to misting fog, our plan is to learn about biology, chemistry and geology of an unusual deep-sea volcano 200 miles from shore. The projects undertaken will help scientists piece together bigger puzzles. How do microbes live in these places, without light, at enormous pressure, and at extremes of hot and cold? What more can we learn about the formation of the Earth, especially about plate tectonics?

We are a group of 49 people together for 17 days, aboard a 274-foot vessel in the Pacific Ocean. Eight are graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in their early twenties and thirties, launching new careers in oceanography. Others are veteran oceanographers sharing their scientific knowledge and advice for living at sea—including the best remedies for seasickness (to a rapidly paling rookie sailor, co-chief scientist John Delaney suggested “step outside and breathe that gorgeous ocean air.” It worked).

Joining the scientists are 21 members of the Atlantis crew, over a dozen who have sailed together for years and now refer to their fellow engineers, oilers, seamen, cooks, and mates as family. Their skills—from adjusting fussy air-conditioners to steering the ship—make life on this floating city possible, not to mention enjoyable.

“They have a big burden out here—keeping us all fat and happy,” said the ship’s captain George Silva during one of a half dozen briefings this evening.

Rounding out the group are seven members of the Alvin team, an all-male ensemble coordinated by expedition leader and Alvin pilot Patrick Hickey. During 14 scheduled dives, the team will support scientists working on the seafloor as they recover instruments, take fluid and microbe samples, and explore new territory not yet mapped. Tonight these team members provided a safety briefing and are now working on the aft deck, preparing for the first journey to the seafloor, expected to take place Tuesday.

Much has happened today in the 12 hours since the ship pushed gently from the docks in Portage Bay at the University of Washington. Leaning on a rail in the morning sun, Deb Glickson, a marine geology student at the University of Washington, compared the departure to an “urban leisure cruise” as we slipped past Seattle landmarks and architectural icons, including the Space Needle. We passed through the locks in the Ballard neighborhood that link the Lake Washington Ship Canal to Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean waters surrounding the mountainous Olympic Peninsula.

Decks that drew researchers and crew for sightseeing emptied after lunch as preparations for work began. By lunch tomorrow, we expect to arrive at the Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, an undersea volcano that hosts five of the world’s most dynamic hydrothermal vent fields. They are places alive with skinny white worms, pale fish, long-limbed crabs, and other unusual organisms.

With just 17 days at sea, scientists are preparing to make every hour count—regardless of increasing wind, waves, and motion sickness that sent several researchers to an early bed this evening. We will begin by putting out transponders, tracking devices dropped to the seafloor to help determine and signal our position at sea. We’ll spend the following days helping researchers diving in the submersible Alvin.

Though research in this area has been ongoing for more than 20 years, it has been nearly 10 months since scientists visited these waters and the volcanic ridges. During this time, the seafloor may have changed dramatically, and the dynamic world of the deep ocean could reveal surprises in the days ahead.