By Edwin Schiele
October 8, 1998. Today we map the sixth and final swath along the top of the ridge. The results are fantastic, especially considering the difficulty of the terrain. The scientists on board depend on clear sonar images for their research. Once again, the DSL GroupSkip Gleason (group leader), Tom Crook, Steve Gegg, Matt Naiman, Jim Varnum, and Will Sellershas provided them.
We have all seen the PBS specials showing underwater vehicles such as Jason probing the wrecks of the Titanic or Bismarck or photographing the strange life forms around hydrothermal vents. We are amazed at the precise manipulations these vehicles are capable of. And we all think how glamorous it would be to have the job of controlling these vehicles.
It is a glamorous job. Yet there is another side to it as well. Most members of the DSL group are spending their third straight month at sea. Imagine being away from home for five months of the year. The only contact you have with your family is through e-mail. You cant attend to matters at home that most people take for granted such as maintaining the house or scheduling a dentist appointment. If a drivers license or credit card expires while you are at sea, there is nothing that you can do.
I have gotten a small taste of how tedious staring at a screen for four straight hours can be. Each person in the DSL group must stand two four-hour watches each day. In addition, they must be on call to bring the fish on board, inspect it, and redeploy it. When they can, they try to snatch a few hours of sleep.
Now combine lack of sleep with spending four hours at a time in a dark room watching a computer monitor. Its mind-numbing work, yet they must stay alert. The navigator must make sure that the fish stays on course. The flyer must anticipate the rises and dips in the terrain and keep the fish at the proper altitude. If anything goes wrong, at best some valuable data could be lost. At worst, the fish could hit the bottom.
Even when the vehicles are up, the members of the DSL group are under pressure. When time allows, they must disassemble each vehicle and make sure every part works. If they miss a detail, and something goes wrong while the vehicle is 4,000 meters deep, all data collecting must stop. They must slowly pull the vessel out of the watera process that takes many hours. Time is valuable on a research cruise. The time spent hauling up and repairing a vehicle cannot be recovered.
Will Sellers joined the DSL group in 1981. Among many accomplishments, he was the first to pilot the submarine ALVIN to the wreck of the Titanic. Like everybody else in the DSL group, he is looking forward to the end of this voyage so he can go home, get some home-cooked meals, and check on the new house he and his wife are building. Yet he doesnt hesitate to emphasize that each member of the DSL group is on board because he wants to be. There is a higher mission than bringing home a paycheck. They are here "to gather knowledge and spread back the frontiers of science." From this common goal, there arises a feeling of pride and camaraderietwo things that money cant buy.
"Nobody does this better than we can."