Goodbye Subs

It’s weirdly calm now. The submersibles left on July 3rd (and along with them, the whole crew from Nuytco). Some new folks arrived last night, ushering in “Science Week” here at Pavilion Lake. The focus has shifted from subs to SCUBA diving and water sampling.

I miss the DeepWorkers. They were the heart and soul of this place for the first two weeks, and everyone’s energy was completely dedicated to them. It almost feels like a completely different project. And now that it’s over: I realize that I haven’t actually divulged much about what was going on, so here’s a quick rundown:

Our days started around 7am—the sub pilots finishing the details of their upcoming dives, the Nuytco guys testing the hydraulics on the subs, me frantically labeling tapes, etc. There were four dives each day—two in the morning, two in the afternoon.

The subs had to be lowered into the water by hand, using pulleys and chains. Thank heavens for Jeff from Nuytco, proud owner of a pair of Incredible Hulk arms. The subs would stay underwater for around two hours, flying contours of the lake and getting high-definition video of different microbialite morphologies.

I’ve been in charge of the data and video footage that came off the subs. Each hour of video is worth more than I want to think about, so I feel like a mother bird sitting on about 90 cassette-shaped eggs. My little babies. I will bite if you come near them.

So I guess the subs aren’t quite gone from my life. We’ve got tapes backed up for miles, waiting to be copied and stored, which means I get to sit and watch the footage from all the dives. Even on a tiny screen, it looks unbelievable.

Some of the microbialites are pretty small and ugly. But others have the most incredible intricate and varied shapes. We’ve adopted a vegetable system of nomenclature: some are artichoke-shaped, some cauliflower-shaped, etc. Others look like collections of chimneys, and a few are perfectly cone-shaped. Mike Gernhardt found microbialites that look almost like fire coral. Here’s a video:

Two Astronauts

I don’t work with normal people. Since I got to Pavilion Lake, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend an unreal group of people—people who’ve made careers at all ends of the earth, in outer space, and at the bottom of the oceans. Of course they’re all human, and they all take their jobs in stride as if it were the most common thing in the world. I think you have to, in a sense. But at the same time, what lets these people do such incredible things is that they never let it get old. It’s both a privilege and a talent to be able to pursue a job you love.

Adding to the list of characters here: Last night Dave Williams, the second of our two astronauts, arrived. Mike Gernhardt has been here since Monday. (Mike was wearing his flight suit today. My brain has more or less oozed its way out of my ear, and my heart has crawled up to take its place.)

This is the first year that Pavilion Lake has gotten the submarines, so there has definitely been a learning curve. These days, though, operations are running pretty smoothly, and the sub pilots have been able to start bringing up samples from the bottom of the lake. We’re researching microbialites, which are unusually-shaped carbonate structures. They vary in size and shape—from hand-sized to a few meters large, and from tall, chimney-like structures to structures that look more like heads of broccoli. We want to figure out how these structures are formed, and what causes the differences in shape and size. The submarines help us explore more than we possibly could by SCUBA.

Perhaps even more than the science itself, I’m fascinated by the technology that enables us to do this science. Thursday night Phil Nuytten arrived for a visit. Nuytco, which made the DeepWorker subs we’re using, is his company. Phil is a renaissance man of diving, pioneer of underwater technology, and, incidentally, a phenomenal totem pole carver. Yesterday he gave a really inspiring presentation. We got to see footage from the first solo dive deeper than 1,000 feet, see videos of the early development of the Newtsuit, and just listen to Phil talk about his career. He’s one of those people who either disregards or loves the fact that something hasn’t been done or doesn’t exist yet. You want to make a pressurized suit that can go down to 600 feet, but is still flexible enough to swim in? Sure. You just do your thing, Phil.

Yesterday Discovery Channel was here filming us, and they’re around again today. I’m trying my best to play it cool, but it’s totally not working.