Snow, Dolphins, and the Arctic

Go figure my last day at Pavilion Lake was gloomy. For a while, the rain actually turned to snow, making this two years in a row that I’ve seen snow in July.

Next up: Axel Heiberg Island in the High Arctic. In the meantime, here is a grab-bag of images and stories from Pavilion Lake…

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Astronaut Goes Down Instead of Up
Here’s Mike Gernhardt, from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, about to pilot the DeepWorker sub. Mike is involved in the rover design for our next moon mission. Yes folks, we are going back. Keep your pants on until 2018. On another note: you can get an idea from this picture of just how small these subs are. When Nuytco was designing them, they got a business class airplane seat, and literally built the sub around that. What’s so amazing about Nuytco is that they make subs which can go down to 2000 feet or deeper, but keep them small enough to fit in a pickup. Another cool thing: you actually drive these suckers with your feet. No steering wheel.

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The Barge
It looks less impressive than it really was. This thing had to be assembled right on the lake, and it was designed especially for our project. Nuytco typically launch their subs from enormous vessels, which can support cranes or mechanical pulley systems. We needed something big enough to launch two submersibles, but small enough that it could be transported to the lake on the back of a truck … which meant that the subs had to be lowered on a chain into the water on by hand!

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Alien Autopsy?
(No, there are not aliens in Pavilion Lake.) Pictured here is one of the “artichokes” … a microbialite from pretty deep in the lake. Microbialites are carbonate structures. They’re surprisingly delicate. Up close, you can see tiny pores and individual, sand-like grains. Some of the structures crumble like dirt if you pinch them between your fingers. So beautiful and still totally mysterious.

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Here I am getting interviewed. Why anybody would possibly want to capture my thoughts on film is beyond me, but it nevertheless happened. The white sail-looking thing is supposed to diffuse light, which apparently makes your face look better. We nicknamed the light diffusing device “The CHUMP,” which stands for Can’t Hold Up Myself Properly.

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McKay Has Better Things to Say
Chris McKay’s interview was undoubtedly more valuable than my own. McKay is kind of the granddaddy champion of astrobiology. He’s hugely involved in Mars exploration (including being a co-investigator for the Phoenix Lander).

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Family Portrait
Here’s a photo of some of the barge crew, Nuytco guys, divers, sub pilots, and a few of the ladies who tried their hand at hauling chain. Front and center is Jeff “the Human Crane” Heaton. Check out those arms. One day, he lifted a sub out of the water with one hand. Rumor has it, he can do it with a single pinkie finger.

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My New Best Friend
Here’s me with astronaut Mike, wearing his flight suit. I got a personalized tour of all the pockets. His chapstick goes in a pocket on his thigh, and pens go on the upper arm. “And this is where I keep my cash,” he said, pulling a fold of one-dollar bills out of a pocket near his shin. Why you would need cash in outer space beats me.

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Dale and Drysuit
At Pavilion Lake, most folks SCUBA dive using a drysuit. In a drysuit, you can wear layers of warm clothing underneath and remain quite dry and toasty. Pavilion Lake is around 4 degrees Celsius at the bottom, so staying warm is key. (I tried diving wearing a wetsuit. I do not recommend it.) Interestingly, you can’t pee in the water when you’re wearing a drysuit, because you’d just wind up wetting your pants. Some people have specialized pee valves put into their drysuits. Sporting the drysuit in this photo is Dale Andersen, who has been diving below 20 feet of ice in Antarctic lakes for 30 years, and once survived an Antarctic blizzard in nothing but a sleeping bag … a severely cool dude. His drysuit does not have a pee valve. I asked.

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The Other Sub
In addition to the piloted subs, we also have an autonomous sub called Gavia, which looks a lot like a golden torpedo. When programmed, Gavia can fly missions on her own, taking pictures and collecting data as she goes. Sometimes Gavia gets stuck in the mud, and Alex (pictured above) has to go diving to rescue her. The proper verb is “Gaviating.”

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The End
Back in Vancouver, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vancouver Aquarium, thanks to a couple Pavilion Lake folks who work there as SCUBA divers. I never expected that getting to pet dolphins could be the low point of a month, but it certainly was. I miss Pavilion Lake terribly, and I’m already looking forward to going back next summer. I’ve never been so changed by one experience or group of people.

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I’m trying now to shift my thoughts towards what’s next, but to say it’s surreal would be an understatement. In ten days, I’ll head up to the Arctic on a twin-otter plane. I’m dreaming of glaciers, musk ox, icebergs, and long underwear.

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.

Pavilion Lake: barge built, submarines in

I rode in the two-ton truck for the entire six hour trip north from Vancouver. We got to Pavilion Lake yesterday morning, unloaded everything, and had a million meetings.

Today, the barge was built, and the submarines were lowered by a crane onto the barge. The submarines we have are Deepworkers, which are tiny, one-person subs with clear domes for your head and sweet little claw-arm things. They’re made by Nuytco. (Remember that exo-suit James Bond wore? Nuytco makes those, too.) Pretty incredible stuff. Wish I got to drive one, but alas …

There is definitely a hierarchy of important people here, and I am clearly towards the bottom. But hell, I still get to hang out with all of these amazing people: astrobiologists, geobiologists, limnologists, engineers, submarine connoisseurs. People like Darlene Lim (NASA), Donnie Reid (totally badass SCUBA diver, with a resume including stuff like “in charge of the alligator from the movie Lake Placid“), Dale Andersen (astrobiologist who informed me this morning that he has probably spent a solid five years of his life living in a tent in Antarctica), Margarita Marinova (amazing student at Caltech whose latest paper just got the cover in Nature), etc.

And every morning, I get to witness these folks in all their groggy, pajama-clad glory.

Sorry I don’t have submarine pictures yet. (Just google “Deepworker” and you’ll find it.) For now, here’s a picture of Pavilion Lake: