INTRO: The research vessel Atlantis recently came north for a scientific cruise in Alaska waters. More than just a ship, the Atlantis serves as a support vehicle for the deep-diving submersible, Alvin, and the scientists who use it. After 12 days with the crew, Sonya Senkowsky reports on life aboard this unique floating laboratory.
STORY: Soon after we board the ship in Astoria, Oregon, for the journey to Alaska, the scientists and I are asked to muster in the main laboratory for a required safety briefing.
"OK, everybody has a life jacket; on that jacket should be a whistle and a light. We'll believe the whistle works, but do check the lights. You should have also brought your survival suit. Orange survival suits…"
The crew of the Atlantis is used to having guests. The 274-foot ship, based out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is the support vessel for the 23-foot Alvin, a deep-diving sub used by researchers to investigate deep-sea chemistry, biology and geology in oceans around the world. The sub is housed on deck, and is launched from a towering steel A-frame attached to the rear of the ship.
When the sub is launched, swimmers go with it. These frogmen, wearing masks, flippers and dry suits in the near-freezing water, stay nearby the sub while it is on the surface to attach and release it from the A-frame. Brian Leach is an Alvin electronics technician and a swimmer.
LEACH: "I am concerned that I will be cold, especially once I get out of the water. Hopefully the dry suits will keep us protected well, but I know it will be cold. This is the coldest water we've seen by far in the year that I've been on board."
It's only the sub's second time in Alaska. This summer's cruise, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an exploratory mission to visit undersea volcanoes known as seamounts that are hundreds to thousands of meters beneath the waves.
Before taking a dive in the three-person sub, scientists sit inside the 7-foot-diameter interior to reassure themselves—and the Alvin pilot—that they're not claustrophobic, and to become familiar with the sub's amenities.
"And here is a funnel attachment that you all get to use... Remember that there are four of these, so feel free. And if you're really shy, remember there are two blankets you can work out whatever you need with your observers…"
The same people who drive the sub, the Alvin pilots, also maintain and repair it. Phil Forte is an Alvin pilot.
FORTE: "It makes over 200 dives in a year to a rather extreme environment and things just need fixing on a regular basis. We feel very comfortable working on it and diving in it, and we feel real comfortable diving in it because we work on it. So that is certainly one of the intents of having pilots also be technicians on it, is that you've got a vested interest in doing the work correctly."
When Alvin dives to the ocean floor, the ship's crew is dedicated to the sub's safe operation. After the sub returns, scientists use a variety of shipboard laboratories.
But the Atlantis isn't just about work. Since researchers and crew are on board 24 hours a day, the ship also is equipped with a special option for low-tech, interactive entertainment: A Ping-Pong table.
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Sonya Senkowsky.
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Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:
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