Atlantis Diaries V: Hump Day

Atlantis Diary V

Hump Day

The bizarre hydrothermal vent field discovered a little more than two years ago surprised scientists not only with vents that are the tallest ever seen –the one that’s 18 stories dwarfs most vents at other sites by at least 100 feet — but also because the fluids forming these vents are heated by seawater reacting with million-year-old mantle rocks, not by young volcanism. The field is unlike any seen before, according to chief scientist Deborah Kelley , a University of Washington associate professor of oceanography, and co-chief scientist Jeff Karson, a Duke University professor of earth and ocean sciences. Both have visited fields of black-smoker hydrothermal vents that scientists have been studying since the 1970s.

Now the two scientists who were the first to travel in a submersible to the field after its serendipitous discovery Dec. 4, 2000, are leading a National Science Foundation-funded expedition to map and further investigate the field. The ‘Atlantis Diaries’ chronicles the expedition returning with 24 scientists onboard an exploration vessel, the Atlantis, during their 32-day expedition that spans April 21 to May 22.


Tuesday, May 6
Entry by Adelie Delacour

Every morning, I awaken with pleasure to see the launch of Alvin, hoping that it will bring back a lot of samples. Every afternoon I wait impatiently for its return to look at the samples collected from Lost City.

Alvin takes several kinds of samples: water samples, biologic samples, and rock samples. My interest is in the rock samples. My specialty on this cruise is the petrology and the geochemistry, and my job is to describe the rocks collected from the Lost City after each dive. I cut them in order to describe them in detail and to learn about their history: where they come from, the conditions of formation, and alterations they display. Additional analyses will be performed in the laboratory on land (bulk, mineralogical, and isotopic compositions).

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Away from the hydrothermal vents, there is very little life on the seafloor.Credit: lostcity.washington.edu

The samples collected at each dive amaze me. Imagine having in your hand rocks coming from the depth of the ocean: it’s magic! And it’s even more surprising when I cut these samples. The carbonate vent structures display unbelievable textures that are very hard to describe. It’s kind of like a superposition of white crumpled papers or the inside of a wasp’s nest.

The basement samples (peridotite, gabbro, serpentinites) also are amazing. Outside they look like blocks covered by a black manganese crust, but when they are cut in half they display a large variety of textures, mineralogy and alterations.

Today is our 10th Alvin dive, and Tim Shank wanted to take biology samples, so the "hydraulic slurp" was mounted in front of Alvin. It’s like a vacuum cleaner that sucks up life around Lost City. And when Alvin came up, the "big slurp" proved to have worked very well. A lot of work is ahead for the biologists tonight! I thought this morning there would be no rock samples, but Tim collected three vent carbonate samples, including a huge one that smells of H2S (like a rotten egg) and has an interesting texture.

P.S.: I’m the only French person on this cruise, and my English and my knowledge of American culture are not very good. Everyday I try a new thing to eat (Oreos, hamburgers, Dr Pepper, muffins, pancakes) but I haven’t yet tried the traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich… and I’m not really looking forward to trying it… sorry! I also try to learn new words and to change my French accent. But there is a word too difficult to say for me: it’s "squirrel." And the American people laugh at me, but it’s also difficult for you to say the French word ‘ecureuil’ (squirrel). Try to say it!

Wednesday, May 7, 2003
Entry by Susan Lang

Reading the journal entries, you may think that all we do out here is science. Science in the morning, science in the afternoon, science (and science meetings) at night. To some extent, that’s an accurate picture. At any given time on our 33-day cruise there will be someone doing some kind of science: working up data, looking at samples, trying to fix instruments. But man (or woman) cannot live on science alone. Even though we may not be able to tell the difference between a Monday and a Saturday, we do have time to do things other than science.

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The ‘party-pig’. The pressure sensor is attached to a device that logs the data. The conical "hat" allows scientists to check that data is being recorded.Credit: lostcity.washington.edu

But on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, entertainment options are more limited than in your typical neighborhood. There are the obvious pastimes: a wide collection of DVDs and books go a long way toward passing the time. Card games are another favorite; four of the crew members have been playing an ongoing game of spades since the beginning of the cruise. People spend a fair amount of time writing and reading emails, our primary way of finding out what is happening outside our 250 x 50-foot world.

There is a weight room with a bike, rowing machine, and treadmill if you want to work out, assuming you don’t mind the scenery of boxes while you are running. There are also three punching bags, which are kind of hard to hit when the ship is moving. Some of the most energetic exercise occurs around the Ping-Pong table, where round one of a 16-person double-elimination tournament has just been completed.

The high point to almost everyone’s day, though, is mealtime. Larry and Linda serve meals three times a day. The meals on Atlantis are notorious for making the scientists at least five pounds heavier by the end of the cruise. At day 19 we are still getting fresh fruits and vegetables, a small miracle if you – like me – have ever forgotten about a head of lettuce at the bottom of your refrigerator, only to find it rotten after a week. At the beginning of the cruise, they loaded 6 pallets 4 ft. high with food to feed all 55 of us for 33 days – and that was only the fresh produce. If everyone showed up to every meal, there would be more than 5,400 individual meals over the course of the cruise.

If mealtime is the highlight of the day, hump day is the highlight of the cruise. Hump day occurs in the middle of the cruise, which for us was yesterday. Everyone gathered on the fantail and we had a barbecue. Most people took a couple hours off from working to sit out and enjoy the sun. The break means that tomorrow we will be all the more ready to wake up and go right back to the science.

Thursday, May 8
Entry by Ben Larson

The journal entries thus far have done an excellent job depicting cruise life with one notable exception: they have not delved into the nocturnal life on the cruise. Well, my job is to run the gas chromatograph (GC), so I am a creature of the night.

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Sunrise to sleep. The arrival of the sun signifies the end of another work-day.Credit: lostcity.washington.edu

On any other cruise, I would analyze water samples for hydrogen and methane only. But due to the unique geologic setting of the Lost City, Eric Olson and I developed a method that allows us to analyze the samples for higher molecular weight hydrocarbon compounds such as ethane and butane. As you might imagine, determining the concentrations of so many different dissolved components can be time consuming, and the GC cannot be rushed. On days when Dave Butterfield’s fluid sampler goes down with Alvin, up to 14 different water samples can be collected. They all require gas chromatographic analysis, and this can make for some rather long, but very interesting, nights.

The nightlife in the Hydro Lab starts out not unlike a Saturday night on land, owing mostly to the fact that I share the lab with the ABE team. Dress at Club Hydro is casual, the atmosphere is friendly, and Dr. D (Dana Yoerger) spins up some rockin’ tunes. The faces in the crowd are constantly changing as people drift in and out to watch the ABE guys do their thing. As the night wears on, the music dies down, and the crowd thins out until only Mike Jakuba and I remain.

In the middle of the night, the unending stream of chromatographic traces and Mike’s quiet typing are like a hypnotist’s watch, and the night becomes almost surreal. On some nights during this heightened level of reality, I think I may have been visited by Albert Einstein, who came offering assistance with my analyses, but I can’t be sure. Of course, not every night is so work intensive. I use the slower nights to analyze the immense amount of data generated by the GC, or, since I have the main lab pretty much all to myself, I may play loud music and practice dance moves from the 1970s.

The Lost City is remote and our time here is limited and expensive, so round-the-clock operations are a must. At the end of the night, when that last sample has been run, I sit back and content myself with fact that I know a whole lot more about the Lost City than I did just 12 hours ago. Every scientist on board is generating huge data sets of his or her own, so the vast amount of information that’s been gathered in the 11 days that we’ve been here is mind-numbing.

At around 5:30, when the sky begins to lighten and people once again begin to populate the ship, I know that it will soon be time for me to retreat to the darker corners of the ship and sleep – perchance to dream about gas chromatography. Whether the next night will bring a full load of samples and another heart-to-heart with Albert, or a chance to bone up on my Robot dance technique, you better believe it’ll be a night to remember.


The project includes scientists, engineers and students from the University of Washington, Duke University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Switzerland’s Institute for Mineralogy and Petrology and Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. Collaborators include: Jeff Karson, Duke University, Co-PI and diver during the discovery; Matt Schrenk (an astrobiology graduate student at the UW School of Oceanography); P.J. Cimino (a NASA Space grant undergraduate); and John Baross, also a faculty member in astrobiology and oceanography.

Related Web Pages

Atlantis Diaries XI: Encore
Atlantis Diaries X: Reaction Zone
Atlantis Diaries IX: Rescue
Atlantis Diaries VIII: Science Basket
Atlantis Diaries VII: Poseidon’s Excellent Adventure
Atlantis Diaries VI: Portal on the Past
Atlantis Diaries V: Hump Day
Atlantis Diaries IV: Eating Iron
Atlantis Diaries III: Exploring Alien Eco-Regions
Atlantis Diaries II: First Dive
Atlantis Diaries I: Leaving Port
Life from Rocky Reaction
Lost City Expedition
Discovery of Lost City vent field-Univ. Washington

Univ. Washington School of Oceanography
Cafe Methane
Life without Volcanic Heat