Atlantis Diaries I: Leaving Port

Leaving Port

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.


Monday, April 21
Entry by Kris Ludwig

The Lost City Expedition has begun! The R/V Atlantis departed Bridgetown, Barbados at 1400 hours (2:00 PM) today. Barbados slowly became smaller and smaller as we sailed into deeper waters, heading northeast. Many of us stood on deck, watching the flying fish and taking a few last mental images of land.

Atlantis expedition ship, leaving port in Barbados for the North Atlantic ridge

We all worked to tie down equipment in the labs and in the bow hold, which is used as a storage area for packing boxes and extra equipment. All of the tables in the lab have wood surfaces so they can be drilled into for securing instruments. In a matter of hours, an empty room on the ship is quickly converted into a working lab. Bungee cords, twine, different weights of line, screws, and scrap pieces of wood are all used to tie down and secure equipment. While the seas so far have been calm, there is always a chance we will hit bad weather, and in high seas one roll of the ship can send sampling equipment, test tubes, computers, and coffee mugs flying if they are not properly tied down.

At 1600 hours we had a fire drill followed by an abandon ship drill. For fire drills, all of us gather in the main lab, wearing our life jackets and carrying a hat and our survival suit. While fires are not common on vessels, they can happen. They can be started by something in the engine room, a chemical spill, or even just a heater left on too close to flammable material.

At the end of the drills, we had a demonstration of donning a survival suit (or "Gumby suit"). These suits are made of Neoprene and are designed to keep you warm for several hours to a couple of days in the water, depending on water temperature and weather. They can be challenging to put on because they are large and cumbersome!

Tuesday, April 22
Entry by Giora Proskurowski

This morning started as I expect most mornings on this cruise will start: by missing breakfast. Breakfast is served between 0730 and 0815, and it will be a struggle for me to get out of my bunk considering I normally work all night. However, on previous voyages on the Atlantis I have grown to love cook Luscious Larry’s breakfast, and have been known to watch a 5 AM movie to stay up until I can get a specially made egg muffin. Regardless, I did make it up for the 0900 safety meeting, and then slowly returned to work preparing the seagoing lab for sample extraction.

The mapping project involves global, regional, local and ultimately microscopic–from the great to the small

I am all settled into my corner of the ship, located in the forward starboard section of the main lab. When the submarine goes down and collects samples, the extraction itself is a full time job. The dive site is still four days away, so Eric Olson and I are just setting everything up, making sure that everything works.

So what do I do when I’m not getting everything in the lab ready? Well, today I read outside in the sun for a while, played ping-pong (practicing with Eric in order to get ready for the ship tournament, where the Captain is champion), worked on a paper I am writing, worked out in the gym (rowing machine, punching bag, weights), and will probably watch a movie later tonight.

Wednesday, April 23
Entry by Betsy Williams

Last night the Alvin pre-dive briefings began. Blee Williams, an Alvin pilot, gathered the eight of us who have never dived before for an orientation and safety lecture. He explained that the Alvin group lives by the three S’s: Safety, Sub, and Science — in that order. Getting the pictures and samples we need for research are secondary to getting everyone back to the ship safely every day, and there are many rules and procedures to make sure that happens.

Two by two, we entered "the Ball," the titanium sphere that makes up the living space of Alvin. Just entering the submersible requires a 10-minute safety lecture. The opening on the top is a small hatch, and there are many opportunities to touch something you definitely should not touch while lowering yourself down. Inside, Gavin Eppard explained the basics of what to do during a dive while we crouched on the metal floor, gaping at the arrays of switches and monitors.

Where the Earth’s mantle meets the crust, temperatures rapidly swing and minerals precipitate out the dissolved solids (carbonates) in the ocean

This afternoon we had an overview science meeting. Because the team is so diverse, including geologists, biologists, chemists, and Alvin pilots, these presentations cover the basics. Jeff opened the meeting by explaining the geologic setting of the Lost City. Debbie then talked about the chemistry of the carbonate chimneys and the microbes that live on and within the towers.

On a lighter note, we had beautiful weather today and also a treat for dinner: pizza and soda followed by Rocky Road ice cream. It seems that there are two factions aboard ship: those who think marshmallows make anything better and those who think they just don’t belong in ice cream.

Thursday, April 24
Entry by Gretchen Früh-Green and Dave Butterfield

We continue to speed along at about 12 knots to our site location. The seas are calm and, other than some clouds in the morning, it is another bright sunny day. We advanced our clocks one hour ahead last night a good sign that we are getting closer to our destination at 30°N. In the meantime, preparations are nearly finished in the labs and the Alvin pilots are continuing to give their pre-dive briefings.

This afternoon we had another science meeting, and Betsy Williams and Gretchen Früh-Green presented some of the results from the previous cruise to the Atlantis Massif. We discussed the types of rocks that make up the mountain and how these rocks are altered when they come into contact with seawater. Most of the rocks are mantle materials that have been altered to a rock called serpentinite. Heat is released during this process and it is this heat that we believe is driving the hydrothermal activity and the formation of the vents at Lost City.

Serpentinization is closely linked to tectonic activity in the area. The mantle rocks are deformed, sharply truncated, and overlain by sediments. Each rock, whether sediment or mantle material, tells a story of how the Atlantis Massif and the vent field came to be. It will be our job to read their stories and discover the secrets of Lost City.

Today we also tested the Hydrothermal Fluid and Particle Sampler (HFPS) on Alvin. HFPS is affectionately known as "the Beast" because it is so bulky and heavy and has an insatiable appetite for hydrothermal fluids. The Beast weighs 270 pounds in air (96 pounds in water) and is a little difficult to lift through the narrow, watertight doors that lead from the lab to the main deck. It has a skateboard" attachment that allows us to wheel the sampler out to the sub.

The Beast is not only big, but also complicated. After hauling it out and putting it onto the platform ("basket") in front of the sub, we connected the power and communication cable outside, and connected our laptop computer inside the submarine. There were no electrical problems, and the selection valve and two pumps both worked under computer control from inside the sub. The Bosun (Wayne Bailey) is working on a device to help us get the Beast through those tight doorways, which will really tame the Beast. If only the plumbing of the Beast were that easy, but that is another story.

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.