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A Voyage of Discovery to Inner Space

August 20, 2012

Being on the boat was at first like traveling in a foreign country. I didn’t have to deal with a different kind of electrical outlet, as did my new European friends. Otherwise, most everything was sort of alien. Bulkheads with water tight doors secured by pins hooked up to a wheeled dogging mechanism, metal bunk beds with a single mattress, roommates, metal lockers, shower stalls just big enough to turn around in. The rocking of the boat added a veneer of strange to the whole experience. Many of the clocks read Greenwich Mean Time, but the meal hours are posted in normal time. The food is great, and is served regularly at 7:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 4:30 PM. That was one thing it did not take very long to get used to; the stomach has a clock of its own.

Lito Llena, Chief Steward, prepares a meal in the galley, the most important space on the ship. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Lito Llena, Chief Steward, prepares a meal in the galley, the most important space on the ship. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

NOAA runs the boat, and some of the crew members wear uniforms, but not all of them. The semi-military environment is also reflected in some of the language used that also seems unfamiliar to me. When we arrive at a place in the ocean where we want to do some work, it is called being “on station”. The work we do at that location is referred to as “operations”. When the “head” or restroom is “secured”, it does not mean the door is locked, but that it is unavailable for use.

The bridge of the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, guiding us to strange new worlds. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

The bridge of the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, guiding us to strange new worlds. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

The work of the boat is totally geared towards the science. The expedition has many goals, all collecting data to try and answer questions about the canyons. Baltimore Canyon has only been explored a few times. In 1983 the submersible ALVIN surveyed areas of the canyon, but exactly where is unclear.  Our colleague in this project, Dr. Barbara Hecker, has explored several of these canyons.  During one of her surveys, a cold seep was discovered in the area, but again, exactly where is unclear.  Finding this seep is one of our priorities. This is the first time that an ROV has been in the area with modern global positioning systems.

This is also a voyage of discovery. Thus I am inspired by some of the great explorer’s that have come before us. Some of my personal heroes are Osbert Salvin and Frederick Godman, the great British explorers of Central America. Charles Darwin used a boat, as are we, and eventually he wrote the theory of evolution. His theory was very controversial when he wrote it, as is much of the cutting edge science being done today.

One of the unmanned probes, a Dutch Lander, awaiting its yearlong trip into a strange new world. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

One of the unmanned probes, a Dutch Lander, awaiting its yearlong trip into a strange new world. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

We modern-day explorers use tools that are more like robots, as we explore an alien and dangerous environment. I like to think that we can discover new animals as well as understand nutrient transport. In my lexicon, we are going to different collecting sites, and doing fieldwork. The machines we use allow us to go where no one has gone before, and where humans cannot go without taking their environment with them.

Craig Robertson, Bangor University, United Kingdom, tests one of the survival suits needed in case the ship is abandoned. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Craig Robertson, Bangor University, United Kingdom, tests one of the survival suits needed in case the ship is abandoned, while Dr. Steve Ross struggles into his.. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

The undersea environment is known as inner space, as opposed to outside the atmosphere, which is called outer space. Inner and outer space have much in common. They are both lethal to humans without serious protective gear. Indeed, outer space is fairly predictable: there is a near vacuum, and it is hot or cold, light or dark. On the other hand, the pressure of the deep sea can crush a human being; it is mainly dark, and cold, and even with light, visibility is often marginal. So in some ways it is more dangerous than outer space.

The ROV Kraken II, our unmanned probe, returns from inner space with biological samples in the specimen buckets, lower right. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

The ROV Kraken II, another unmanned probe, returns from inner space with biological samples in the specimen buckets, lower right. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

The surface of Earth is ¾ water, but life lives not just on the water but under the water too, a dark and cold place we are just beginning to explore and understand. And like the great explorers before us, we never know what new wonder lies just ahead on the other side of that rock.

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