Interview with Hugh Popenoe
by Cherie Winner
Hugh Popenoe in the lab.
You’re the only member of this cruise who has actually seen a deep hypersaline anoxic basin in person, on an Alvin dive in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Tell us about that.
Last November, a space opened up for someone like me, who works with Alvin but isn’t part of the full-time at-sea team. It was my first Alvin dive, too, so it was really a spectacular experience for me. It’s one of these things you dream of doing as a kid.
We dove down to 2,300 meters and came upon this brine pool. It was very much like a lake inside of a lake. As you approach it, there’s essentially a ‘beach’ [what Dr. Bernhard calls the ‘bathtub ring’]. The beach is maybe three feet in width. Then you come upon the brine, and there’s a very defined interface between the seawater as we know it and the brine itself. It’s such that if the Alvin tried to dive into the brine, it would cause a wave under the water, just from pushing the brine. We didn’t actually do that, but there’s a YouTube video that shows it. The scientist with us didn’t want the brine to be mixed up; she wanted to get samples at different depths. But through the porthole, seeing the bluish-green color with minerals floating in it was fascinating. It reminded me of slag from melting iron or metals. You can look into it and see minerals floating around like little icebergs.
Did the brine basin Jason went to the other night look different?
The lighting’s different. Seeing it with cameras is different than seeing it out the windows of Alvin. Your eyes are better for picking up these differences. It did look different, but it could be just the lighting. It’s hard to tell right now. We’ll find out later.
Tell us about some of the adaptations you and the rest of the Jason team made after the first dive.
A compass housing flooded. We’re not really sure why it flooded [with seawater], but it did. We have another compass so we just replaced that. We added more light to the upper bar so there will be better lighting in front of the vehicle. There was difficulty seeing the difference between the the brine and the halocline, the transition zone from the beach to the brine pool. We also adjusted the power supply on a pump that was pumping too fast. It’s a robust power supply, and the chip that we’re using to control it can be tuned such that we can lower the voltage about 20 percent.
Jason team members seem to do a wide range of tasks—electrical work, building things, navigating or piloting, programming.
I think WHOI tends to attract people who can contribute in a lot of different ways. Being at sea, it helps to be hands-on. It’s like at home, it doesn’t hurt to be your own car mechanic, and at the same time understand the electronics of your computer and things that connect to it.
Do you enjoy that variety?
Oh yeah, I do. ‘Variety is the spice of life.’ It’s good, especially out here, to be able to handle anyone’s position. If people have a general skill set between electrical and mechanical, that’s very useful, because you may have multiple electronics problems and if you can have many different eyes on the problems, it helps out, makes things run more smoothly.
Having said that, do you also have a specialty or favorite?
Oh, boy, I hadn’t thought of that. I like the variety. (He laughs.) There are so many ways to answer that question. I’ve done programming and I enjoy that, and I’ve done electronics and I enjoy that, but to do those tasks full-time, it becomes tiring. You need a break away from it. And the mechanical things as well. It’s nice to go from doing something mechanical with your hands to a programming task and then get away from the programming task to do something else.
What sort of training did you have? When you were in college, where did you think you were headed?
I went to school for electrical engineering. I wasn’t sure what that would bring me, but it had good opportunities. I always loved sailing—I grew up sailing and boating—and so I wanted to combine the marine with electronics or something like that. So shortly after college I started working at WHOI for a year and a half, [but] I wanted to do other things, I wanted to explore things on my own terms, I suppose. I ended up building houses and building boats and taking jobs doing mechanical manufacturing and programming. And 17 years later, I ended up applying at WHOI again. I’ve been here six or seven years now. And I love it.
What do you love most about it?
It’s the work I see myself doing. Most of my life I’ve been working toward getting a variety of skills. All of a sudden, at WHOI I can apply a lot of those skills. And it wasn’t planned; it’s just the way life works out sometimes.