Tito Collasius, Jason Expedition Leader
How did you get your start with Jason?
Well, I spent a lot of years working on ships before I started working with remotely operated vehicles [ROVs]. I ran off and joined the Navy at 17. I was in for three years, mostly on the battleship Iowa, which was quite an experience. Then I spent 15 years working on research ships, starting out as a messman. I was actually washing dishes on the cruise that discovered the Titanic. That was what opened my eyes to a lot of the technology used for underwater exploration.
Over time, I worked my way into the deck department, made it to bosun for a few cruises, and I worked in the engine room for seven years. When you work in the engine room, half the scientists on board come to you with a broken piece of equipment and say, “Hey, can you fix this thing?” So it gave me some of the skills I needed to work on robotic vehicles.
Now you’re running the show with an ROV.
Yeah, it didn’t come immediately. I had done a couple of cruises with the ROV group at WHOI in the early 2000s, and it just seemed like a natural fit for me. I had lots of experience launching and recovering vehicles, fixing things, and so on. In 2005, a friend of mine in the ROV group left, and I wound up taking his job. I expected to take about five years to get to be chief pilot or higher, but after three years working with the group, everything clicked, and by 2008 I was sailing as expedition leader.
So what keeps you coming back to sea?
The toy I get to play with! It’s really rewarding. When I manage to get a tough sample, and someone like Stefan [Sievert] is like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you got that,” it’s fantastic. They’re so excited that they’re getting good samples. One good example of that is an expedition I was on near Tasmania, Australia. The chief scientist needed to go down into a crack that couldn’t have been more than a foot wider than the vehicle, but I figured, let’s try it. It worked! He was so excited to get his sample, he couldn’t sit down. Giving that experience to people is really what keeps me going. When they can’t sit down, I’ve done my job well.
How long did it take you to learn to operate Jason?
You really have to be around it for a while. You can’t just sit down in there and expect to put it all together, all the information, the sonars, the navigation, the control systems. It took me years to learn it all. It’s confusing at first, but it just takes time and the right aptitude. You have to be able to think three-dimensionally, since you have a ship up at the surface, you have Medea hanging from the ship on a long cable, and below that, you have Jason. And if the ship moves, they’re all going to move. You have to have some hand-eye coordination.
What’s the most challenging part of running a Jason operation?
I guess keeping both my group and the science group happy, balancing everyone’s needs. That’s always a challenge. Other than that, I’m always thinking about little details. Did I remember to pull the weights out of the elevator? Did I remember to pass all the information needed to the pilot on the next shift? Did I give the chief scientist every option that was available? Those are the three things that wake me up in the middle of the night.
You’re out here six months a year—you must enjoy these expeditions.
Out here everything just seems right. My father was a sailor, and his father was a sailor, so saltwater is kind of in my veins. I own a powerboat and a sailboat, and I’ve never lived anywhere I couldn’t get to the ocean. I like a rocking ship under me, to some extent. Maybe not all year long, but a good chunk of it. And also, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are free—that’s a nice perk.
So what’s your job like when you’re not at sea?
My lab is really busy putting together deep-submergence equipment for other groups. We built another version of Jason for the Southampton Oceanography Center in England. That one is called Isis. We built another vehicle called Nereus in 2007, which is an ROV/AUV [Autonomous Underwater Vehicle] that can go down to 11,000 meters, tethered only by a tiny fiber-optic cable as thin as a hair. I was heavily involved in that. Now, we’re about to start building anther deep, Nereus-like vehicle that will go to 11,000 meters. It'll be controlled not just with a fiber, but with an optical modem, which can transmit data wirelessly under the water.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen through the eyes of an ROV?
Probably seeing live volcanoes at the bottom, within 24 hours after leaving port. I mean, hydrogen explosions on the seafloor, molten lava actually flowing. Just incredible. On another expedition, we found a third-century shipwreck in the Black Sea. The sails and rigging had rotted away, but the masts and decking were still sticking up out of mud, and since it was in really deep water, it was very well preserved. It looked like it sank yesterday, just sitting there in the mud, and we were the first people to see it in almost two thousand years.