launch today's slideshow

Today's Weather
Lat: 9° 50.814 N
Long: 104° 17.565' W
Winds: NE; 8.26 knots
Air Temp: 26.6°C, 79.9 °F
Bar. Pressure: 1012.5 mbar
Humidity: 75.4%
Sea surface temp: 27.3°C; 81.2 °F 
Visibility: Unlimited

what's to eat?



Learn more about ROV Jason »


The First Delivery

January 5, 2014 (posted January 6, 2014)
by David Levin

All around the Atlantis, the world is a palette of blue, as sapphire water and azure sky blend with the cobalt paint on the ship’s hull.

Suddenly, a bright yellow fleck appears among the waves. The tip of an elevator, a device used to move equipment and samples between the ship and the ocean floor, has just broken the surface off the starboard bow.

Since the remotely operated vehicle Jason will stay submerged for days at a time, these elevators act as a physical link between the vents at the seafloor and the labs here on the ship. They don’t look like much—each one is just a six-foot-square metal platform with buoyant yellow balls attached to a mast above it. That simplicity, though, is part of their allure. “The more complex something is, the more things there are that can go wrong,” said technician Sean Sylva. With valuable samples at stake, these elevators need to work reliably.

Once in the water, an elevator—with weights attached to its bottom—sinks to the ocean floor, carrying fresh samplers and sensors with it. At the bottom, Jason removes the samplers and sensors for use at the vents and replaces them with samples it has collected. Then it releases the weights. Now buoyant, the elevator rises gently towards the surface. The trip upward takes a little more than an hour.

Today, the elevator we’ve spotted carries the first samples of the expedition, and a crowd of researchers lines the railing of the ship, watching it in anticipation. 

As the Atlantis moves slowly alongside it, the ship’s crew hoists the elevator aboard using a crane on the stern. Bosun Ed "Catfish" Popowitz waves in the waiting scientists, who rush the samples into the lab.


Within a few minutes, though, it becomes apparent that not everything went according to plan at the bottom.

As Jeff Seewald and Sean Sylva begin working on the four Isobaric Gas-Tight (IGT) samplers that just arrived, they notice that two of them have malfunctioned. A faulty valve opened on the way to the surface, letting the vent fluid inside bubble out. The remaining two samplers will give them just enough fluid to start their analysis, but Sylva is still visibly disappointed.

“You work with these things so often, they start to seem like they're part of you,” he said, “so if they fail, you feel like you've failed." Fortunately, it’s still early in our expedition, so there will be plenty of other opportunities to collect the vent fluids.

Marine chemist Nadine Le Bris and technician Erwan Peru have also run into trouble. Yesterday, they sent delicate sensors to the ocean floor on Jason’s basket, a platform it uses to carry scientific instruments. The pair used them to measure chemistry, temperature, and pH at the vents, but within a few hours, they lost contact with one of the sensors and could no longer download data from it.

Now, the two researchers huddle over their workbench, pulling information from the device, which just arrived on the elevator.

Whistle while you work

In a lab just down the hall, the atmosphere is a little more celebratory. Marine biologist Horst Felbeck strolls in with a bucket of white and red tubeworms collected by Jason early this morning. They're the length of his forearm, and as thick as a broomstick—and these are small ones. Felbeck places one in a metal pan and unceremoniously cuts a slit down the length of its body. With a surgeon's hands, he snips off bits of the worm and tucks them into plastic vials, as red blood pools in his dissection pan.

Felbeck has done this hundreds, maybe thousands, of times over his 30-year career. He’s sending samples of the tubeworms’ organs to colleagues in Greifswald, Germany, where they’ll analyze symbiotic microbes that live inside them and supply the tubeworms with nutrients.

Despite the gory mess in his hands, Felbeck whistles contentedly as he works. He’s come thousands of miles to get these worms, and his sampling effort has gone off without a hitch.


[ Previous update ]   [ Next update ]


[Back to top]