Saturday, July 18, 2015

4804: Part 4

As we glided around, exploring the mussel bed, our pilot said words that neither Adam nor I wanted to hear: "We're running low on battery."

It wasn't entirely clear why Alvin's battery was running lower than usual on our dive, but I suppose we had been sampling a lot. We did end up having to cut the dive short - it lasted 6 hours instead of the usual 9 - but to be honest, I really can't complain. I went on a journey to the bottom of the ocean, discovered a new cold seep habitat, collected samples from it, and saw amazing organisms in the process. We went to an entirely unknown site and came back with evidence of a thriving biological community. Exactly three humans have ever seen that particular patch of ground, and I am one of them. In fact, I am the only woman.

Chris had to get clearance from the ship before we could ascend, so there were a few minutes when we just hung suspended above the bottom, waiting for permission. Alvin climbed slowly up a jagged ridge in that time, giving us a dramatic view of the habitat we had just sampled. We then hovered over the top of the cliff, gazing down at the rugged landscape, the geyser-like bubbling, the countless mussels, the fuzzy bacterial mats. In that moment, I felt like an alien, a visitor to another planet, slowly making my departure and wishing the terrestrials peace. It was an incredibly tranquil, serene moment, but in another way, it was sad. There's just something forlorn about gazing downward into dark water that I really can't explain. If I were to compose that moment in music, I would have the violins gradually climb their way away from the cellos, using perfect fourths and fifths to build my chords. Then I would add the violas, giving them strange harmonies, minor sevenths and major seconds. It would sound like lifting away and convey a deep, deep sense of longing.

As Alvin dropped its weights, I felt the sub tilt to one side, then another. I silently bid farewell to the deep seafloor, holding back my tears. My mind was flooded with various thoughts, but only one of them materialized into a word: Gratitude. That's all I felt as we pulled away. Gratitude. Gratitude for my life, for the breath in my lungs, for the wide, beautiful planet I inhabit and the deep, gorgeous ocean that covers the majority of it surface. Gratitude for this place that I am and all the places I have been. Gratitude for the opportunity to visit the bottom of the ocean and for the doctoral adviser who brought me here. I've only recently started to appreciate how deeply he wants me to succeed, how strongly he campaigns on my behalf, but I finally got it today. My adviser cares so much. I saw it in the mussels and the mats and the myctophids. Gratitude. Nothing but gratitude.
Stepping out of the sub. Photo by Luciana Genio.

The ascent went pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was watching swimmers out my port hole again. When we were lifted out of the water and I could see the sun, it felt like I had just woken up from a really incredible dream. Alvin dive 4804 was over. I almost blinded myself stepping out of the sub and moved slowly, silently, utterly speechless, down the stairs to my labmates below. It was absolutely the most incredible experience of my life so far, and I can tell you with certainty that two things will happen from now on:
1) I will do everything in my power to get back into that sub.
2) I will do everything in my power to get others the chance to dive. There is absolutely nothing like it.

I suppose you're wondering if I got an ice-water baptism, as is tradition for first-time Alvin divers. Of course I did, and if you want to see pictures, I can actually do you one better. There's video. Once Adam had both made our way over to the waiting crowd, another grad student on board shoved a GoPro in my hand and told me to push Play. We got the whole thing on tape, and here it is. Watch it as many times as you want, my friends, because I don't care. I don't care that I squealed and screamed and wanted to run from the shocking sting of the cold. I don't care that everything on me got soaked. I don't care. Because I went to the bottom of the ocean today, and compared to the beauty of the world that I experienced down there, dear friends, nothing else matters.

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