Friday, July 17, 2015


Somehow, the best days of my life always end up being accompanied by Mumford and Sons. I remember in the summer of 2013, I drove up to North Cascades National Park in Washington to meet a college friend. I hadn't seen her in two years. As we drove through the mountains in her red Mustang convertible, eating organic strawberries and feeling our ears pop with the ever-increasing altitude, Mumford and Sons came on the radio. We sang the words to each other as loudly as we could, and as the cool alpine wind teased our hair, we both laughed for the sheer beauty and joy of the moment.

Then in Norway, on the day I went canyoning with two housemates in Voss, our Canadian driver had Mumford on repeat in his repurposed old school bus. I had honestly no idea what I was getting into at the time, but as I settled back into the bus seat, I looked to my housemate, Jonathan. He was wearing a wild smile and and was practically bouncing in his seat for anticipation. He had planned our whole crazy adventure, and on that cold morning, his bright blue eyes told me what I already knew: I was in for a ride.

Mumford has a way of being present at the moments when my heart is pumping the hardest, my eyes are open the widest, and my soul is soaring the highest. And Mumford was present today, to accompany the single greatest adventure I've had so far.

Today, I went to the bottom of the ocean.

That's right, friends, I got an Alvin dive, and it was the journey of a lifetime. I find myself struggling to find the right words to describe the experience, or actually to find any words at all. Yes, I know how cliché that sounds, but it's true. When I stepped out of the sub today, I moved like a robot: I climbed the ladder, retrieved my shoes, walked down the catwalk toward my labmates, and prepared to be doused with ice water. I couldn't think; I could only move, and there was this odd moment when Luciana, a fellow OIMBer, looked up at me and asked, "What, no words?" They all expected the same bubbly, enthusiastic Kirstin that had climbed into Alvin that morning, but that girl didn't know what to do with herself. She was stunned silent. It was the first time in my life that I've ever been truly speechless. 

I'm going to do my best to describe to you the beauty that I experienced today. I'll use whatever words the English language has to offer, and if I have to draw on other languages too, I'll hope you'll follow along. Here we go.

The adventure started last night, or maybe it was afternoon. Craig, my Ph.D. supervisor, came into the lab where my fellow OIMBers and I were sorting larvae from the previous night's MOCNESS tow. We were getting toward the end, which meant we were all a bad mix of exhausted and impatient, so when Craig walked in, I was happy enough for an excuse to step away from my microscope. I leaned on a table near the door, and Craig came up and stood next to me. 

"You're going in Alvin tomorrow," he said. 

I honestly couldn't believe it, and I'm afraid my reaction wasn't what he was hoping for. I had convinced myself that I would never get a dive, just to protect myself from disappointment in case my expectation came true. But there it was. I was going to get an Alvin dive.

Craig then informed me that the site I would be visiting was completely unknown; no one had ever been there before, via submersible, ROV, or otherwise. The site was scientifically interesting because mulit-beam SONAR data from 2013 showed a plume of gas at the seafloor, and gas plumes usually correspond to methane seeps. The senior scientists on board all thought the site could potentially feature an undiscovered cold seep habitat, and it was my job to go investigate. Well, mine and my dive buddy's.

Adam, Alvin, and I before our dive. Photo by Caitlin Plowman.
My dive buddy was Adam Skarke, a geologist from Mississippi State University. He's spent most of his time on the cruise so far collecting and analyzing multi-beam data, and he's good at what he does. I was really excited to go on my dive with a geologist, especially if our dive site had never been visited before. I figured he'd know how to navigate us to interesting habitats, and besides, Adam is a pretty nice guy. It was the first dive for both of us.

We spent a few hours in the evening conferring with a couple other scientists on the cruise, making sure we knew their research objectives inside and out. If the site turned out to be an active methane seep, it was our job to collect samples for everyone on board. Because only three people can be in Alvin at a given time (two scientists and one pilot), the diving scientists are responsible for carrying out the wishes of their fellow shipmates. Those underwater are responsible for everyone's research, not just their own. Of course, the diving scientists have a little bit of latitude, but there is definitely a sense of responsibility there. Adam and I made sure we knew what we were doing.

I was actually surprised how little I had to prepare for the dive. Alvin is a well-established platform, so the Woods Hole team has pretty much worked out all the kinks. Any personal items you want with you on the dive go in a blue bin in the Alvin hangar the night before. Lunch is packed for you, and the chief scientist prints out checklists of all the sampling to be done that day. Anyone who might dive in Alvin gets their saftey briefing at the beginning of the cruise, so by the time your dive comes around, it's already taken care of. There are pre-formatted note pads for you to write on, so you don't need to bring paper. You're not allowed personal electronics due to fire hazard. Pack a few warm clothes, and honestly, you're done.

Getting into the sub. Photo by Caitlin Plowman.
Because preparations for the dive were so minimal, I actually spent about an hour pacing the ship this morning. I got up for breakfast, but I didn't want to start any tasks before my dive. I ended braiding another girl's hair to keep myself occupied. I used the bathroom several times so I didn't have to in the sub (it's possible but embarrassing and difficult). As Alvin exited its hangar and my fellow OIMBers gathered on deck to see me off, my excitement grew to the point that I was bouncing across the fantail. Oh yes, my reputation as Enthusiastic Girl grew a few sizes today.

Adam and I climbed the stairs, removed our shoes, and lowered ourselves into Alvin, where the pilot was waiting. The scientists in Alvin essentially sit on the floor, one on either side of the pilot. There are cushions arranged in a reclined position facing backwards, and there are port holes on the sides and front of the sub. The front port hole on either side is essentially behind the scientist's head. It may not make a lot of sense to you now, but I insist it makes sense in the sub. It's the only way to comfortably fit three people in a spherical space and let all of them look out the window. The scientists are able to see out the side port hole from the reclined position, but to see out the front port hole, you kind of have to roll over and lay on your side. Anyway, I got into place, glued my face to the port hole, and braced for deployment. Alvin dive 4804 was underway.

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