Dispatch 5: Pulling the Ears, Dropping the Eyes

September 4, 2000

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s lifeÖ
were all the fountains of the great deep broken up

—Genesis 7:4

[Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit field dispatches.]

Enough targets have been identified. It’s time to take a look. Last evening, Ballard gave the order to pull bottom-scanning sonar “fish” and drop Argus— the eyes of the expedition.

Photo of Mark DeRoche

By 10:00 p.m. DSL-120 is on deck. At 1:50 a.m. Argus—the camera-equipped remotely operated imaging vehicle (ROV)—is launched.

Despite the hour there’s a palpable buzz in the air: finally a chance to peer into the depths of the Black Sea. It seems as if the entire expedition team is crammed into the mission control room. Three large video monitors that display a live feed from Argus’s video cameras. Zooplankton, illuminated by the ROV’s lights, drifts like snow across the green-hued monitor display of the sea as Argus sinks slowly toward the sea-floor. What will be revealed?

Photo of the Argusís cameras

“O.K. We’re heading right toward the target. Altitude 40 meters,” says ROV engineer Craig Elder.

The team zeroes in on it’s first target, a nebulous feature barely discernible on the sea-floor. [Institute for Exploration oceanographer Dwight Coleman would later describe the target this way: “It was interesting, but we weren’t quite sure what to make of it.”]

Photo of the Argusís thrusters

The team documents the site with a mosaic of digital images, then moves on to eyeball the next target. The process repeats itself again at a third target.

Photo of the crew loading Argus onboard

Sometime around 5:00 a.m. the sonar fails on Argus. It’s a significant set-back. Without Argus’s 100-meter [110-yard] distance vision, the team is reduced to visually searching for targets through the ROV’s video cameras. [ROV engineer Dave Wright later likens it to groping around in the dark with an outstretched arm.] But for now, that’s all the expedition team can do.

Eventually the order to yank Argus is given. By 8:30 a.m. the ROV sits on the fantail of the Northern Horizon. (Despite the equipment failure, the concensus among the crew is that Argus—fresh off the shelf and relatively untested—has performed admirably to date.)

Photo of the crew securing Argus onboard

Down in the lower-deck mess hall Ballard strides in for breakfast after the long night’s work, booming good-naturedly, “No sonar? No sonar? That sucks.”

I ask Jim Newman, the developer and builder of Argus, what happened to the ROV’s sonar unit. “It leaked,” he said. “Pretty fundamental problem.”

At present, the team works to restore its vision.

—Sean Markey

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