Dispatch 8: Them There Eyes

September 7, 2000

They make me feel so happy.
They make me feel so blue.

—Billie Holiday

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

The two furies of field work—technical problems and bad weather—hamper the expedition’s search.

Sonar on Argus, the expedition team’s remotely operated imaging vehicle, remains down. A replacement unit won’t reach the ship for another four days. Two days ago the ROV’s main video camera also joined the disabled list. “Basically, it croaked,” ROV engineer Dave Wright tells me. Additionally, the team struggles with “noise” problems—distortions and loss of detail—with the main and auxiliary cameras on Argus. Essentially the ROV is squinting, unable to read the fine print of the sea floor.

The good news for the team is that video specialist Charlie Smith has arrived bearing gifts: expertise and a replacement video camera for Argus. The bad news? The team loses valuable search time making the nearly half-day transit to and from the port city of Sinop.

(Tomorrow the team is due back in port for scheduled personnel changes.)

Given schedule constraints, the team has just 24 hours to investigate a prime target area.

By 4:53 a.m. this morning the ship is in place and Argus is ready to launch. It’s dark on deck. A warm wind buffets the ship, carrying the smell of the sea. Overhead, the constellation Orion yawls back and forth across the night sky. Big swells from an earlier storm pogo the Northern Horizon up and down like a carousel horse.

Deck crews swing Argus astern. The weighted ROV spools its cable tether seeking the bottom, bringing light to darkness.

Inside the control room, the news is not good. Monitor displays from Argus’s video cameras show that the ROV is jerking up and down on its tether, following the surface motions of the ship. As the ROV pulses the sea floor, it raises clouds of vision-obscuring sediment. There’s also a risk of disturbing potentially in situ artifacts.

But a more immediate concern is stress on the ROV’s cable tether. As Argus jerks up and feathers down more slowly, slack gathers in the ROV’s cable tether. Each successive jerk cracks Argus’s tether like a bullwhip.

“I think we should recover the vehicle,” Ballard says in the control room.

Out on the fantail of the ship, veteran seaman Gary Austin tells me the darkness is a good thing—a few green deck hands won’t see the waves.

“I’m a little worried about snap-loading near the surface,” Ballard shouts to the deck crew. “When we go, we should go fast. Bring this monster aboard.” The deck crew makes quick work capturing the ROV.

“The ocean has its violent moods and its gentle moods,” Ballard later observes. “I’m waiting for it to be kind and let me in.”

—Sean Markey

Go to 1999 Dispatches

[an error occurred while processing this directive]