10 March 1999
On Board the NIWA Research Vessel Kaharoa
South Bay, Kaikoura, New Zealand

First Deep Dive

The day for the first deep dive into the Kaikoura Canyon has arrived. The tender for the Kaharoa met us at the dock at 7:20 a.m. to shuttle the team of scientists and photographers to the Kaharoa, moored a 1/2 mile offshore near the hidden underwater rim of the canyon.

The sub is on the stern of the ship; the pilot/photographer Mike deGruy is going through the last few items of his pre-dive check list. Before each dive, there are over 200 items to be checked for the external pre-dive list alone. The internal pre-dive checklist covers over 138 items; each has a separate port and starboard part. For Mike, there are 25 additional camera-related checks. This checklist takes over two hours to perform before the dive may proceed. There is great concern for the safety of the sub driver, for which I'm very grateful.

The sub will be continually attached to the Kaharoa by an "umbilical cord." The process for constructing this important part was described by Gene on March 1st as a group of us on the pier taped together the 2500 ft., 1.5 inch diameter poly-steel rope with two fiber-optic cables. These important cables lead from the cameras to the monitors strategically placed aboard the ship. The scientists will gather around these monitors and eagerly search for their particular animals of interest, hoping to identify them. For many scientists, this will be their first observation of these animals alive in their natural habitat. Scientists usually identify their deep-sea animals from preserved specimens in a jar, most likely shriveled or discolored or mangled. They certainly do look different when alive and swimming in the deep waters!

I stand on the roof of the bridge, firstly, because I have to stay out of the way of the frenetic activity on deck; secondly, because that's the best possible view for me and my camera. From my high perch I see the afterdeck below as half a dozen yellow and orange hard hats and life vests hover around the sub taking care of lines, hoses, the "umbilical cord," and last minute pre-dive checks. From my vantage point, they look like worker bees in a hive, busily hovering around the queen bee, tending to her needs.

It's time for the sub to leave the deck. The A-frame rises and the strong cable lifts the sub off the deck. The support diver puts on her face mask and flippers and then rolls into the water in preparation to unsnap the safety ropes and the lifting cable from the sub. All scientific crew on board are enlisted to help feed out the umbilical cord once the sub is free in the water.

As the sub slowly sinks beneath the surface, the crew continues to feed out the cord, as the scientists scurry to the monitors and glue their eyes to the screen for their first glimpse of an animal alive in its natural habitat. Each scientist has a checklist on a clipboard. As the depth is called out, they jot down the scientific name of the animal and its depth, then eagerly continue to watch the screen.The sub slowly drops to the depth of 2000 feet, and can stay there for 4-5 hours.

Suddenly, the call goes out aboard the ship to get ready for the surfacing of the sub. All persons proceed to their stations and look with anticipation across the water. A curious seal swims past the ship, and finds it uninteresting. A while later, a blue shark lazily swims around the ship. In the distance, a pod of six orca whales circle the ship less than 100 meters away. The high mountains surround us and frame this idyllic scene.

 

"Sub's up!" About 200 yards starboard the flag pierces the water's surface. We cannot pull on the cord. We must merely pick up the slack as the sub moves closer to the ship. Once again, the support diver enters the water, attaches the lines and the lifting cable. The sub is lifted from the water and placed gently on the afterdeck. The cord has been safely coiled on the foredeck and draped the last 35 meters alongside the rail to the stern.

The sub is rinsed off with fresh water before the bubble is allowed to be opened and the pilot emerges. The smile on his face shows what a wonderful experience he has just had.

Ingrid Roper


|<-- Previous journal|Dispatches Menu|Next journal -->|