We waited out the next day as swells rolled, churning the boat this way and that. Tito called it too rough to launch and so we abided by his word, waiting anxiously for the conditions to change. The day was spent puttering about the main lab and reading or doing other leisure activities, and we hovered on every word chief scientist and fellows whispered.
It wasn’t until dinner that the word went out. “Elevator at 5:30. Launch at 6. Be ready.”
We sped through our meals. The elevator crew rushed to the main deck to prepare, donning life jackets and hard hats. Brett coached us through the process of tag lines and crane safety, and within minutes of 5:30 we had the elevator over the side and dropped into the water below. It fell to the bottom, a solitary light blinking from the top to let us know where on the bottom it would eventually lie.
Jason and Medea were next. No one but the Jason crew were allowed on deck now, so we shed our safety equipment and darted two decks above, where the best view came from just above the cargo boxes that housed all our necessary equipment. He dropped into the water and his lights turned on, illuminating the area around him with a bright blue glow. Medea followed shortly after and thus we were off.
The launch complete, I grabbed up my warm clothes and hurried to the control van, where my shift was just beginning. The AC blasted to keep the tens of computers from overheating. The only light came from the glow of computer screens. We watched quietly as Jason and Medea began the descent to the bottom of the ocean.
An hour and a half of blue water and lifeless seas, we began to see signs of habitation. Little creatures scurried in front of our cameras and away. A curious fish came by to investigate the cable connecting Jason and Medea, hovering just inside Jason’s lights. Within minutes of this, we were on the bottom.
Almost instantly we saw what we had come to find. A short, spindly vent rose up in front of us, shimmering water erupting from its top. White bacterial matting covered it from top to bottom. Shrimp, crabs and snails roamed its flanks in search of food, each ignoring the other in favor of the tasty bacterial treat beneath their bodies.
The pilot argued with Annalouise for a few minutes when she immediately wanted a sample. “Let’s do a 360 and see what else we find first,” he argued, and she eventually agreed.
It was well she did. We spun Jason slowly, careful not to knock over our newfound vents. Only a few meters away sat another clump of white vents – these were taller, thicker, and more imposing. They sat together in a group the size of Jason himself, if not greater, and they absolutely teemed with life.
We explored these vents carefully, circling them on the outside. The pilot waited patiently for Annalouise’s word.
Finally: “Let’s stop here. Find a marker and let’s take some samples.”
The control van broke out into grins. A crowd of other scientists not on shift entered the van and gathered behind us, focusing their gazes on the screens as Jason’s arm shifted and reached out, grabbing hold of a chimney structure and tugging. It was friable and broke off its base. Someone let out a whoop, and the pilot dropped the chunk dexterously into a lidded sample tube called a chamberpot.
At the end of the sample-taking it was 8pm and the end of my shift. I stood and let my replacement take my chair, but stayed behind and watched for several minutes more as we took fluid samples, temperature readings, and yet more sulfide collections.
Eventually I headed downstairs to the galley to fill my water bottle and join a group where the AC was not blasting as strongly. Niya, Jess and a few others sat gathered around the tv in the mess hall, watching the same screens as shown in the van. I joined them, and we soon had a healthy dose of entertainment as the new shift pilot, Jimmy, broke off a piece of sulfide far too big to fit in the chamberpot. That didn’t stop him from trying – he spent the next ten minutes trying to manipulate the piece so it would fit. Eventually it broke apart and Jason’s arm stopped moving suddenly, as if surprised. We could almost hear Jimmy swearing from where we sat.
We drifted away from the screens when they began to focus on a single chimney stack without doing much of anything. Niya and I turned to our books and Jessica to her computer. I read for a while, then head to bed. It would be a busy day tomorrow.