Mission to MARS

Moss Landing, California, USA -- 19 June 2009 | Permalink
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Almost as soon as we passed the breakwater, the R/V "Point Lobos" began to pitch in the swell, climbing briskly over the gray waves as they rolled in towards the land. I took a firmer grip on the handrail and weighed up my chances of getting through the trip without reacquainting myself with yesterday's supper.

"The ship's other name is 'Sobol Tniop'", said T. brightly. I gaped at him uncomprehendingly. "That's what the name looks like when you're hanging over the railing and everything's upside down." he explained helpfully.

To keep my mind off the motion, I fixed my attention on the small furry shapes bobbing in the water just to starboard. The sea otters didn't seem to mind the swell, the cold gray water or even the white boat lumbering past them. They lolled contentedly in the water, eyeing us unconcernedly. "Rats of the sea, I call them." T. said. "They're everywhere."

In the control room below, one of the members of the scientific team was already napping, bathed in the glow of a wall of screens, feet propped on an office chair and hood pulled over his head. Unlike T. and myself, who were strictly supernumary, he actually had work to do today, although his work wouldn't begin until the "Point Lobos" reached its destination about forty kilometres offshore.

The MARS node is situated on the side of the Monterey Canyon at a depth of about nine hundred metres. The goal of the trip was to retrieve one of the experimental modules attached to the node, a system called FOCE that is being used to study oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon-dioxide. Recently, FOCE's internal sensors had indicated the presence of tiny but increasing amounts of water inside the sealed electronics can. Now the whole experimental module needed to be brought up and taken back to land for repair.

The key to the successful recovery of the FOCE flume was squatting on the stern deck. The ROV Ventana, a remote-controlled submersible, looks nothing like most people's idea of a submarine. Instead of a sleek shark-shaped hull, it has a boxy orange superstructure topping off an open frame tightly-packed with esoteric machinery, with waldos and cameras sprouting off every surface. It looks rather as if someone had told a mechanical engineer "You have this much space available, and I want you to fill it with as much stuff as you can."

Ventana is both an observation platform and a kind of deep-sea robot arm, controllable through a long umbilical cable. On this mission, the aim was to use Ventana to unfasten the weights that hold FOCE to the ocean floor, allowing it to be brought to the surface. The plan was to use the winch to bring the experiment up from the ocean bottom, as left to its own devices FOCE would surface at a leisurely two metres per minute. Even if the all-important supply of Pop Tarts in the galley held out, no one wanted to linger offshore for seven and a half hours, waiting for the module to surface in its own time.

The one unpredictable factor was the weather. "It's blowing somewhere out there." the captain commented gloomily, as the "Point Lobos" pitched up and down in the swell. "What do you think the sea state is?" asked T. "Three." said the captain dismissively. "Three." echoed one of the other men on the bridge. They had the air of having seen it all before. The landlubbers might be clinging to the handrail as the ship bounced up and down, but to the mariners it was practically a flat calm.

Conditions might have been mild, but they were still not conducive to submersible operations.

"We could put her over the side, and maybe even get her back," said the ROV driver as we slowly came round above the MARS site, "but getting the module onboard would be another matter."

"We're talking about something that's difficult to bring onboard at the best of times." the chief scientist agreed. The captain shrugged. The decision to abandon the attempt was made without any drama and with only a minimum of discussion. The captain turned the wheel and the ship headed back to shore.

With a following sea, the voyage home was much smoother. We had left the permanent fog-bank that hovers over the coast behind us, and the sun was bright and warm. T. and I settled ourselves in the bow, sitting down on deck with our backs to the wheelhouse. "This is the part of the trip I like best." he said, closing his eyes.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew T. was calling my name. I scrambled up. He was standing at the bow, pointing.

"Whale!" he said. I saw a long black back and the suggestion of a squared-off head pushing aside the blue waters not more than a hundred metres ahead of us. It spouted, the white mist hanging in the air for a moment before it dissolved in the wind. "Sperm whale, I think." said T. The animal rolled slowly forward, the length of its back arching briefly above the water, showing the stubby dorsal fin at the base of the spine. Its flukes hung in the air for a second or two and then slid smoothly beneath the surface, with barely a swirl of white water to mark their passage.

Somewhere beneath the surface, the whale went about its business while the "Point Lobos" lumbered on towards the shore.