A Field Trip to Davy Jones’s Locker


A Field Trip to Davy Jones’s Locker


  • 1982 - 2000
  • four men with ROM flag


Research at the Royal Ontario Museum over the decades has taken its staff around the world, from east to west, from north to south, and from mountain top to deep sea. During my career as a curator of invertebrate zoology at the ROM, my most extraordinary field trip involved two dives into the ocean abyss off Bermuda in a mini-submarine known as Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Alvin. It was a trip to Davy Jones’s locker in the interests of collecting invertebrate animals called hydroids.

DSV Alvin is a famous manned submersible owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Its purpose is to provide a means of transporting marine researchers to depths well beyond normal diving range. Commissioned in 1964, the little sub has a storied history. In 1966, it was used by the U.S. Navy to locate and recover a hydrogen bomb lost off the coast of Spain following the crash of a B-52 bomber. During the mid-1970s, Alvin pioneered scientific investigations of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a submerged mountain range extending from Iceland and beyond in the north to the southern limits of the Atlantic between Argentina and South Africa. In the 1980s, Alvin was instrumental in locating the wreck of RMS Titanic, and was involved in the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents and the amazing life around them. In between all this, it had been attacked by a swordfish (1967), and it sat on bottom in over 1500 metres of water for ten months after an accidental sinking (1968-69). While it is the oldest of all such submersibles, it is maintained, upgraded, and re-certified by the navy on a regular basis.

Unlike an aircraft carrier or a normal submarine, Alvin is not an imposing vessel. Only seven metres long and weighing about 17 tons, it looks more like a space craft than an oceanographic vehicle. Much of its overall structure is taken up by space for ballast, batteries, and buoyancy, all of it covered in a skin of syntactic foam.  Propulsion is by a series of battery powered thrusters mounted on the hull. There is room for only three people, including a pilot and two scientists. They are accommodated in a 2.5-metre-diameter titanium personnel sphere. Access is through a 0.5 metre diameter hatch at the base of a sail-like structure at the top. That tiny personnel sphere is also occupied by such things as electronics gear, an air supply, and a carbon dioxide scrubber, so there is precious little room. Collecting is accomplished by the pilot, using two external manipulator arms at the front. Samples are placed in a rectangular “biocoffin” located between them. There are three tiny viewports, with one in front for the pilot and one on each of the starboard and port sides for the scientists. Each person sits, or reclines, on cushions. And no, there are no bathroom facilities.

My first dive in Alvin took place off Bermuda on 17 March 1993. Recollections of the experience are as follows:

At breakfast aboard the Research Vessel (R/V) Atlantis II, with Alvin in a hangar on its deck, I tried to reach a balance between dehydration and drinking too much. I did not want to face having to pee in a HERE (“Human Element Range Extender”) bottle during what would be an eight-hour dive. It was windy and rough, with 8–10-foot seas, the limit for launching Alvin, but the go-ahead was given for our dive. With unsettled weather expected to continue into the next day, a decision was made to make the deeper of our two scheduled ones right away in case conditions worsened the following day and a quick trip to the surface became necessary. With notebook, toque, woollen socks, insulated booties, and T-shirt, and a warm sweater on my arm for use later in the cold deep-sea, I readied for the dive. At 8:10 a.m., Dr. Wolfgang Sterrer of the Bermuda Natural History Museum and I entered the submersible, with me on the port side and Wolfgang on the starboard. Pilot Tim Connors then crawled in between us and slightly to the front.  We reclined on our cushions and contorted our bodies so we could see out the viewports. As the hatch was closed and locked, it struck home that there was no turning back. It was the beginning of a memorable adventure, and I was neither claustrophobic nor scared. Alvin was moved to the stern of R/V Atlantis II, lifted up, directed out and away from the fantail of the ship, and dropped into the ocean amidst a flood of bubbles. Divers attended us as we bobbed around like a cork in the waves. Tim performed a series of checks, exchanged messages by radio with crew on Atlantis II, and turned on the CO2 scrubber. 

Finally we were released from all ties to the ship. On blowing out air from ballast spheres that had been providing buoyancy to keep us at the surface, down we went, at a speed of about 38 metres per minute. Through our tiny viewports we watched as the colour outside in the water column gradually turned from blue to purple and finally to pitch black at a depth of about 500 metres.  Still descending, we watched the fireworks of bioluminescent organisms outside, appearing to move upwards past our viewports as we moved downwards past them in the open ocean. Inside, it was dark except for the glow of red instrument lights, orange gauge dials, and green and gray monitors from which we could check steadily decreasing water temperatures and increasing depth. Flashlights were available for recording notes in our notebooks. After a two-hour descent we were at 3450 metres below the sea surface and some 100 metres above the sea floor. Weights were dropped and we became neutrally buoyant in the water. External lights were turned on and we peered out, looking for bottom beneath us. Gradually it came into view, as ghostly whitish sediment on my side but with a black rocky outcrop visible on Wolfgang’s side. We finally landed on bottom, 3551 metres straight down from the surface of the ocean. At that depth, the pressure on the submersible was over 5000 pounds per square inch. With an outside water temperature of 2.1° C, the interior of the personnel sphere had cooled down considerably. Condensation from our breath rolled down inside walls, and puddles of water formed at the base of our viewports. Cushions beneath kept us mostly dry, and warm clothing kept us from feeling chilled. Our first successful sampling station was a rocky wall at a depth of 3418 m, where glass sponges, crinoids (relatives of sea stars), sea fans (including a new species), and crustaceans were seen. Later, I was happy to discover a few hydroids as well in our samples. Over the next few hours we gradually worked our way up the slope of Bermuda’s underwater mountainside, collecting as opportunities arose. At a depth of 2250 metres, with battery power running low, weights were dropped and we rose vertically through the water to the surface. Recovery took about a half-hour, and we were finally brought aboard R/V Atlantis II. The hatch above our heads was opened, welcome fresh air flooded in, and we wriggled out of the titanium sphere. I made a bee-line for the “head” (washroom), not having needed the HERE bottle during the dive. Collections from our descent were processed, supper was consumed, and highlights of the dive recounted. I crashed early and slept like a baby until next morning, when the process was repeated. This time Jack Lightbourn of Bermuda and I joined pilot Bob Grieve for a dive to 1770 metres. From there we made our way up to 525 metres before returning to the surface. A more detailed account of the dives has been given in an article I wrote for our museum magazine (Rotunda Fall 1993).

It was all somewhat like the experience of Jonah, who wrote: “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.” [Jonah 2: 3–6].