At the beginning of June, Karl and I took the time to plan our dives for the rest of the summer based on my work schedule, his dive schedule, and the best days of the month for fishing, which tend to coincide with increased activity in the deep. Initially, we had planned to do a 7-8 hour dive on the 21st around 1pm. However, 1pm turned into 3pm, which turned into 4pm, which led to 7pm and a new dive plan: spending the night at 1300 feet.
The original idea was to do back-to-back dives since preparation is so time-intensive (putting extra weights in the sub, setting up the camera rig, filling air tanks, etc.). With such a late departure, we were likely going to be too exhausted to do another dive the next day. So, Karl suggested we dive from 7-11, sleep until sunrise, then film for another 4-5 hours. I was on board, but my pointed questions betrayed my apprehension about snoozing in the pitch-black ocean.
“What about oxygen?” I asked.
“Well, the regulator is set to 1.5 liters per minute which is a little too much for three people, so we’ll use that while we’re motoring but use a regular tank when we’re sleeping. We’ll just have to wake up every 2 hours to open the valve.”
Immediately I begin to imagine me and Karl in a deep sleep as the oxygen levels sank below critical levels. The air we breathe is 21% oxygen and if the concentration drops below 11%, death is likely.
“You know, you really don’t use that much oxygen when you’re sleeping,” Karl says to me, seeing my gears turning.
“Mmmmm…I just don’t think I’ll be able to sleep that much.”
“I once forgot to turn on the oxygen for the first hour of the dive. We only dropped down to 18% oxygen.”
An hour later, Karl was making a custom wooden board that would fit around the camera rig so we could put our heads by the viewport to sleep. He also attached a dead rooster (victim of a neighborhood dog…okay our dog – BAD Yoda!) that had been sitting in our freezer the past three weeks. After loading up on blankets, pillows, hot tea, and warm clothes, we set off a few minutes past 7. A steady rain had begun and the surface was choppy. The mangled rooster swayed in front of the window as my stomach flopped and gurgled. Not a very auspicious start. Ten minutes later, Karl cut the motors, and I waited for the lurch of the submarine that would indicate the beginning of our submergence. I kept waiting. And waiting.
“Are we submerging?”
“NO! The freaking motor died!”
This was a motor that had been giving Karl problems for the past two weeks. Luckily, the sub has a fully redundant propulsion system, so it’s not the end of the world if a motor does go out in mid-dive. Generally, though, it’s not a good idea to start a dive with one dead motor.
So we turned around. At the dock, Karl opened up the motor compartment as brown water dripped out (needless to say, this is not good). We weren’t going to dive that night.
The issue with the motor was resolved by early afternoon the next day. Apparently, one of the corroded wires had been blocking the point where the air enters the motor compartment. Without air in the motor, water could easily trickle in.
By 5:15 we had pushed off from the dock and a few minutes past 6:00, we were cruising at 2000 feet. Not long after we had hit bottom, a odd spongy, fuzzy ball of an animal appeared in my viewport.
“Oh, it’s one of these things!” Karl shouted.
“What is it?” I asked while turning on the camera gear.
“I have no idea,” he replied.
After 15 years of experience in Roatán’s waters, Karl is an expert when it comes to deep sea animal identification. So it came as a surprise that he was unaware of this animal. I, too, had zero clue what it was after filming it, particularly since I could only get a remote sense of its appearance with my attention focused on a monitor screen filled with red (peak focus) and zebra stripes (overexposure). It was only after editing the footage and noticing a cluster of coordinated pumping structures that I realized its similarity to the group of nectophores used for propulsion in siphonophores. After a quick Google search using the key phrase “spongy blob siphonophore”, I found our match: the dandelion siphonophore.
Not long our siphonophore encounter, we came across a deep sea Spanish Dancer (also known less elegantly as the Flying Turkey) at 2100 feet. This Spanish Dancer, however, looked different from the one we had filmed previously: strings of reflective beads adorned this creature. Serendipitously, Claire Nouvian’s book, The Deep, helped me to explain this mystery. Upon feeling threatened, a Spanish Dancer lights up and its skin detaches, if attacked, onto the face or body of the predator, which glows vulnerably in the otherwise uniform darkness of the deep sea.
Over the next few hours, we stumbled across animals every 20 minutes or so. When Karl yelled out that he had spotted a dumbo, I whooped with excitement: this would be our first shots of the dumbo with a new lens, and I was excited to see the level of detail that would come out of it. But this particular dumbo didn’t want to tango, and despite Karl’s repeated approaches with the sub, the dumbo just sank further down into the sand, clearly not in the mood for a late night dance.
And so we motored on.
One of our best finds of the night was the largest and ostensibly oldest rattail fish (also known as grenadier) that Karl has ever seen. Usually, these fish are graceful and undulating, almost hypnotic. But this grizzled grenadier was about as coordinated as a blind-folded five year-old trying to hit a pinata. In an act of aggression or more likely failing vision, the grenadier swam upside-down at full force towards the sub, crashing into the viewport. Its curiosity made for some great filming and close-up shots.
Before we called it quits around 10:30, we were able to catch a dumbo octopus in mid-water, and briefly, a dogfish swimming away from the sub.
The criteria for a sleeping spot were not terribly complicated: we needed to find a sandy area that preferably had some rocks that could keep us from sliding down the slope. Particularly with bait attached to the bumper, a shark could move us around (a lovely thought). For most of our dive, we had come across alternating areas of steep, sloping sand and rocky debris. We happened upon a sandy area, and Karl let out some air from the ballasts tank; the back of Idabel rocked back into the sand, while my sphere still bobbed, slightly suspended in the water.
As I started to rearrange the already cramped passenger sphere, a quick stab of anxiety began to perforate my phlegmatic demeanor. Why, exactly, had I signed onto sleeping in a 4 and a half foot diameter passenger sphere with a full get-up of camera equipment and a 6-foot human? “Oh, but it’ll be such an adventure,” my 5-hour ago self had said to me, “sleeping under a sky of bioluminescence rather than stars!”
Karl laid out a thermarest pad as I arranged the pillows next to the passenger sphere window. Donned in two pairs of wool socks, a winter hat, fleece jacket, and spandex pants, I slid under the layers of cotton sheet, fleece blanket, and sleeping bag. And still…it was cold. The only way to fit ourselves through the opening of the passenger sphere comfortably was for one of us to lay on our back, both of us to lay on our sides, or one of us to lay on our side. On top of us, we also had lithium hydroxide “blankets” (the same used in the space station) to absorb carbon dioxide (in other words: to keep us alive).
So this is how the night began: a 45-minute crescendo of nervous conversation that ended with the culmination of my worst fears combined (total darkness in a tight space). Knowing that I would be completely anal-retentive about oxygen levels, Karl had suction-cupped the oxygen level monitor directly in front of my face. After he opened the oxygen tank valve and cranked us up to 24% O2, so began the 30-minute cycle of activity that characterized our night under the sea:
Karl turns to lay flat on his back. I turn to lay on my side. Karl snores, which jolts me awake, and I frantically turn on my light and look at the oxygen levels. Shuffling of lithium hydroxide blankets. I turn to lay on my back. Karl lays on his side. I snore, which jolts me awake, and I frantically turn on my light and look at the oxygen levels. Shuffling of lithium hydroxide blankets. Repeat 10-12 times.
It was uncomfortable. But there was a moment where I opened my eyes to see the bioluminescent outline of an animal passing over the viewport. And I thought – well, here I am. There’s only so much fear you can hold on to when absolutely nothing terrifying is happening. My mind had been stuck in the elaborate “what ifs” of sleeping 1300 feet below the surface. At 5:30 am when I woke Karl up, either because my mind had come to grips with logic or it was just too fatigued to continue the endless cycle of hypothetical doomsday scenarios, I finally felt the peace of silence and the singularity of that experience.
We returned to Half Moon Bay within two hours of waking up. Footage of a catshark, tinselfish, and sea robin completed our shot list for the day, as we turned home exhausted and ready for another night’s sleep. Upon hauling the sub out of the water, we found the rooster caught between the bumper and hull of the passenger sphere – inaccessible for a hungry shark. Karl claims he felt a bump in the night – maybe a frustrated shark had tried to snatch a bite after all. I guess we’ll never know.