DEEP WATER. Slow descent into an endless night

THE sea surges madly around us. Six-foot waves toss us to and fro. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds whip the water into a chop that makes our little craft almost irrecoverable. And I barely manage to pry a stockinged foot out of my armpit to scribble some remembrance of this journey. The Navy's deep submersible vehicle Turtle has just returned from a voyage across the ocean floor - from a world of eternal calm to one that has suddenly become embroiled in uproarious, weather-torn uncertainty - bobbing around as frogmen and a small rubber craft attempt to guide it into its home berth aboard the mother ship, Transquest.

A seasoned hand on board the mother ship looks out at the heaving seas and lashing winds and calls this the most difficult recovery he has seen in 10 years of dives.

Fifteen minutes ago we had been crawling around a sunken World WarI submarine, 1,400 feet down, watching enormous crabs scuttle over the hull and a nervous octopus bury itself in the sand beneath the dark, looming periscope and mast. In our little three-man sphere - crammed like a stuffed olive with all manner of high-tech equipment and three distinctly low-tech human bodies - the voice of our surface contact seemed to reach us from another world. As, indeed, it had. For down here we had entered the region of the fishes; a world that, no matter how many times man traverses it, never ceases to be the habitation of other creatures.

We were visitors, tourists, transgressors in what Rachel Carson called ``an endless night, as old as the sea itself.''

The Turtle - like the more famous Titanic-exploring Alvin, from which it obtained its central sphere - prowls the ocean depths on scientific, recovery, and reconnaissance missions. Highly maneuverable, the 26-foot vessel (which looks something like a cross between a giant guppy, a 1964 Corvette, and a one-eyed, mechanical crab) can work its way into small corners of the sea.

I had hitched a ride aboard the craft because I wanted to see some of these small corners firsthand - to look at the world that lies deep below the penetration of the sun's rays.

I had never thought, like T.S. Eliot, that I should be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Still, the sea exercises an irresistible attraction, if only for its profound sense of unfathomable mystery. Which is what Herman Melville must have meant when he wrote, ``There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.''

You could feel these ``gently awful stirrings'' all the way out to our drop point five miles off the coast of southern California. The Transquest - with her mobile cargo securely lashed to a large elevator grid running from midship to the stern - plowed her flat-bottomed way through a gently rolling sea. I had been warned that every wave and trough would tell in a ship not built for comfort; the Transquest lived up to her reputation.

By the time I climbed the ramp onto Turtle and lowered myself shoeless (shoes can damage sensitive equipment) into her belly, I had logged more than eight hours on board the Transquest, waiting for another reporter to take the first dive. I'd spent the time reading, sleeping, and listening to the echoing ping of conversations between the bridge and the craft exploring the ocean bottom below. I pored over my notes from interviews with scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and Scripps Oceanographic Institution here in San Diego.

``An old salvager's trick,'' according to a scientist at Woods Hole, is to ``look around the topography on land near your dive and that's what you'll find under the sea.'' So, the folds and undulations of the earth reaching to the edge of the Pacific continue deep into the sea and, in fact, would surround us as we plowed around the ocean bottom.

There aboard Transquest, I was actually billowing on a watery garment that concealed canyons and escarpments hundreds of feet beneath me. When I descended, I wouldn't be able to see the terrain beyond a few feet; but I would know that out in the gloomy distance lay mountain ranges that far outlived those I was used to.

Down there, way down there, lay a world of little erosion and much permanence.

We make our way into this world slowly, by way of a cautious descent, talking back and forth with the mother ship at predetermined depths, reciting instrument readings and making necessary adjustments in the trim of the craft and our descending attitude. ``Request permission to dive.'' ``You have permission to dive.'' Fourteen feet. Twenty feet. And the water, a perfect, luminous azure, is punctured by millions of up-pouring bubbles. The ocean has received us, indifferently, into its submerged quiet; and everything now becomes a kind of suspended tranquillity, as I squirm into position to gaze out the tiny porthole beside my left shoulder.

Sunlight disappears at about 300 feet; but Turtle's incandescent light is slowly powering up; so there is only a brief twilight in the region between natural and artificial light.

As we descend, the ``long snowfall'' described by Rachel Carson - a steady trickling of sediments and the dead minutiae of tiny sea life - floats by in the water around us like the thin sprinkling of a New England winter. Suddenly, a long, stringlike creature, measuring perhaps six to eight feet in its reach, waves a filament net that descends a couple of yards below it. In the increasing luminescence of our external lights, we can make out the quick flashes of small fish and a multitude of evanescent creatures so flimsy in their bodily existence as to be almost indistinguishable from the water around them.

The thing that stikes me most in our downward journey is the abundance of color - color in a world that knows no light - and the subtlety of shading, a Monet-like splashing of light blues and deep oranges and sudden yellows in all that variegated ocean life.

The farther we go, the more sparse this life becomes. At 900 feet, it has begun to thin out considerably; and by the time we come nestling down to our ``bottom approach'' at 1,000 feet, it has all but disappeared. All we can see is water moving up past our portholes. But then, in the distance, I see this looming dark mass, and I know we are coming upon the sea floor.

The ocean bottom at this depth and in this region looks just like your average beach - if your beach happens to be on the dark side of the moon. Eerie and desolate, the sandy expanse around us bears little trace of life. Off in the distance, a rockfish blinks slowly. Something moves in the dusty sediment, causing a cloudy stir. Otherwise, nothing. The feeling is like coming upon a remote colony, deserted ages earlier. Because all this place had once been above the sea - maybe more than once - thriving with green vegetation and wriggling, running life.

Now, it greets us blankly. We trawl across its depths toward our ``target'' - the sunken submarine - hovering at about 20 feet above the sea floor. The floor beneath us bears the random scribbles left in the soil by solitary creatures that have passed this way. And then, out of nowhere, we come upon the wreck.

I had read about similar encounters - the discovery of the Titanic, a diver's first approach to the sunken Monitor - but nothing had prepared me for the absolute solitude of a watery grave.

With her mast and periscope reaching like broken arms into the waters above her, lying unmoved, just as she had fallen, in the yawning darkness, covered wih slime, the habitation of fishes and crabs, her features blurred but distinguishable, every act of man about her gently mocked by time and the encroachments of sea life, she is a foggy remembrance of her crew and of those that had built her.

The world she has fallen to is cold, absolutely dark, and compressed by the accumulated weight of an ocean.

We sit beside her, close enough to reach out and touch her hull. There's nothing to say, really. Mutely and eloquently, the submarine says it all. Tells the tale of an ocean that has been told by every scribe from Homer to Melville to Pound. Men who had an ``ear for the sea surge,'' as Pound put it, and the ``rattle of old men's voices.'' The voices silent now, this boat, looking like a relic of ancient wars, occupies the lower ground.

``Is that cool or what?'' somebody says. And we make our way, through clouds cast up by our own propellers, around the hull. The massive screw with its jutting prop comes looming out of the murk. Rockfish sit on the shelf of her keel. Seventy-five years later, F-1, as she was prosaically dubbed, moves not nor stirs. I had come down to find some secret of the sea, and she gave it to me. Wordless and grave, it seemed utterly simple.

The sea around us, so deep and vast, holds the whole record of this earth and our brief passage upon it. Nothing moves or changes in this permanent remembrance. Waste and war, the erosion of mountains, the chain of evolution, all settle here.

Out of sight.

But not out of the earth's bottomless memory.

Notes on the voyage: an underwater manifest

The Navy deep sea submersible Turtle, a tiny craft similar to the one that explored the Titanic, gets launched from a mother ship, called Transquest.

The mother ship is a large, lumbering, flat-bottomed affair with an elevator grid in the middle that lowers the sub into the water.

The submersible - 26 feet long and highly maneuverable - is occupied by three people. Two ``swimmers'' guide it out of Transquest's wake.

Turtle performs research, reconnaissance, and recovery missions.

Ocean topography mirrors that of the land it is nearest; and in this region that means mountains, plateaus, canyons.

Direct sunlight begins to disappear at 300 feet. The submersible uses an incandescent light to compensate for the increasing darkness.

The craft descends through a ``snowfall'' of dead matter, which slowly drifts to the ocean bottom. Despite the inky darkness, an abundance of color exists down there.

Ocean life thins out considerably by 900 feet - all but disappearing at 1100 to 1200 feet. But at lower depths one still encounters rockfish, squid, and other life.

At 1,400 feet the bottom is desolate, almost devoid of life and vegetation.

This part of the ocean floor has in recent geological history been above sea level and covered with life as we know it on land.

The sea bottom is a repository of all our ecological and geological history, as well as a museum of our wars and tragedies.

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