On Board the Atlantis Research Sub: How Low Can You Go?


Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers went to great depths for this story. Take a deep breath and read on:

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GEORGE TOWN, Grand Cayman -- I am not a diver.

It's an ear thing. I've just never been able to clear my ears below three feet of water.

So when the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose to take a ride on the Atlantis research submarine, I hesitated.

I've done the regular Atlantis submarine rides before, in the Cayman Islands, St. Thomas and Barbados, in a 48-passenger craft with individual viewing windows. The pressure inside is stabilized even though the sub descends 100 feet. I saw lots of fish, and my ears were fine.

This ride, however, was to be much, much deeper.

In my pre-descent briefing on land, Asko Rasinen, Atlantis' marketing manager, reassured me that I would experience no change in pressure, my ears would not hurt and I would see things that few had ever seen before.

That was all I had to hear. I love to tread (or, in this case, dive) where others have not.

I boarded a launch at the Atlantis dock in George Town for the short ride to the sub.

So far so good, I thought. Besides, I was still safely above the water line.

We pulled up alongside a large bobbing raft. Just as I was climbing off the launch, a mass of frothy bubbles and splashes alongside the raft froze me in mid-step.

Rising from the water was a bright yellow hatch with blue portholes. The hatch cover popped open, and the upper torso of a man in a white navy-type uniform emerged.

"Hi. I'm Gary. I'm your captain. Welcome aboard for the ride of a lifetime," he said.

"Yeah, well, I'll reserve judgment on that," I thought.

I boarded the yellow thing that looked like a huge water beetle.

My descent down the narrow stairway in the hatch was ungraceful, to say the least.

Once inside, I could see it was to be a cozy ride. Space was at a premium inside the two-passenger capsule.

I scrunched down in front of a three-foot-wide viewport in the front of the vessel.

Capt. Gary was seated behind and slightly above me.

Uneasily, I watched him wipe globs of moisture from his brow and the windows.

"Is there a leak?" I asked nervously.

"Oh no. Once I close the hatch and we begin our descent, this thing is watertight, believe me," he said. "This is just normal condensation from the temperature outside."

Just as he closed the hatch, I wondered if I'd completed the revision of my will -- a project my husband and I had been working on before I left the relative safety of home.

Capt. Gary got all businesslike then.

"I need to go through the safety checks with you," he said. "If something happens to me down there, there are fail-safe measures in place."

I barely heard him above the pounding of my heart.

"If something happens to him down there," I thought, "I go down with the ship."

He showed me a valve that would bring the sub to the surface, he pointed out an air hose and the radio and telephone links and he showed me how to use them.

"Is there a life preserver on board?" I asked.

He laughed, apparently mistaking a sense of panic for a sense of humor.

He flipped a switch, and engines (I later learned they were giant batteries) began to hum and throb. We began our descent alongside the face of a sheer underwater coral cliff, dropping at the rate of 65 feet per minute.

I tensed, waiting for that awful pain in my ears from the pressure. Nothing happened. It didn't come. I relaxed. This was going to be great.

And great it was.

Millions of particles of plankton swirled before the window.

The light intensified. Capt. Gary explained that the ultraviolet rays of the sun are most dominant at deeper depths.

Science is not my strong point, so I just nodded.

All that stood between me and drowning was a two-and-one-half-inch thick window. Its fish-eye shape acted as a magnifier that distorted distance.

The great Cayman Wall was actually 60 feet ahead of us, but it looked more like six feet. In fact, it looked as if we were going to crash right into it, but I refrained from acting like a backseat driver.

Colors disappeared, replaced by a blue glow ahead, above, below.

"Man has only identified 2% of all that is in the ocean, and that's at the 150-foot level," Capt. Gary said. "It's not unusual to see stuff here that no one has seen before."

At 600 feet, we passed a rusted anchor chain.

At 700 feet, a deck chair, tossed or blown from a passing cruise ship far above, rested at an angle along the wall.

Busy taking notes in the blue glow and trying to photograph without reflecting the glare of the flash in the window, I almost missed the shipwreck at 760 feet.

"That's the Kirk Pride. It was a cargo ship and it hit the reef in the harbor and went down on Jan. 9, 1976, at 9 p.m.," Capt. Gary said.

"Everybody got off the ship in time, but the wreck wasn't discovered until 10 years ago by one of our submersibles."

We went closer. I could see the huge ship clearly, resting on its side on a ledge. The needle on the engine wheel was frozen in the Abandon Ship position.

Suddenly I felt very vulnerable, but Capt. Gary was cool and we kept on going.

The Haystacks appeared at 900 feet, a bunch of rocks that fell from the upper levels of the wall eons ago.

As we reached our mark of 1,000 feet, Capt. Gary congratulated me for being the first person -- other than scientists, geologists, professional deep-sea explorers and a crew from National Geographic -- to go that deep.

"Nothing to it," I said modestly.

A group of NASA astronauts who had preceded me had told Capt. Gary that the landscape down here looked like the face of the moon.

That was probably true--- (who am I to argue with the guys from Apollo?)---but I bet that the moonscape was not marred by the rusted webbing of a beach umbrella that I spotted or the Miller Lite and Coke (Diet) cans that I also saw.

Next to those 20th century icons was a plastic cup bearing the familiar logo of a hotel chain.

"No place is sacred," I thought.

Tracks in the sand below looked like chicken scratchings.

Capt. Gary pointed out a stalked crinoid, also called the Caribbean sea lily, the oldest known animal in that region of the ocean's depths.

"Nobody knows how it reproduces at this depth," he said.

I certainly didn't have a clue.

As we began our ascent, Capt. Gary said we'd take a different route back.

"I always see new things when I'm down here. No two dives are ever the same."

"Just as long as we go up," I thought.

He pointed out a brittle starfish, first seen 10 years ago, and bunches of sea whips, which looked like sticks swaying to and fro.

Dandelion coral decorated the hull of the Kirk Pride.

A pair of blue jeans lying in sand near the ship led me to believe that one sailor had little warning before he jumped overboard.

A seven-foot-tall coral sea fan that Capt. Gary said was more than 1,000 years old passed in front of my window.

Black specks on the fan indicated that a form of parasites was attacking the coral.

At 320 feet, we encountered a riotous kaleidoscope of purple, pink, orange, yellow and red.

This was the Sponge Belt, described by the captain as the most colorful place on the planet.

We zoomed in four feet from the wall to get a closer look at weird things called Convoluted Tube Sponges and Elephant Ear Sponges.

"This area is never seen by regular divers because it is too deep," Capt. Gary said.

Soon, we broke through to the surface. We'd been down an hour and 15 minutes.

I was ready to go again.

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