I Go First


Preparing for Dive #1

Preparing for Dive #1 (Photo: Todd Warshaw)

When I used to teach marine science at Seacamp, a wonderful marine science camp in the Florida Keys, I always tried to impress upon my students (especially the ones reluctant to get into the water) that I always saw something new every time I went diving or snorkeling. This axiom has held true my entire life, but with a submarine and the deep waters it reaches, it seems that I see something new every 5 minutes.

On Saturday, thanks to my uncharacteristic good luck in a random drawing with my fellow pilots, my name came out of the coffee mug first, meaning I had the honor of piloting the first dive of the expedition. I later found out from my peers that this also meant being the first human being to descend in a sub into Pribilof Canyon.

Red-Footed Kittiwake Aboard Esperanza

I was surprised to still see light above as I descended past 600 feet?a beautiful disc of deep aqua floating high above the dark blue. Shortly thereafter, it was completely dark, my HMI lights providing the sole illumination for the journey. I anticipated bottom at 1,150 feet, but as I descended past 900 feet, I suddenly saw what appeared to be a thick cloud of brown sediment at eye level. Thinking I was kicking up sediment from the approaching bottom, I quickly slowed my descent, but the bottom didn’t come. I then realized I was not seeing bottom sediment at all. Hundreds of pencil-sized squid were inking me! Attracted by the light, these squid would rocket toward the lights, pause for a moment, appear to freak out, then squirt their ink and dash away into the black. The ink appears reddish brown under the bright lights.

I touched down at 1,003 feet, excited to be glimpsing a tiny portion of this huge underwater canyon. I encountered numerous cod, perch, along with small sole, halibut and skates as I proceeded with my transect. As a scientist who has spent most of his years in the subtropics and tropics of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, my worst enemy was the microphone hanging below my mouth, into which I was supposed to utter brilliant annotation to go with the video we were shooting.

Anenome Liponema brevicornis (AKA Hostess Snowball)

I knew some local species, but many others were a mystery to me, so I resorted to comedy. The beautiful and enormous anenome Liponema brevicornis appears on my recording as the Hostess Snowball. NOAA scientist Bob Stone was forgiving. He encouraged such names as long as we were consistent. And so I was. Like with the “mystery pink thing,” etc.

I returned to Esperanza elated to have brought back our first glimpses of this magnificent canyon and lost track of the number of new things I saw on that dive. I feel like I’m at Seacamp again, seeing things I’ve never seen before, learning things I’ve never known before, and feeling young — like a wide-eyed child.

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