About a year ago, I heard about the Pavilion Lake Research Project, which investigates weird microbial growths in a lake in British Columbia. It sounded like a lot of fun, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved. Then, about ten days ago, I got a call from someone who saw that I’d volunteered for the Desert RATS expedition later this year. He wondered whether I’d also be interested in “something even cooler than NEEMO, if not quite as cool as space flight.” I said, “Is it as cool as Pavilion Lake?”
Turned out it was Pavilion Lake. Hooray! So I threw a bunch of wool socks, fleece shirts, and Gore-Tex into a suitcase (I lived in Seattle for six years, and have some idea of what kind of weather to expect up here in March) and flew on up to Vancouver for a very quick introduction to the “whos” and “whats” of Pavilion Lake.
For me, the most important of the “whats” will be the DeepWorker submersible, the miniature submarine that I’ll be piloting to explore the lake this summer. The DeepWorker was developed by Nuytco, the same company that built the famous “Newt Suit” diving apparatus. DeepWorker is just big enough to hold one pilot, some ancillary electronics, and some life support and survival gear. Attached to the outside are four thrusters controlled by foot pedals inside, the batteries that power the whole craft, and the compressed-gas tanks. There’s also a small hydraulic manipulator that looks like a miniature version of the robot arms we use on the Space Shuttle and Space Station.
Today was the first day of DeepWorker school. The students are myself and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He has had some past exposure to submarines, but I know nothing about them, so this is all new to me! But no matter. After a quick but thorough briefing by Jeff Heaton, I climbed into DeepWorker #7. Jeff ran me through some system checks and we lowered the clear bubble hatch. The crane picked me up, swung me out over the water, and lowered me into it, all in not much more time that it takes to write it all down.
It’s strange to sit, totally secure and dry, bobbing in the sea with the waterline right at eye level. Strange, but not at all uncomfortable. The sub moved only sightly in the small waves we had with today’s fair weather. Once I’d had a chance to get used to the feeling of being in the water, Jeff talked me through some basic surface maneuvers, using the foot pedals to control the thrusters. Turn right and left, move forward and backward, follow a compass heading. All that went fine. Then it was time to flood the ballast tank and start working underwater. No problem: I moved the valve, a lot of bubbles came up from the right side of the sub as the tank filled, and the waterline crept up the clear dome and then closed over my head. I had wondered ahead of time how that would feel, and was pleasantly surprised that the sense of overwhelming coolness overrode any apprehension about being underwater.
One of the things I had looked forward to on this trip was seeing the undersea life of Puget Sound up close. Sadly, it was not to be–the water was very murky, making it hard to see anything beyond the snout of the sub. So I didn’t see much marine life–Nor, during later maneuvering, did I see one of the nearby dock pilings until after I’d felt a bump!
The first dive was short and sweet. If seemed as if only a few minutes had passed when Jeff asked me to resurface for lunch. We all enjoyed a nice meal in the sunshine (unusual for this place and season). Chris and I chatted a bit with some folks from the local and national media, then prepared for the next dive of the day.
The second sortie cemented the lessons of the first. It also added some basic sonar navigation work and exercised the automatic depth-holding function. All very cool. Again, the time seemed to fly by, and all too soon they were hoisting us out of the water.
In all, it was a great day. The sub is a marvel, the instruction was topnotch, and I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow!