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COLUMN ONE : A Magical Journey to the Deep : The ride down to the ocean's floor is not for claustrophobics. But a trip in the Alvin is worth the rare chance to see an eerie world of scientific and natural wonders.

December 14, 1995|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine one-day dives in the Alvin are planned, under the direction of University of Hawaii geologist Rodey Batiza, who specializes in rock chemistry and submarine volcanoes. The National Science Foundation funded Batiza's two-year study group with $215,000 plus the use of the Atlantis II and the Alvin for two weeks. Each day's dive costs about $25,000.

By the time this trip is completed and dissected, Batiza says--with the scientists' observations, the videos, the slides and 1,200 pounds of rocks taken as scientific souvenirs--this square-mile swath of Seamount 6 will have become the most intensely studied deep-sea volcano in the world.

Huddled in 'the Ball'

Seasickness, it turns out, would be of little concern during the Alvin's dives--below the surface, there is no smoother ride in the world.

But claustrophobia is a different matter. During trips of seven to nine hours, inside a dimly lit cockpit, the two passengers will huddle against the curving wall and play a constant game of footsie as legs intertwine, while the pilot perches atop a small box and looks forward.

Each observer peers out a porthole no larger than a softball. They know that the pressure two inches away is 200 times greater than at the surface.

Viewed from the outside, the 17-ton Alvin looks deceivingly large. It is 23 feet long and 12 feet high, with two hydraulic mechanical arms and video cameras mounted in front, framing the pilot's own Cyclops porthole.

It looks like a mechanical water beetle; if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this submersible could be a pinup for engineers. Most of the Alvin's bulk, hidden behind its protective exterior skin, consists of batteries, motors, ballast tanks, hydraulics and buoyancy devices. Its three occupants are squeezed inside the 78-inch-diameter sphere, simply called "the ball."

The ball's interior lining is covered with electronic gear and computers. Refitted over the years, the Alvin features a CD player.

Except for flashlights, the only illumination inside is the red glow of instrument panels and three small video monitors.

The least technical equipment on board: a small plastic jug, a poor substitute for a toilet, euphemistically called a HERE bottle, for Human Endurance Range Extender.

Each observer brings a pillowcase stuffed with sweatshirt, pants, wool socks and a cap. As the frigid ocean chills the unheated vessel, passengers can bundle up.

Focusing on Magma

Batiza--who has made more than 30 dives in the Alvin--invited five graduate students and an undergraduate to join the seven professors and researchers, three technical consultants and one journalist on this two-week trip to sea. The party is complemented by undersea drilling experts from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Ocean Drilling Program from Texas A & M.

Before heading to sea, we spend three days at Manzanillo for preliminary science meetings. We are trying to find out how volcanoes erupt when magma breaks through the ocean floor. The dynamics are affected by not only the water pressure but the almost instantaneous interaction of 2,000-degree Fahrenheit molten rock with 35-degree water.

Incredible time and detail is spent on the shape and amount of lava we expect to witness, because such details will offer clues as to how the volcano erupted. Lava may appear as soft pillows, fractured blocks, sharp-edged rubble or flowing sheets of rough pavement. One particular shape of lava confounds the scientists' nomenclature--they describe it as something akin to what would be found in a kennel.

"Rocks aren't really boring," says geology professor James White of New Zealand's University of Otago. "But they get bad press."

Cramped Quarters

It takes two days to get to our destination in the eastern Pacific.

Before my dive, I climb down the Alvin's 20-inch-wide hatch for orientation and check-out with my observation partner--Jill Karsten, Batiza's wife and a University of Hawaii geologist who has dived in the Alvin twice before.

The first debate is where to put our legs, and then we agree to shift in unison.

While we are being briefed, we are being observed as well.

"We want people in the ball ahead of the time to see how they react to the tight confines," chief the Alvin pilot Pat Hickey says later. "We had to stop a launch once because someone realized he was claustrophobic."

We are told to keep our hands off all buttons and switches and instructed on using the radio in case the pilot becomes incapacitated.

Batiza has assigned me not only the job of logging retrieved rock samples but making technical observations of the sea floor.

We will be Dive No. 3013 in the history of the Alvin, named after Allyn Vine, a Woods Hole engineer who championed manned deep-sea exploration.

Warned that the first half hour will be miserably hot, I wear only shorts, a T-shirt and cotton socks. Just before 8 a.m. I clumsily squeeze through the hatch. Karsten follows. Thin padding cushions us as we lean against the wall.

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