Sometimes, you just have to say yes. Guillermo Sohnlein, a friend from the Space Angels Network, is now CEO of the OceanGate Foundation. He emailed me a few weeks ago asking “Do you want to take a dive in a research submarine?”
Guillermo and his partners have bought a refurbished submarine, Antipodes, that has been refitted with enormous (58″) twin Lexan domes. One on each end. If you’ve seen pictures of research subs like Alvin with its handful of 6″ portholes, these domes make for an entirely different experience.
Then he sweetened the pot. Also on our dive would be Scott Parazynski (@SPOTScott on Twitter), a five-time Shuttle astronaut who has climbed Everest slightly less than twice. And Steve Jurvetson would be diving later the same day.
Sometimes, you just have to say yes. (Even though it meant missing the Clemson game! Luckily, we found a couple of loyal young alumni to use our season tickets.)
We flew into Monterey on Friday night, and immediately joined the team at their rental house in Pebble Beach. They’d been in Monterey for most of the month of October, and we shared their dinner while listening to stories of previous dives and of the students they’d brought onto the sub the previous week.
Scott joined us… in addition to being an astronaut, rock climber, and mountaineer, he’s also an pilot (commercial, instrument, multiengine and seaplane-rated), and scuba diver. And an M.D., medical researcher, and inventor of a CamelBak that works in sub-zero environments. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to find that he’s an Olympic athlete and cordon bleu chef on the side. And, on top of that, a genuinely nice guy! Made for an interesting dinner.
We made it to our hotel on Cannery Row around 10pm local time, which our body clocks insisted was 1:00 in the morning.
Up early the next morning. Skipped breakfast (no bathroom on the sub!) and walked down to Breakwater Cove Marina.
(Click on any photograph or video to embiggen.)
Antipodes was docked in a slip behind the surface support vessel, Kraken. After a safety briefing and handing over our shoes, we boarded the sub. The conning tower is only 21 inches wide, so it’s a snug fit, but there’s a surprising amount of room once you’re inside.
Although Antipodes can dive over 900 feet deep, getting to that depth from Monterey requires a long tow out to the Canyon. Due to time and logistics constraints, we chose to do a shorter dive onto a wreck in Monterey Bay in just over 50 feet of water.
Cissa and I have been deeper than that with scuba gear, but this was a completely different experience:
- We could talk to each other and to the other mission participants. No more tapping on the shoulder and pointing silently. This is an enormous advantage over scuba diving.
- You can share the experience with friends and family who are not scuba-certified (think grandparents and children).
- Much better view. I have poor vision and, even with a prescription faceplate, my field of view is limited by a scuba mask. Those Lexan domes on each end make for a truly immersive (sorry!) experience.
- No worries about tank capacity. (I go through air about twice as fast as Cissa, so even with dual tanks, I usually have to surface before she runs out of air.)
- No worries about equipment. Tim took care of that. (Tim has lived in research submarines for years, working for everyone from oil companies to James Cameron.) No clearing the mask and adjusting for leaks.
- We could use our own cameras, not finicky (and expensive) underwater cameras. Yes, National Geographic has better footage… but some of our favorite shots from this dive were taken with our iPhones!
- We could park and watch a particular fish or starfish or whatever without worrying about keeping up with a dive buddy or group.
And, of course, on deeper dives, you can go 900 feet deep, which technically you could do with scuba while breathing Tri-Mix if you don’t mind the very real risk of dying.
Lots more photos here but just a couple more:
All of us got a chance to steer the sub for a while… a joystick for X/Y translation, a dial control for yaw rotation, and a slider for Z-axis. Painless.
We saw a lot of jellyfish. Some of whom, inevitably, fell afoul of Antipodes’ electric thrusters.
The circle of life had a few gaps cut in it that day. Scott, in particular, seemed to attract clouds of the beasties, earning him the nickname “Shredder.”
Don’t miss Scott’s comment about duct tape.
After about ninety minutes that flew by far too quickly, we surfaced for a quick tow back to the dock and a change of crew:
Cissa and I played tourist for the afternoon, then we all rendezvoused back at the house for dinner, where we got to watch Steve Jurvetson and his son drive a knuckle boom crane.
Then Scott Parazynski sang for his supper by showing his slides from his five Shuttle missions and seven spacewalks, including one of the most challenging and dangerous ever performed. In order to repair a damaged but fully-energized solar array, he was positioned by a 90-foot robotic boom farther than any orbiting astronaut had ever ventured from the safety of their airlock. The tremendous coordinated effort in orbit and on the ground by Mission Control and other engineering experts has been likened to the Space Shuttle and Space Station era’s “Apollo 13 moment.”
Then he talked about his two climbs of Everest. He had to turn around at High Camp in 2008 due to a spinal injury, possibly a consequence of his extended time in zero-gee. Then he went back in 2009 and made it to the summit. In his pocket, taped between two Pringle can lids, was a moon rock brought back by Apollo 11. His sherpa nailed the photo of Scott holding it up beneath the crescent moon, while standing on the summit.
He spoke for almost an hour. If you’re ever at dinner with Scott and he says “Let me show you my slides”… say yes!
The rest of the weekend was pretty standard Monterey/Carmel tourism…
We came back to the Pebble Beach house on Sunday evening for the end-of-the-expedition party… the team was scattering back to their home bases in Seattle, Virginia, Arizona, and elsewhere. (A few stayed behind to prep Antipodes for her cross-country trek to Florida next month.)
Met all sorts of interesting people, including a delightful gentleman named Bob Talbot. I’ll confess, I had seen a billboard at the airport for Robert Talbott, and I assumed it was the same guy. After all, how many Bob Talbot(t)s can there be in Monterey? Until one of the OceanGate team said “I have one of your posters; will you autograph it?”
Yeah, that photograph. You’ve seen it. He took it. Check out his website and buy your own copy.
Also met a high school student (and his parents) who had been inspired by an OceanGate educational visit a week or so earlier… from not having any particular goals in life, he’s now convinced that he’s going to spend his career in marine research, and I think he might be right.
With that, it was time to go back to the hotel for a 4:00 am wakeup call and a pre-dawn flight on a little bitty regional jet to LAX, then home!
All in all, an incredible experience. I can’t express sufficient gratitude to Guillermo and the entire OceanGate team for letting us share their underwater world. And, after all, how many people can say they’ve been in a submarine piloted by an astronaut?
Complete gallery of photos and videos here: