Deep-Sea Decisions

My research platform: Me in Antipodes in Milford Sound, New Zealand

I’ve had a love affair with robotic submarines for a long time. It probably started at MBARI in 2001 when I was using manned submarines for my thesis research in New Zealand. I fell in love with an MBARI robotic submarine (and its pilot), and eventually returned to the U.S. to try my luck finding work using ROVs (remotely operated vehicles.) My first task: designing Ventana’s logo that is seen and photographed by thousands around the world. I decided at that point I would one day have my own floating deep-sea institution in some form or another.

I had such grand ideas of what I would do that I weaved it into a fact-based fictional novel for young adults. As part of a national novel writing contest I spewed out all my ideas, 2000 words every day for a month, but knew it was far from being anything publishable. I figured I would return to it later. I tried for several years to work back at MBARI, applied to DFW jobs that used ROVS, volunteered at youth ROV contests. I thought I had found the answer when I interviewed with Schmidt Ocean Institute (twice!), but after being passed over both times, I just couldn’t figure out how to plant myself firmly into this very narrow niche of science. Particularly after leaving the conventional role of a scientist, and diving into science communication. Actually, I hoped THAT career enhancement would help me get out on more missions.

This career-long dream to be part of an exploratory deep-sea mission came at the last minute when I was offered to be the outreach person/videographer for a Woods Hole mission (HADES). I had been bugging a HADES scientist for several months about participating. It took them two years to secure the cruise, but last I checked with him, the boat was full. I wrote it off, and pursued another contract.

Then less than three weeks before they were due to leave in April 2014, I got a surprise call from the chief scientist to ask me personally if I could fill in as their outreach/videographer. Just days before that call I had heard from the other scientist asking me if I could fill in for someone that couldn’t make it. But then he wrote bak and had said, “never mind, false alarm.” So I had already been yo-yoing with the idea, but at that moment I was in Fiji with barely any internet service and under contract to Mongabay (paid) for 4 more months. I was near the end of my reporting, and had no wiggle room to push off writing the actual articles for Mongabay, since I was due to leave on a two-month ocean drilling cruise off Japan starting late July. I would lose my momentum if I cut out of this fellowship and tried to return to it later, challenged by such a gap in reporting and writing. In fact, I didn’t even have the heart to broach the subject with Mongabay—I felt I would be shooting myself in the foot, plus feeling exhausted if leaving for the six week HADES cruise just 10 days after returning to the US from six weeks in Fiji. Even though this was a dream offer (minus the lack of compensation) I didn’t mull the decision. It just seemed logistically impossible.

Plus I had this fantastic opportunity to do some special reporting for Mongabay on sustainable fisheries, my other career passion. Most humans don’t have a visual connection or understanding of the story behind the fish that ends up on our plate, so it seems like a critical thing to write about. Fisheries affects humans directly and have cultural, ecological, and health implications. Unlike the deep-sea which is just cool, sexy, unknown, off the beaten path and not overcrowded with scientists. But fisheries can be sad environmental stories and not the feel-good, “Oh look what we discovered today!” deep-ocean stories. But I love both these areas of science. It’s just that deep-sea exploration feeds me through a pure awe and excitement vein.

Should I have burnt a bridge to do it?

I don’t know. Burning bridges is not my thing. I don’t like to disappoint anyone, and I feel I would have let myself down more so. However, I’m also not one to bypass my dreams– I usually try to fit it all in, and stress myself out making it happen. But I just couldn’t see how to do it this time.

It’s obviously too late now, but at the time I was in tears. Heartbroken. Especially because my typical lifestyle of short contracts would have easily accompanied such a request, and here I was, committed… I wondered if I was being tested on my capability to just saying “Fuck it!” and following my heart. Something stronger told me not to. The only consolation prize for letting the opportunity pass was that I may not have been financially compensated for my efforts. I just put my ethical foot down on jobs that don’t pay, and being in survival mode financially, well…..ok, really, I probably still would have done it just for the unique lifetime opportunity.

However, sadly the robotic submarine the mission heavily depended on as their eyes in the sea, blew apart today, at 6 miles (30,000ft!) below the surface. A terrible loss for WHOI, the scientists, and deep-sea science in general. I don’t know what it means for future HADES missions- I was counting on being on the next one. Working in this environment is so tough and so expensive, although I think it’s money justifiably spent. We live here on this planet. We depend on this ocean. We don’t live in space (even though outer space is still cool).

Here’s the chief scientist from HADES on why the deepest parts of the ocean intrigue him and me.

(I could’ve been the one making this video, but, again, I am trying not to think about that…)

The HADES Mission from Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. on Vimeo.