Night Owls

Guest Blog

Author Susan Casey

Beautiful blue ciliates, and white and yellow bacterial mats in the Tiny Towers vent site are imaged live by the ROV Jason. Credit: D. Kelley, University of Washington; V19.

At 3 am on any given day of VISIONS’19, you can be sure that a lively scene is unfolding under a spinning disco ball inside a blue shipping container on the Atlantis’s focsle deck. This might seem like an odd place to find a happening nightspot, but it’s here and it’s a hot ticket: Jason’s Control Van. Outside, the ocean rolls by, doing whatever it wants, but inside the Van the environment is always the same: a dozen or so people gathered in a space lit by banks of glowing plasma screens, lined floor to ceiling with high tech equipment worthy of an intergalactic spaceship hurtling through the cosmos—or, in this case, an odyssey into the inner space of the deep ocean.

Streams of super heated hydrothermal fluids issue from the summit of the hot spring deposit “El Guapo”. Sulfide worms colonize warm parts of the outer walls, supported by nutrients in the fluids. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; V19.

When Jason is in the water, going about his work on the seafloor a mile or two below, his every movement is beamed up into the Van through fiber optic cables, and projected onto the screens in real time. He might be installing a self-calibrating pressure recorder on a huge lava flow that once was a lake of molten lava, or repositioning a power cable, or deploying a new sonar, or performing any number of intricate tasks: There are more than 140 specialized instruments on the Regional Cabled Array, one of the world’s most advanced deep ocean observatories. Jason might send up 4K high-definition footage of El Gordo or El Guapo or Mushroom or Inferno—hydrothermal vents that possess their own eerie beauty. His lights illuminate a world that is cloaked in perpetual darkness, but what a brilliant world it is: scarlet tube worms, vermilion squid, ochre, sienna, and violet oxidized sediments, snow-white bacterial mats.

The Van is manned around the clock, in four-hour shifts. There are pilots and navigators, scientists and students, technicians and engineers, all of them focused on parsing the mysteries of our planet. It’s a privilege to watch, and to learn, and to log data and listen to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and (yes) Abba in the Van on the midnight shift, suspended between the stars overhead, and the universe below.