How I unwittingly steered OceanGate’s sub to discovery in Puget Sound’s depths

How I unwittingly steered OceanGate’s sub to discovery in Puget Sound’s depths

5:08am, 3rd September, 2019
POSSESSION SOUND, Wash. — Steering a five-person submersible is like playing a video game, except for the fact that you’re piloting a nine-ton piece of hardware at watery depths that are inaccessible to . I got my chance to play this week during a survey dive in a pocket of Puget Sound known as Possession Sound, courtesy of , a manufacturer and operator of submersibles that’s headquartered in Everett, Wash. During our three-hour tour, GeekWire photographer Kevin Lisota and I were taken around the sound at depths ranging as low as 350 feet, in OceanGate’s Cyclops submersible. We even played a supporting role in finding a colony of anemones in an unexpected underwater setting. The trip was part of a summertime expedition to get a better sense of the ecosystem on the bottom of Puget Sound, in collaboration with researchers from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If things had turned out differently, OceanGate would just now be wrapping up a series of submersible survey dives to the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. But , the company had to delay those trips until next year. That’s why OceanGate pivoted to the Puget Sound survey, and why Kevin and I found ourselves scrunched alongside marine biologist Tyler Coleman, pilot-in-training Mikayla Monroe and OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush on Tuesday. We began the morning with a safety briefing at the dock at Everett’s marina, led by Dan Scoville, OceanGate’s director of systems integration and marine operations. One of his bits of advice had to do with keeping calm if you hear thumps and bumps on Cyclops’ hull. “If you can hear it, you’re OK,” he said. If there’s a catastrophic collision and breach, you wouldn’t be around long enough to hear it. Then the Cyclops was towed out on its launch-and-recovery platform to Possession Sound by one of the boats in OceanGate’s fleet, the Kraken. A little more than an hour later, the Cyclops was in position, and we headed out to meet it on a faster boat, the Vito. Once we were dropped off on the floating platform, we handed up our backpacks, took our shoes off and climbed into Cyclops’ 5-foot-wide cabin. Mikayla sat on a mat toward the back, flanked by video screens that showed camera views and sonar readings. Stockton sat next to her, ready to give guidance. Tyler sat in the middle. Kevin and I had front-row seats, looking through Cyclops’ hemispherical acrylic viewing window. We let our stocking-clad feet rest on the window’s bottom, even though we were warned that we might feel the chill of the water on the other side. Once all the final checks were made, the crew members on the Vito, the Kraken, the platform and in the submersible took a five-minute timeout, known as a “stopski,” just to make completely sure all systems were go. (The idea — suggested by Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut — was inspired by the built-in holds that are included in space launch countdowns.) Then it was time to dive. First the launch and recovery platform blew the compressed air out of its flotation tanks, in a process that had us dipping down backward into the water at a 20-degree angle. Green-tinted water sloshed wildly over our field of view. “Is this a freakout moment for some people?” I asked Stockton. “I haven’t run across that yet,” he replied. “You could be our first.” GeekWire’s Alan Boyle takes notes as he looks out the window of OceanGate’s Cyclops submersible. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota) Within minutes, we were sinking below the photic zone, where sunlight could penetrate to fuel the green plankton that tinted the waters. The view outside was total darkness, until Mikayla turned on the floodlights on each side of our window. Even then, plankton and the other particles floating in nutrient-rich Puget Sound cut the visibility to just a few feet around us. Mikayla relied on sonar readings to determine our depth, and on GPS readings to determine our heading. Our first destination was right beneath us: We headed for a wire cage containing a pile of salmon guts, which was dropped down on a line from a buoy to attract whatever creatures were foraging at the bottom. When we pulled up to the cage, we saw a smattering of rockfish (of the quillback and canary varieties), with 4-inch-long prawns and an occasional crab skittering through the scene, looking for a meal. The prime targets for OceanGate’s survey are shark species, and especially the rare, crowd-pleasing sixgill shark. We hoped to follow in the footsteps of Seattle rap musician Macklemore, who when he went looking for Puget Sound sixgills in a different Oceangate sub. We saw no sixgills, but we did catch sight of a slim, spiny dogflsh shark as it threaded its way around the bait box. “So we had our first official shark?” I asked Tyler. “Yup,” he said. Marine biologist Tyler Coleman identified this fish as a dogfish shark. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Then we headed off to a wide stretch of muddy bottom, punctuated by holes that provided shelter for the prawns and other bottom-feeding critters. Stockton sidled over to me, holding the modified Sony PlayStation game controller that’s used to steer the sub. “Want to drive?” he said. It took me a while to get the hang of the controls: The front buttons serve as “dead man’s switches,” which have to be pressed in order to activate the controller’s dual joysticks. The left joystick controls the up and down thrusters, and the right joystick controls horizontal thrusters for forward and back, left and right. Simple, right? Nevertheless, I occasionally rose high enough to lose sight of the bottom, and sank low enough to plop the sub into the mud and send clouds of sediment rising up in front of our window. To get ourselves out of those obscuring clouds, I had to drive the sub out of the haze into clearer waters. At least there were no rocks to run into, which is why Stockton and Mikayla brought us to a field of mud before they handed me the controller. After a few minutes of meandering, Mikayla reported that there was something showing up on the sonar, about 15 meters dead ahead. Stockton took back the controller, and guided by Mikayla’s callouts, he brought us right up to what looked like a garden of cauliflowers, plunked in the middle of an underwater desert. It turned out that a tree stump had sunk 350 feet to the bottom, heaven knows how many years ago, and a colony of anemones had taken root there. Stockton was impressed, and he told Mikayla to take note of the coordinates. “The visibility is probably 10 feet today, but we can get 5 feet away, so that’s OK,” Stockton told me. “Imagine trying to find this if you were diving. … Nobody’s ever seen this log before, I’ll bet you even money.” Toward the end of the tour, we returned to the area where bait had been dropped to the bottom. Mikayla turned the lights off, waited for a school of rockfish to swim in front of our window, and then turned the lights back on so we could snap photos. When it was time to ascend, we rose through the dark murk and back into the sunlit green haze near the surface. Kevin and I were deputized to watch for the whitish outline of OceanGate’s launch-and-recovery platform, anchored a few meters below. It took a couple of tries to get properly “locked in” on the platform, due to a balky thruster. I was feeling grateful that Mikayla and Stockton were at the controls (and hoping I hadn’t damaged the thruster during my training session). At last we were locked in and lifted up. The sun seemed unusually bright as we climbed back up through the hatch and were motored back to shore. On the way back, Stockton talked about OceanGate’s plans to bring the submersible experience to a wider audience. “Diving’s no fun after you’ve been in a sub,” he said. Taking people down to the Titanic is still OceanGate’s prime objective: The submersible that’s designed for that role, which was initially called Cyclops II but is now known as Titan, proved it could safely get to Titanic-worthy depths this year . The postponement of the means there’s not a lot for Titan to do until next summer. It’s currently being prepped for an extra round of stress tests, plus equipment upgrades that should smooth the way for the 2020 season. OceanGate’s Titanic customers are paying to participate in the adventure as mission specialists, and most of them are keeping their reservations despite the delay. Stockton said that OceanGate’s subs — including Cyclops and Titan as well as the two-person Antipodes — are currently certified for research missions such as the Titanic expedition, but not for more casual tourist jaunts. Another perspective: Now OceanGate is seeking waivers from the Coast Guard that would allow the company to offer submersible tours for something like $1,000 or $2,000 per person. That’s more than operators in Hawaii charge for submarine tours, but those tours go only 100 feet beneath the surface and last only 45 minutes or so. OceanGate’s tourists would get an experience even more thrilling than ours — assuming that the regulatory go-ahead is given. “It’ll probably be six to 12 months before we get approval,” Stockton told me. Stockton and his team of 27 employees are also looking into whether their subs can be used for infrastructure inspection and environmental surveys. And they’re planning to build a bigger, better submersible called Cyclops III, which could handle depths of 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). To help fund those projects, OceanGate is in the midst of a that was reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission in April. So what’s tougher? Navigating the depths of Puget Sound, or negotiating the shoals of the startup world? , Stockton Rush is clearly adept at doing both. But personally, I’d rather be steering the sub. Correction for 4:36 p.m. PT Sept. 1: In a previous version of this report, we incorrectly identified a ratfish as a dogfish shark. We’ve amended the ID for the ratfish, and added a video screengrab of the dogfish. Woof! Also, we’ve corrected the anticipated cost of a submersible tour to be $1,000 to $2,000 per person, instead of per day.
Scientists claim discovery of a fossilized killing field from the day the dinosaurs died

Scientists claim discovery of a fossilized killing field from the day the dinosaurs died

11:44pm, 29th March, 2019
Scientists say a meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur. (Illustration courtesy of Robert DePalma) First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto a sandbar in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began. That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, nearly 66 million years ago, according to a study to be published in the next week. For decades, scientists have surmised that the doom came about when a giant asteroid or comet struck Earth just off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The new study lays out a scenario for how that cosmic impact killed off species thousands of miles away, closing off what’s known as the Cretaceous Period. An ancient layer of rock, uncovered at a site dubbed “Tanis” in North Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, revealed the fossilized remains of fish, snail-like sea creatures called ammonites and a marine reptile known as a mosasaur, plus land animals including mammals and a Triceratops, Mixed in with the fossils were bits of burned tree trunks, sediment and tiny glass beads known as tektites. The research team behind the find was led by Robert DePalma, curator of paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida and a doctoral student at the University of Kansas. DePalma has been studying the Tanis site since 2013, and he says it sheds new light on the chain of events that created the famous geological and biological dividing line known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary or simply the K-Pg or K-T boundary. “This is the first mass death assemblage of large organisms anyone has found associated with the K-T boundary,” . “At no other K-T boundary section on Earth can you find such a collection consisting of a large number of species representing different ages of organisms and different stages of life, all of which died at the same time, on the same day.” Researchers Jan Smit, Mark Richards and Walter Alvarez stand together at the Tanis site. (Robert DePalma Photo via UC-Berkeley) DePalma and his colleagues reconstructed the sequence of events on that fatal day by looking closely at the section of rock. “It’s like a museum of the end of the Cretaceous in a layer a meter and a half thick,” said study co-author , provost and professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington. The detective work drew upon an analysis from Richards and Walter Alvarez, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who . They sized up the evidence for the tsunami-like wave and the hail of glass beads, and laid out a scenario that started with the asteroid impact setting off a magnitude 10 or 11 earthquake. That seismic shock could have created a series of standing waves, also known as a seiche, in a body of water known as the that scientists say stretched through the middle of North America during the Cretaceous Period. Meanwhile, the asteroid impact would have thrown up a massive plume of molten rock that turned into sphere-shaped tektites, raining down from space across a wide swath of Earth’s surface. Richards and Alvarez concluded that the standing waves must have washed up fish at the Tanis site before the deadly hail was through. Millimeter-wide spherules of glass, known as tektites, were found at the Tanis site. (Robert DePalma Photo) “The seismic waves start arising within nine to 10 minutes of the impact, so they had a chance to get the water sloshing before all the spherules had fallen out of the sky,” Richards explained. “These spherules coming in cratered the surface, making funnels — you can see the deformed layers in what used to be soft mud — and then rubble covered the spherules.” The layer of sediment that covered the rubble was rich in iridium, confirming the connection to Alvarez’s giant-asteroid hypothesis. “When we proposed the impact hypothesis to explain the great extinction, it was based just on finding an anomalous concentration of iridium — the fingerprint of an asteroid or comet,” Alvarez said. “Since then, the evidence has gradually built up. But it never crossed my mind that we would find a deathbed like this.” The researchers say the carnage must have begun quickly — too quickly to be explained by a tsunami emanating from the site of the Chicxulub asteroid impact. “A tsunami would have taken at least 17 or more hours to reach the site from the crater, but seismic waves — and a subsequent surge — would have reached it in tens of minutes,” DePalma said. DePalma credited Richards with refining that part of the scenario. “When Mark came aboard, he discovered a remarkable artifact — that the incoming seismic waves from the impact site would have arrived at just about the same time as the atmospheric travel time of the ejecta,” DePalma said. “That was our big breakthrough.” Fossilized fish are piled atop each other, suggesting taht they were flung ashore and died stranded together on a sandbar after a tsunami-like wave withdrew. (Robert DePalma Photo via UC-Berkeley) Dutch geologist Jan Smit conducted tests on the tektites from the Tanis site — and confirmed that they dated back to the K-T extinction. Some of the tektites were embedded in amber, and some were embedded in fossilized fish gills. “That by itself is an amazing fact,” Smit said. “That means that the first direct victims of the impact are these accumulations of fishes.” The researchers surmise that the final act of the K-T mass extinction began when the hot hail of tektites sparked widespread wildfires, killing off many of the creatures that survived the initial shock. The precise location of the Tanis site is being kept secret to protect it from being tampered with. “We have gone 40 years before something like this turned up that may very well be unique,” Smit said. “So we have to be very careful with that place, how we dig it up and learn from it.” Update for 8:40 p.m. PT March 29: The study has been drawn skepticism even before its formal publication, as paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara points out on Twitter. As a result, we’ve revised this report’s headline to be more circumspect. Here are a few tweets to get you started on the Twitter threads: I've been busy all day giving a talk at a story-telling conference. In the mean while, and have made poignant comments, in this thread, on the new K/Pg paper. (Actually, on the already publicized, but yet to be released, K/Pg paper.) — Kenneth Lacovara (@kenlacovara) There is so much that’s suspicious about this story that my bullshit alarm is going off at full blast. is already on this, but wow… this is someone with a severe case of Bakkeritis trying to fast track fame. — Riley