Full story, 98% as released, Published World–Wide
by ©2002 Gary G. Ballard

SAN DIEGO — She may lack the flair of a NASA space shuttle, but she’s just as adventurous, taking man deep into an environment that’s as alien and even more mysterious than outer space.

"She" is the navy’s deep submergence vehicle (DSV) Sea Cliff — the world’s deepest–diving manned submarine — and she underscores America’s commitment to ocean research.

Sea Cliff, a 31–foot, 29–ton, three–man submarine, recently returned here from off the coast of Guatemala where she made several 20,000–foot dives into the Middle America Trench.

The journey begins in San Diego with Sea Cliff safely secured in the well deck of the auxiliary deep submergence ship USS Point Loma as they head out to sea on course for a pre–determined dive site off the coast of Guatemala, thousands of miles south.

Navigating on the open ocean is best left to experts like Navy Chief Quartermaster A. L. Richardson, a 21–year veteran, who says, "Everything looks the same at sea, 360 degrees. Out here the stars are the street signs and a number on the chart is our address."

A week later, USS Point Loma is on site and preparation for the dives intensify. Technicians survey the ocean floor in search of a flat, smooth surface at 20,000 feet. Once located, they electronically map a dive target with underwater buoys anchored just off the ocean floor.

The countdown begins eight hours before launch.

Within two hours of launch, everyone aboard is involved. Ballasting teams are flooding the Point Loma's well deck and every sort of technician and engineer are on station and performing final checks.

“There is absolutely no room for error in the deep ocean,” says Lt. Cmdr. Rick Williams, skipper of Sea Cliff and her 17–man crew. “It’s an unforgiving environment and requires very close teamwork. Every individual is essential to the whole.”

Zero hour approaches.

Well–practiced, proven procedures reduce the dangers, but heat and sea conditions take their toll, according to Lt. Joseph Polio of Louisville, Ky., docking officer in charge of launch and recovery. We’re working in a direct equatorial sun, hundreds of miles from shore,” says Polio. “Even the smallest swell is amplified in the well deck, making Sea Cliff harder to control.”

During the launch, the well deck becomes a hub of activity, each movement is critical to the crew’s safety.

Point Loma lowers its stern gate — announcing the launch like an opening curtain on a Broadway play — as the tow boat creates tension on the towline.

A large deck capstan on Point Loma manages the towline and controls Sea Cliff’s exit speed as the launch crew rotates the order of various handling lines, cleat by cleat, until Sea Cliff clears the ship and the last line is thrown free.

Sea Cliff descends at 160 feet per minute, and stops periodically to make required system checks. At 600 feet, light from the noonday sun fades into total blackness. Sea Cliff’s headlights casts an eerie green glow as she continues downward.

Three hours later she’s at the bottom of the ocean, 20,000 feet below the surface. The next four hours are busy ones for the crew, operating, testing every piece of equipment.

Just how deep is 20,000 Feet?

“It’s a long way down,” says pilot Lt. Alan Mason, 28, of Medford, Mass. “It’s 20 Empire State buildings stacked end to end.”

The pressure at that depth defies human comprehension.

“It’s a crushing force, about 9,000 pound per square inch,” says Sea Cliff’s executive officer, Lt. Eric Long of Springfield, Ohio. “One porthole alone (is taking) a million pounds pressure at that depth.”

After four hours on the bottom, the time to surface arrives. Sea Cliff drops a load of ballast weights and heads for the surface at 100 feet per minute.

The experience is memorable, according to the copilot, Chief Electronics Technician David Atchison, 28, of Scio, Ore. “It’s a totally alien environment, comparable to outer space,” he says. “It keeps me on my toes. I’m very much aware what’s going on around me. I can’t afford not to be.”

Eleven hours after launch, Point Loma’s expert deck crew safely recovers Sea Cliff on the surface — her dive complete.

Sea Cliff has spent the past two years undergoing an extensive redesign and certification process which more than tripled her original dive capacity. The purpose of this mission, her deepest to date, was final certification.

To aid in her mission — search, recovery and science — Sea Cliff sports on–board video and still cameras systems, two exterior hydraulic “arms,” and three viewing portholes.

State–of–the–art technology, such as her advanced titanium hull and silver–zinc battery system, allow her to operate independently for more that 16 hours at a time. Her compact design permits rapid deployment to anywhere in the world by land, sea and air.

Whether it’s a civilian or military team, competition in the inner–space program is tough. Only the most qualified applicants are selected, according to Lt. Cmdr. Williams, who offers this advice to hopefuls:

“Learn your math and science well," says Williams. “And stay away from drugs. Not doing well in school may take your options away and leave someone else to decide what you can or cannot do.”


For the film aficionados:

I nailed the extreme white water–to–shadow detail by over exposing (for the shadows) and underdeveloping (for the highlights).

Photo by G. Ballard, San Diego, for U.S. Navy