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Staff

Remembering Bill Normark

The (Slow) Ascent of the Sea Cliff


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Bill Normark and Mark Holmes debark from the U.S. Navy's deep-submergence vehicle Sea Cliff
Above: Bill Normark (left) and Mark Holmes debark from the U.S. Navy's deep-submergence vehicle Sea Cliff after their dive to Escanaba Trough. [larger version]

Deep-tow-camera image of a sponge colony atop a sulfide mound
Above: Deep-tow-camera image of a sponge colony atop a sulfide mound in Escanaba Trough, Gorda Ridge, taken in 1986 from the research vessel S.P. Lee. Camera and sampling data from this cruise were used to plan the Sea Cliff dives that took place later that summer. [larger version]

Mark Holmes, now a research professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, served as the first certified civilian copilot/equipment operator during a 1986 dive in the submersible Sea Cliff with Bill Normark and Sea Cliff Commanding Officer Bruce Bosshard. In this excerpt from a tribute sent to Bill on the occasion of his retirement from the USGS, Mark recalls the nerve-racking ascent at the end of the dive:

"…On Bruce's command I dutifully dropped the ascent weights. Nothing happened. Normally, I would then have started toggling off the selectable weights, but they had already been dropped during our barely controlled bottom approach. At first we thought it was a minor problem; we're just stuck to the bottom by sediment 'suction.' So Bruce powered us off the bottom. And back we fell, tail first. We tried this three times, and when the stern hit bottom the third time (hard), I noticed a sudden 30-kilo-ohm electrical 'leak' in the stern shroud. I reported this and Bruce got very quiet, his eyes scanning all gauges and meters. … this was when an unspoken communication occurred between the three of us that we had a very serious problem somewhere in the sub and that we were going to have to be creative in order to reach the surface again. Bruce told me to pump the VBS [variable-ballast system] like mad and to give the side pod thrusters the full 150 amps. I did as I was told, and at that point I looked over and down at you [Bill]. I have never, before or since, seen anyone's eyes so wide. … I knew my eyes were just as wide. We called Lee [the ship at the surface] and told them we were surfacing under thruster power. Then we kept our eyes glued to the fathometer as we slowly gained altitude, time 0130, Saturday 7/19. Even as a rank novice in the copilot business, I could see from the amp-hour meters that it was going to be a close-run thing. … We were very quiet, occasionally snacking, and now and then just looking at each other while willing Sea Cliff to the surface. We knew that there were last-ditch steps to take, such as jettisoning batteries, manipulators, etc., and even unbolting the sphere from the hull. … I'm pretty sure that I wasn't the only one who wondered how long it would take to mobilize Alvin or Turtle to come rescue us after the batteries ran out and we returned to 3,250 m. Days? Weeks? How much O2? How much LiOH? How many PB&J sandwiches? I'll always remember that trip. We surfaced at 0530, after a 4-hr-long trip that should normally have taken only 1.5 hours using passive positive buoyancy instead of electric thrusters. There were over 900 amp-hours on both 60-volt batteries, twice the drain that a normal dive would have imposed. Good old Sea Cliff. Recovery was smooth, thanks to the Navy's skill and the continued calm seas. … So, raise a cup of tea (or something stronger) to Sea Cliff, Transquest, NESCA, and SESCA for me. I'm toasting our friendship as you read this. And thanks for your service and dedication to an organization that we both love."

The event also remains vivid in the memories of those who waited at the surface for the Sea Cliff to appear. Here is an excerpt from a tribute to Bill written by USGS scientist Jan Morton:

"… For several long hours we watched the Sea Cliff ascend to the surface, with the navigation showing us that the ascent rate was much too low. The occupants of the submersible, including Bill, were not overly communicative, so we waited and tried to will the sub to the surface. Never so glad to see that mustache as when Bill and his companions finally were aboard. …"

research vessel S.P. Lee motor vessel Transquest
Above left: The research vessel S.P. Lee, on which Bill's USGS colleagues waited for the Sea Cliff to surface. [larger version]

Above right: The motor vessel Transquest, the support ship that carried the Sea Cliff and its crew to a rendezvous with Bill on the S.P. Lee. [larger version]


Related Sound Waves Stories
Bill Normark: USGS Marine Geologist, Mentor, Winemaker
June 2008
Tributes to Bill Normark
June 2008
Pisces Dive P5-78, Hawai'i
June 2008

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Research
cover story:
Water-Quality Monitoring

New Method to Estimate Sea-Ice Thickness

Meetings Airborne Lidar Processing System Workshop

Staff Bill Normark Passes Away

Bill Normark: Tributes

Bill Normark: Ascent of Sea Cliff

Bill Normark: Pisces Dive P5-78

St. Petersburg Office Dedicates New Building

USGS Deputy Director Addresses Downtown Partnership

Publications Coastal-Sediment-Transport Data in Google Earth

June 2008 Publications List


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