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Deep Sea Dawn

Dr. Dawn Wright, first African-American woman to dive in the three-person autonomous craft Alvin
Dawn Wright, first African-American woman to dive in the three-person submersible Alvin, with her dog, Lydia. Alvin. (Credit: Courtesy of Dawn Wright)





At age 8, transfixed by the televised first manned moon landing in 1969, young Dawn Wright briefly considered a space career. But another TV experience tipped the scales toward ocean science: The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

“I was riveted,” she says. And, as the waves surged relentlessly around her Hawaiian island home of Maui, she spent many afternoons reading deep-sea adventure stories. Captain Nemo, Robinson Crusoe, and Long John Silver - these were the characters that filled her imagination. So no one was surprised when young Dawn switched dreams, from astronomy to oceanography.

Launch of the Alvin  submersible.
Launch of the Alvin submersible. (Credit: Courtesy of Dawn Wright)



She didn’t realize then that soaring miles above the Earth in a space capsule bears an eerie resemblance to soaring beneath the sea in a submersible. Both explorations take place in cramped, pressurized chambers launched into dark, inhospitable places where only advanced technologies can sustain human life. As the first African-American woman to dive in the three-person submersible Alvin, Wright watched as the filtered sunlight faded to total blackness outside her porthole, feeling a kinship with the space travelers of her girlhood daydreams as she descended to a maximum depth of 8, 284 feet to the East Pacific Rise (9°47’N), a mid-oceanic ridge with a divergent tectonic plate boundary located along the floor of the Pacific Ocean.. “When you go down in a submersible, it feels very much like being an astronaut, but it is inner space instead of outer space. It has that wild, exploratory feeling.”

Dawn preparing for her dive in the  Alvin.
Dawn preparing for her dive in the Alvin. (Credit: Courtesy of Dawn Wright)




In 1991 it was indeed a great thrill for Dawn to make her dive in Alvin, owned and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, famous for its 1986 exploration of the wreck of the Titanic. The 25-foot-long vehicle typically dives for 8 hours, about 6 hours of which is spent on the bottom. Alvin carries one pilot and two scientists. It is equipped with remotely controlled mechanical arms and associated sampling equipment, underwater cameras and associated strobe and incandescent lights, a data logging system, water temperature monitors, a precision depth indicator, and a host of other sensors depending on the objectives of the dive.

OSU Professor Dawn Wright emerges from the Pisces V after a dive off the south coast of American Samoa.
OSU Professor Dawn Wright emerges from the Pisces V after a dive off the south coast of American Samoa. (Credit: Courtesy of Emily Lundblad)
Dawn’s primary mission in Alvin was to observe and sample hydrothermal vents. While the pilot steered Alvin through the black depths, in and around lava pillars and sulfide spires created by deep-sea hot spring or "hydrothermal" activity, Dawn and her science observer colleague looked out the two portholes on the sides of the vehicle and described into a tape recorder what they saw within the perimeter illuminated by the sub's lights. They often instructed the pilot to stop and sample biota or rocks using the robotic arms that extend from Alvin's bow. They knew that few others had ever visited the site that they were diving on, and, due to the dynamic nature of the ocean floor, were prepared for any and all surprises.

In addition to sending down the first African-American female, the cruise included the first all-woman Alvin dive. The cruise provided new insights into how deep-sea hotspring communities are affected by undersea eruptions and addressed the long-standing question of how these communities survive in isolation.

Currently, Dawn Wright is a professor of Geography and Oceanography at Oregon State University. She received her Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara in 1994 and has completed oceanographic fieldwork in some of the most geologically active regions on the planet, including the East Pacific Rise, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Juan de Fuca Ridge, the Tonga Trench, volcanoes under the Japan Sea and the Indian Ocean, and most recently, American Samoa.

 

 
 
 
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