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26 November, 2001

Interview with team member, Phil Forte

Phil Forte, one of the divers on Dr. Bowser's research project this year, is an Alvin pilot with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The Alvin is the first submarine (three-person submersible), which dove on the Titanic. It is housed on a 273-feet long ship called the Atlantis. He will be leaving Antarctica on Thursday to meet the ship for his next cruise. The Atlantis usually accommodates 55 people on board the ship, including about 25 scientists. Today, the Alvin primarily takes scientists to the bottom of the deep ocean to collect specimens, or to aid in science research. As I worked alongside Phil, I could easily see why Dr. Bowser felt that Phil was a valued and "super qualified" member of this year's science research team. I gained respect for Phil when I observed his first surface air supply dive. I could see first-hand the courage it took to rely on someone at the surface to control the air supply while being at the bottom of the ocean. I was scared for Phil as he shut off and adjusted emergency valves while underwater. It was reassuring to hear his voice as he talked to the people at the surface. Throughout his first surface supply dive, he was calm, focused, and seemed very excited about learning something new. In this photo, Dr. Neal Pollock is helping Phil suit up for the surface supply dive. Dr. Pollock, along with Rob Robbins, the Science Dive Coordinator for Antarctica, monitored Phil's surface supply dives under ice in order for him to gain certification for this specific type of diving. Before coming to Antarctica, Phil had already logged in 250 dives.

Dr. Neal Pollock is helping Phil suit up for a surface supply dive. Instead of wearing scuba tanks filled with oxygen, Phil will rely on air supplied from the surface.

Phil is connected to the yellow air hose, which supplies his air from the surface. A communication line is also attached to the yellow hose, so that Phil can talk to people at the surface while underwater. Phil is going down the dive hole in the dive hut. Note the black step, which allows easier access to the water.

Phil is from Lancaster County in southeastern Pennsylvania, but he has lived many years in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he became accustomed to cold water diving. Phil has made several cold water dives in Lake Superior, as well as experienced diving under ice before coming to Antarctica. He started recreational diving in 1980 as a gift from a friend when he completed welding school. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering before working as a machine designer. His mechanical skills, beginning with his father's push to know "backyard mechanics" added to his knowledge, which enabled him to have the needed qualifications to apply for a position with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). He had heard about the Alvin and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from a National Geographic arcticle about the Titanic. Phil's interest in diving led to his interest in the Alvin. Phil went to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's web page (www.whoi.edu) to find a job posting for a "Mechanical Technician at Sea". Although Phil's intent when he applied for this position was to be an Alvin pilot, his two years as mechanical technician gave him the know how to maintain and service the submarine. While his mechanical skills allowed him to make repairs on the sub, his engineering degree enabled him to understand how and why the sub was built the way it was. Phil said that one of the most important qualifications is to be able to think and troubleshoot as problems arise. During two years of extensive study to learn the electrical, mechanical, and electronic makeup of the sub, Phil also learned the operational procedures required to become a pilot. Phil said that higher education and bringing a varied background of many experiences add to qualifications when applying for positions, or choosing careers.

Phil Forte is rolling a 50-gallon waste barrel to the "retro" staging area to be "hauled away" by helicopter. This is one of the many jobs involved in maintaining a field camp in a remote location.

Phil is an essential member of this research team, not only as a diver, but also in his daily contribution to maintaining camp, melting dive holes, as well as using his mechanical skills to repair the six-wheeler and generators. While the photos show Phil in Antarctica, I couldn't help but take this opportunity to learn more about the Alvin and Phil's job description as an Alvin pilot. As an Alvin pilot, Phil is on the ship eight months a year. His flexibility to set his schedule allowed him the time off to come to Antarctica to do scientific dives. Each cruise aboard the Atlantis takes from seven days to six weeks. The Alvin is taken east to the Southeast Pacific Rise off of Easter Island. (A rise is a spreading center in the sea floor, which is slowly pulled apart to form a ridge). The Alvin also goes to the East Pacific Rise off of Mexico, as well as to Juan de Fuca Ridge off of Oregon and Washington. The sub has made dives in the Gulf of Mexico from Galveston around to Tampa. There are six Alvin pilots, with a minimum of two pilots per cruise. The Alvin is housed in a hangar, or garage, near the back of the ship. The Alvin dives every day while at sea, but the pilots dive on a rotational basis, usually every other day. The Alvin does one dive a day for a maximum of nine hours. It is primarily used for science research to take scientists to the bottom of the ocean. Scientists submit proposals to the National Science Foundation to further their research by collecting specimens such as biological samples, rocks for geological research, and water samples to study water chemistry. The Alvin has two manipulating (robot) arms to collect specimens. A crane on board the ship puts the Alvin in the water after scientists board the Alvin from the fantail of the ship. The Alvin remains on the surface for about five minutes before descending. Phil pilots the Alvin down to an average of 2000 to 2500 meters, with a maximum dive of 4500 meters. The ascent and descent rate is about 25 to 30 meters per minute. In warm water areas, t-shirts, shorts, and socks are worn inside the Alvin. By the time the Alvin gets to 1000 meters, the water is 2 degrees Celsius. Since it gets colder as it descends, sweat pants, sweat shirts, and hats are added for more layers. As the submersible descends, the ocean begins to get dark at 300 meters. Lights are turned on about 200 meters off the sea floor. Phil uses a joystick to steer as he sits on a seat about the size of a milk crate. The two scientists who go with him are seated on foam pads near one of the three portholes, which allow each person the opportunity to view the ocean. The Alvin is six feet in diameter, so there isn't a lot of room to move around. The Alvin has a downward-looking sonar for the bottom, or to map the bottom of the ocean. It also has a forward-looking sonar. As the submersible goes down, bioluminescent plankton might be seen in the water column. These organisms glow in the dark ocean water. (Plankton are tiny organisms that drift in the surface water of the ocean. Most marine animals are dependent on plankton directly or indirectly). Phil stated that he sees fish, tube worms, clams, muscles, and octopus at the bottom. He likes seeing the hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, which has 350-degree sea water gushing out like thick black smoke. This mineral-laden water, which is composed mainly of the mineral sulfur, gives it the black color. This water gushes out like smoke coming out of a chimney. Large biological communities thrive in the cold, dark ocean because they can live there off chemosynthesis. On land, organisms survive because of photosynthesis (plants use water, sunlight, chlorophyll, and carbon dioxide to make food). Since the deep ocean does not get sunlight, organisms get nutrients and what they need from these hydrothermal vents. Diving under the ice in Antarctica enables Phil to make comparisons with other parts of the world. Explorers Cove in Antarctica allows scuba divers the opportunity to make shallow dives to gain access to the bottom of the ocean, which resembles the deep, deep ocean in other localities.

Phil (in the blue dive gear) is getting ready to dive with Dr. Neal Pollock. This was my first experience to observe a dive under ice. When I first came to Antarctica, I had to attend "sea ice training" before I could go out on the sea ice. I attended my training on November 3rd and saw this dive on November 4th. A spryte (our transportation to this location) helped shield the divers from the wind. It was about eight degrees Fahrenheit that day, and the wind was so cold! The divers went under eight-feet of ice to scuba in 28 degree water. I was freezing just watching them in my two coats, neckwarmer, two hats, three pair of gloves, and white "bunny" boots.

Diving in Antarctica has given Phil the chance to see seals under water, collect foram specimens, and to see animals not found anywhere else on Earth (endemic). The sea urchins in Antarctica are different from any that he's ever seen. He said he's also enjoyed seeing thin-shelled scallops swimming through the water, as well as the gorgeous ice formations, which resemble chandeliers or stalagmites hanging from the surface. The visibility, which is hundreds of feet, allows him to marvel at the small plate-like ice crystal structures under the water. Phil notes that Antarctica has much more life under the ocean than on the surface. By diving under 12-feet of ice, Phil has had a view of Antarctica that most people will never experience. Phil's advice to students: "Get a higher education, whether it is a two-year tech school or beyond, in order to get more opportunities. Education will help you discover what is out there, while trying different experiences will help you to decide what you like". Phil met Dr. Bowser in a chance meeting aboard the Atlantis, but it was his self-motivated work ethics, technical and underwater experiences, and communication skills which gave him the opportunity to use past experiences to take advantage of being part of this Antarctic team. Phil had never done commercial diving, and Antarctica is his first scientific dive.

As a teacher, I value the way Phil set a goal, then worked hard to achieve it. He took the initiative to learn what he needed in order to successfully reach his goal. I feel that to truly learn and experience life, it is important to "want" to learn…not because we are made to do so, but because the "need" to learn is instilled inside us. Over the past few weeks, Phil's love for learning and experiencing new things could easily be seen as he wholeheartedly immersed himself in Antarctica. Phil refers to this Antarctic experience as a "fantastical adventure". My wish is for others (students and adults) to see that it's Phil's attitude toward learning and his constant search for knowledge, which sets Phil apart and provides him the opportunities to seek adventure. Education and learning create more choices and opportunities in life. Phil provides a perfect example of how one learning opportunity leads to another. The biggest part of learning is having the courage to try, especially when it is an unknown. I could see this in Phil when he was learning how to do a surface air supply dive. It was this courage, hard work, knowledge, and enthusiasm for learning, which has made him a valued member of this team from the very beginning. He will be missed as he takes with him this learning experience in Antarctica to build and apply to new experiences and adventures.

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