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Men Who Dive with Sturgeons

By Mark Wheeler
Apr 1, 1997 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:09 AM


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There’s a ditty for this, but all I can think of are kid’s tunes.

I need a good manly sea song because I am doing a manly thing. Legs spread against the roiling San Diego Bay swell, stomach calmed by a manly dose of Dramamine and a shooter of Zantac,

I narrow my eyes against a warm California sun and size up the black silhouette of the USS Pogy as it slices its way through Pacific waters to greet our trim little craft.

Aye, we are seven journalists strong, faring to sea to board this nuclear submarine and see what it is made of (steel, mostly, as it turns out). The ride on the sub is courtesy of the U.S. Navy, specifically comsubpac, which stands for Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. The Navy wants to publicize its role in scicex 96, which stands for Arctic Submarine Science Cruise. And if you wonder why that acronym doesn’t fit the title, that’s Navy business, matey. Acronyms abound in the usn, and that’s as much as you need to know.

Scicex 96 constituted the second year of a five-year program of cooperation between the Navy and the civilian scientific community, jointly sponsored by a veritable lobster pot of acronyms. Besides the usn, sponsors include the National Science Foundation (nsf), the Office of Naval Research (onr), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa), among other agencies (aoa). The Navy provides a nuclear-powered submarine, which for scicex 96 was the Pogy, an older class of nuclear sub known as a sturgeon. The agreement calls for the sub to cruise under the Arctic ice cap, surfacing when it can along a predetermined route negotiated among the above-named acronyms. The usn gives the seven science types invited on board a bit of very cramped space in the torpedo room for their equipment, along with bunk and board. It also gives them sailors who, during surfacings, help with the equipment and stand watch to shoo away the occasional polar bear who would otherwise enjoy dining alfresco on the aforementioned science types.

The Pogy did not encounter any bears during its surfacings; its predecessor, the USS Cavalla, from scicex 95, encountered a few. One sighting was described as surprising by the scientists aboard, since the bear appeared out of the middle of nowhere, far from land. One has to wonder, though, exactly what their definition of nowhere is, considering they were in the Arctic, surrounded by nothing but ice for as far as the eye could see, within a snowball’s throw of the North Pole.

For scientists, scicex is a chance to gain a better understanding of the Arctic Ocean. A message sent by Pogy over the Internet last September described it thus: Submerged beneath the ice, we are continuously recording the ice draft, ocean-bottom depth, gravity, ocean currents, and water composition (including salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen, and sound velocity). In addition, a large number of water samples are being drawn, both internally while submerged, and externally while surfaced.

For the Navy’s submarine force, it’s a chance to gain more navigational insight into these still relatively unknown and nearly landlocked icy waters that cover close to five and a half million square miles. For me, a day aboard the Pogy provided the chance to ask, What the hell’s a pogy? (It’s another name for a menhaden, a common bait fish that comes mainly from the Atlantic coast of the United States.)

As the sub pulled alongside our boat, I was glad I’d done my homework. After all, you don’t just deploy on a one-day media embark without some basic training. If the usn was going to let several of us scruffy journalists not only ride but actually steer one of its boy toys, the least I could do was bone up. So I read a little Tom Clancy, drank a little grog, brushed up on nautical terms so I’d be sure to remember the difference between port and starboard, fore and aft, keel and keelhaul. This was one nub (unofficial Naval parlance for nonuseful body) who wasn’t going to screw up.

Unfortunately, you can’t bone up on coordination, which accounts for my stumble along the Pogy’s wet topside and, after I bumped the guy ahead of me, what could have been a chain reaction of falling journalists had it not been narrowly prevented by the firm grasp of the helpful Chief Petty Officer (cpo). I sensed a trend when, seconds later, I had to stifle a yelp over the unexpected sharp pain in my--as they say in the Navy--ass (pia), courtesy of something blunt and metallic that struck me as I made my way down the narrow hatch and ladder deep into the belly of the beast. It made me realize, one, that the civilian scientists are making a fair number of sacrifices in the area of creature comforts during their tours of duty, and two, that fat guys probably can’t serve on a sub. (I asked the scicex scientists whether they would undergo the approximately two-month-long trip again. The answers ranged from no, no way and uh-uh to never, don’t think so, and not for a very long time. The main reasons given were the lack of privacy and the isolation from family, friends, and life.)

Oh, these weenie academics. Other than acquiring several black- and-blue marks, in the full seven hours I spent on board, damn near a full day, I had a great time. After I lurched down the hatch, the boat dived. (And yes, subs do indeed give the two ah-oog-ah! ah-oog-ah! blasts over the loudspeakers when going under.) Once down, you forget you’re underwater, and while quarters are cramped, I didn’t feel claustrophobic. We made our way, single file, to the officer’s wardroom, the place where the Commanding Officer (co) and his underlings meet, eat, and recreate. There, about a dozen people sat shoulder to shoulder as we were served coffee--in china, no less--and rolls, and we learned a little about the Pogy itself.

It was commissioned in May 1971. It is armed with Harpoon antiship missiles and standard mk 48 torpedoes. The latter are propelled, somewhat incongruously to me, by piston engines (I’m thinking lawn mower, but I’m sure they’re more powerful than that). They are also wire-guided: when a torpedo is fired, a thin wire spins out that keeps the 19-foot-long bomb linked to the sub. That way, if it misses, the guys can reel it back in and fire it again. Just kidding. The wire is actually an electronic link that allows the submarine, using its sonar, to guide the torpedo, helping it avoid any decoys, jamming devices, or hapless orcas that happen to be passing by. At some point the link is severed and the torpedo’s onboard sonar takes control.

If it wasn’t for limitations on the storage of food and the danger of a testosterone explosion from cooped-up, stir-crazy young sailors, a nuclear sub could stay submerged indefinitely, since it makes its own water and oxygen. Freshwater is simply distilled from seawater. Oxygen is created by electrolysis: 16 cells (essentially big tubes, each with a positive and negative terminal) are filled with distilled water, an electric current is applied, and H2O molecules separate into hydrogen and oxygen faster than you can say 24-hour shore leave. The O is stored; the H is sent to sea.

There’s also a CO-H2 burner, which adds a molecule of oxygen to any carbon monoxide wafting around the sub, creating carbon dioxide; it too gets shoved into the ocean. Excess hydrogen gas is turned into water. Throw in a few filters and dehumidifiers, and the equipment cleans the air of poisons generated by other machinery, cigarette smoking (remarkably, still allowed on subs), and halitosis.

We learn that although the Arctic is the smallest of Earth’s oceans, it’s still--for perspective--about five times larger than the Mediterranean Sea, or one and a half times bigger than the United States. Researchers estimate that only about 5 percent of its waters have been charted. In many places it’s quite shallow; at times on its northern cruise the Pogy had to run a mere 30 feet off the ocean floor. Thus, for submarine crews scicex provides, as the Navy states it, experience in precision depth control and operating in shallow water. Further, in additional typical truncated Navy-speak, it provides experience in long-term deployment remote from logistical support. Now, in typical taxpayer cynic- speak, I’m wondering whether time might just be hanging heavy on the hands of submariners. After all, how much can there be for them to do in these post-cold war days? Demonstrating that a submarine can transit to civilian ops, so to speak, might convince congressional nubs of its continued worth.

But I banish such thoughts quickly. Some loathsome dove might suggest such a thing, but not this landlubber. After all, the Pogy’s crew is taking me 400 feet down into the ocean deep, where the ambient pressure on a sub’s hull is more than 175 pounds per square inch. I’m going to stay on good terms with these guys.

Before scicex the Arctic was accessible to scientists only via an icebreaker or a bumpy plane ride and the establishment of an ice camp. Subs give you more mobility, says Ray Sambrotto, an oceanographer at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, and the chief scientist for scicex 96. You don’t have to return to a base. Icebreakers ‘cheat’ by following open areas, so it’s the will of the Arctic gods as to where you’ll wind up. Before subs, you couldn’t pinpoint where you wanted to go; even ice camps will drift, depending on where the wind and the currents push them.

Sambrotto says the Arctic Ocean is the poor cousin of Antarctica- -at least regarding research and funding by the nsf. Yet 80 percent of the world’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means the Arctic can be the eventual repository for a lot of human bilge. The main route, says Sambrotto, is the Atlantic Ocean, through the Fram Strait, which lies between Greenland and the charmingly named island of Spitsbergen. More bilge makes its way from the Pacific via the Bering Strait. Among the pollutants that come in from the Atlantic, Sambrotto says, are traces of radioactive isotopes from nuclear reprocessing plants in England and France.

In addition, several rivers flow into the Arctic, bringing a lot of generic human environmental, uh, crap, shall we say, from the interiors of North America and Eurasia. Finally, Sambrotto notes, the atmosphere also brings pollutants up here that contact the water, then get trapped in the ice. As the Arctic seawater freezes, its salt is expelled to form brine. Once the ice is about a year old, it’s salt-free enough to be chipped off for ice cubes--not that you’d need them, it being, you know, cold up there.

Sambrotto is a biological oceanographer. He’s interested in ocean life and how it interacts with the rest of the environment. The Arctic isn’t a wasteland, he points out. On the edge of the ice in particular there’s quite a bit of biological production, chiefly ocean plankton. Like all oceans, the Arctic absorbs carbon dioxide. But in the Arctic, Sambrotto suggests, it gets collected on the margins of the ice by the plankton. Then, over time, the plankton get pushed down under the ice into deeper water, and the ice cap cuts the CO2 off from the environment. Since the rise of the industrial revolution, humans have increased the amount of CO2 in the air. Carbon dioxide, of course, is a chief factor in the greenhouse effect.

Submarines allow oceanographers to take water samples at consistent depths across many miles, enabling them to obtain accurate readings of how much CO2 is being absorbed. To take measurements at depths greater than the sub can reach, the Pogy surfaced at selected intervals, when it found ice thin enough for the sub to break through (sturgeon-class subs are designed to ram through ice up to five feet thick).

While the sub was at the surface, water samples were collected using containers called nisken bottles. About eight of them would be attached to a thin line made of Kevlar and dropped into the water. Once the bottles reached the appropriate depth, a kind of fishing weight would be attached to the line and released. Hitting the first nisken, it would trip the bottle’s doors shut and release another weight that would drop to the next bottle. Counting the surface samples as well as the constant water samples taken through a port in the torpedo room while the sub was submerged (The sub itself was a giant nisken bottle, says Sambrotto), scicex 96 collected 4,653 samples. Working on the surface was often a nasty job for the scientists, who had to deal with subfreezing cold, blasting wind, and the hoisting of cumbersome equipment up a narrow--as my butt can attest--hatch. Not to mention having to deal with ice that shifted dangerously, often without warning.

Then there was the small matter of spending 45 days in confined quarters with 135 sweaty sailors. Jay Simpkins, a senior research assistant from Oregon State University, described it as a lot of testosterone in a very small space. Sambrotto remembers how time became irrelevant. With no differentiation between night and day while submerged, one tedious day became exactly like another. We joked that it was like living in the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, where you kept repeating the same day over and over again.

Pshaw. During my seven-hour watch, I didn’t find it a bit boring. All the guys were friendly, even eager to show us around. And I do mean guys. Because of the intimate quarters, the Navy doesn’t allow women to be crew members on submarines. The Pogy’s co, James T. Reilly, explained that while surface ships can be fairly easily rigged for both sexes, and have been, submarines are so compact that retrofitting would be impossible. There are only five bathrooms on the Pogy, for example, and four of them are almost constantly busy. The fifth one belongs to Reilly, and he shares only with the Executive Officer.

In the afternoon we were served a nice lunch, and I got to steer a nuclear submarine. It turns out, though, that steering a sub is one of the least skilled jobs aboard the boat. Unlike on a Jules Verne sub, where you can look out a big bay window, on the Pogy you stare at a big dial--the gyrocompass repeater--embedded in a wall (that is, bulkhead). You push a small steering wheel, much like an airplane joystick, forward to go down, back to rise, left to go port, and right to go starboard. But you don’t do any of that until the Officer of the Deck (do) tells the Diving Officer (the Dive) and the Dive tells you, so there was little danger of my hurtling the boat straight to the bottom of the ocean. I had my fun imagining, though. Looking through one of the two periscopes on board, which are similar to those carried on World War II subs, I had to stifle the urge to bark Mark! followed by Fire one! when I spied a fishing trawler.

Later I spent some time in the sonar room with several technicians who were happy to explain how things worked. Just as they do in Run Silent, Run Deep, subs really send and receive those eerie pinging sounds to locate and identify other objects. As I listened to various high- pitched noises through a pair of headphones--all of which sounded the same to me--the sonarmen were able to tell me immediately what they were. They ranged from fishing boat to speedboat, porpoise to whale. Whales, they say, have even responded vocally to the sub’s pinging, making me wonder idly if some lonely, soul mate-seeking hyperopic narwhal had ever come a’courting the Pogy.

Finally, back on the dock, I realized I was walking with a swagger in my step (actually it was a limp, since I banged an ankle against something sharp as I disembarked) and a sea chantey on my lips (well, it was really My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, which was the best I could do). I’d been to sea and piloted a sub, but now it was time to redeploy to civilian ops and pick up the dry cleaning.

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