The fleshy face I am gazing into seems irritable, but perhaps it's just exhaustion. It belongs to a mustachioed man who just a few seconds ago was leaning against the barbed-wire fence and sleeping while standing. Now, he is awake. He looks at the documents in his hand and I am certain that he has no idea what he is actually reading. He looks at me and then at my driver, who seems worried. Perhaps because he is also thinking that this is the end of the road for us.
Germany, just a few days earlier: Panic begins to spread among the scientists belonging to expedition AT37-06. Donald Trump has been elected the next president of the United States, but that's not it - or is it? Practically overnight, the Mexican government has introduced a new, special visa for all participants of U.S. research trips, without which apparently nothing can be done. Hectic crisis meetings result and many are concerned that it is way too late to get an appointment at the Mexican Embassy. It looks as though the expedition could be over before it has even begun.
I'm still at the entrance to the port and the security guard is uncertain. He takes a final look at my emergency visa and the document that lists all of my photography equipment. He then growls something into his radio, opens the door and heads back to where he had been napping. I walk down the quay and, loaded down with my tripod, camera backpack and suitcase, I board the R/V Atlantis. For the next three weeks, the ship will be my home and my office. All of the scientists make it on board as well, but the next problem soon crops up. Things have become more complicated at the Port of Manzanillo since the Navy took over command:
"Not all that bad for Mexico," says Andreas Teske, of Germany. The smile on his face seems a bit forced when asked if everything is going according to plan.
"After all, we all managed to get here alive." The lead scientist seems unperturbed, even if the research trip - following years of preparation - is facing premature failure. His gaze shifts to the bow of the ship where three containers are anchored to the deck. One of them bears the blue-and-white logo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one of the most important oceanographic institutions in the world.
Two additional containers were supposed to be there as well, full of equipment that is virtually indispensable for the microbiologists on board - supplies such as laboratory clothing, technical devices and chemicals like ethanol, hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide. Without the equipment, virtually nothing can be done in the ship's onboard laboratories. Nobody knows why the containers haven't yet been released by customs officials, but one thing is certain: With every additional second in port, the expedition is wasting money. The trip is costing U.S. taxpayers $150,000 per day. Teske still believes that everything will turn out fine, but the containers never do end up reaching the ship. The crew can't wait any longer and Teske decides that he'll have to make do without the equipment. Somehow.
For the next two-and-a-half weeks, the Atlantis will now be on the high seas, first heading for the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California before then crisscrossing the gulf in search of hydrothermal vents, underwater hot springs that provide some of the most unique habitats on our planet. It will be a dream-come-true for many of the 18 scientists on board, even if they won't be able to spend much time enjoying the warm climate, the sun and the sea breeze on the surface. Night after night, they will be working in the ship's three laboratories and sleeping through the day. They will handle rare rock samples and examine deep-sea creatures pulled up from the depths, including crustaceans, bizarre tube worms and flocculent orange and yellow microbial mats. And mud. Kilos and kilos of dark-brown, slimy, stinky mud.
They will also, though, be able to do something extreme, something that only very few people have ever experienced. They will meet the rock star of the deep sea, who will take them for a dive down to the cold, black depths thousands of meters beneath the surface of the gulf - to places never before visited by humans, separated from the inhospitable deep-sea environment by just a few centimeters of titanium. They will dive down to the ocean floor with Alvin. Alvin?
I move into a cabin measuring not quite nine square meters (95 square feet), which I am sharing with microbiologist John Paul Balmonte. We get along well, but see each other increasingly rarely as the journey goes on. When I get up shortly before sunrise, he is usually collapsing into his bed in exhaustion. JP will be the first to dive down to the sea floor and it's obvious that he's excited about it.
Before the dives can begin, everyone must take part in a safety training session in the Alvin hangar. What should the scientists do if there is a fire onboard the submarine, 2,000 meters below the surface? What happens if it runs out of oxygen or if the pilot loses consciousness? On the sea floor, the Alvinauts are on their own. Training creates a sense of security; panic, in the worst case, can lead to a catastrophe. JP climbs through Alvin's hatch and into the submersible, which is so important to the expedition's success:
I climb clumsily out of the belly of the submersible with mixed feelings. It was more comfortable than I had thought it would be, almost cozy. But "safe" is not an adjective I would use to describe it. How much can a one-hour crash-course in safety really help if water starts pouring in? In such a moment, who would first grab for the manual? Why the hell do people want to dive down thousands of meters in the first place?
"Deep-sea diving is like driving a bus," mumbles Pat Hickey, in a foul mood as usual. Having made more than 680 dives, he is the most experienced of all Alvin pilots, a hardened professional. For the younger ones, everything is much more exciting. They are hungry, ambitious, it's everything to them. Becoming a pilot requires years of training in addition to exceptional technical and mental abilities, not to mention assertiveness. Some never make it. The training dives are few and far between and competition among pilots during training is immense, even if nobody wants to admit it openly. But as soon as a few drinks are served back at port and the mood shifts, the accumulated frustration bursts out of some of them.
Jefferson Grau has all of that behind him. He is one of the three fully trained pilots who will take shifts at the helm of the submersible during our trip. When he's not in the pilot's seat, he's making repairs to the vessel or leading the team responsible for launching and recovering Alvin. He can almost always be found with a book in his hands, the very picture of calm - exactly the kind of person you want at the controls when you're in a tiny space facing an extreme situation. To this point, Jeff has completed 21 dives. A bus driver already?
A deep blare booms across the Gulf of California and I'm startled out of my thoughts. It is December 12, just before 8 a.m. It's time.
The signal is from the ship's horn and it means: Climb aboard, time to dive! For the scientists, it is their last chance to change their minds. But their scientific curiosity is stronger. Andreas Teske and John Paul Balmonte follow each other onto the ramp leading to Alvin's hatch. Shoes off, a last wave and then the submersible is bolted shut from the inside. There's no going back.
The shopping list is long. The plan for today's excursion includes examining previously located hydrothermal vents and extracting sediment cores, measuring temperatures, taking water samples, collecting tube worms and other sea creatures and gathering microbial mats. And, of course, mapping unknown terrain, places that no person has ever seen before. It is a tight schedule, time is short and the deep sea is unpredictable.
I spend a couple more minutes staring at the sea, which just swallowed up three people. Meanwhile, things calm down on the Atlantis and I use the time to look around the ship a bit. I stroll across the main deck and through the laboratories and common rooms.
The Atlantis belongs to the U.S. Navy and is about 84 meters (274 feet) long. It is neither particularly beautiful nor especially comfortable, but it is tough and powerful. There is no comparison to luxurious research ships like the famous German vessels Sonne and Polarstern, which have saunas for relaxing and bars where passengers and crew can grab a drink after hours.
Steve, the chief engineer, works in the engine room. "This really isn't an exceptional ship, not even for an engineer," he says. "The only unusual thing about it is the A-frame, the crane that we use to launch and recover Alvin. It is under the supervision of the U.S. Navy and they are very, very strict about everything." Steve has been going to sea for more than 40 years and has a lot of stories to tell. Stories about solidarity and team spirit, about the struggle for survival and about death:
I think for a long time about what Steve told me. About his description of the special kind of cohesion on board and the feeling of having a second family. A feeling that you can likely only truly understand if you've spent a long time at sea yourself. Maybe too long. Two-and-a-half weeks isn't enough. I return to my cabin with my tripod and camera to take a look at the video material I have shot.
The loud blaring of the ship's horn pulls me away from my screen. It is shortly after 4 p.m. and they have resurfaced. I grab my equipment and get into position to film the arrival of the Alvinauts:
From now on, the daily routine is set. Samples are catalogued and analyzed overnight in the laboratories while the scientists sleep during the day. In the evenings, they wait for the arrival of Alvin before eagerly tackling the new samples - and the cycle starts anew. It's the daily rhythm onboard the Atlantis:
At some point, everything becomes routine. You've shot all the important video and interviewed most of the people. And I find some time to enjoy life at sea. The murmur of the ocean, the sunsets, the way the seats rock in the ship's cinema as I watch "The Fountain" and "Into the Wild." Ultimately, though, it's hard not to start thinking that the world outside keeps on turning without you. It's Christmas, probably the most difficult time to be away from home, not for everyone but certainly for a lot of people. The few Christmas decorations that have been put up don't help much. It feels like most of the crew are doing all they can to nip any atmosphere of celebration on board in the bud. As a result, the holidays are just like normal days. There's no goose, no singing, no games, no spending time together.
It's an unusual way of life that seems to suit some people perfectly. Like Steve, the head engineer. He doesn't whip out his smartphone the minute land is in sight hoping to catch a signal to get those WhatsApp and Facebook messages instead of being forced to rely on the ship's torturously slow internet connection - though at least it has one. Steve, by contrast, always seems calm and centered.
But for others on board, the romance of being at sea eventually descends into melancholy, the next evolutionary step toward loneliness. The researchers are only on board the ship for three weeks, but the crew are away from their homes for months on end. They're missing their children growing up, their friends splitting up and falling in love with someone new. How do they cope? And why do they do it?
Day six at sea. Finally, it's my turn. I'm joining dive No. 4863, together with marine biologist Javier Caraveo-Patiño. It's going to be one of the longest dives of the expedition. We're starting first thing in the morning: