Papua New Guinea Blog 4: On Board the Mermaid Sapphire

Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell
She was
invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in Papua
New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining people.
Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua New
near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

On Monday morning I woke up to find a major change in plans: We had expected that the ship would be delayed down at Jacquinot Bay for a few more days while the dives continued [the preliminary test-dives of James Cameron’s DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submarine], but learned that the ship would be heading into Rabaul and would dock in a few hours. They were looking to re-provision the ship and change crews, since the new crew had just arrived in Rabaul (several of the new crew were the friends I had climbed the volcano with). The ship (actually two ships since the main ship, the Mermaid Sapphire, is accompanied by a second ship) would be in the harbor in a few hours. 

Maria Wilhelm, James Cameron’s business strategist and all-around adviser, sent word that I should come aboard. I was very excited and drove to Rabaul with Rob MacCallum, the local coordinator. First, we stopped at the heliport to pick up some groceries that were scheduled to be flown down to the ship, but could now be loaded right onto it. Second, we stopped at a supermarket and ordered lots more groceries. Third, we stopped at a pharmacy (called a “chemist” in Australian and Papua New Guinean dialect) and ordered other supplies. We arrived in Rabaul just as the ship lowered its gangway to allow us to board.

The ship the Mermaid Sapphire.  Photo by Jane Fajans.

mermaid sapphire.jpg

Shortly after I arrived on the ship wearing a hard hat, construction
jacket, and visitor’s pass, I was greeted by Maria, rapidly introduced
to about half-a-dozen more people, and then shepherded onto the bridge
where Jim Cameron was about to hold a debrief on his most recent dive. I
felt really privileged to be allowed to attend the meeting. There were
about thirty people crowded around the map table, as well as three
cameras, sound men, and different science teams scattered around the
room. Each team member had an assigned position in the room, marked by a
piece of masking tape on the floor with his/her name (mostly men,
however). I hung out in the back.

Jim proceeded to describe his most recent dive from the previous
evening. He had reached 7,200 meters below sea level, but unfortunately
had to abort before he reached the bottom. This was the deepest any
single-occupant submersible had reached, and was getting very close to
the goal. He aborted because of a few computer glitches and a problem
with the thrusters being very slow to react to commands, which made him
unsure as to whether he was drifting, or not.

Jim described the various
aspects of the dive and the things he wanted checked, worked on, and
changed. He read from some notes he had taken before the meeting, but
was basically describing the process of descent and movement from his
memory and his tactile sensations of the dive. He was very articulate
and created a vivid picture of the operation. For instance, he described
how he became uncertain about the speed of descent when he saw one
reading on his computer screen, but could see and feel a different rate of
descent out of the window by looking at the rate at which water
particles flowed upward through a beam of light outside the capsule. He
wondered if his computer readings were somewhat delayed.

After the meeting broke up, the various participants drifted away. Since
I knew some of the crew from our stay together in Rabaul, I felt
comfortable exploring the ship a bit. I saw that the ship had two
bridges. The main bridge is used for steering the ship when traveling
in normal mode. The second bridge, where we had just held our debriefing
meeting, is used when the crew is operating the lifts and machines for
deploying the submarine, and while it is diving.

The ship also has a major communications center at which many people
often crowd together, sending and receiving updates on all aspects of
this mammoth operation. Maria and I used the room to Skype with my
daughter, Vanessa, who is Maria’s assistant. After a lovely chat with
her, I felt reconnected to my other life, and Maria passed on new
information and instructions for Vanessa to look into while we went off
to lunch. Work done, I passed on to Maria the chocolate bars I had
hand-carried from Upstate New York, along with the phone charger she had
left behind in Washington, D.C.

Lunch was in the ship’s mess. There was a big variety of food, from soup
and salad to fish, meat, rice, vegetables, and desserts. It was an
informal and friendly place, and many of the team came and sat and
talked with me while I was there. Maria was trying to do a dozen things
at once with dozens of people who would be scattering to three or four
different places once the ship sailed. I remained sitting in the mess,
talking with scientists, doctors, journalists, and others whose
specialties I didn’t even learn until it was time to sail and all
non-travelers were sent ashore.





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James Cameron and team after the debriefing, checking the
navigation charts. 

Photo by Jane Fajans 

–Jane Fajans

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