Chapter 3: The First Dive
Back in Norway, after two hours of heated discussions and a ping-pong of blames and puzzlement between the blue-collared roughnecks and the white-collared engineers, Alexander Newman rose up, effectively stopping the debate without the need for a single word. He informed everyone around the table, using his usual authoritative voice, that he had already requested the scuba divers to gear up and prepare to dive and investigate the matter. Until they returned, speculations would be all they were going to get. They all knew that the fjord at that location was shallow enough to make it an easy dive and a visual inspection would be more efficient and quickly made.
As the last people exited the conference room, the two divers finished trans-boarding their gear to the derrick supply pontoon. To the inexperienced, they seem rather over-equipped with double tanks and front-stage tank for such a shallow dive. But tech divers were in a class of their own. They had their ways and understood the risks involved with the profession, prompting the need for redundancy more than most recreational divers would ever understand. They set up their equipment at the front of the boat and started removing their clothes in the cool morning air and put their under garments and dry suits on.
Eirik was the first to be ready; he was a marine biologist by education but worked as a tech diver because of the money. Born in Oslo, he wouldn't be seen out of place in a Viking re-enactment battle and with reason, he had blue piercing eyes, long blond hair and was in all respect massive and spoke with a deep and noble voice like the Norse of old. His muscular body fitted perfectly intohis black and blue custom-made DUI trilaminate dry suit and the tanks seemed small and light next to him. Without waiting for the help of the dive master, he turned around and got down on one knee in front of his double set of tanks and started opening the air valve slowly with his left hand while calibrating the air analyzer with his right, exposing the round sensor to the whistling stream of air.
“I have 32.1 percent of oxygen in here for both tanks and at that depth it will give us at least a good two hours down there.”
“Sorry, I missed that. I wasn’t paying attention. Two hours down there was it?” asked Jack, the second diver and his closest friend of many years despite the distance that separated them. “With the temperature of the swater at almost zero, even with our dry suits on, I'm not quite sure I could stay down there that long,” he added, finishing screwing his last regulator.
“Don’t worry, I know it’s your first dive with this company, but you are a much better diver than me. You will be fine,” reassured Eirik with a smile.
“I prefer diving in my two piece bikini much more,” laughed Jack, indeed a little nervous even though he had no reason to, at least not on the technical side of things. He had been trained by the best in the United States, the Navy Seals but he had quit near the end, before having time to serve for reasons that he had not told anyone, not even Eirik. He was great a diver and never missed a day without doing his hundred push ups and sit ups. “No, seriously, underwater you have to respect the capacity of the buddy you dive with and as a guy who dove in Florida and off the bayou for a decade, I can tell you forty minutes is probably all I can do in zero Celsius wsaters, even using argon in the dry suit which today may I remind you, we don’t have.”
“True. At any rate, luckily the Navy taught you Celsius. I’m not sure I’m any good with the old Fahrenheit system; never got used to it even after these horrible years working off the coast of Louisiana,” sighed Eirik, remembering how homesick he had been toward the end.
“I know, I remember. At least you met me!” said Jack cheerfully.
“Yeah, at least there was that.” confirmed Eirik honestly. “You will be fine; we are going in to see what the underwater camera was seeing, a whole lot of nothing though it was, unless you consider nothing but a flat bottom something. I’m sure it is likely just the hull of a ship the drill happened to hit dead on. We probably won't even have to stay down there for more than thirty minutes.”
“Don't jinx it,” begged Jack while putting the final touches to his equipment. “This would be my first dive with this crew since you got me this job, and hopefully I’ll be ok. But those people up there seemed to be very anxious and when things don’t go their way, the new kid is always the first victim, that’s me at the moment.”
“Again, you will be fine, I have known Alexander for years and although he is here only on a provisional basis, he has guaranteed me that he will try to get you appointed for a full year term later.” reassured Eirik with hopes.
“I’m done, let’s perform our buddy check and go down. Every day these people can’t drill, they are losing a quarter million dollars I’m told,” Jack pressed on.
“Yeah, who said that contributing to polluting our blue planet was cheap?” said Eirik putting his mask and grabbing his fins. “It seemed that the Kyoto Protocol didn’t register with these people.”
“Thanks to them we have a job,” whispered Jack. “And who is Kyoto anyway? Sounds like a little victim from an earthquake in Japan a few months ago,” he added satirically.
“That’s exactly what it is,” said Eirik bowing his head in shame.
The boat manoeuvred on the calm waters around the platform until it got as close as safety would allow from the drill shaft and, without the need to be told, the divers understood it was the cue to get in the water. They both took a big stride off the front of the boat, Eirik first and Jack close behind. They drifted a little away and, after a quick buddy check (verifying the tanks were open and the regulators were functioning properly), they both gave each other the OK sign and then the thumbs down sign indicating that they were ready to descend. Both deflated their BCD's together and disappeared beneath the freezing water.
As soon as Jack’s face touched the water, he felt an intense pain, all the pores on his skin contracted and he felt a burning sensation on every part of his exposed skin as if they were on fire. It immediately reminded him of those morning cold swims in the river while camping with his Scout group as a child. He knew the sensation would subside after a few minutes, but every time, he couldn't help feeling like he had just entered an icy bath naked and he hated it. The water visibility was as expected, about ten metres. They both descended together using the drill shaft as a reference point but never touched it, compensating for the dry suits’ squeeze and equalizing their airways as they went down. They were soon hovering a few centimetres above the bottom, next to the drill line. They started to feel more and more comfortable as the seconds passed and their undergarment gave them the feeling of a nice winter pyjama. The water was indeed two degrees Celsius and their depth was 12 metres on Eirik’s wrist computer and 37 feet on Jack’s. The current was almost nonexistent at that hour of the morning, which allowed them to remain in a stationary position without any effort as they frog kicked, slowly probing the bottom at first visually and then with their hands. They soon discovered that whatever was lying on the bottom was much bigger than they had anticipated.
Carefully maintaining buoyancy above the silt, Eirik plunged his gloved hand slowly in the opaque mist. As it disappeared into the darkness, he was surprised at how thick it was. When the tip of his glove finally made contact with the solid bottom, he had silt almost to his shoulder and that made him stop. He stood still in a state of disbelief for a few seconds. Almost unconsciously, he dragged his fingers and then his hand on the bottom; his first thought was that’s impossible. Although he stopped logging his dives long ago, he knew he had passed three thousand for sure, but in all these dives he never felt something like that while touching the surface of an object underwater. As he glided his hand, it wasn’t what he felt that surprised him, it was what he didn’t. He could definitely feel a perfectly flat sheet of metal, but the calcium deposits which should always be found on shipwrecks, rocks or anything else that had been lying at the bottom of the oceans and lakes for a long period of time were not present here. The lack of calcium was puzzling. That sheet of metal, even if it was stainless steel, should feel like stucco paint or at least unpolished stones to the touch, but his glove was gliding without any resistance like the surface of an ice rink.
Jack, in the meantime, had noticed the same phenomenon and was reaching for one of his leg pockets and extracted a small computer. He started scanning the bottom, making small U-shaped patterns clearly visible in the silt. As Eirik saw Jack finning away, he swam beside his buddy while maintaining eye contact at all times until Jack completed his survey. After five minutes, Jack showed the results of the scan to his buddy. He couldn’t see Eirik’s reaction whether he was surprised or not, but the truth was that if Eirik didn’t need to get his mouth closed around his regulator, he would have been jaw-dropped.
Jack motioned with his hand that he wanted to start swimming in a straight line, and so he did as he dragged one hand to the bottom trying not to silt out everything around them. Eirik positioned his arms into the shape of an inverted V pointing toward the bottom and measured the distance between each hand, adding one length each time they swam the distance—an underwater measuring technique they often used. They calculated approximately forty metres and then stopped. The bottom was still covered by a smooth metal sheet without any imperfections. Then they both turned around and traced back their steps all the way to the drill using the long line of rising silt they had just stirred and started swimming in the opposite direction also for about forty metres.
Not feeling afraid or nervous, just puzzled, they continued swimming the same length while touching the bottom with their hands; it was still as smooth and denude of calcium. In addition to the lack of calcium, there were no apparent signs of corrosion and, although they had no visual proof of that, the feeling at the tip of Jack’s glove was unmistakeable. It was as if someone had just manufactured a large sheet of metal and deposited it on the bottom that very same day. The only indication that it had been lying there for quite a while was the thickness of the silt on top of it.
It seemed to them that there was little more to do but to give each other the thumbs up and return to the surface. Since they only stayed underwater for thirty-five minutes, they decided to skip the recommended safety stop and exited the water immediately. They were helped out of the water by their support team on the boat. As he stepped on the deck of the pontoon, Jack was still clenching at his computer and was pondering what the data he had collected could possibly mean. All he could think was “the more certain you are of something, the longer it takes to change your mind if you're wrong.” But in this case, he was sure he was right.
Although they had a lot of trouble controlling their anxiety level, they still removed their equipment in a professional manner and stowed them back on the boat neatly before heading to the briefing room where they would be debriefed by the executive director of the site. The only equipment that Jack carried with him to the briefing room was his underwater scanner. Before leaving his equipment, Jack opened the watertight seal of his scanner and extracted the flash card from the device. He followed Eirik to the conference room and held on to it as if it were made of solid gold.
The briefing room was surprisingly warm and very comfortable after that cold dive. Inside, an eight-seat conference table was neatly placed in the middle and at the end of the room was a door to an office. Both divers were assigned seats on each side of the table. As they sat down, the core members of the project exited the office and quickly occupied the remaining seats.
“Hi everyone, to my right is Bingein, who is in charge of the drilling,” said Alexander hastily looking at Jack, who he had met only briefly during his welcoming tour. “I was told you were supposed to be underwater for at least an hour, but you stayed for only thirty-five minutes there... Have you found our problem yet?”
“Hi, everyone, Mr. Newman, I’m new to your operation, I just started one week ago. When I heard that your drill was stopped by an unknown structure at the bottom, I first thought that you probably hit a yet-to-be discovered wreck. But then, I realized that your drill would have been able to go through something as solid as steel. As such I was unable to make a determination... Today I actually reached the bottom myself and touched the structure underneath the silt. We found a perfectly flat piece of what seems to be steel.”
“Seems to be?” repeated the man sitting next to Jack.
“Yes Sir, I said ‘seems to be’ because just with my dive gloves and lack of proper equipment, it is difficult to make a more accurate assessment. But I can assure you that this is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The bottom you struck with your drill is manmade, I’m pretty sure,” continued Jack. “But Sirs, this is not the most fascinating aspect. Normally on any shipwreck, corrosion sets in very rapidly, then coral starts growing with calcium deposits, even in cold water like this, it can be quite fast. But here we have discovered a perfectly smooth, perfectly level plate of what seems to be steel that stretches over forty metres on each side of the drill. That’s more than two hundred fifty feet of flat metal and the widths seem equally long, I mean, that panel is even bigger than those found on the Titanic. We didn’t feel any rivets or traces of welding, which is quite impossible.”
Jack then placed his laptop on the table and inserted the flash card. The software he was running displayed a series of graphics and columns of values. “These readings are consistent with an even flow of electricity emanating from the bottom,” he explained as he turned the laptop to show the display to Alexander.
“Are you saying that whatever is down there is powered?”
“Yes Sir, it is precisely what I'm saying,” Jack replied.
“What could it be?” exclaimed Asker, one of the roughnecks responsible for the drilling. “I mean powered structure or not, we are using a diamond drill head. The fact that the steel is electrified shouldn’t have stopped the drill—merely slowing it down considerably perhaps, but not stopping it completely and definitely not dull the diamonds like it did.”
“If I may, normally, I am not one to procrastinate, but this time, let me speculate a little as to why it is electrified.” explained Eirik. “As a marine biologist, I have served on a few research vessels. In order to be able to protect the hull underwater, a small electric current is generated which prevents corrosion and marine organisms to attach themselves to the steel plates. That way, any part of the ship that is submerged underwater will require virtually no maintenance, as opposed to everything outside above the water line which will need constant repainting.”
“So if I understand your explanation correctly, someone or I dare say something has created a structure at the bottom of the fjord equipped with an anti-rusting electric system comparable to what we see on modern naval vessels?” summarized Alexander, happy to see that Eirik had discovered a major clue already.
“It seems so Alex,” continued Eirik. “That fact in itself is not a problem for me, the problem is that to use Impressed Current Technology to protect any structure against rust requires a lot of power, about fifteen amps and if we draw more than 0.5 amps from a car battery it would be dead within hours. This technology works by saturating the entire structure with excess free electrons, countering electron-loss and rust formation, and that process sucks up a lot of energy.”
“So essentially, if we want to drill at this location, we will have to find out how big the structure is and then either we drill through it or right next to it?” asked Alexander rhetorically.
“Pardon me, Sir,” interjected Franz, the project accountant. “But if there is a structure, it has likely been placed here by the government or an organization of the same. Maybe we should check with our contacts at the Ministry and find out if we should even be here at all first, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, we have an exact GPS location, so we are definitely at the spot we planned to drill and the place was approved many months earlier. What we need to do next is to investigate further and determine the extent of the structure and drill next to it,” Alexander urged.
“But Sir, I think we should report this to the authorities first and let them make a determination. I'm not sure it is our place to make a decision like that,” insisted Franz.
“Well, first of all, we don’t know what it is and although this is a mining consortium, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one in this room who is interested in finding out what's down there,” emphasized Jack more forcefully than he intended for a man who had just completed his first task at a new company.
“Of course, it makes sense that you would say that, you are paid by the hour and enjoy the dive, we are not here to satisfy your wreck diving hobbies you know,” snapped Franz, omitting the Sir in his case.
“Well, anyway we need to go back down there and find out either what it is or how far it extends in order to resume drilling,” added Eirik in support of his friend.
“I'm the project manager, so ultimately the decision and responsibility for the consequences are mine, so I say this time before you go back down there, we need to complete the surface scan in order to get a better idea of the depth and see where the structure starts and where it ends. That's going to prevent you from swimming extensively down there for nothing,” said Alexander. “As for waiting for the government response on what we have found and getting the green light to continue drilling, that is out of the question. By the time we get the answers, humans will have stopped using oil for at least a century. No, the only logical thing for us to do is to continue along our approved drilling corridor as soon as we determine where it is safe to drill again.”
“Perfect, so let's just top up the tanks and go back down.” commented Jack with an in-your-face glance at the accountant.
“If there's nothing else to add, the meeting is adjourned. Let’s get back to work people.” ordered Alexander.