Day 15: Captains of the deep

Jimmy control room

We couldn’t let the cruise come to an end without a post about the ROV Jason team, without whom none of this research would be possible. This intrepid crew has taken us from the rugged craters of an undersea volcano to the smooth, otherworldly plains at 5 km below the ocean’s surface, all without ever leaving the deck of the ship.

Our Jason expedition leader and chief pilot is Alberto “Tito” Collasius, Jr., who got his seagoing start as a dishwasher aboard the voyage that discovered the Titanic wreck. Before going to sea, Tito didn’t know that deep submergence tools like ROVs existed—but once he saw the technology in action, he knew he wanted to be involved. After about 15 years as a ship crewmember, Tito made the transition to ROVs, and now he’s pleased to be able to say that his “office” is anywhere from 1 to 5 kilometers below the surface of the ocean.

Tito overseeing a Jason recovery.

Tito preparing for a Jason recovery on the fantail.

Tito spends about a third of his time at sea on expeditions, and the rest of the time at home in Massachusetts working on ways to improve the vehicle and make dives go more smoothly. When he’s at sea, Tito doesn’t just fly Jason—as expedition leader, he’s also responsible for coordinating operations with the science party and the ship’s crew, managing launches and recoveries, training junior team members, and organizing watches (shifts) that work together effectively. Jason dives can last 72 hours or more, so watches in the control van run round-the-clock. Each watch is four hours long, twice a day (e.g., 4 am to 8 am and 4 pm to 8 pm).

A watch consists of a navigator, an engineer, and a pilot. The navigator drives the ship from within the Jason control van, keeping it where it needs to be in relation to the vehicle, and also tracks the position of the elevators. The engineer controls Medea (Jason’s power and information conduit) and the enormous associated cable winch on deck, monitors vehicle systems, and supports the pilot with operating the various compartments and tools installed on the vehicle. The pilot’s main job is to fly Jason and control the vehicle’s two manipulator arms—perhaps the most highly specialized, artistic part of the operation. In addition to the watchstanders, there’s also a data manager tasked with the monumental job of handling all of the event logs, multi-camera video footage, and photos from every dive.

A masterful use of the manipulator arms for undersea sampling.

A masterful use of the manipulator arms for undersea sampling.

There are about 15 people in the Jason team’s pool of seagoers, but only a subset of this number goes on each cruise. The group we have on this expedition runs the gamut of experience. Pilot Jimmy Varnum has been working with ROVs for over 30 years in settings ranging from vehicle design to salvage operations to oil field and military support, and now works exclusively on Jason science cruises. On the other end of the spectrum, Baxter Hutchinson, who’s in his early 20s, pursued his spot on the Jason team after getting a recommendation at a robotics fair a few years ago. But regardless of experience, the team works well together. Jimmy says one of his favorite things about the job is the group of people with whom he gets to go to sea.

Jimmy prepping Jason for a dive.

Jimmy getting Jason ready for a dive.

Jimmy is known for keeping his watch entertained with colorful commentary. Most of what he says is unprintable, but what comes through between all the swear words is that he loves being a pilot. The jobs he finds most satisfying involve using the manipulator arms to install and work on large instrumentation—e.g., CORKs—but he also enjoys scientific sampling in general, and the essential thrill of flying a 9000-pound vehicle around the ocean.

Tito says he knows the Jason team has done its job right when he sees that the scientists are overwhelmed with more samples than they know what to do with. The science party’s current state of sleep deprivation is a testament to just how many samples we’ve had to process, so there’s no question that this expedition meets his ambitious standards.


–Cat Wolner, NSF

To see the Jason team in action, check out WHOI’s short video from 2011.


Photo credits: Shingo Kato (top), Cat Wolner (2nd), Brian Glazer (bottom); subsurface photos from the Jason control van


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