The Man Down Under

In an era when robots are dominating deep-sea research, Terry Kerby is among the last humans to venture into the abyss
Story by David Thompson. Photos by Elyse Butler.

The Pele’s Vent pinnacle was once a major feature of Lō‘ihi, the undersea volcano twenty miles southeast of Hawai‘i Island. Located at the volcano’s summit, which is three thousand feet underwater, the pinnacle stood about three hundred feet tall and had thermal vents spewing hot water from its peak.

Multi-layered sheets of bacteria thriving on the vents’ output formed thick microbial mats that covered the top of the pinnacle, and swarms of shrimp unique Lō‘ihi were drawn to the hot water. Terry Kerby knew Pele’s Vent well. As the chief submersible pilot for the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) since 1981, Kerby spent eighteen years taking scien-tists and their instruments down to Lō‘ihi to study the next Hawaiian Island in the making. Kerby knew the volcano’s summit like it was his own neighborhood, and he was astonished the day he found that Pele’s Vent had vanished.

In the summer of 1996 Lō‘ihi came to life with a swarm of more than four thousand earthquakes, and a scientific expedition was quickly launched to see what was going on. As the quakes began to let up, Kerby and two scientists climbed into the seven-foot diameter steel sphere of the Pisces V, one of HURL’s two research submersibles, and went down to take a look. It’s always nighttime at Lō‘ihi’s depths, and the water on the bottom was unusually murky on that dive. But Kerby knew the neighborhood landmarks—the basalt pillars, the pillow lava formations, the field of greenish clay chimneys—and he used them to navigate toward the foot of the Pele’s Vent pinnacle. But when he got to the spot where he would ordinarily see the vertical wall of the pinnacle, it wasn’t there. Nothing was there. Or rather, a brand new crater two miles long and 900 feet deep was there. “We pulled right up to the edge of the crater,” Kerby recalls, “and we were looking out going ‘Whoa! It’s gone! There’s just a big hole there!’ That was the most bizarre feeling.”

Personal encounters with the astonishing and the bizarre are part of Kerby’s stock-in-trade. On submarine volcanoes in the South Pacific he’s glided through forests of bubbles streaming from the seabed, as if his sub had been dropped into a sea of champagne. At depths too great for bubbles to form, he’s seen water boil in the form of white flames shimmering at the ends of grotesquely shaped sulfur formations. Some volcanoes billowed underwater with black smoke, others billowed with white smoke, while all around each sulfuric hot spot life thrived: There were acres of mussels as large as sneakers, voracious shrimp, colonies of oscillating worms and legions of fighting crabs. In one darkly amusing moment that occurred as Kerby watched hundreds of crabs battling each other at the edge of a powerful hydrothermal vent, one crab picked up another and threw it into the scalding water, boiling it instantly.

In 1,200 feet of water off Makapu‘u, Kerby has dazzled his passengers by shutting off the lights of the sub and brushing across towering stands of bamboo coral, setting off what he describes as “incredible light shows, with these pulses of blue light that radiate all the way to the end of the branches and then come back.” In 1,400 feet of water on the Cross Seamount south of Honolulu, Kerby parked among a congregation of ancient six-gill sharks, which floated all around like curious blimps; one was so strong it pushed the twenty-foot-long sub along the seafloor like a plow. At 1,800 feet in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kerby was surprised when a Hawaiian monk seal swam up to the sub as if to say hello; until that moment nobody knew monk seals could reach that depth.

HURL’s two manned submersibles, the Pisces IV (left) and the Pisces V (right), can each hold three people and dive to around 6,280 feet.

Kerby has routinely peered from his viewing ports at creatures no one has ever identified. He has been peered back at by denizens of the deep as well, including a family of groupers that would not stop staring until Kerby finally shooed them away from the viewing ports with the sub’s robotic arms. He’s been attacked by territorial kāhala, which struck the sub hard enough to knock out a light. Other times kāhala have used the sub to hunt, stealthily swimming alongside it as it moved across the bottom, then shooting out like torpedoes to strike fish caught in the headlights. “It’s those kind of encounters that really connect you with that deep ocean world,” Kerby says.

In his three and a half decades piloting HURL’s subs, Kerby has racked up the majority of the program’s nine thousand hours of bottom time. He’s mainly piloted scientists into the abyss, but he’s also surveyed nuclear blast craters at Enewetak Atoll, recovered millions of dollars worth of lost scientific instruments and priceless lost data, mapped cable routes through fields of unexploded ordnance, done environmental assessments of chemical weapons dumped off O‘ahu’s south shore (“It’s best not to touch them,” he says), found dozens of historic wrecks and carried eighteen documentary film crews to the bottom of the sea.

Kerby’s job is not the kind of job that ever grows old. “Every time I climb into the sub and close the hatch it’s still like the first time,” he says. “It’s still the same rush. It never goes away.” At the age of 65, the former US Coast Guardsman is trim and tan from the two-mile lunchtime swim he takes each day off the Makai Research Pier in Waimānalo, where the Pisces IV and Pisces V are kept when not at sea. He’s still got some good years of diving left in him, as do the subs. Although they were built in the 1970s, they have been painstakingly maintained and, Kerby reckons, have decades of use left in them.

But whether the subs will ever go back into the water again is in question. A move away from manned undersea exploration and federal funding cuts have brought the Pisces program to the brink of extinction. “It’s coming unraveled,” Kerby says.

For decades ocean scientists have heatedly debated the relative merits of manned versus unmanned undersea re-search. Two of the most prominent figures in ocean exploration—Robert Ballard and Sylvia Earle—have taken opposite sides in the fight. Ballard, renowned for finding the wreck of the Titanic, has led the argument in favor of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs). ROVs are tethered to ships and operated by remote control. AUVs are swimming robots, turned loose to explore on their own. Both can transmit high-definition video and other data to people on the surface.

Ballard advocates for a deep-sea “telepresence” offering digital access to researchers anywhere in the world. “I’m interested in bottom time, not the spiritual experience of diving,” he has said. On the other hand, Earle—the grande dame of the deep—argues that a human presence is critical for ocean exploration. As she has put it, “Would you send a robot to taste wine in Paris?”

Naturally, Kerby has a bias toward a human presence. “There’s nothing that can ever replace getting the human brain on the bottom,” he says. “It’s the difference between exploring your own neighborhood, learning all the landmarks and the behavior of everything that lives there, and then sending a robot into your neighborhood, looking at it through video monitors and trying to get the same impression.”

Nonetheless, the machines have gained the upper hand. That was painfully clear to Kerby in 2012 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration eliminated funding for all manned under-sea research, leaving the two Pisces subs on the pier in Waimānalo as the unwanted stepchildren of the US deep-sea research program. The University of Hawai‘i, which administers HURL and is unable to sustain the $3 million-a-year program without federal support, has laid off three of Kerby’s five-man crew and announced its intention to sell the subs.

But HURL isn’t going down without a fight. Ordinarily the Pisces subs are carried to sea by the UH research vessel Ka‘imikai-o-Kanaloa, but originally they were deployed from a sort of sinkable barge called a Launch, Recovery and Transport platform. The LRT, as it’s known, can carry just one sub at a time and doesn’t allow for recharging the sub’s batteries between dives while at sea, so it can only go out for a day at a time. But when Kerby lost his NOAA funding, he pulled the LRT out of retirement, which slashed the cost of a Pisces operation from $48,000 to $15,000 a day. The markdown drew enough bargain-shopping researchers to keep the Pisces V in the water for a full three months of dives. “We were basically done for, but we pulled the LRT out and had an excellent dive season,” Kerby says.

But what really made 2013 stand out was a historical discovery Kerby made during three days of mandatory preseason training dives aboard Pisces V. For years Kerby and his crew have used these dives to explore the vast fields of military debris outside of Pearl Harbor. They have cataloged more than 140 significant finds lying on the deep sandy plains off south O‘ahu, such as military landing craft, aircraft, sunken ships and submarines. Their biggest find came in 1992 when they located in 1,200 feet of water the WWII-era Japanese midget submarine sunk by the USS Ward nearly an hour before the air attack on Pearl Harbor began; the discovery offered conclusive proof that Americans actually fired the first shot in the Pacific war. In 2013 Kerby’s big discovery was a four-hundred-foot-long Japanese mega-submarine, the I-400, lying in 2,300 feet of water. The US torpedoed the captured vessel after the war to keep the Russians—who were demanding to see the technology—from getting a look.

The University of Hawai‘i officially announced that HURL would cease operations as of Sept. 30, 2014. But Kerby and his small team managed to scrape together enough diving contracts to save the program that year as well. There were dives paid for by the Japanese public broadcasting network NHK, which wanted to film the I-400, as well dives paid for by another foreign film company that wanted to visit other wrecks. There were dives for some UH geologists, and there was an unglamorous job for Honolulu County inspecting the outfall pipe for the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“Every time I climb into the sub and close the hatch it’s still like the first time,” Kerby says of his experience driving the Pisces subs, seen here at their home in the Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo on O‘ahu.

But a serious scientific operation can’t go on as a hand-to-mouth freelancer forever, and as HURL approached the halfway point of 2015 no prospects had materialized. “I’m running out of options,” Kerby says. “All through our history it’s always been year to year. Now its sort of week to week.” Kerby’s ability to pull rabbits out of his hat can’t be underestimated. But neither can the possibility that 2015 will be the end of the line for HURL, that the robots and their tethered cousins will triumph over the Pisces subs.

It’s a painful prospect for Kerby. “To discontinue manned submersibles is like getting a new hammer in your toolbox and throwing the wrenches away,” he says. “They’re all-important tools for ocean exploration, and certainly a lot can be done with remote vehicles. But the Pisces have their place. And there is so much exploration to be done.” HH

Story by David Thompson. Photos by Elyse Butler