When the oceanographers on board the R/V Atlantis wrote that they were planning to "venture into one of the world’s oldest oceans—the Mediterranean Sea—to look for life in some of the most hostile environments on Earth," they did not expect that would involve a "full lockdown" in the science lab as the crew responded to a mayday call.
Just 12 hours after leaving Piraeus, the port of Athens, on Friday morning (Nov. 25) the Atlantis on its way to its first study site to investigate deep-sea brine lakes heard the Greek Coast Guard relay a distress call from a fishing boat. The sinking vessel was overlaid with Egyptian refugee men and taking on water about 30 miles (50 km) from the island of Kythera.
"We could tell it was on our track line," Atlantis Captain A.D. Colburn III told the Cape Cod Times in a ship-to-shore interview on Sunday. As per protocol, he "raised the ship’s U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Security Level from I to II and took protective measures," reported the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in a press release.
That meant "all exterior hatches were closed and locked, all portholes covered and locked, and all windows covered so the rescued men couldn’t see inside. We were ordered to stay out of sight. We were to stay together in the main lab and the computer lab across the corridor. If we left the room, we had to go in pairs," wrote WHOI science writer Cherie Winner on the expedition's Dive and Discover website.
Colburn said that he had only about a dozen Atlantis crew on deck to facilitate with the rescue, while the rest of the crew, scientists and others on the ship's 50 member roster stayed below for their own safety.
Before she was locked in the science lab, Winner could see from the aft deck, "two sizeable ships nearby and a helicopter flying low toward one of them."
The 50-foot long fishing boat was sheltering from the 30-knot winds in the lee of an oil tanker using lines to keep from drifting when the 274-foot Atlantis approached fighting swells as high as 8 feet. Through the help of an English/Arabic translator on board another ship, Colburn explained the need to remove the tanker's lines and allow the Atlantis to maneuver in between the fishing vessel and the tanker.
Colburn told the Times that the the fishing boat's engine struggled, but worked well enough to close the gap and bring the overloaded vessel alongside. But he "said he was glad the little wooden boat didn’t fall apart when it hit Atlantis," reported Winner.
"Due to wind, the tanker kept drifting toward us, but we weren’t catching as much wind as it was, so Captain Colburn had to keep us moving ever so slightly to the right, pushing against the boat. Looking at the waves via closed circuit TV from the lab, it looked very, very rough out there," she added.
By midnight, the Atlantis had rescued all 93 men from the fishing boat, including the captain who left reluctantly. Most of the men were in their 20s.
"The Atlantis crew provided blankets, pillows, and clothing, including dry socks for the Egyptians, who had been standing in water aboard their boat and were cold, hungry, and dehydrated. Atlantis’s cook gave them loaves of bread and other food. Crew members stayed on deck with the Egyptians through the night, as Atlantis diverted 88 miles to the Greek port of Kalamata," reported WHOI.
By mid-Saturday morning the oceanographers were back on mission and soon testing a new instrument in their search for organisms living in super salty lakes on the Mediterranean seafloor; one of many extreme environments for life.
Ninety-three men boarded the research vessel Atlantis one-by-one. After they had all left their small fishing trawler, R/V Atlantis quickly moved away from the foundering boat.(Courtesy WHOI)
The original track line for the expedition. Sampling sites include Discovery Basin and Urania Basin. The Atlantis returns to Piraeus on Dec. 6. (Courtesy WHOI)
During the rescue operation Friday night, and until arrival at Kalamata, Greece, at 7:39 Saturday morning, the scientific team’s only windows on events outside were two tiny closed-circuit TV screens in the ship’s computer lab. (Courtesy WHOI)
The rescued men spent a cold and windy night in the shelter of the hangar where the deep-sea submersible Alvin is usually stowed. They received blankets, dry socks, first aid, food, and water from the Atlantis crew, which remained on deck with the men throughout the night. As the ship approached the dock in Kalamata, the men were moved to the fantail where the remotely operated vehicle Jason was stowed. (Courtesy WHOI)