Deep-sea Ecologist Rewatches seaQuest DSV: Episode 10, “Bad Water”

Plus: One Weird Trick to Survive at Sea by Inflating Your Trousers.

seaquest title screen

I know over 100 different verses to the shanty “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” The three sung by Chief Crocker in “Bad Water” are among the few that would make it through the censors of early ’90s network television. Even still, with the crew struggling through a storm, several members lost at sea, and a downed French submarine slowly losing air, it’s a poignant moment.

There’s a storm brewing 200 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida, and a French Tourist submarine has gone down in the Bermuda Triangle, where mysterious freshwater sinkholes have opened up.

OK, I’m going to crawl under my deGrasse-Tyson-est wet blanket for a moment to point out that: 1. Fresh water is less dense than salt water, but not so much so that it would do anything like sink a sub. Cargo ships transition from the salty Atlantic to the Great Lakes all the time (and Lake Superior is the second freshest large lake on the planet). Heck, the Russian Mir submersibles have been diving in Lake Baikal and Lake Geneva over the last decade. 2. We know what the Bermuda Triangle is. It’s nothing. Sorry. Statistically, there’s no significant increase in weird boat stuff around the Bermuda Triangle, but we’ll let that slide for the sake of story.

While searching for the lost submarine, Krieg, Westphalen, Lucas, and Ford are forced to abandon their scout sub as it hits a pocket of freshwater. They’re left floating on the surface as a category 3 hurricane bears down

The scout sub has a suicide switch—a mechanism that allows them to blow out their pressure chamber and escape to the surface, which they use. These kinds of last-resort systems are real, though they are certainly not universal. Until her most recent rebuild, DSV Alvin had a similar switch. When triggered, it would release the pressure sphere from the rest of the submersible, which would then rocket to the surface so fast that one oceanographer calculated that the sphere, and its inhabitants, would be launched 30 meters into the air from a 1000 meter ascent. As the occupants would almost certainly be killed by such a journey, it was an option of absolute last resort. The newest iteration of Alvin has a much more sensible emergency system that allows for a controlled ascent.

If you think that sounds bad, consider this: JIM Suits, the large, exo-squad looking beasts that were popular for oil and gas work in the 1980s, had hydraulically actuated emergency clamps at every joint. If any of the suit’s extremities started leaking, or became trapped in debris, the operator could trigger a mechanism that would seal and sever that part of the suit. If the operator couldn’t get their own appendages out first, well, the system was built for that externality, too.

Incidentally, crabs can do the exact same thing.

The plot is, well, meh, as far as seaQuest plots go. There’s a bit of tension, but then everyone is rescued with moments to spare and seaQuest barely escapes plunging into a freshwater sinkhole.

The four hapless crewmembers caught in a hurricane on a life raft do almost everything they can wrong, and that is interesting to me.

First off, all mariners, whether ship’s crew or science crew, have to take sea survival and underwater egress training before they can go out to sea. We all get first-hand experience deploying and handling things like emergency life rafts, which, in the real world, generally have roofs to keep the punishing sun or harsh sea spray at bay (though, to be fair, it would be hard to film anything with all that vinyl in the way). Climbing in and out of these rafts, especially in any kind of sea state, is not easy, and the first thing we’re taught is to save as much energy as possible. Every joule you burn is a joule you won’t have when you need it. So diving in and out of the raft? Bad idea.

Which also raises the question: “why are they bailing?” It’s an inflatable raft with scuppers along the bottom to let it drain. The only way it sinks is if it’s losing air, and bailing isn’t going to do anything for that.

For some reason, they keep holding their valuable signaling equipment over the side of the raft rather than, say, in the middle, where if someone were to drop it, it wouldn’t go anywhere. I guess electronics work better if you hold them over salt water?

The seaQuest also prioritizes rescuing the French sub over the stranded crew members, which is backwards. If you have two stranded groups of people, both facing imminent danger, and you know the exact location of one of the groups, you get them first. That’s just basic triage.

Should you ever find yourself lost at sea, without a raft, life jacket, one of those floaty airplane cushions, or any other obvious means of buoyancy, you may still be able to prolong your surface time while awaiting rescue by inflating your pants. Yes, your pants (trousers, for non-USians).

OK, so this works well with long, canvas pants, though I’ve done it with jeans, too. It doesn’t work so well with dresses, skirts, or kilts, since you need to tie the legs around your head. It works fantastically well with overalls and jumpsuits.

Step one is getting your pants off, which is actually pretty challenging in the water. Let your boots/shoes sink, odds are they’re only dragging you down. Once your pants are off, tie the legs together with a double overhand knot, as close to the bottom of the legs as you can. Close the fly and button the waist.

Now you have to get air into the pants. To do this, you can either lift the trouser waist out of the water, bringing it down to capture an air pocket, or splash air into them. You could also try inflating them with your breath, but that is energetically expensive, and the goal it to expend as little energy as possible while waiting for a rescue.

The US Navy has a handy video explaining the whole process:

So there you go. Come for the seaQuest science critiques, stay for essential open water survival skills.

Andrew Thaler is a deep-sea ecologist and conservation biologist who runs the marine science and conservation blog Southern Fried Science. You can support his various and sundry ocean outreach projects (like this one) on Patreon or check out his maritime-y science fictions novels. Follow him onTwitter, where he’s happy to answer question about deep sea ecology and exploration.

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