Researchers Spend Thanksgiving At Sea

Football is an American tradition on Thanksgiving. But out in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday, going deep wasn't a football play. It was the mission of a minisub, diving into odd and unusual ecosystems on the seafloor.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Out in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, going deep wasn't a Thanksgiving football play; it was the mission of a mini-submarine, which plunged off its mother ship to visit odd and unusual ecosystems on the seafloor. NPR's Richard Harris has this holiday postcard.

RICHARD HARRIS: It's 7 AM Thanksgiving morning and I'm on the research vessel Atlantis, oh, about 80 miles or 90 miles off the coast of Louisiana. And it's Thanksgiving morning, but here on the ship, it's just any other day.

Crew members and scientists on this expedition line up at the galley steam trays for breakfast - cinnamon rolls, frittata, sausage, oatmeal, scrambled eggs - to fortify them for a long day ahead. The only hint of a holiday here is a string of leftover jack-o-lantern lights.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Mr. TOM LANAGAN (Technician): Happy Thanksgiving to you.

HARRIS: Tom Lanagan recently started a job as a technician, caring for the three-person submarine, the Alvin, which is in its hangar nearby. It's his first Thanksgiving at sea, but he knows many of his colleagues have been doing this for years.

Mr. LANAGAN: It's part of why I didn't mind coming out because I don't have a family at home that I'm away from. It means one less guy is away from their family for Thanksgiving.

HARRIS: Ship's cook Larry Jackson says he's usually at sea, working seven days a week, 11 hours a day.

Mr. LARRY JACKSON (Cook): It's all the same to me. Someone can almost have to remind me, hey, Thanksgiving's coming up, you know. Oh, yeah, thanks. We're going to pull the turkeys now, you know, four days in advance, and put them in, let them thaw out. And that's about the difference for me. Just make you sure you don't forget it, you know?

HARRIS: The Atlantis is away from its port at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution more often than not on holidays. But for a few lucky scientists, today is a treat.

Unidentified Man: Who wants a submarine ride? Come on up.

HARRIS: Two young scientists get to dive to the seafloor on Alvin and look at a world that few people get to witness firsthand. Brandon Adams from Florida State University is on the back deck of the ship at 7:45, ready to go. It's his first dive on the Alvin, but he kids around that it's no big deal.

Mr. BRANDON ADAMS: Well, no, no, no. We always go on a submarine on Thanksgiving. This is a tradition with my family. It's just this is my first time on Alvin. No, definitely I think my family back home, we do a family dinner. It's a fairly significant holiday, but I think they're excusing me for this opportunity.

HARRIS: Adams clambers into the submarine.

(Soundbite of crane operating)

HARRIS: A huge crane lowers Alvin off the back of the Atlantis, and soon it's on its way into the depths.

One of the sub handlers then walks back to the hangar to carry out a Thanksgiving tradition. He cues up a classic ballad, set on a Thanksgiving weekend long ago.

(Soundbite of song "Alice's Restaurant")

Mr. ARLO GUTHRIE: (Singing) Alice's restaurant. You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant. Walk right in...

HARRIS: Fifty-four men and women are aboard the Atlantis, and for many, the day they're planning to celebrate is December 3rd. That's the day they come back into port.

Richard Harris, NPR News, on the Atlantis off the coast of Louisiana.

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