National Geographic


Expedition Journal

Men Down

February 4, 2012

“Abort the dive.”

When I heard these words as I entered the sub hanger, it was clear something was very wrong. “We just got word from the airport. The helicopter has gone down. Andrew and Mike were inside,” Jim said. He struggled for the next words. “They should be okay. People walk away from most helicopter accidents.”

Moments earlier, Andrew Wight, a pilot and underwater cave diver, and Mike deGruy, a biologist and conservationist, had taken off from an airport to the north. They planned to fly over the ship so Mike could shoot 3-D images as our crew lowered the sub into the water.

It was a warm, sunny day with gentle winds rippling the surface of the bay. Before this moment, things looked like they were going just right. Ron Allum, the sub’s co-designer, was about to climb into the crew sphere for the first time—a day he’d been waiting for for more than a year. As Ron prepared for the dive, Jim explained what he’d learned from his own dive a few days earlier. “Hang on the crane hook until you’re certain that water is not leaking into the crew sphere. Use the GoPro camera in the view port until it’s time to use the Red Epic. Your initial weight should be okay. You can toggle off shot until you become 50 pounds negative. When you see bottom, you can dump shot for about ten seconds and that should trim you out nicely. I’ll be in the Zodiac and will freedive down to see how you’re doing.”

An hour later, all the excitement about the dive was over. We heard the news that no one wanted to hear: Andrew and Mike were taking off in Andrew’s Robinson R-44 helicopter and were ten feet off the ground when it crashed and burned. They were both killed.

For the next few hours everyone on the ship moved inside a slow-motion fog. When Jim returned from the crash site, we gathered in the ship’s mess hall and sat in silence, trying to measure the impact of what had just happened. We thought of their wives and children. We shed tears and said hesitant words, knowing there are no words for something like this.

Tonight the ship cleared the mouth of the bay, turned north toward Sydney, and steamed across an ocean of sorrow.

Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Joe MacInnis

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam