Inside Alvin, the radio crackles to life. The sub’s three occupants sit still and quiet, listening closely to the carefully scripted deployment sequence deployment.
The voice of Atlantis Captain Derek Bergeron comes over loud and clear from the bridge: “Alvin cleared for launch.”
“Roger, commencing launch,” says expedition leader Randy Holt from the aft deck.
As the massive A-frame lifts Alvin into the air, the whir of hydraulics sounds faint from inside the sphere. When the 20-ton submersible eases into the water a few seconds later, Sabrina Douglas lets out a scream of delight.
Seated next to her, veteran Alvin diver Tim Shank laughs.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone scream when we hit the water.”
It’s not the only first—Douglas is making history today. She is the first Caymanian to dive in Alvin, and she is about to become the first Caymanian to journey into the depths of the Cayman Trench.
A Lifelong Ocean Lover
Growing up in Savannah, Grand Cayman, Douglas spent much of her childhood in the ocean. She learned to swim as a toddler and started scuba diving at the age of 10.
“The first time I ever went diving, I felt so calm,” she says. “It was exactly where I wanted to be, watching the marine life and the whole ecosystem—seeing how every little part does something. From then on, it was marine biology all the way.”
Two decades later, Douglas works for the Cayman Islands Department of Environment as a geographic information system (GIS) and field support specialist. While her education took her abroad—she studied biology at the University of Guelph in Canada, then earned a master’s degree in Marine Resource Development and Protection at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland—Douglas returned to the Cayman Islands to be close to family.
As a lover of ocean science, Douglas has always been aware of research vessels and the unique studies they facilitate. But she never thought she’d work on one—especially one that operates a famous submersible.
A Natural in the Deep
As Waters maneuvers the sub through the waves, Douglas is bubbling with excitement—smiling and giggling at every little movement. But when they land on the seafloor over two hours later, her demeanor turns serious. While the opportunity to dive in Alvin is thrilling, it is not a joy ride. Douglas is here to work.
“She seemed like a total natural when she started taking imagery and logging observations,” Shank says. “She had exceptional situational awareness that you don’t often see in first-time divers.”
During their dive, Waters, Shank, and Douglas traverse an other-worldly landscape of sulfide mounds teeming with shrimp, large anemones, and squat lobsters.
While she stays focused on her tasks, Douglas also appreciates the sheer beauty of the bizarre landscape and the plentiful animal life. She listens closely as Shank describes the distinctive biology found here.
“This species of shrimp only lives here in Cayman waters—we haven’t found them anywhere else,” Shank says. “It’s one of the things that makes this place so special—a different evolutionary lineage exists here.”
This vent site also contains a higher copper content than any other known vent site in the world.
As Shank points out these features, Douglas appreciates the opportunity to learn from such an experienced deep-sea biologist.
“Tim is great because you ask him any question and he’s happy to answer it,” she says. “It’s just easy to talk to him. And when you’re spending eight hours in a small sub together that’s important.”
A Seafaring Legacy
While her dive in Alvin is certainly a highlight, Douglas has enjoyed every day of work on Atlantis.
Her role on the ship is a critical one: before each dive, Douglas creates the underlays (pictures that illustrate depths and terrain of dive areas) by combining bathymetry, contours, and dive targets. After each dive is complete, she creates a GIS track to show exactly where Alvin went.
When she’s not busy with her own work, Douglas helps other members of the science team process their samples, and occasionally wanders up to the bridge to learn about how Atlantis operates as a whole.
“From the bridge, there are so many different aspects you have to think about,” she says. “I like planning. I like that you have to foresee everything to keep the ship running smoothly.”
A Point of Pride
Douglas’s interest in ship operations and navigation may stem from her seafaring lineage. Her father spent his early career working his way up from AB (able-bodied seaman) to chief mate on various cargo vessels and has been involved in the leadership of the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association for years.
“My dad is really proud of me since he’s a seafarer,” she says. “Both of my parents are thrilled, but I think my brother might be the most excited. When I told him about the dive, he said, ‘it’s like you’re going to the moon!’”
As she thinks about her family and friends at home, Douglas reflects on just how special and unique this experience is—both for her as an individual and for her island community.
“This seems like a really nice mark to make in the world,” she says. “For such a small nation, it’s a big point of pride to say I was the first Caymanian to do this.”