No fish in the Arabian Gulf had ever seen an underwater creature quite like it before. It was long and bulky. Its skin was bright yellow. Its eyes were enormous and there seemed to be at least four of them, set around a red protuberance on top of its body. And as it glided over the seabed it gave off a brilliant, eerie glare.
The fish had a right to be puzzled. They had never seen a submarine before. And they had no way of knowing that it was there to inspect a sizable network of undersea pipelines which links Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) offshore oil fields with facilities on shore. They're only fish, after all.
Unlike surface pipelines, where problems can be spotted with relative ease, underwater pipelines are out of sight, if not out of mind. And as ecology-conscious Aramco is perpetually concerned about leaks, it must frequently inspect the condition of the cement coating that helps hold the pipeline on the bottom and, along with humps of non-ferrous metal called anodes, helps protect the pipeline against corrosion.
In shallow waters, crews in appropriate diving gear can inspect the pipelines by walking. But in deep water it was necessary to use professional divers with a support barge and great lengths of lines for air and safety, an enormously inefficient and time-consuming process. There had to be a better way, Aramco figured, and started wondering if a miniature submarine could be the answer.
The idea was not as far out as if might seem. Small submersibles had been used in other parts ot the world to check the condition of pipelines and telephone cables that run underwater so why not in the Arabian Gulf? Aramco contacted Brown and Root, International, a big construction contractor based in Houston, Texas.
Brown and Root, it turned out, had available Survey Sub I , a 20-foot-long submersible eight feet in the beam and just as high, able to function well below the 160-feet pipeline depths and big enough to carry three men: a pilot, a cameraman-observer and a navigator. Aramco decided to try it and signed a contract.
The contract gave Aramco quite a package: altogether some 20 people representing Holland, Norway, Spain, Pakistan, India and the United States; a 100-by-50-foot barge to pick up and move the sub from one operating location to another; a 150-foot mother ship and the 20-foot Topside I , equipped with underwater radio and sonar in case voice contact was lost.
Survey Sub I came to the Gulf last June and immediately encountered two main problems: high temperatures in the submarine's interior, and poor visibility.
Modification of the craft's ventilating apparatus and the insertion of ice at a judicious spot in the system lowered the temperature in the cabin to a more reasonable range, but not much could be done about poor visibility. In Gulf waters there is a high density of plankton and fine sediment such as marl and clay. Stirred up by tides and turbulence these minuscule particles reflected the submarine's powerful searchlights the way fog reflects an automobile's high beams.
Despite the problems, the mini-sub did the job. The cameraman got 20 hours of video tape which were filed for reference in case of problems later; 18 Aramco engineers got a chance to get a first-hand look at the pipeline while underwater, and the pipeline got a clean bill of health.
And incidentally, the yellow paint job was to give the craft maximum visibility when submerged. The fact that its coloration jibed with the title of a popular cartoon feature which also dealt with a submersible, and starred the Beatles, can be said on good authority to be sheer coincidence.