Our last dance (under pressure)
R/V Oceanus: Unalaska 6/29 – 7/1
We arrived on our 6th and final island sometime in the early morning on Wednesday June 29th. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been living and working on the r/v Oceanus for almost two weeks now. We’ve battled rough seas, challenging dive conditions, and long hours in the field and in the lab. Although the weather only cooperated part of the time, we sampled more islands than we had originally proposed to do this year, so I think that alone makes this first expedition a success.
By the time we went to deploy our chambers in the calm, shallow reefs of Unalaska, we had the process down pat. Without ripping currents, breaking waves and strong winds, our only challenge was dealing with the thick understory algae. But by now that was no issue. Setting up the chambers, and then later breaking them down, went on without a hitch.
At this point you may be wondering about the design and construction of these chambers, and what exactly makes them so cumbersome. In the months leading up to this trip the Edwards’ lab has been cutting, stitching and gluing PVC together, along with large sheets of plastic, to make our pyramidal tents. The ocean is a mischievous mistress, and speaking from experience we knew that our chambers had to be sturdy enough to deal with anything the ocean could throw at us (case and point, Atka). However, not only did our chambers have to be sturdy, they also had to be transportable. Well, as transportable as possible that is. We tried to reduce the amount of swimming we had to do by dropping anchor on or near our intended dive sites, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t each, at some point or another, have to schlep a chamber some meters here or there.
Ok so, we have chambers that are sturdy and transportable. Great. To stow them topside, such as on the deck of the Oceanus, we would fold them on themselves to make a 2-demensional triangle. We would transport them to the dive sites like this, and then once anchored lower them into the water. To deploy them, we would swim the triangle to an intended site, and then begin the process of unfurling them. Easier said than done; water is significantly more viscous than air, which means there is a lot more drag working against us. Once the triangle is unfolded, we would use a specially cut PVC sleeve to secure two of the ends together and voila, we have ourselves a pyramid. But our pyramid also has a lot of drag, and anything not secured to the substrate will eventually be moved by any number of processes in the ocean. To counter this, we lay two lengths of chain around the chamber’s skirt. We riveted loops to the chamber’s skirt to better hold the chain in place; trying to manipulate the chain, skirt and loops while wearing thick gloves is also easier said than done. Before the chain is applied we make sure our sensor arrays are appropriately arranged inside of the tent; after it’s all said and done we have a nice microcosm experiment set up in situ in a kelp forest/urchin barren/transition zone.
Chamber retrieval is basically just the opposite process, which can be a little more tiresome than set up. But if my calculations are correct, across six islands we deployed, and retrieved, our chambers 90 times. At this point I think that makes us chamber professionals. It wasn’t always easy, but the data we gathered will definitely be worth our efforts.
Stay tuned for the results!
Never a Dull Moment
R/V Oceanus: Umnak 6/27 – 6/28
As always, never underestimate how quickly things can go from OK to stressful in less than a moment’s notice. Especially when you factor in 42ºF water and blustery winds.
Ok ok, let me back up.
We left Chuginadak under a gorgeous midnight sunset on June 26th, crossing the Samalga Pass in the early morning. The Samalga Pass is a deep, narrow channel that serves as a biologic break; many organisms are found on either side of the pass, but some are found only either on the west or east side (kind of like Point Conception in California). We dropped anchor off of Umnak Islands, our 5th island so far. Umnak has virtually no urchin barrens, but a lot of dense kelp forests.
After a quick deployment in the morning, we went back out after lunch to set up another experiment. So, here we are sitting on the surface at one of our sites. Genoa and Tristin have just finished a dive to set up a series of photoincubation bags (another set of experiments we’re working on) while Sadie and I prepped the samples on the surface.
We began to pull anchor and head home; everything was going smoothly, but we were anxious and cold as the wind had really started to blow. Just as the hook was about to be pulled onto the boat…BOOM!
The anchor had punctured the front right pontoon.
We had two things working in our favor: close proximity to the Oceanus (we were within radio contact and sight of the vessel) and Tristin’s boat handling skills.
We then orchestrated a plan that took four fully functional brains and bodies to develop. Our training and experience pulled through as we put our evac plan in to action: let's get to shore. No panic, just trust and eager smiles. Sadie plugged the hole with her finger (like trying to put a Band-Aid on an axe wound), Genoa secured the deck of odds and ends, Tristin took the tiller and I kept in radio contact with the Oceanus.
As we charged headlong into the wind, Tristin kept a vice-like grip on the inflatable’s throttle. However, as soon as we got out of the kelp forest we realized the beach and the Oceanus were equidistant from each other. Collectively, we all looked at each other and knew; we were heading to the Oceanus. For the entire four-minute jam-boogey back to the Oceanus, we were cackling like hyenas.
Tristin landed us alongside of the Oceanus, while Sadie held fast on the puncture wound. Genoa and I hopped out and began hauling gear out of the deflating boat while Matt and Scotty pulled up alongside and took out the remaining gear as the crew prepped the crane for vessel extraction.
In a minute’s time the inflatable was up and out of the water, and back on the mother ship.
The stakes are high out on the Bering Sea; having an experienced crew, a solid mind, and a little bit of luck is key to running a successful expedition. We all know the risks involved, and everyone acted accordingly to mitigate them as much as possible.
It seems as though Murphy is trying to keep us in check on this expedition. But our spirits are high, and in the end everything worked out for the best. Now, we get to add one more task to the day’s laundry list: patch the inflatable! Thought at this point I’m pleased to say that our patch job held, the r/v Wecoma is back in action.
As for the chamber extraction the next day, would you be surprised if I told you the wind had picked up to 35mph with gusts to 40? Thankfully there was little to no swell in the water, but that didn’t stop the wind from whipping sharp droplets of rainwater against our faces as we charged headlong to our dive sites. Through the turmoil four divers went down to gather up all of the gear, including the extra chain we deployed as a precaution, while I stayed on the surface to haul everything onto the RIB.
At this point we’ve had three of five islands test our bravado, but as a lab we’ve been able to pull through. Now we’re on our way to our 6th and final island. Here we come Unalaska! Phycology Team 7 is back in the saddle again.
Pike Spector is currently a Research Operations Specialist with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary