Tuesday | August 9, 2005
"There just isn't enough canvas for this circus"
SIO's Dive Safety Officer, Christian McDonald, may have found the best way to summarize the logistical endeavor of this expedition. Our scientific goals are ambitious: 1) count as many organisms on the coral reef as possible, 2) repeat counting across a five-island chain, and 3) bring back everyone safe and sound.
Now comes the trick that is worthy of its own circus stage: coordination of the research and their sampling efforts within the confines of efficiency and safety. Because of the nature of our discipline, coordinated research efforts at sea are not particularly common in academic marine biology and ecology. More frequently than not, each of us spends time working within our own specialty, coordinating perhaps a team of 4 students or colleagues and frequently working from shore-based operations. In this expedition, we have opted to increase our breadth of science while striving to not lose any of the depth that has made each scientist a leader in his or her field. It is clear that our goals will be achieved only with compromises and logistical creativity.
We begin planning a workday the evening before at the dinner table. Cody Reynolds, the ship's chef and culinary master, will have just served us a meal worthy of many a restaurant menu (for example, tonight we had pork chops, garlic potatoes, sautéed green beans, and finished with warm brownies). Around the two tables of the cozy mess hall, we gather the majority of the team to discuss the following day's plan. The list of requests comes flying in…Forest Rohwer asks to re-visit a murky site from yesterday, Liz Dinsdale asks for the benthic team to explore the southern areas of the coastline, Alan Friedlander pushes to dramatically increase the number of sites visited by the fish groups, and Christian reiterates that scientific enthusiasm needs an equal dose of safety. Then come the considerations at longer time scales. We only have 1 more day on this island and we need to complete all sampling within this time frame, we need to get the small boats back on board before sunset, and we need to find the geologists who are collecting rocks across the island before we depart.
The answer: flexibility, compromise, and a final authoritarian schedule-setting. Forest, you will work with the benthic team, then take one Boston Whaler back to the ship to process your samples. Alan, you will use the other Whaler to leap-frog across sites with benthic team in the 25-foot Davis boat, everyone else knows their roles, and this will all have to start at 7:30am…quick breakfast then go so that we can return in time to move the White Holly back to the pier. With a plan set we can go to bed. In the groggy dawn hours we just need to look at a dry-erase board with the schedule, pull all of our dive gear and sampling equipment together, and drive off to the pre-determined GPS coordinates.
This sounds coherent, but we are at sea and nothing works quite as smoothly at sea. The white Whaler gives a call on the radio soon after departure, "hey, can someone bring us a fuel line…our engine is not working and we are floating off to Guam." It turns out not to be a fuel line issue but a fuel quality issue. The gas that we bought on Kiritimati has a significant amount of water in, it so the water separator is full, giving the new outboard a gas/water mix which is not conducive to easy motoring. Then the geologists call saying that they are excited about their departure from the island tomorrow. Wait, tomorrow? We are pulling anchor tomorrow at dawn and you need to be ready to go tonight! Tonight?!?! Scrambling and chaos on shore, and they make it back on board just past sunset. At least the sea conditions are nice, so that we can lift the Davis boat back on board and into its cradle on deck for transit (not at all a trivial operation; photos will follow).
Yes, Christian, there certainly is not enough canvas to keep our circus completely dry, but we are not here to keep dry. We are here to watch the undersea world and to learn from it. We are here to watch two octopi mating, presenting us with a spectacular dance of color changing and swaying. We are here to learn how we, the people, affect this wonder and how to prevent it all from going away. And we all want to come home safely. By pulling tight, squeezing together, and laughing the whole way, we are finding more than enough canvas to keep us covered.
—Dr. Stuart Sandin