Our expedition has been a success to present, although there have been a few moments where parts of it could have ended. These moments were the weakest links on our chain. One is too many.
Organizing an expedition to a remote archipelago on a 132 - foot ship involving 20 scientists is extremely complicated. If you really want to know how difficult it is ask Stuart, who spent the last 6 months working 400% of his time making sure that nothing fell between the cracks, or Bob Beiner and Linda Conser who dealt with impossible bureaucracy. The success of the expedition depends on details as ridiculous as having pencils on board. Without pencils, which we use underwater to record abundances and sizes of animals on waterproof sheets, we could not have collected any data on fishes or corals. No data would have meant total disaster.
There are many potential weak links. Fortunately, we had pencils and many other things, from extra towels to spare bulbs for our underwater lights to the most complete first aid kit I have ever seen. Our checklist had 150 entries, and some of these had tens of items. It took us months to put everything together. If anything went wrong, there might be no solution whatsoever, since there are no stores or customer service in one of the most remote and uninhabited atolls on the planet. The following are just a few examples of what could have gone wrong, but did not:
- We bought two brand new Olympus digital cameras with underwater housings for Jen Smith to photograph the bottom and estimate the cover of algae and corals. The housings have an o-ring mechanism designed to prevent water from flooding the housing and ruin the camera. Well, at least in theory. Both cameras flooded within days because the o-rings that came with the housing were damaged. Jen solved the problem by adapting her personal small digital camera to the apparatus with which she takes the underwater photos using string and medical tubing.
- Our small boats are equipped with a safety kit including flares, satellite positioning devices, life jackets, and VHF radios. We always carry two radios on board, to communicate with the White Holly and the other boats in case of an emergency. They are extremely useful. They are, of course, as long as they are on board and their batteries are charged. Yesterday one of our boats did not have functioning radios when they were most needed. The outboard engine failed because there was water in the gasoline that we bought in Kiritimati. The boat was stranded near the Clam Gardens in the lagoon of Kingman Reef. Without any means of communicating with the White Holly short of swimming back, four of our team members anchored the boat and spent four hours waiting for help to arrive. The good side is that they were in a sheltered lagoon and not too far from our mother ship. The funny side is that they did not just wait on the boat but took advantage of being in a shallow area and dived. When they were rescued, they were all raving about what they saw underwater and had almost forgotten about their being stranded.
- Last night we almost lost one of our small boats while all of us were sleeping, all but Vincent Backen, the captain of the White Holly. Vince was on a surveillance shift on the bridge of the ship. One of our boats, which was tied to the side of the White Holly, was being pulled back and forth by the wind. Then suddenly the boat disappeared. Without a moment to lose, Vince jumped into our other boat, and from there to the drifting boat. Seasoned-sea-legs prevented Captain Vince from falling into the shark infested waters of the lagoon, and was able to bring the boat back and tie it safely to the White Holly. Losing one boat would have meant not completing our research in Kingman.
We are passionate, enthusiastic and full of energy. Sometimes we might even feel that we are larger than life. However, we are not, and are very aware of our limitations. One serious personal injury and it is over. This might not be a big deal in a big town, but here it could mean the end of more than a year of hard work, and the end of a dream. Behind the glamour of the beautiful pictures and video, behind the romantic ideal of the scientist-explorer there is a great deal of tension, worries and hard work. Our greatest challenge is to avoid the weakest links. This is by far more tedious and difficult than our science.
Scripps Line Islands Expedition 05