Atka during the weather window. Photo: Tristin McHugh
Atka during a non-weather window. Photo: Tristin McHugh
Pike hopping in to retrieve the chambers Photo: Tristin McHugh
Genoa and Tristin hauling chambers, buckets and chain from the seafloor to the surface. Photo: GoPro
(left to right) Pike, Matt and special-ops crew member Doug upon chamber retrieval. Photo: Gopro
Genoa and Tristin share a victory-five after successfully retrieving chambers! Photo: GoPro mounted to the boat antennae.
We arrived at Atka Island on Wednesday morning, June 22. After a bit of a rough all night run from Adak (that involved only one stop along the way to retighten straps around the gear on deck so they would not get washed away), Captain Jeff anchored in Deep Bay, just east of Island Point on the north side of Atka Island. The conditions were great! Perfect for setting up our chambers in the urchin barrens, transition zones, and kelp forests. Tristin was still not diving due to being under the weather (you can check out Tristin’s blog for more information that).
We launched the Zodiaks and drove the mile or so to our first dive site, a beautiful urchin barren in calm water just inside some offshore rocks. We will revisit the description if this site later in the story. Just inside of the barren was a small shelf that rose up about two meters to a transition zone, where the habitat is changing from being a kelp forest to an urchin barren. Scott, Genoa, Pike and I dropped the chambers, buckets of chain, and marker floats overboard (attached to down lines of course) and jumped in the water. PERFECT! Calm, clear and exactly the habitat we wanted. It took no more than 30 minutes to set up all six benthic chambers, lock them to the bottom with the chains, and deploy the oxygen, light, temperature and pH sensors (picture of these if we have it). We finished up, got back in the Zodiaks, and high-fived each other for a job well done.
We then drove the mile or so to the kelp site, which was a large kelp forest adjacent to an offshore pinnacle next to Island Point (this too will be revisited later). We again dropped the remaining chains buckets, site markers, and chambers overboard and jumped in the water. Again PERECT! The edge of the forest offered us the perfect location to set these up. The Eualaria canopy blocked most of the sun’s light that made it though the fog, and the bottom was 100% covered with understory kelps (mostly Agarum, but with some Saccharina for those of you more inclined for the scientific names). This took about 20 minutes to set up (it takes a bit longer in the kelp forest as the dense kelps restrict movement and what you can see (picture). We surfaced, got back in the Zodiaks, high-fived each other, and drove the mile or so back to the Oceanus. All in all, it could not have gone much better.
Back on the Oceanus, we had lunch, worked up some samples and then started preparation for our afternoon dives when we would go out and flush the chambers with new water and check to make sure they were still in place. The weather had picked up a bit as a lump had developed on the water (another way of saying that the seas had kicked up a bit and there was a small swell that had formed). This worried me a bit as we dropped in on the barren and transition site. The swell was rocking the chambers in the barren ground back and forth a bit but still within acceptability. After we flushed the chambers, we swam up the two meters to the transition zone to check on the three tents. What a difference those six little feet made. Two of the tents were still standing but rocking back and forth quite a bit. The third was now laid flat by the swell. I knew they would not last much more of this so we collapsed them, secured them to the bottom with the chains, and retrieved the sensors. As will become evident in a bit, this was a good call. We then got back in the Zodiak and ran to the kelp site to check on those. Once in the water it was clear that they were rocking pretty well too, but not too much to cause us to take them down, but for one of them. That third tent was in a spot where the water was accelerating pretty hard and I decided to flatten the chamber, secure it to the bottom and retrieve the sensors. As will become clear in a minute, this was a good call…leaving the other two up…not so much. We went back to the Oceanus and had dinner, worked up samples till the week hours and went to bed.
I woke at 6:30am to a 177’ ship that was rocking and rolling a bit more that you might like. For someone with respiration chambers in the water, it was rocking and rolling A LOT MORE than you might like. The feeling of foreboding hung in the air as we donned our dry suits and craned the Zodiaks into the water. The swell had picked up overnight and was now running about 5-6 feet. Getting in the little boats was a chore as the rose and dropped in the swell and banged against their tie-up lines. But the Oceanus is a cracked crew and handled it like pros. We climbed down the rope ladders and got into the little boats. Wow.getting off a research ship and into a little inflatable in this bump was like getting on an amusement park ride and having the operator press “10” on the control panel. Thankfully this ride did not go to 11 (a small “This is Spinal Tap” reference). We drove to the Barren site inside the offshore rocks (remember, I said these would come up again in the story). What was a beautiful calm, clear dive site the morning before, was now a washing machine. The rocks did not block the waves but rather seemed to amplify them into a churn if white water. We realized that we could not drop the anchor in the site as conditions did not permit it. So we anchored the smaller Wacoma (one of the ship’s Zodiaks) in a little deeper water about 75 meters from the site and kicked in on the surface.
We dropped to the bottom on our marker buoys and again, we were in a different world. The best way I can describe it was to imagine two dogs playing tug-o-war with a piece of rope…the ocean was the dogs and .. yes…we were the rope. The tents were washing back and forth rather hard so we flattened them, anchored them to the bottom and retrieved the sensors. This took a bit longer than before due to conditions. We surfaced, got back in the Zodiak, but this time no high fives. We drove to the kelp site and again had to anchor about 50 meters from the site due to conditions. That pinnacle near our site was now earning the title of a wash rock, with waves breaking over its crown. We dropped down on the chambers and immediately knew that they were in trouble. We found the two that were left standing, but these were now flattened and rocking back and forth. We retrieved the sensors, secured the flattened chambers to the bottom and swam back to the Wacoma. We drove back to the Oceanus and were craned aboard. Again, no high fives.
Feeling beaten and tired, we had lunch and thought deeply about the plan. Brenda, who was unable to get her benthic surveys done due to the conditions, and I decided we would have to wait out the swell as we could not leave the gear here and she needed to finish her surveys. Talking to Captain Jeff, he reported the weather forecast for the area and saw that there was a window in the afternoon when things were dying down. We went outside in the afternoon and the conditions improved, so we launched the Zodiaks and drove back to the Barren Site. Scott, Pike and I dropped down on the chambers, clipped the chains, chambers and site markers together to the end of three ropes and surfaced. Doug drove the Red Rocket (the Oceanus’s rigid hulled inflatable) into the site and we rolled backwards overt the pontoons and kicked away from the boat.
He then drove off to a bit deeper water to wait for us to prep the materials for retrieval live boated it as we handed the ropes to Genoa and Tristin and they hauled on the ropes with seemingly Herculean strength. This brought the gear up to the surface and into the boat. We repeated this for the Barren site, and wrapped it all up. The whole event went off like we had been doing this for years, everyone did their part and did it well. We went to the kelp site and repeated the adventure. All-in-all, we retrieved the equipment and not a sensor was lost. We drove back to the ship tired but this time we all exchanged huge High fives for a job very much well done.
Time for some sample work-up and then much needed sleep.