My dead laptop is not the only reason why these blog posts have been sporadic in recent days.  The truth is, expeditions of this sort are filled with long, sometimes grueling days.  Don’t get me wrong — we all love what we do! Almost every day I think to myself how lucky I am to have the honor of exploring coral reefs through projects of the sort, and to work with the fantastically capable people that I am privileged to call my friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, our expeditions should in no way be confused with diving vacations!

The dive team with their rebreathers in one of the two boats we've been using on this expedition. Clockwise from left: Brian Greene, Richard Coleman, Dave Pence, our boat driver K.M., Garrett Johnson, Sonia Rowley, and Josh Copus. Not shown: Rob Whitton, John Earle and Richard Pyle. Photo by Richard Pyle.

The dive team with their rebreathers in one of the two boats we’ve been using on this expedition. Clockwise from left: Brian Greene, Richard Coleman, Dave Pence, our boat driver K.M., Garrett Johnson, Sonia Rowley, and Josh Copus. Not shown: Rob Whitton, John Earle and Richard Pyle. Photo by Richard Pyle.

My days here usually start at around 6:30-7:00am.  The first step is to unlock the dive equipment room, then start analyzing the gas mixtures blended the night before. After that, I start preparing my rebreather, and repairing any equipment that might need some attention. By 8:00am, the Nihco Marine Park is abuzz with our team doing various tasks — preparing their own equipment, finishing gas filling that was not completed the night before, preparing special equipment for whatever today’s mission is, and running into town for boat gasoline and other supplies.  On some days, we try to load the boats and leave the dock no later than 9:00am, but on most days some unforseen equipment issue stalls the departure until 10:00, 11:00, or even noon.

The boat ride to the dive site can be as short as 30 minutes, or as long as an hour and a half (depending on where we go). The Bishop Museum team usually gets in the water first (the boat is simply not large enough for all 8-9 deep divers to get ready for diving at the same time), followed by the University of Hawaii team. The actual deep part of the dive doesn’t last long — usually 20-30 minutes, plus or minus. The ascent back to the surface is much longer; usually three to four hours. And that’s relatively short — on other expeditions our dives may last from 6-8 hours. After we finally emerge from the water with our shriveled fingers and salted lips, we must endure the 30-90-minute boat ride back to the Nihco Marine Park.  When it’s sunny and calm, this can be very pleasant.  But often is is rainy or choppy (or both), and it can be somewhat less pleasant.

Sonia Rowley, still wearing her wetsuit after the day's dive, operates the booster pump as she re-fills our rebreather gas cylinders after a day of diving. The large brown cylinders on the left contain helium, and the large green cylinders on the right contain oxygen. Photo: Richard Pyle.

Sonia Rowley, still wearing her wetsuit after the day’s dive, operates the booster pump as she re-fills our rebreather gas cylinders after a day of diving. The large brown cylinders on the left contain helium, and the large green cylinders on the right contain oxygen. Photo: Richard Pyle.

Back at Nihco, we quickly unload the gear and begin re-filling and mixing our rebreather gas supplies and emergency bailout cylinders.  Sonia usually takes the first shift to fill our oxygen tanks, then switches over to blending the helium and air to make the trimix we breathe on our deep dives. Then Dave takes over for the University’s team gas needs, as well as various equipment repairs. The filling involves several steps.  First, the rebreather cylinders are equalized, and then gas is cascaded from the industrial cylinders into our rebreather cylinders.  This is followed by the use of a booster pump to finish filling the tanks. In the case of trimix, there are additional steps such as calculating the right ratio of helium and air to combine with the existing mixture to produce the desired mixture for the following day, then filling and boosting helium, then finally topping off the tanks with a small gasoline-powered scuba compressor.

Richard Coleman, Garrett Johnson, Josh Copus and Rob Whitton (clockwise, from left) process fish specimens collected in Pohnpei. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Richard Coleman, Garrett Johnson, Josh Copus and Rob Whitton (clockwise, from left) process fish specimens collected in Pohnpei. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Meanwhile the fish specimens need to be processed, which includes photographing each specimen individually, extracting tissue samples from each, linking and entering all the necessary information into a custom application developed by Rob Whitton (called “Explorer’s Log”), and finally preserving the voucher specimens in the freezer for later transfer to formalin.  When Sonia finishes the gas filling (sometimes with my help, sometimes not, depending on how many fish specimens we collected, and therefore how much my assistance is needed in the fish specimen processing workflow), she begins her own specimen processing routine for her Gorgonians (which usually takes several hours to complete).  If we’re lucky, we have a little bit of time late at night to check email or, on occasion, write a blog post. On a good day, I’m in bed by midnight.  On most days, however, it’s more like 1:00-2:00am (as I write this, my watch says it’s 3:30am, and I need to get up in 3-4 hours to start the day again tomorrow). Oh, and of course, somewhere in that busy daily schedule we need to find time to eat, shower, and otherwise maintain sanity.

I’ll re-state what I said previously — we all love what we do! I don’t think any of us would ever consider a change in careers; these expeditions are in some ways what we live for!  But that doesn’t mean it’s a leisurely job — quite the opposite, in fact. And I think that’s part of why we like it.  Having said that, however, I think it’s probably time now for me to catch some sleep….