As we left Pearl Harbor yesterday morning, we spent the day steaming northward towards the island of Niihau, we spent most of the day stowing and preparing gear, and running drills. By “drills”, I mean practice sessions for shipboard emergencies. We walked through the full procedure for managing an injured and/or unconscious diver, including transporting the diver from the small dive boats, up to the ship, and up to the recompression chamber onboard the ship. We also practiced a fire drill, where our primary job as scientists is to make our way to the “dry lab” (the man lab room on the ship where we spend most of our non-sleeping, non-eating, non-diving hours) and essentially stay out of the way of the ship’s crew as they deal with the (simulated) fire. Another drill is the “abandon ship” drill, which requires all passengers and crew to report to one of four pre-define stations on the upper decks, where we must bring our individually-issued “survival suits” (over-sized rubber drysuits designed to keep us warm and dry even if we have to float around in frigid seas), make sure we can climb into the suits, and where we are instructed on the use of the ship’s lifeboats. Besides these and other drills, we have several briefings that outline the general rules of the ship and other safety information, logistical information, information about meals and loading and unloading dive boats, and various other sundry tasks.
This morning began with a standard “safety briefing” on the rear deck of the ship, where the ship’s Equipment Specialist and diving coordinator, Jim Bostick, briefs the scientists and crew about sea conditions and boat launching order, as well as helpful safety reminders and other announcements before the day’s operations begin. After that, the morning deep dive team loaded our dive boat (known on the ship as Metal Shark, based on the name of its manufacturer) with our rebreathers and headed out towards Lehua Rock to conduct our first “Shake Down” dive before heading up to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The sea surface conditions were excellent, but there was a ripping current running past the southeast end of Lehua. The morning dive team consisted of myself, Dan Wagner, and Jason Leonard, and our goal was to reach a depth of 280 feet (84 meters). As we descended through the clear blue water, we were greeted by a small Sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus) — one of the more common species of shallow reef shark in the Main Hawaiian Islands. We swam out across the sand towards the base of the dive site known as “Vertical Awareness” — a shear drop-off from near the surface down to below 250 feet (75 meters).
I was startled to see a large Hawaiian Monk Seal (Monachus schauinslandi) come down and join us on the bottom. This species is highly endangered and protected by federal laws. As we began our ascent along the vertical drop-off, the strength of the current became more apparent. As planned, Jason Leonard sent up what we call the “Happy Bag” — a bright yellow inflatable “safety sausage” buoy with a big happy-face drawn on it, which one of our dive team sends up connected to a reel of line. This is the signal to the surface support team that all deep divers are together and are beginning our ascent.
Unfortunately, as soon as the “Happy Bag” reached the surface, the strong current blew the buoy over the top of the drop-off, and the line connecting the buoy to Jason got caught on the reef. As the three of us continued to drift in the current, Jason finally had to cut the line to the Happy Bag, while Dan and I sent our yellow buoys to the surface to let the surface team know where we were. Thankfully, there was no threat to our health, and the surface team were completely on the ball, so the rest of the decompression proceeded smoothly as we drifted along in the current. Unfortunately, however, my camera was stuck in manual focus mode, so my video from the dive is essentially useless (as is evident from the underwater frame grabs above).
After we surfaced, we learned that the afternoon deep dive had to be cancelled due to a medical situation with one of the ship’s crew members, who needed to be taken back to Oahu. Thus, the start of our expedition has been delayed by a day.