Our First Days Aboard

We are currently steaming northwest to French Frigate Shoals.  It’s a three day journey from Honolulu, so we expect to arrive tomorrow afternoon.  So far, we have been set up with internet, settled into our room, learned the ship schedule including mealtimes (700, 1100, 1700), found the (only?) two living plants, and done our laundry in the ship’s laundry room…not to mention working on hardware, checking Matlab software, and readying our equipment for deployment much of the time. In addition, there are many, many briefings, lessons, gear examinations, meetings wit coxwains and deck crew, medical examinations, you name it!

We’ve been out of sight of land for at least 24 hours, but we still see seabirds wandering by, cruising through the waves troughs, including blue-footed boobies, shearwaters, and fairy terns. Every time we drive through a patch people get excited for the chance we’ll hook up on a Wahoo or similar – we’re still not in the marine reserve so we’ve got four lures trailing out back on 900 lb monofilament and shock-cords. Not exactly angling with the most finesse, but pictures of Wahoo on the crew’s doors show that it works out from time to time.

The Hi’ialakai is an odd ship. She was designed to be an incredibly quiet ship, used to spy on Soviet submarines during the cold war. She was designed to tow a long (10 km) array of sensitive hydrophones out back, listening for the tell-tale sound of imperfectly designed propellers.  Consequently the engines are not connected to the props! The ship runs four electrical generators hidden deep inside the hull on vibration isolators, the props being driven by electric motors. This may not be the only reason, but the ship is fairly top heavy as a result – so we roll a lot!  Even though seas are moderate to calm, there is a constant, slow, side to side sway.  Neither of us have felt sick at all, but we kept waking up last night as we were rolled around our bunks!  Simon mentions that his pulse races every time there is a large swell at night as he visualises all his equipment rolling off the desk in the dry lab. We are starting to get the hang of walking down the hallways- a persons trajectory follows a slow S curve as the ship rolls.

We have been through a seemingly endless series of briefings and orientations since arriving onboard yesterday morning.  We have gone through fire and abandon ship drills.  During the latter, we learned how to get into our survival suits.  We were advised to store our IDs and long sleeved shirt and pants in the bags with our suits so that we have them with us in a real emergency.  We have also been briefed on dive safety, small boat operations, and diver emergency situations.  In addition to our normal and scientific dive gear, we have a P-PIRB emergency locating device for our team and we each have to carry an orange, inflatable, safety float that can be seen from the surface if our coxswain can’t locate us.  (Hopefully we will never use these items).

Another major point at briefings is galley/mess (where we eat) etiquette.  We are scooted in and out pretty quickly, and meals are served for exactly 45 minutes.  Hats and tank tops are not allowed, and we have been repeatedly asked to promptly leave the table when we finish eating and push our chairs in.  The food has been better than expected, including a salad bar at every lunch and dinner, and fresh fruit.  The coffee is OK at best, but we have made friends with the electronics technician who has a Keurig brewer in his room!  Lucky us.

Everyone is divided in to teams, and ours (the acoustics team, or Team Freeman) is the smallest with two members. This is actually good, because we get to focus on our research every time we have a chance to be in the water (we don’t have to help with other projects) and we are used to working and diving together.  It looks like we will even have our own small boat!  This is a big deal, since there are only 4 small boats used for diving and 16 divers.  Most of the science divers here are with the NOAA Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) surveys.  There are two other ‘oddball’ teams- a group of 3 graduate students from University of Hawaii studying bioerosion, and a group of 2 education and outreach officers who will be tagging along and snorkeling.  There are updating Facebook regularly (like Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument to see these) and blogging here.

Right now, in addition to training, we are building frames for our cameras and surveying out of PVC.  We are also preparing to deploy acoustic recorders (EARS) over the side of the ship for Simon’s mentor, Marc.  Our first EAR deployment will be tomorrow night after arriving at French Frigate Shoals. Stay tuned for exciting photos of Simon and Lauren in hard hats, winching stuff into the water.

Our biggest entertainment thus far has been watching the two most seasoned coxswains fight over who has the better boat (HI-1 or HI-2) to deploy our acoustic array (which you can learn more about in this post).  Getting the fully assembled 160 pound (~70kg) beast back aboard our small boat will certainly be our largest challenge.

We are looking forward to testing out the gym this afternoon.  Lauren is playing it safe with the spinning bicycles bolted to the upper deck, but Simon is going to brave the treadmill (oriented at a 90 degree angle to the ship’s heading, and aligned well with the rolling).

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