Diving with Large Brass, Meat Cleavers
Stephani Holzwarth, Day 1 of Field Ops. 16 Sept 2004 FFS
A hundred frigate birds spiral skyward in a thermal a mile off our bow. We assemble our scuba tanks and gear on the deck in the soft light just before the sun makes her debut as a brilliant disc of hot bright orange light on the horizon. Breakfast time is squeezed into ten minutes, and the whole deck is full of activity- divers in wetsuits carrying things up and down stairs, deckhands pulling on lines, the bosun running a loud humming crane, officers leaning over rails high up on the bridge wing, their voices coming in over the radio. All things go well that need to go well, especially for the first day. The three boats launch without more than the expected amount of drama and hubbub.
On the mooring team, we are part of the complicated session of craning a new 1200 lb lead clump anchor (shaped like a huge squared-cornered hockey puck) over the ships rail into the water. It is attached to a huge yellow lift bag which has been inflated to its full 2000 lb lifting capacity. Even this sinks low in the water so that just the 2 ends are above the surface. We tow it at a very slow speed, 2 knots. Merlyn our coxswain tries not to mind when Keith, another coxswain, speeds around us in his lightly laden 10 m RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat). We putt along, not able to go any faster or the lift bag will submerge and sink with the weight. Finally, hours later, we reach the site. Kyle puts a mask on and jumps in. He finds the old buoy anchor after a few minutes, and then we have the fun of trying to anchor our boat so that it ends up right next to this old anchor. The third try we make it. All four of us, Danny, Elizabeth, Kyle, and myself, suit up and roll in. The new anchor dangling on its big yellow sausage lift bag is right over the old anchor site, and the wind will push us away in a matter of seconds. Ready? Ready? Ready? I check with my three teammates. Free it from the boat! I yell up to Merlyn, and as he throws the line free I pull the dump valve cord and air rushes out of the liftbag with a hiss. The bag holds a large volume of air and it still takes about 5 seconds before the bag and the anchor sink just below the surface. I know it is negative now, just barely, and I slow my air dumping to a few spurts here and there. As it begins to drop fast to the bottom, I add pulses of air from the tank attached, but it still lands with a mini-mushroom cloud of sand. It is about 3 ft away from the old anchor. Perfect!
We tow the old anchor back to the ship, which has crept closer inshore, having sympathized with our slow trip out. The ship cranes it aboard, and puts over the buoy next. Imagine the whole scenario over again, this time with a large, space-ship shaped buoy with a yellow body and several strange metal antennae and instruments protruding up into the sky and down into the water. It is a CREWS buoy (Coral Reef Early Warning System), held in place by the 1200 lb anchor and a double-bungy with a set of mega shackles.
At the end of the afternoon, as we are heading back, the ship calls to request 2 divers to free line from the ship's starboard prop. Kyle and I go in. The rudders are as big as barn doors, and the brass propellers behind them are huge- bigger across than I am. I look at them from a distance and am wary. If someone turns these on, we are hamburger. Instantly. Unavoidably. I contemplate. This is a rather big trust factor. Merlyn, at my request, called the bridge to verify all engines were off (they actually have locks they put on the controls). We do not see any line at first, but on closer inspection find a frayed piece of line sticking out of the rope guard behind the prop. I tug on it, free a small section and unwind it, passing it to Kyle. We uncoil it that way, bit by bit until we have freed a 12 ft section and it comes free. The water is so clear. We had no Big Friends down there with us. It did not feel spooky either, except for the propellers. By the end, after having to stick my hands down into the shaft, I am not so nervous about being right next to the ship's screws. All the same, we do not dally but swim back out from under the ship and clamber back into our boat.
After dinner, I sit and watch Susan and David work. They carefully select a subject from the buckets full of sea water, bubblers, and small reef creatures borrowed from the reef for the night. There is a cowry with a strawberry red mantle, two black sea slugs with yellow spots, leafy red pieces of algae, and a long, golden brown nudibranch with elaborate frills. They photograph the algae first, since Peter reports that it will begin to pale within a few hours. Then Susan gently transports the nudibranch from the bucket into the photo-tank. David adjusts the light and takes a test Polaroid. When he is satisfied that the background is true white and the subject still has sufficient shadow and depth, he gives the go-ahead. Susan clicks away as the dragon nudibranch slides along the slanted plexiglass false floor, and she oohs and ahhs as it moves itself into two dozen different shapes, in a slow, sea slug ballet. The creature is very expressive and makes an excellent photographic subject, and as a bonus it has some cool natural history. This nudibranch eats hydroids, which are small stinging polyps related to stony corals and jellyfishes. The nudibranch does not digest the nematocysts (the stinging cells of the hydroid) in a traditional sense, but manages to encapsulate them without firing them and moves them into its own skin to give itself the same defense the hydroid has. The dragon nudibranch also has tiny algae in its flesh, in the same way corals and giant clams do. They all host symbiotic algae. The algae use sunlight to create sugar and share it with the host, its house. Close to 11 pm I find my eyelids too heavy to keep watching. I put away Hoover's Hawaii Sea Creatures book that I was using to help them identify things, and go to bed. They stay up another hour, tireless in their dedication to capturing the essence of each of these plants and animals on photographic film.