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You are here: /main/research expeditions/September/October 2007/Embracing pathways

Embracing Pathways to the Sea

by Yumi Yasutake

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As the ship sways gently through the September trade wind swells, a feeling of sedation can overtake one who is not actively working on a task.  But it’s not all fun in the sun on research cruises to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, not for the crew of the vessel Hi`ialakai anyway.  While en-route to the monument for the 2007 annual marine survey trip I was fortunate enough to chat with Navigation Officer James Falkner while on the ships bridge.  It’s the top floor of the vessel, a room filled with an array of complex navigation and communication equipment, all displaying some type of digital output of the surrounding environmental conditions. Because of its location on the ship, approximately 40-45 feet above the ocean’s surface, one needs to adjust quite dramatically, standing at severe angles in order to compensate for the intensified pitch and roll of the ship.

Hiialakai bridge
Hi'ialakai bridge. Credit: Yumi Yasutake 

Hi`ialakai (Embracing pathways to the sea) is a 224 foot NOAA research vessel that calls Pearl Harbor her home port.  It spends approximately 240 days per year at sea, transporting scientists to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for a variety of research and survey projects, all used to gain a better understanding on how to best manage the largest fully protected marine conservation area in the world. 

“We need to get baseline data so we know what is changing, how it’s changing, and be able to make management decisions on information collected on these research cruises” says chief scientist Elizabeth Keenan. 

The Hi`ialakai, like many other large research vessels, has quite a colorful past. Originally a United States Navy ship, christened in 1984 as a submarine hunter, she was  transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard in the late 1990’s, then taken over by NOAA and refit for scientific operations approximately 5 years ago. Complete with satellite internet access, two jet-water propelled boats, two safe boats, two zodiacs, one fast rescue boat, one crane, two davits (a double armed crane used for deploying the jet boats), a medical officer, a one room infirmary, and even a decompression chamber for decompression related injuries for Scuba divers, the ship is a comfortable home away from home. 

HI-1 jetboat being launched. Credit: Yumi Yasutake.

Decompression chamber
Decompression chamber. Credit: Yumi Yasutake.

Hi`ialakai is also equipped with a wet lab for the messy onboard scientific work, and a dry lab which comfortably seats a dozen people and laptops for compiling and sorting through the collected field data.  If you are not watching a movie in the front mess hall (dinning area), the social hotspot in the evening is the ship's store.  Here you can buy anything from candy, to batteries, and even Hi`ialakai T-shirts.  Among the ships many amenities, it takes a crew of 20 hardworking, dedicated individuals to keep life at sea feeling like a warm cohesive community of friends. 

Ship's store
Ship's store. Credit: Yumi Yasutake.

Making several trips to and from the Monument each year, special precautions are taken to ensure non-native species are not transported from the Main Hawaiian Islands.  All boats on deck are rinsed with fresh water after a two-day dry out, and filter screens are cleaned and checked for debris. 

Screen check
Screen check on the jetboat. Credit: Yumi Yasutake.

Motor flushes are then conducted for five minutes each, cleaning out any water that was in the engine's coolant system while running in Pearl Harbor.  Fresh water is just as threatening to planktonic marine life as cleaning agents, killing the microscopic organisms suited only for life in the ocean.  Special oil absorbent pads are then are placed in the engine compartments of inboard engines, helping to prevent any petroleum products from leaking into the surrounding waters. 

Oil pads
Using absorbent oil pads on the jetboat. Credit: Yumi Yasutake.

Dive boats that are in active use are checked daily for oil and fuel leaks, then flushed with fresh water between remote dive sites.  Hi`ialakai herself is inspected at port before departure for any creatures hoping to catch a ride elsewhere.  Hull inspections are performed by a specially trained contractor who gives the vessel clearance to make way into the Monument.  Any attached invertebrates such as barnacles and tube worms, are systematically detected and scraped off.  In addition to the Hi`ialakai’s gear, all dive gear brought on board by the scientists is soaked in an antimicrobial disinfectant, and then flushed with fresh water to once again remove any microbes that may be hitchhiking from the previous dive.  This rigorous protocol of the gear helps to minimize the scientific diver’s impact on the Monument, and prevent the unintentional spread of alien organisms.

Disinfecting gear
Disinfecting dive gear. Credit: Yumi Yasutake.

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