Closing in on the Destination
25 August, 2010
By Michael Dessner
We are closing on our destination and the vibes on board the ship are palpable and, in a way, wonderful. People are energized, quickly attending to their duties and happily so. Everybody knows that within hours the months of planning and preparing will end and a new phase of the expeditions will begin. Operations. Say it with me: “Operations”. OPERATIONS! Forgive my exuberance but that word has been a mantra for me ever since my fish slinging days in Alaska. Planning and logistics are my forte but the real fun, the meat, is in the doing. I am probably one of the most fortunate people on board, damned lucky to be here; I did not cut my teeth in this field and now I am about to begin working on the most famous shipwreck in the world with some of the top people in their fields. It’s heady stuff.
It seems like the stars have aligned for us, or at least the low and high pressure systems. For the first time since my arrival in Newfoundland I am seeing some serious blue sky above us. We are seeing a slightly elevated sea state from most of the transit but that’s not an issue, its well within our operating envelope and I will tradeoff a bit of motion for the happy rays of the sun any day.
In an hour or so we will arrive and after a memorial ceremony we will begin operations. Step one: deploy and survey in the AUV system Deep Ocean Transponders (DOTs). Then we will put one of the girls in. We are going to be using our longer range sonars set at a slightly closer range than usual, to get technical we going to use our 120 kHz sonars set at a 400M range scale and run them at a 40M altitude. The second vehicle will go in some time later and run the same basic mission but from a different direction, this will fill in any ‘holidays’ in our data. I’d love to jabber on some more but my guys are working their heinies off and I really should join them.
On a job in the Caribbean a man I admire on many levels, Dr. Donald Keith, was making conversation on the back deck while we towed a side scan sonar (an activity that I’ve heard on many occasions compared to watching paint dry). Don asked a rhetorical question meant to stimulate discussion, which I thought was pretty cool in and of itself as he helped us kill a couple hours that way. Don’s an awesome guy, works with Ships of Discovery and in the Turks and Caicos islands, most recently on the wreck Trouvadore. The question he asked was, “what is it that money cannot buy?” A spirited debate that often turned humorous followed but one person made an answer that I never forgot. He said, “No matter how much money you have you can’t buy good weather”. That’s a pretty clear hint on how this entry is going to end.
But let’s go back to those hours of yore when all were happy and attitudes were at their apex, that time when we went operational just 12 hours ago. The sun was shining, the gear was ready, all we had to do was start doing our thing, and that’s exactly what we did.
First, though, we had some serious business to attend to. As everyone reading this knows, the sinking of the Titanic was a dramatic human tragedy in which over 1500 lives were lost. It was only fitting that as we entered the waters over Titanic we pause for moment to remember and honor those souls who made the ultimate journey on that fateful night almost a hundred year ago. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of an expedition like this, the cutting edge equipment run by the best and brightest in their fields, but everyone aboard this ship knows that this is more than just an archeological site, it is first and foremost the final resting place of 815 passengers and 688 crew who perished in the dark and cold. Thus when we arrived those of us available went to the bow of the ship and reflected upon those sobering thoughts and placed flowers into the ocean commemorating the loss. It was a brief yet sincere and heartfelt ceremony.
Afterwards the AUV team prepped our Deep Ocean Transponders (DOT) on the back deck. The DOTs are used to set a baseline that the AUVs check their progress against and are key to the successful re-navigation back to a target of interest. They are acoustic place markers that we anchor to the bottom that then communicate their position to the vehicles and help them navigate. When we deploy them we first drift flotation balls in the water, then a section of line, then the DOT itself, another length of line and an anchor. They fall to the ocean floor (it takes about an hour for them to fall the 3,700 meters to the bottom) and then we triangulate their positions by moving the ship to a few different locations and then interrogating the DOTs with a transducer on the surface. That interaction gives us range to the DOTs, we already know how deep they are and after doing this a few times we know exactly where they are. That is programmed into the AUV missions so that when Mary Ann and Ginger check their positions with the DOTs they can ‘calculate’ their exact location. The DOTs work in concert with the Inertial Navigation Units aboard the AUVS and this combination makes their navs powerfully accurate.
So we splashed the DOTs, did some running around triangulating them and as the day progressed so did the wind also rise. By the time we were ready to start getting the vehicles ready for the water whispers were going around the ship that the weather might be going to come up even more. As the sun edged toward the horizon the waves started to edge up onto the deck. A meeting was held and it was decided that we would indeed wait until midnight to check the weather again and reassess. Not a big deal, I have never been to sea when weather did not affect operations so it’s really par for the course, but it does kind of take the wind out of your sails a bit. I do think, however that the weather situation will subside enough that we will be able to launch the vehicles at first light (knock wood).
One other happy note, we were visited on a couple occasions today as we surveyed DOTS by a curious pod of pilot whales. I could go on for pages about how cool I think whales are and how I feel humanity will be judged by how it treats these majestic mammals of the oceans but its getting late and I need to go to bed if I am going to be up in time to launch at first light, so I’ll simply throw a pic or two of our companions in the waters over Titanic. They really say enough.