A ROVin’

500 metres is a very long way down. We humans walk around with about 10, 000 metres of air on top of us. Its called the atmosphere. We dont feel anything abnormal about that, as that air pressure is what we have become used to since long before we can remember. Since a few years back though, a certain curiosity attaching itself to our fantastic brains has managed to engineer ways of looking beneath the sea surface where much of the workings of our life support system lie hidden. Free-diving island cultures such as the Hawaiians had found ways to insert themselves directly into the larder by hooking and spearing fish, gaining their livelihood directly by holding their breath long enough to outwit each fish that swam too close to their field of vision. Balance was inherent in such as system. Since the industrial revolution, fuelled by long dormant energy reserves, we have found ways to sense remotely and kill on a massive scale what they had seen and hunted experientially with their own eyes. Without conscience, we have used our new capacity to defraud the depths of its life giving capacity without regard to the eventual effect of our actions on our own future. Here perhaps, is where scientific curiosity may come to our aid. Science is now very much involved with penetrating and understanding the workings of our ecosystem, to expand our consciousness of our own place inside of it. If we can use science, decoupled from destructive technology, we may just have a chance, as a species, to survive.

The sea is very resistant to giving up its secrets though, due to the fact that the pressure below its surface increases by one atmosphere every 10 metres of depth. 500 metres therefore is subject to a pressure 50 times as great as the pressure at which we function without fear of sensing anything abnormal. The ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) is a fabulous looking machine, connected with all its umbilicals to the support vessel “Noctiluca”, it has eyes and ears that can send us images and sounds, it has an arm that can grab at things, it can swim in three dimensions at our command. It can neither taste, nor smell. It fears nothing. It is we who fear.

Full of hope, we watched Noctiluca slide smoothly away from Saoirse out of our snug little harbour. Years of effort are centred around this one moment – its like looking for gold, the gold in this case being a snapshot of what sort of life exists (if any) at these inhospitable depths. On a personal level, it is like looking for life on Mars, even if we find none in that place it does not mean that it does not exist, for life is everywhere and it will later prove to be balanced around that singular point which appears to be void of it. The only way we can really fail is not to try to look.

Hoping that they would be out the full day, I turn my attention to the plethora of activities that must go on to ensure the smooth running of the mission. Mostly, this is all about doing dishes and vacuuming the floor. Halfway through firing up the vacuum cleaner though, we hear the sound of Noctiluca returning and I lurch up on deck to see Fossi looking dejected as they moor back alongside. “We are getting shocks off the frame of the ROV, we got it down a little ways but then the cable drum also became live. No way to operate the machine like that!” Suddenly the ROV has become our enemy, threatening to kill anyone who touches it. They had managed to retrieve it, but it appeared a lengthy diagnosis would be called for.

To cut a long story short, the ROV resisted our best efforts to repair it for some days, whilst Vreni and Mette took advantage of the boat time by continuing with more exploratory scuba dives in the immediate vicinity of the boat. Right at the end of our tether, on the last two days of the expedition, Fossi returned triumphant in the Noctiluca from Canal Messier. The ROV had finally reached the end of its own tether and brought back images and video down to -480m. We excitedly parsed through the video that evening. The ROV had dived down a near vertical rock wall: indeed there was life down there, less and less as the thin beam of light descended the wall, but certainly intriguing enough to come back (with better luck!) for a more detailed inspection.

April 29 we hitched the Noctiluca alongside Saoirse and side-towed our way slowly back to Puerto Eden to finish out the trip. A little undignified perhaps, but we were all relieved to bring the boat safely home at last. Not only that, but a good result “in the can!”

A ROVing We Will Go

Dr. Vreni Haussermann oversees a ROV exploratory trip to the Messier channel, (the deepest channel in the world outside of Antarctica) using SRV Saoirse as a base to launch the MV Noctiluca with the ROV and equipment. Photo- K.Pashuk

The Perfect storm…..Since then, we have remained stuck. At first I thought, “That’s it, expedition is over”. With the boat disabled the gut reaction is to go into survival mode and put into action your “get home at all cost” plan, if you have one that is.
After a bit of a cooling off period though it was blessing-counting time. First amongst those, we were perfectly safe for the foreseeable future; boat tied in to a snug cove, lots of food (even some beer left!), lots of fuel, dolphins and seals, even the occasional otter cavorting prettily in the bay, fine scenery and lots of fresh air. All other boat systems working perfectly, which almost never happens on any boat. We had also managed to get ourselves stuck in almost the perfect position, even if somewhat immobile, to still be able to support the activities of the ROV by acting as base camp. After a flurry of emails and phone calls to Vreni and the ROV team ready to board the ferry in Puerto Natales, we managed to convince them that we could still pull off almost all of the remaining expedition goals and return safe to Puerto Eden.
That’s when Patagonia itself stepped in to assert its hegemony over the paltry affairs of men.
“I suppose you already know this, but the ferry hit a rock and had to return to Puerto Natales” came an email from Vreni and her team the next day. Another round of phone calls confirmed it. At the beginning of the voyage from Puerto Natales, the ferry must navigate a very narrow passage called Canal Kirke through which floods a current of up to ten knots, complete with a maelstrom of whirlpools and back-eddies . Prone also to violent crosswinds and williwaws, it has already claimed one ferry which sank a few years back when a rock in the centre of the channel opened up a fissure in the hull of one of the Navimag Ferries which forms part of the essential connection to the north of Chile. This time, the new ferry had side-swiped an island to one side of the narrows, putting several holes in its hull. It had limped back to Natales to be repaired, thus stranding our ROV team 350 miles south of us. All other ferry sailings were canceled for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile the ROV and its support launch “Noctiluca” was still stuck 600 miles north in Puerto Montt, waiting for its ride down to Puerto Eden. Clearly there was going to be some waiting to do. Rodrigo, one of our divers from the first part of the trip was getting anxious to get home and this is certainly no place from which one can just whistle up a taxi; we hadn’t even seen so much as one other boat for some weeks.
Some days later, during a particularly nasty windstorm, we woke to the rumblings of a several- hundred horsepower engine churning the waters of our placid little inlet. Around the corner came a tug towing an enormous salmon-farm barge, looking for shelter in the bay. Rodrigo was off like a shot, and the barge captain agreed to give him a lift as far as Puerto Eden from where he could wait for the next ferry, if one ever arrived.
Meanwhile the ROV team in Puerto Natales had managed to find a small tourist boat who would take them to Puerto Eden, and they duly arrived there, albeit without any fuel for “Noctiluca”. Gasoline in these parts is like gold, and is used almost the instant it arrives for the local people to pursue their shell-fish harvest, both an economic and subsistent way of life. Taking up residence in a house we have rented there, Vreni, Fossi and their two kids settled in to wait for the arrival of Noctiluca and the ROV. A week later it was delivered on a ship of opportunity, undergoing tests in the local bay. But how to get it the last 40 miles to where we waited?
Vreni and Fossi canvassed around the tiny community a found a boat which just might make the trip. Them, and the 800 litres of gasoline which had by now arrived on the replacement ferry from Puerto Natales. Shoe-horning themselves into the rustic little wooden vessel, they tied Noctiluca with the ROV on behind and headed up into the English Narrows, but the wind again stiffened against them and they were obliged to shelter not far out of Puerto Eden. By the next night, we were beginning to get worried for them, as we had overheard a flurry of talk on the radio which seemed to us to indicate another suite of problems assailing them in the windy dark. We learned later that the little towboat had not been able to make more than 3 kn against the wind, had taken on water and somehow the rudder had become stuck hard-over to one side. They had circled around out of control for a while in the darkness, another fishing boat had arrived to assist the tow-boat and they cut the Noctiluca free to finish the journey under its own power. Much later, we heard that this little towboat had actually sunk from unknown causes on its mooring, not long after returning to Puerto Eden.
Well, we were all together at last, on location for one of the world’s most unique film shoots; the quest to get video from the depths of the Messier Channel. AROV-in’ we will go!

The Propeller

The Propellor

All was going well, until about 10 days ago. Elated by finishing off the transect dives in Canal Martinez we turned Saoirse’s bow south to rendezvous with the next stage of the expedition. As I have previously mentioned, Canal Messier and Canal Baker have some extremely deep spots in them. The chart shows measured depths of almost 1400 metres in a channel only a couple of miles wide. The astonishing scale off the drop-offs evident in the vertiginous cliffs bordering these channels must therefore be mirrored below the dark sea-surface. Though these transect dives can give us some hints, what lives down there, nobody knows.

These depths are far in excess of what can be reached by human divers; enter, the robot. The Huinay Foundation based in Comau Fiord owns a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) capable of diving to 500m, only a third of the depth of this, the deepest channel in the world. We were to finish out the transect dives, head south with all speed to Puerto Eden to rendezvous with the rest of the scientific team from the Huinay foundation who would arrive by ferry from Puerto Natales with food and fuel. Another ship toting the ROV and its own support boat would then arrive from Puerto Montt and we would tow the entire shebang 50 miles back up into the Messier Channel to deploy the ROV into the abyss to obtain the first look into a place on earth yet to be seen by human eyes. That was what was supposed to happen. One can certainly approach these things with optimism, but unfortunately for us, this part of the world pays no regard to the level of synchronicity required for a plan like that to work.

As we manoeuvred Saoirse into Caleta Conner, 40 miles or so north of Puerto Eden to take a final rest break before the onslaught, backing as usual into the tight confines of a typical Patagonian anchorage, I was just about to tie a mooring line to a large rock when Keri’s voice cut in on the radio with a terse command. “Get that line on now, I cant drive the boat, propeller seems to be stuck!”

“What do you mean, stuck” I replied with equal terseness, “That cant even happen”

Sure enough though, I returned to Saoirse and found that the Hundested variable pitch propeller seemed to be locked in full reverse. All attempts to free it from inside and outside the boat using the divers just seemed to make it worse. Saoirse, for all intents and purposes, was now immobilized. We were, well, STUCK.

Divers Below

Sea Anenomies

The Navimag Ferry, one of only two options for getting to Puerto Eden, arrives only a day late after grinding its way down for 2 ½ days from Puerto Mont. We have hired a local boat to meet it, as our dinghy will be too small to receive the cargo this time. To be retrieved this time around are the dive team who will be making a series of transect dives in Canal Martinez, some 100 miles north of us. Luckily for us the ferry arrives in daylight, a grand melee of local boats clusters around its massive stern door as it is lowered into the sea. From my dinghy I scan the ramp for new arrivals and there appears Mette and Aris from Huinay Foundation and Rodrigo from Buceando Chile along with the usual mountain of dive gear. It disappears on the cargo boat into the rain in the direction of Saoirse; I follow with the congenial team, chatting enthusiastically over the adventure to come. We will be the support boat for the dive team who will descend with scuba gear into the turbid depths of the fiord at as many and as varied points as we can manage over the next week. They will be toting a one metre square frame with a camera mounted atop it. Starting at 21m depth they will make their way to the surface taking 70 snapshots at prescribed intervals of the benthic fauna which attaches itself to the rocks below the surface. These photos are later sent to the lab for analysis. Sounds simple, eh?

The confluence of Rio Baker with the fiord system of Patagonia is a place of fantastic natural power. I have spent my life in these kinds of places, but the energy at work here surpasses most. Rio Baker surges its way between the heights of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Caps, returning all the airborne water which has stacked up against the Andean mountain chain from the Pacific Ocean. This water crystallises into glacial ice and is now in the process of grinding the mighty Cretaceous-Miocene granites of the Patagonian Batholith into a fine rock flour which flows out into the abyssal profundities of Canal Baker and Canal Messier, reaching almost a mile deep.
On a human scale though, all this is a mere annoyance. All that glacial silt turns the water into a green milky soup in which the divers have to contend with zero visibility and numbing temperatures just in order to try to penetrate the top few metres and count the number of life forms which cling to the sides of the fiords.

The insane topography of these channels, and the weather conditions engendered by them is of course responsible for the extreme feeling and actuality of isolation encountered here. Truly, the sense of aloneness surpasses even that of Antarctica at times. Scuba diving is a well populated sport, but when the divers leave the surface here, their sphere of consciousness extends only to the distance between themselves, the tape that measures their progress across the sea floor and the searingly bright lights needed to penetrate the blackness of the water. Their life expectancy is limited to the availability of the next few breaths. Their lifeline extends to me on the surface, thence to Saoirse nearby, and ends right there. There is no other backup. This is what makes me focus on the bubbles of spent air which surface on each hour-long dive; so long as they keep coming in their regular pattern I have little to worry about. This lifeline in place, they are then free to focus all their attention on the job at hand, extracting the most productive work out of their next 1000 breaths as possible. Imagine then, if we all used this philosophy, all of our lives, how much good work could be done using each breath to its fullest advantage; to come to know the world.

I have a uniquely privileged place in all this, to be able to hear the first-hand results of the dive. Whoops and high fives indicate an abundance of beautiful things to see, though I myself have seen nothing of what they describe. A marked enthusiasm for getting back in the boat usually means that there was nothing much to see. This is not however a lack of result. In life, as in music, the pauses are every bit as important as the sounds which make up our experience of it.

 

A Hidden Bay in Patagonia

I am writing this from the mid-Patagonian coast somewhere near the tiny hamlet of Tortel. On board are the team of three scientific divers from the Huinay Foundation, Aris, Mette and Rodrigo. This is a continuation of a set of surveys of the benthic fauna of the Patagonian coast, started some years ago by Vreni Haussermann, chief scientist for the Huinay Foundation located further north in Comau Fiord. First though, a recap of events since leaving Beaver Island.

We bade farewell to Jerome Poncet, breaking into his stern maintenance schedule on Golden Fleece (with which vessel he plans a circum-Pacific tour later this year) by giving an impromptu ukelele-cello concert on the rugged shore in front of Damien II and Golden Fleece. Our skills were certainly showing as much rust as the two boats combined but it mattered not, Jerome managed to croak out the words to the tunes we were trying to play and the spell of splendid isolation was thus broken for some fine moments. The climax came when a puff of wind blew the music off my stand in the final notes of Swallowtail Jig. As I reached to rescue the wayward sheets I fell off my precarious perch atop an old oil jug which loosed an avalanche of rocks onto my carbon fibre bow. Oh well, time for a new one I guess. Away we went with the wind finally in the northwest, reaching Puerto Williams 3 days later to re-enter Chile. A brief respite there and we began the long haul back to Puerto Eden some 700 miles north where we have chosen to base the boat for the next series of expeditions into the channels west of the Southern Patagonian Icecap.

We were delighted to have the company of Sandra and Gonzalo, two excellent musicians who are volunteering their way around South America to gain experience in their chosen professions of architecture and engineering of the sustainable variety. For this trip though they were required to sing and play guitar as much as possible onboard Saoirse up the coast of Patagonia to prepare for a small concert and music workshop series for the benefit of the school and community of Puerto Eden. After an impromptu evening of music before we left the last time, it became apparent that no-one in the community had ever heard live music, so we had resolved to do what little we could to change that!

Thar She Blows

Having appeased the cosmos with our little musical offering we had now to round up our New Years resolutions and slip back quickly into navigation mode. Speculating that we may be able to use our return sail to South America for something positive in the whale study vein, we had offered to take a group of volunteers organised by Falklands Conservation on a reconnaisance tour of the West Falklands Group. It had been noticed in recent years that a sizeable population of sei whales had been gathering in the area of Berkeley Sound, close north of Stanley and FC had made some inroads into a new study of this group led by researcher Caroline Weir. It seemed pretty likely that we would be too early in the season to sight any whales this year, but as Keri and I chugged our way out of Stanley Harbour to head west, just as we passed the Cape Pembroke light an enormous, sleek, black sei whale surfaced right beside Saoirse, lingered for nearly half a minute before retiring its huge bulk back below the surface. Game On!

It’s always a bit of a nerve wracking occupation getting round the north coast of the East Falkland and back into the shelter of West Falkland, so we sped over this 110 mile stretch as fast as possible, gaining the anchorage of Ships Harbour just before another full gale blew through. The plan was to meet the first group of FC volunteers at Hill Cove the following day, but a tense adventure with the anchor chain which had twisted badly in our haste to leave Stanley and refused to be winched back aboard, had us stuck there for a day longer. Still , we managed to embark the first group without problem. One of the main planks of these studies has been an effort to identify individual whales by dint of the time-honored technique of photographing the specific markings on their dorsal fins. This technique has so far been missing from our own efforts in Patagonia so we were dead keen to get a handle on how it is done from more experienced people. We were introduced to the concept of “effort”. Being “On effort” means having rotating groups of experienced observers on deck full time, scanning for the presence of whales and recording as much data as we could from each sighting. It takes a stubborn determinedness and is definitely an English pursuit; it works as long as an endless supply of tea is maintained. Also, we hoped to gain valuable experience deploying our new hydrophone, an extremely sensitive instrument which can record frequencies as low as 5 Hz. This is the basso profundo of sea sounds which we first captured last year in Patagonia. This technique we also hope to apply in Patagonia this year, since accoustics promises to be a powerful tool where vision fails us.

After a slow first day, our good omen at Cape Pembroke proved correct and we were rewarded over the next days with dozens of sei whale sightings and close passes. The reason sei whales are so thinly studied is that it has hitherto been virtually impossible to get close to them. To my knowledge, very few have ever been successfully satellite tagged in the wild, but after some days of close observation it was exciting to speculate how this might be accomplished. To understand their large scale movements in the sea is key to understanding and protecting this most enigmatic of species. Who knows what other secrets of the deep may also be entrained with these studies?

Over the next 10 days, with two teams of volunteers ably organised by Andy Stanworth of FC, we cruised slowly down the outer western edges of the Falklands as weather permitted, logging sightings, manoeuvring Saoirse into positions where recognisable fin photos might be taken and drinking copious quantities of tea whilst being supremely grateful that we could definitively record the presence of these graceful creatures in the season allotted to us.

Rounding out the whole trip, we stopped off at Beaver Island where Jerome Poncet has spent his life with his two expedition boats Damien II and Golden Fleece. He lent us the benefit of his massive experience in Southern Ocean sailing and we happily waited out a succession of westerly gales there while spending time in his wind and solar powered workshop, thrashing Saoirse’s engine room back into order after installing the new generator.

Next: Back to South America and into the summer program.