Where’s the dock?
May 22, 2009 in Ocean Observatory Stories
A story about conducting field work in remote locations
I am a physical oceanographer. That is, I study the physics of the ocean. I am also a technologist – I believe that scientific advances can be accelerated through the application of new technology. One of my goals is to use robotic vehicles to study remote locations of the ocean that are presently difficult or impossible to observe.
In the summer of 2005 I got a chance to put this philosophy into practice in a field experiment offshore of Barrow, Alaska using an autonomous underwater vehicle – a cigar-shaped, propeller-driven robot outfitted with oceanographic sensors.
We made arrangements with the Native Village of Barrow to use their facilities to conduct a week of sampling a few miles offshore. Two technicians and I packed up the vehicle along with our scientific gear and flew to Alaska. We loaded a pickup truck full of gear and drove from the airport towards the coast. Along the coast road from the village of Barrow to the field station we saw a long-straight coastline, whitecaps and 4 ft waves breaking on a gravel beach. What we did not see was a harbor, a dock, or a boat.
We arrived at the field station, unpacked our gear, and made some phone calls. We were assured that we could start offshore operations the next day. The next morning a call confirmed that the boat was “on the way”. We soon saw a 30’ aluminum boat approaching the beach. They gunned the engine and drove the bow up onto the gravel. We stood ankle deep in breaking waves and shouted back and forth to establish that this was indeed the boat we had contracted. They suggested that we “hop in” and start the field work. We looked at each other, thought about all the gear we had at the field station that needed to get onto the boat, and decided we needed to come up with a new plan.The next day we waited again at the beach. This time the boat was parked next to us on the shore road, on a trailer behind a truck. We had loaded our gear into the boat while it was still on the trailer and were now waiting for the “launch vehicle”. The noise of a diesel engine alerted us to a large yellow road-grading truck backing down the shore road. Our team got into the boat while the road grader was jury rigged to the trailer with a spare piece of chain. The grader made its way down the gravel beach until the trailer (just a large, flat “plank” with wheels) was deep enough to float the stern of the boat. The pilot gunned the engine in reverse and we were off.
Over 5 days we lost one of the ten rusted wheels on the trailer, nearly got the road grader stuck in the gravel, broke various pieces of equipment, lost one of our moorings, saw whale bones, hovercraft, and curious seals, and learned that the our native guides lived on Red Bull and tuna out of the can.We also learned that the right technology can indeed provide a window to previously inaccessible areas. Although too much to load directly from the beach to the boat, our small robotic vehicle and support gear were well suited to operation in a remote location with minimal support facilities. After some teething pains, the vehicle worked as anticipated and we came back with fascinating images of the ocean that had never been seen before. Our goal is to understand how the properties of water originating in the Pacific Ocean are changed beneath the ice in winter and how much of this water enters the Arctic Ocean. The Barrow field study was an exciting and successful first attempt.