Captain’s Blog: Blind Faith

by Pete Willcox

September 20, 2010

Venus is chasing the moon down into the water.  The Milky Way is glowing softly overhead. The Big Dipper is low in the northern sky.  If we were not surrounded by all these things lit up like oilrigs, I could start to relax.

The well to the south is called ‘Thunderhorse’.  The rig to the southeast is ‘Blind Faith’.  Really.  Could I make that up?  Who would name an oilrig Blind Faith?  Someone with a realistic sense of adventure?  Don’t get me wrong; I like the names, even if I do not like what they do.

We spent most of the day within sight of where 15 or 20 ships were still working around the Deepwater Horizon site.  Many times during the day I thought about the eleven guys who lost their lives out there.  The water around here is now crystal blue; it’s hard to connect what I see in the distance with the horror show that has been going on for the last four months.

Rigs at the Deepwater Horizon diasaster site
An aerial view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster site from a helicopter flight off the Greenpeace ship, MY Arctic Sunrise

But the engine goes off, and I do start to relax.  If we can keep from drifting too close to a rig tonight, it will be a restful one.  The wind is blowing all of four or five knots.  You could forget you are at sea, and think you are tied to the dock.

It was a busy day, but not a stressful one.  We were putting down passive acoustical arrays for picking up sperm and beaked whale sounds.  The buoys have hard drives with twelve days of space for recording sounds.  The arrays, or buoys, are 500 meters above the ocean floor in 1,500 meters of water.  When we come back in two weeks to get them, we will trigger the releases with a ping from the ship.  The arrays, minus the mooring weights, will then float to the surface where we will pick them up.

The first thing I do on the bridge is switch the electronic chart over to kilometers and meters, instead of miles and meters.  Scientists, even marine scientists do not work in nautical miles.  A few years ago, this would have caused a lot of head scratching and pencil work.  But now, with just the click of a button…

The arrays are 500 meters long, so we start deploying them 700 meters from the mooring point.  But because the 800lb (350kg) weight is pulled toward the buoys as it goes down, we tow it 300 meters past the mooring point on the first drop.  By the time we finish the sixth and final array, we’re getting good – and we are dropping the weight only 100 meters past the mooring point.  We are trying to get the mooring on an exact spot.

Arctic Sunrise Gulf Oil Spill Expedition
The Marine Acoustic recording system is deployed from the stern of the Greenpeace ship, MY Arctic Sunrise, by Omni Technologies Engineer Sean Griffin, third from right, Technician Billy Riecke,, second from right, and MY Arctic Sunrise Bosun Philip Lloyd

After the array is dropped, we put a big RHIB (inflatable boat) in the water and head out 1.5 klicks in four directions: the cardinal points, because i am a sailor after all. The team in the RHIB lowers a hydrophone, which allows them to pinpoint the exact location of the array.  The arrays are put down in pairs several kilometers apart, and as a result, the scientists can tell not only how many whales there, and what species, but exactly where they are too. The sperm whale population in the Gulf of Mexico is so vulnerable that even if three of them are killed as a result of the spill, it could spell the difference for the gulf population.  

Arctic Sunrise Gulf Oil Spill Expedition
James Stephens, of the University of Mississippi, left, and Sean Griffin, Engineer with Omni Technologies Inc., electronically triangulate the marine acoustic recording system

We are lucky on the second night as well, and it is dead calm, so we shut the engine off and drift.  There is a sliver of moon setting, telling us more moon is soon on the way.

After the third day of putting out the arrays, we are off to Galveston, to load more science gear.  Galveston is right across the creek from Texas City, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, where BP spent the month of April releasing who knows how much dioxin into the air.  It seems to me a bigger health hazard than the oil spill, but one that has gone under the radar, or at least been dwarfed by the spill.  I am not in a hurry to go anywhere near that plant. And the layout for the new science gear has not been settled yet, so Galveston looks to be an interesting port stop.

In the local news this week;

“What you see above isn’t a rural gravel road. It’s a Louisiana waterway, its surface completely covered with dead sea life — a mishmash of species of fish, crabs, stingray and eel. New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV reports that even a whale was found dead in the area.” More…

– Captain Pete

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