Maggie Prevenas, April 13, 2007


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Maggie Prevenas
Onboard US Coast Guard Ship Healy
April 20 – May 15, 2007

The three person crew from left, Shawn Dahle, Josh London, and Mike Cameron.
The three person crew from left, Shawn Dahle, Josh London, and Mike Cameron.

Mission: Bering Sea Ecosystem Survey
Geographic Region: Alaska
Date: April 13, 2007

Science Log: Launching the Helicopter and Zodiacs

One thing you can say about the BEST mission is that it’s full of adventure! Take today for example.

April 13 was the launch test date for the helicopter that the National Marine Mammal Lab (NOAA) uses for transects of seal populations. There was an air of excitement about the boat. The helicopter, pilot, and three-person crew were going to test out the machine and the instruments they needed. And they did.

This beautiful machine will carry up to three seal scientists to study ice seal populations.
This beautiful machine will carry up to three seal scientists to study ice seal populations.

The helicopter was a thing of beauty. It carries 600 pounds of cargo including human passengers. It is equipped with a camera that can take a picture of what is directly below the machine every two seconds. Seals missed in a count can be seen in the photos. It lifted straight up from the flight deck. No glitches. So fast. It circled over us and was gone. Zoom, zoom, and zoom.

After more than an hour, the helicopter returned to the ship. It approached from the starboard (right side) of the flight deck, slowly, slowly, and then landed as soft as a snowflake on the rough textured cement.

They waited for the blades to stop, then jumped out of the helicopter from doors in the passenger and navigator positions. They were covered from head to foot in safety gear, bundled against a potential problem. No problems surfaced.

Climbing down
Climbing down

They saw the ice boundary just 14 miles away. They saw a seal.

Being a scientist requires you to have top-level problem solving and analyzing skills. The scientific team from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) is a great example of this skill in practice.

Michael Cameron led a team of six skilled seal experts through a practice run of a seal launch. It may sound easy, but the Healy had never launched a zodiac of the 17-foot or 14 foot variety before. A joint dry run was held to test the abilities of the Seal Team to change into survival gear and the abilities of the Coast Guard to get the zodiacs into the water. Right after breakfast, the teams made a beeline to the heliport, where the three zodiacs patiently rested. While the Coast Guard gathered together and assigned duties to the staff, the Seal Team pulled and tugged on their safety gear.

Setting up
Setting up

Next, the entire team got together and the Coast Guard brought up potential problem areas. The seal team regrouped for a few reminders. And the dry run began. The Coast Guard scrambled into position, using ropes, cables, and a ‘headache ball’ (a modified hook attached to a pulley). Soon the ball and hook were attached to the zodiacs’ rope harness.

The headache ball is a modified hook and pulley that is used to haul heavy objects.

A crane operator plucked the first zodiac away from its trailer cradle and gently, so gently lowered it to the icy 31-degree water.

The first two scientists, Mike Cameron the seal catcher and David Withrow the skilled driver, descended the Jacob’s Ladder. I have always known Jacob’s Ladders to be toys that you can flip over and over again by twisting your wrist. That was not this. This was not a toy. This is science!

Strong hands held the three zodiacs together.
Strong hands held the three zodiacs together.

The scientists had to descend to the zodiac along a suspended ladder. The ladder was a twisty moving thing. They were wearing bunny boots the size of watermelons on their feet. It must have been hard hanging and balancing. But they made it. Yay, they made it! But, you can count on something going wrong on a dry run. And it did.

The first zodiac had a very nice outboard motor, that wouldn’t start. David and Mike took turns pulling. And pulling. And pulling. And pulling.

David told me later in the day, that even though the motor was a bit temperamental, it was still better than some of the motors he had to work with in the past. It was David who finally started the motor. By the set of his jaw, and the strength of the pull, I could tell that pull was the one. And it was.

Off they went waiting for the other two zodiacs. Each launch of the zodiac proved faster and smoother than the previous. Soon the flotilla circled and took off flying across the water. Two short miles later, the zodiacs slid into position on the starboard side of the Healy. They reversed the process of boarding into the process of deboarding. First they stopped the motor. Then they connected the ‘headache ball’ to the rope harness.

One at a time, the driver and seal catcher climbed the ladder. After they were safe on the Healy, the skilled Coast Guard crane operator and rope tethers eased the zodiac back into her trailer cradle. Each time they pulled in a zodiac, it was smoother. At the end of the exercise, I don’t know which group had the wider smile, the six seal scientists or the Coast Guard Zodiac Crew.