Five Hurricanes, Two Robots, and One Minor Explosion
I signed onto a sailing ship
My very first day at sea
I seen a mermaid in the waves
A-reaching out to me
Come live with me in the sea, said she
Down on the ocean floor
And I’ll show you a million wondrous things
You’ve never seen before
So over I jumped and she pulled me down
Down to her seaweed bed
And a pillow made of a tortoise shell
She placed beneath my head
She fed me shrimp and caviar
Upon a silver dish
From her head to her waist
It was just my taste
But the rest of her was a fish
– The Mermaid, Great Big Sea (mandatory listening for any aspiring mariners)
This is a tale of how I got banned from telling jokes at sea.
My PhD fieldwork completed and my little ROV shipped back to San Diego aboard a cargo ship, I bumbled around Oʻahu for a few days before boarding E/V Nautilus at Honolulu Harbor for my training internship as a deep-sea ROV (Remotely Operated [underwater] Vehicle) pilot. No more little ROVs for me!
My job for the next month was training to operate and maintain the two-body ROV system—ROVs Argus and Hercules—used for exploration to depths of up to 4,000 meters of seawater, primarily piloting ROV Argus as part of the operational team. I had gotten this opportunity through the Science & Engineering Internship Program offered aboard E/V Nautilus, which is a fantastic opportunity for anyone interested in starting a seagoing career in ocean exploration. Most ROV pilots start in the oil and gas industry, which is an industry I have never wanted to join, so it was a unique opportunity to get started in scientific ROV work, helping scientists from geologists to biologists and beyond to explore the ocean floor.
We were scheduled for a few days in port, integrating the sensors brought by this cruise’s science team onto the vehicles, before heading out to sea and transiting a short distance from Honolulu to our research site at the Lōʻihi Seamount, an underwater volcano off the southeast coast of Hawaiʻi’s big island, which in as soon as 10,000 short years will begin emerging from the sea to form Hawaiʻi’s next island.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Mother Nature had little respect for our tightly-planned cruise schedule. In mid-August, a low-pressure area southwest of Mexico had developed into a tropical depression, and in the days before our cruise was slated to start this weather system intensified into a Category 4 hurricane named Hurricane Lane, hurtling northwest straight towards Oʻahu.
The first two days on the job were a blur, with updates coming in seemingly by the minute. The last major hurricane to strike Hawaiʻi was Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which devastated the island of Kauaʻi when it made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. By August 21st, after forecasts that the storm would weaken, Lane strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane, with the initial path forecasting it would slam straight into Honolulu. We learned that there were very few (if any) evacuation shelters on the island designed to withstand strong tropical storm-force winds, much less the 160mph winds currently raging in the approaching tempest. The port would be closed in 24 hours and all ships would evacuate, but science crew would be evacuated to the island (presumably because the real mariners running the ship did not want a bunch of seasick and anxiety-ridden scientists getting underfoot).
Our task for the first 24 hours was to simultaneously attempt to integrate a bunch of sensors into the vehicle, which involved draining junction boxes to wire in sensors, building brackets, and testing signal wires, while also tying down every loose item on the ship and on the vehicles to ensure safety in the storm. Since I had not yet learned any of the vehicle systems I felt pretty useless, but busied myself lifting heavy things and brushing up my knot tying skills, getting my first introduction to the job-critical skill of “ROV yoga”. This is where you contort yourself into various awkward poses in order to do work on the ROV, such as shoving your body in the few inches between the workbench and the vehicle to tie down one of the manipulator arms and constrain all its degrees of freedom, while your colleague (who you just met the day before) stands over you with one foot on the workbench and the other on the ROV chassis and braces himself against a shelf as he leans around the vehicle with a multimeter to reach the starboard junction box, to test whether the Rx/Tx lines on the serial comms are wired the right way around while shouting at someone else to confirm the wiring schematics, and you both try to avoid having a severely awkward situation occur if one of you falls down or stands up too fast, and also it’s a hundred degrees because the hangar air conditioning is broken and there is no air flow in or out and you are covered in sweat and hydraulic oil and ship grime and your hair keeps getting caught in the velcro straps holding the various cables all over the vehicle and your steel toe boots already smell like you’ve been wearing them for months, not hours.
I could already tell that I was going to love this job.
We might have gotten 8 hours of sleep total across our six-person team in those first 24 hours, most of those had by me as the least-experienced (a.k.a. most useless) member of the team. At 2:58pm the next day we were running down the gangway, the last science crewmembers to depart the ship, just barely ahead of the mandatory 3pm port closure where the ship would depart to ride out the storm at sea.
Back on land, things were only slightly less hectic. Displaced passengers from cruise ships were scrambling to book the last remaining hotel rooms in what was already the height of the tourist season, while newlywed honeymooners were booking last-minute flights off the island (I heard a rumor people were paying upwards of $10,000 for flights back to the US mainland, although that is just a rumor). Flights full of FEMA responders and American Red Cross volunteers had already landed and were setting up shop in hotels. Our expedition leader Nicole had managed to book our team into the lower floors of a hotel in Waikiki with disconcertingly large windows. Mugdha and I were assigned to share a room since we were cabinmates on the ship, and went off to buy provisions at a local grocery where I found a mutant double-wide apple banana and a bunch of grapes containing one giant monster grape that was really eight grapes merged into one. It might have been a bad day for everyone else on the island, but I was very excited to be on a hot streak of finding mutant fruit.
The city had not yet shut down so we went out in search of a tiki bar, being sailors and having nothing better to do. Jess was musing about picking out a Red Cross volunteer to pass the downtime with. Always one to rain on other people’s parades, I pointed out that the average age of the Red Cross volunteers I’d seen thus far seemed to be well north of seventy, and that she would do better to set a small fire or something so that she could pick herself out a nice Hawaiʻian firefighter for entertainment during the storm. It was an early night after our sleepless preparations of the past two days and we were back at the hotel and in bed before 9pm.
At 5:03am the next morning I was lying half-awake when I heard the loudest bang I’ve ever heard in my life and a crash of cascading glass. I asked Mugdha, “was that the start of the hurricane?” thinking in my grogginess that perhaps the wind had picked up a piece of patio furniture and hurled it through someone’s gigantic window. When I slid open the patio door I noticed glass covering the patio and water raining down, but no wind at all. I could hear a faraway fire alarm, and by this point a few small groups of people from the adjoining hotels were gathered in the street. Hmm.
After calling the front desk and getting a busy signal, I told Mugdha that I was going to wander down to the lobby to see if I could find out what was going on. At the bottom of the stairs I found the hotel night manager, a very large and imposing man in a somewhat less imposing floral Aloha shirt, and asked him if he knew what was happening.
“The hotel is on fire. You have to leave.”
“The hotel is on fire. Go outside.”
“The fire alarm isn’t going off on the third floor so no one is evacuating. It sounds like the alarm is coming from another building. We have to go up and warn them.”
“Well, I’m hearing a lot of different stories from a lot of people.”
“I was just on the third floor, and I’m telling you, the alarm isn’t going off! We have to go and let them know to evacuate!”
And with that I found myself bodily shoved past the locked front doors of the hotel where most of the occupants of the hotel’s higher floors had already evacuated, yanking on the door handles and looking helplessly through the glass.
A moment later, I saw Nikki come down the stairs, get into what was clearly the exact same argument I had just had with the giant man, but instead of letting herself get shoved outside like I did she pushed past him and ran back up the stairs. My hero.
A few minutes later, thanks to Nikki and—as I later learned—a bunch of Red Cross volunteers who went banging on doors on the second through fourth floors as the alarm system had malfunctioned on all those floors (and the hotel’s only emergency protocol seemed to be to yell at anyone who pointed out that the alarm didn’t work), all our team members and others from the lower floors started coming outside. Phew.
Tensions were already running high from the impending hurricane, and this extra bit of unexpected stress seemed to be too much for some, and there were several tearful breakdowns among the disaster response workers. As far as I know, no one even got to hook up with a firefighter. What a waste.
The good news is no one was hurt. It turned out that someone on the 17th floor had set a bag full of aerosol toiletries on the stove in the kitchenette (as one does?) and then gone out for a smoke, accidentally knocking against the stove and turning on the burner under the cans as he left. Eventually the aerosol cans exploded, blowing out the windows and setting the room on fire. The fire suppression system put out the fire in short order, so at least that bit of the emergency system was in working order. I had no idea an exploding aerosol can could make a noise that loud, but if you had asked me afterwards I would have sworn up and down that the explosion could not have happened more than 10 feet above my head, much less 14 whole floors away.
After the pandemonium subsided we could finally relax and enjoy our Waikiki sojourn. Oh wait, I forgot. There was still the small matter of the Category 5 hurricane bearing down.
The next day most of the businesses were shuttered, in anticipation that within just a few hours the whole of Waikiki might be battered by winds and drowning under storm surge. Throughout the day we got some good news that the hurricane had begun to weaken, and by the end of the day the hurricane had changed its course to due north, no longer straight on a path for Honolulu.
By the next day, after a whole 24 hours of not being able to engage in American consumerism, most businesses were open again and the tourists were once again crawling like ants through fancy clothing shops and flaunting the storm surge warnings by crowding the beach. Why people will travel to a remote island and then spend their time visiting the same Lululemon and Prada stores that they can find in any mall across America I’ll never understand, but hey I’m also a weirdo who would prefer to be crawling around in the hold of a ship covered in lithium grease so who am I to judge?
Our team was significantly more conservative than the tourists, and mostly went on walks around the canal and stayed in the hotel. We did take an excursion up to the 17th floor to see the explosion aftermath, which was pretty fun to see the door blown off its hinges and a mass of twisted metal where the stove once was.
Despite Honolulu being spared the disaster that initially seemed probable, other islands copped the brunt of the storm as it passed within 150 miles south of the islands. Torrential rains brought excessive flooding to Hilo on the Big Island, and wildfires ignited on Maui and the arid parts of Oʻahu. On Kauaʻi a man drowned in a flooded stream, and landslides occurred all over the islands. It was a bit frustrating to hear tourists laughing at the “overreaction” to what turned out (in Honolulu) to be a bit of strong wind and occasional showers as they walked around spending thousands of dollars on fancy clothes, as they had clearly not bothered to pay attention to any news since the shops re-opened. I suppose rich tourists on vacation don’t have to pay attention to the plights of the commoners on a whole different part of the island, entirely fifteen miles away, unless it means the people running the shops aren’t able to open them for commerce because their house washed away. (Yep, I’m judging again. Sorry.)
Another day and we were on a water taxi back to the ship, which had sheltered with pretty much every other ship in the area north of Maui, behind a 10,000 foot volcano. It was finally time to go to sea.
The goals of this cruise were twofold: one, we would explore the Lōʻihi Seamount, mapping the new lava flows from the recent Kilauea eruption, picking up rock samples and taking water and gas samples from hydrothermal vents; two, our team dynamics and mission planning would be studied as part of a NASA investigation into how best to plan missions to Mars, where there is up to 20 minutes of latency in radio communications between the Earth and a hypothetical team of astronauts orbiting or living on Mars. This cruise was the first of three, and we would be given realtime instructions from an onshore operational team as a baseline, with future cruises introducing an artificial latency between mission control and ship operations, in order to work out the most efficient communication and mission planning schemes.
As part of the study design we had very rigid ROV dive schedules, diving once every 24 hour period beginning at midnight and recovering at 4pm. On the 4-8 watch, this meant piloting the vehicles from the comfort of the control van between 4 and 8am, then being on deck for recovery at 4pm and performing routine maintenance and checks on the vehicles until 8pm. Wrenching on a robot under a Hawaiʻian sunset over the beautiful Pacific ocean? Not bad, not bad at all. No more worries. Hurricanes hardly ever affect Hawaiʻi, it’s not like there will be a whole bunch more! Haha!
I’m not sure why when I joke about good things happening they never come true, but when I joke about bad things happening something always seems to go wrong. The opposite would be nice for a change.
It turns out that this was to be one of the most active Pacific hurricane seasons ever recorded, and while none of them would come quite as close to Hawaiʻi as Lane, they would still cause weather disturbances that would cause us to miss days of ROV dives, and thus days of critical data for the scientific objectives of the cruise. The dynamic positioning system that holds the ship in place during ROV operations can only hold position in fairly limited current, and the nearby storms caused enough swell and current that we had to stand down operations due to bad weather several times. On these days we busied ourselves with organizing tools, playing cards, stargazing, and making contingency plans for progressively more ridiculous disaster scenarios (“so Herc is wedged between two rocks in a submarine canyon and can’t get free, the ship is on fire and there’s an asteroid crashing down to earth just a few miles away, how do we recover the ROVs?”). During my first-ever ROV recovery, waves were breaking over the transom and the aft jet pump of the ship’s dynamic positioning system had shut itself down after running at 100% power for too long, so we were jumping up onto things to keep our boots dry as the deck was inundated under waves of water, while the ship could only halfway control its position and the ROVs came up from 600m. Did I mention I already loved this job?
Despite the imposing radar image, only one of the other hurricanes passed close enough that we had to actually go and seek shelter. This time all we had to do is transit a short way around the southern point of the Big Island to get adequate shelter from the storm. We dropped anchor off the coast of Kealakekua Bay, the site where the British explorer Captain James Cook first landed on Hawaiʻi and was later killed by the Native Hawaiʻians after he attempted to kidnap the Hawaiʻian king. In addition to being the site of a deadly stabbing, it is also a lovely snorkeling spot. Rather than hang out on the ship all day, we took the zodiac into the bay for a few hours to snorkel around the abundant coral reefs near the monument that marks the spot of his death.
As our latest weather stand-down ended, it looked like it might be smooth sailing for the remainder of the cruise. No hurricanes brewing on the radar, nary a cloud in the sky.
Now, if there’s one life lesson I learned from the great Steve Martin in the 1990 film My Blue Heaven, it’s that everyone thinks they have a sense of humor, but not everyone does. In accordance, I definitely think I have a sense of humor, but it is also true that not many people find me funny, especially not when I say exceptionally silly things like, “the only thing that can stop us now is an earthquake and a tsunami.”
You can imagine my horror when the very next day we awoke to news that a shallow magnitude 5.0 earthquake had occurred west of central Chile. Now, the earthquake magnitude was small enough that it was very unlikely to cause a tsunami, but it was a bit disconcerting to realize we would be directly in the path of a tsunami should one be triggered off Chile, and we were working quite close to shore. Still, the greater risk for us at sea was not damage from a tsunami, but yet another weather stand-down in a cruise that had already been plagued by more weathered-out days than working days.
Thankfully there was no tsunami, we finished out the remainder of the cruise with several uninterrupted days of ROV dives, and it seemed like the science party ended up happy with the samples that were collected despite all the setbacks. I am now banned from joking about fires, firefighters, hurricanes, tsunamis, and anything else bad that might happen, and I am beginning to understand why sailors are so superstitious. It’s a wonder they even let a redheaded woman on the ship in the first place.
Signing off for now. Fair winds and following seas, friends.