2021 Bear Expedition

Being Prepared and Getting Settled

By Maryann Kovacs, Remotely Operated Vehicle Team Member, Marine Imaging Technologies

The expedition team

The expedition team (from left to right): David Ullman, Beth Crumley, Maddie Roth, Brad Barr, Brendan Carney, Maryann Kovacs, and Evan Kovacs. Image courtesy of NOAA/Brad Barr. Download largest image (jpg, 403 kb).

“Limit personal gear” was the message received from Brad Barr, Ph.D., chief scientist and expedition leader in one of his pre-cruise emails to members in search of the missing U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. He knew this rule did not apply to work equipment. After all, “packing light” is subjective when it comes to transporting a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) rated to dive to 305 meters (1,000 feet) along with 6 underwater camera housings, a lighting chandelier, tethers, and all topside supporting equipment. Five fully loaded d-containers—sounds about right?

The Calm of Getting Underway

Exploring the unknown is a labor-intensive process which doesn’t start when you step on board the ship. Some may argue that the hardest work occurs before the expedition is even underway. A conversation on the fantail with Brad revealed that for him, the planning for this project has spanned over the last 10 years, and his stress levels eased when we actually were underway. I guess I can see his perspective from our team’s point of view as well. Vehicle and camera preparation can be a source of stress. A common repeating theme is waiting on parts which were supposed to be in stock and manufacturing issues. And there were times when we’ve been at the mercy of a shipment that went to the wrong location or was not explicitly requested to be delivered as “overnight,” setting off a chain of events and downstream delays.

On all ends, there’s a lot of planning, labor, and anticipation involved before the expedition even starts, and it makes sense for there to be a strange calm feeling when the ship is finally underway. I can guess it boils down to letting go and giving into the idea that your fate is now determined by the weather gods, a crew and team that works well together, technology that works well, most importantly, ACTUALLY finding the shipwreck based on the information you have at hand.

I was in the middle of experiencing that calm feeling when Brad shared a story of a research expedition that was completely thwarted by a single missing item, which happened to be a bolt…apparently, a very important bolt that couldn’t be substituted or manufactured at sea. I suppose we all like to hear those stories and laugh a bit over them because it didn’t happen to us. It WOULDN’T happen to us, right? I joined in the laughter, myself more a nervous laughter since it got me actually thinking about any important hardware we might have forgotten to pack. Fortunately for me, I was in charge of data management this time, not packing hardware, so I wouldn’t be the cause of any major mishaps from a vehicle perspective. This made me relax and return to calmness.

Setting Up For Data Management

I’ve worn many hats and assumed various roles over the years, but I know that data management is also a very important, and sometimes underrated, position. In the end, the data are ultimately what you walk away with, so best to be on top of things and get it right so there’s something to show for all the effort on everyone’s part.

Data and I have always had a good relationship since it appeals to my organization skills and careful methodical checking and healthy paranoia of data loss. Most people on our team know that I’m “on it” and will throw cards at me, sometimes in a way that rubs “my system” the wrong way. I give gentle reminders at times that “cards are mislabeled,” or “this is not the correct place for cards that need offloading.” I often do it with a smile, so all is okay.

I had been told ahead of time that we would be setting up in the locker room area. When we arrived on U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore, we all scanned the area where we were to set up, scoped out where power was available and what area was best for ROV ops and data transfer from a logistical point of view, began running cables and wires, and began setting up monitors, decks, and control racks.

Over the years, I’ve set up workstations from small v-births and vans to jungles with blue tarps covering equipment, so I can adapt well to odd locations. On moving vessels, anything has the potential to fly across the room so you also have to consider how you are going to tie the equipment down while still being able to access it. Another important consideration is to look around the area and think about anything that might damage equipment and try to prepare best for it.

Many things can be anticipated, but other events are unexpected. Once an air conditioning vent leaked all over our equipment which was set up in a “dry” control van that seemed as safe and controlled as can be. I was reminded of this event when the next day after setting up the workstation, I walked into the room to see a layer of what looked like dust coating all over our equipment. Upon closer inspection, I could see that it was sand and all I could think of was that it looked like we had set up a workstation in the Sahara. Upon chatting with some of the crew, they mentioned a period of dry dock where a lot of work was being done on the vessel. We figure the vibration and movement of the vessel from transit must have shaken the sand all loose. The crew was super helpful and took quick action to plug vents and provide me with a dust buster to clean the inside of the computers and even a bed sheet to make a cover over the workstation.

From this point on, I fell into the rhythm of the ship and enjoyed getting to know some of the crew and other team members a bit more, all while exploring the shipwreck and capturing beautiful imagery needed to achieve our goals. Lucky for us, we did it all before the inevitable “weather gods” decided our time was up!

Drafted June 16, 2021; published July 2, 2021