by Tom Kok, Mechanical Engineer
August 6, 2010
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For me, a journey of several thousand miles began with a single phone call. That call came from Dave Lovalvo, the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Operations Manager on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. When Dave asked me if I was interested in traveling to the Okeanos Explorer to work with the ROV team, I had no practical experience with ships, no practical experience with ROVs, and absolutely no idea what to expect. As a recent mechanical engineer graduate, I was about to embark on an exciting and challenging voyage known as ocean exploration.
Only moments after arriving on the ship for field trials in February, I began to appreciate the extent of my first challenge: learning about the Little Hercules ROV. Like most ROVs, Little Hercules is a carefully arranged collection of pressure housings, sensors, oil-filled hoses, and delicate electronics. Each component has its own capabilities, limitations, idiosyncrasies, and role to play within the larger system. Both the camera platform and Little Hercules, for example, have altimeters to determine the distance to the seafloor. However, as I’ve worked with the system, I’ve discovered that while the Little Hercules altimeter works well at altitudes below 45 meters, the camera platform altimeter works well at up to 95 meters of altitude but has trouble when the altitude gets below 15 meters.
Unexpected details like this occur throughout the ROV system and learning all of them requires effort and experience. As I continue to learn about each piece of Little Hercules, I find myself with a growing appreciation for how the entire system works together and how much remains to be learned. The challenge of learning every day keeps me interested and engaged with this project during the long weeks at sea.
The technical details of Little Hercules, however, are not the only exciting challenges aboard the Okeanos Explorer. Day-to-day ROV operations require a high level of expertise and often test me in new and unexpected ways. For example, it might be necessary between dives to swap a poorly functioning sensor out for a spare, test new software controls, or catch up on documentation.
The excitement doesn’t end when Little Hercules is in the water. As a recently initiated pilot of Little Hercules, I regularly find myself performing a delicate balancing act. Adjusting to strong currents and treacherous terrain while still creating quality pictures can be difficult, but a pilot’s real difficulty is finding time while flying to communicate with the rest of the ROV team and with scientists on shore. With so much happening at the same time, I’m rarely confronted with dull moments in the pilot’s chair.
Finally, an account of exciting new challenges on the Okeanos Explorer would be incomplete without mentioning mapping. Before each ROV dive, the ship conducts a survey of the dive area with its multibeam sonar. I joined the ship early in Guam to learn how the multibeam works and how to operate it. Now, I’m one of three ROV team members who also stand four-hour, rotating watches while the ship is mapping. While not as obviously exciting as an ROV dive, mapping is a technically challenging and precise science that supplies invaluable information to both the ROV team and scientists. Mapping is another new experience for me to enjoy and learn from.
When Dave asked me to join the team for sea trials in February, I had no experience and no idea what I would find on the ship. Now, six months later, I have a little more experience and I know that I can always expect to find challenges, excitement, and new things to learn aboard the Okeanos Explorer. That’s not to say that life aboard the Okeanos Explorer is always exciting (it’s not: when we are out to sea, we work long days with no weekends and nowhere to go on our time off), but for me the new experiences and new skills are well worth the long weeks at sea.
As this trip to Indonesia draws to an end, I look forward learning new skills this winter while improving the ROV system and returning next year ready for a new round of challenges and adventures. This trip may be ending, but my voyage of ocean exploration has just begun.