2023 EXPRESS: Exploration of Central California Coast (AUV and Mapping)
My Days at Sea on Okeanos Explorer
NOAA recognizes the importance of bringing together traditional ecological knowledge and Western science to protect our ocean. As such, NOAA Ocean Exploration engaged local Indigenous communities in the planning of the 2023 EXPRESS: Exploration of Central California Coast expedition. In addition, Mia Lopez and her daughter Keli, two members of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, joined the expedition team aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer to share their knowledge, traditions, and connections to the ocean and learn about ocean exploration operations first hand. This invitation was made in collaboration with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation, and the Chumash representatives on the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and in support of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Here, Mia shares her experience.
Day 1, Boarding
I was so excited I couldn't sleep. We left home at about 8:30 a.m. to make the long trip from Santa Barbara, California, to the San Francisco Bay. There was traffic here and there that made our trip a bit longer, but we were prepared and nervously excited.
I love the feeling of the boat ride over to Limuw [Santa Cruz Island, the Chumash homeland], but I have never been on a boat longer than four hours, much less an entire week. Stocked up on patches and pills for the possible seasickness and closed-toed, nonslip boots for safe walking on possibly wet decks, I was ready!
On arrival, we drove straight to the boat and parked next to it. The ship towered over my car; it was so much bigger than we anticipated. We were met by a friendly face, Sam Cuellar, the expedition coordinator, who helped us board as we waved goodbye to my husband Ray. Sam showed us to our room and ushered us quickly to the lower level to meet Lieutenant Tim Holland, the ship's operations officer, and discuss safety protocols.
Then, the grand tour. So many things to remember and so much happening — and the voyage hadn't even started yet.
We spent the rest of the evening meeting expedition team members, eating dinner, settling in, and turning in for the night.
Day 2 started off great. I've never slept so well. After being gently rocked to sleep and throughout the night, I woke at 6:30 a.m. to the sounds of more team members arriving. The ship was bustling with action, all in preparation to leave the dock. As we set sail, I felt a little dizzy, so I popped on a patch and headed outside.
What a beautiful sight the Golden Gate Bridge is in the morning! I've never seen the bridge from the sea before! As we left the bay, the wind was so beautiful, the sun was out, there were beautiful fluffy white clouds in the sky, and the temperature was perfect. Not too hot, not too cold, just right.
We sat on the deck all day, we took our lunch and dinner out there, and just sat enjoying the ocean and all its beauty. A few times, we even wanted to jump in as we sailed past giant bull kelp bulbs. We imagined the amazing sound of the rattles that could be made with them.
I was so glad to have the opportunity to bring my daughter Keli along with me. I enjoyed listening to her share about our culture and the ocean with the crew. In return, crew members instructed her on how to make proper knots for various uses. Their fingers moved almost as if they had a mind of their own. They gave her a piece of rope to practice on as they showed her how to make different knots; she still has that piece of rope at home.
The rest of the day, we sat in silence, talked, and laughed. It was so peaceful. We saw 16 whales before we stopped counting, so many dolphins and families of seals with babies, leaping out of the water and playing with each other. It felt like we were in a dream.
I was really excited to be asked to speak live on the web every day while we were on the ship. But what was I supposed to talk about for seven days? I spent the morning still trying to confirm tribal leaders to talk with from the ship as we traveled along the coast. As a guest, not only on Okeanos Explorer, but in other tribal waters, I wanted to be sure to follow proper protocol and acknowledge tribal territories and our tribal relatives as we sailed and explored off their coasts.
Our journey would take us north to the waters of the southern Pomo and then south through the waters of the Coastal Miwok, Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan and finally back into Chumash waters, those of the Northern Chumash, Santa Barbara Chumash, and Ventura Chumash.
The timing of our voyage coincided with one of our most important ceremonies — putting the bears to sleep — so not all of the tribal groups were available to speak with me. So, during the first of our livestreamed events, I had the wonderful and fun opportunity to talk to my cousin Alicia Cordero from the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. Such a good ice breaker. I had been given 30 minutes to an hour to talk each day, and being able to talk to her the first day helped me realize that 30 minutes is actually pretty long when you're trying to figure out what to talk about. But we had fun, we made it through, and I learned a lot. I was prepared for the next day. Afterward, Sam and I agreed that 3 p.m. was a good time to go live each day, and 30 minutes was definitely enough time.
Keli and I spent the rest of the day walking around the ship, enjoying the views, and appreciating the peacefulness of the ocean.
Well... The peacefulness of the ocean didn't last long, unfortunately. I woke up this day already feeling seasick. It was rainy, cold, and gray out. I wasn't able to go outside to get fresh air, and being in our room was just too confining. I felt claustrophobic, but have never been claustrophobic before. I decided to head down to the mess deck for some tea to help my stomach and to have a bigger place to sit.
That was such a great idea. Our kitchen team was the best ever, the food was amazing. But more importantly, they were absolutely wonderful, and I needed them on this day. Hearing them laughing, talking, and making noise in the kitchen as I sat outside in the dining area made me feel like I was at home with my dad in the kitchen, so I was able to relax and not feel too bad.
3 p.m. seemed to come around way too fast on Day 4. I was nauseous, the swells felt huge. As I prepared for the livestream event, I realized there was no way I was going to be able to stand here for 30 minutes. Today, I had planned to talk with the tribal leader of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, Chairman Reno Franklin. As a coastal tribal member, I believe re-establishing the health and abundance of our sea life is very vital, so I was really hoping to hear about the tribe’s abalone restoration efforts. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available because he was just getting back from a ceremony, but I still wanted to share a little bit.
I was holding on to the desk in front of me as the ship rocked back and forth. I was feeling worse and worse, and was sure anyone watching online could see how green I was. It was actually a good thing we were unable to connect today, I barely made it to 15 minutes.
When those 15 minutes were over, I headed straight to my room. But, before that, one of my shipmates had told me that perhaps the patches were too strong for me and were making me sick. So, as soon as I got back to my room, I took the patch off and laid down to try to sleep off the sickness. When I woke up two hours later, I already felt a little better, but still not great. I made it to dinner, but I went straight back to my room afterward to wait for the sickness to pass.
I would have to say Day 5 began at about two or three in the morning, as the 14 to 15-foot waves tried to push me out of my bed! Upon arriving at our room the first day, I said to my daughter, "What are these poles for on the bed? I hope I don't hit my head." But, this morning, as I was being rolled from one side of the bed to the other, I was so thankful that those poles were there. Had they not been, I would have ended up across the room. You may think that must have been really terrible, but when I woke up, I wasn't feeling sick at all. It must have been the patches. The swells were actually quite fun. I felt like I was on a roller coaster and suddenly started giggling and could not stop. What a ride that was! I was able to fall back to sleep until about 8 a.m., when I got up to go downstairs to have breakfast. I was so happy not to be sick anymore.
Maybe I'll just have to go on the next trip on Okeanos Explorer in the area and try again! (*wink, wink*)
The livestream conversation today was great. I had shared several texts and phone calls with Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh. She was unavailable at 3 p.m., so we arranged to speak with Vice Chairwoman Monica Arellano and tribal member Gloria Gomez.
As a descendant of the Ramaytush Ohlone, thought to be an "extinct" tribe by academics, I was extremely grateful to speak with the Muwekma community. For generations, our Ramaytush people have been disconnected from our traditional lands. During this time, other local tribal communities, such as the Muwekma who have stayed connected to these lands, have stood up for, protected, and given voice to our now shared territories. It was such an honor to be able to acknowledge them, thank them, and ask them how we can support them in all they do. The rest of the evening was great: amazing dinner, fun conversations, and more enjoyment of the ocean.
Another beautiful morning! I could get used to being out here.
When I woke up, the sun was shining. There were some clouds and a little fog, but it burned off, and it turned out to be an amazing and enjoyable day. Each day, we anticipated the launch of the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). I couldn’t believe all the variables involved in putting this together, what a huge amount of preparation, planning, and teamwork was involved! I learned more each day, but today, still no launch.
Waiting for 3 p.m. wasn't so difficult today. I was really excited to talk with Val Lopez, tribal elder and chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. It's always good to hear him talk. He is so knowledgeable and just a really great person. Today’s livestream conversation was amazing! Thank you Chairman Lopez for joining us! Completing another day, I was struck by a little sense of sadness, my journey was almost over. I had dinner, talked a little longer, and even went out to enjoy the evening air.
Thursday, only two full days left. We have had so much fun! Throughout the livestreams, Roland Brian and Art Howard, my behind the scenes crew, helped me stand in the correct spot, put my headset on in the correct position, and enjoy the process. I hoped to speak with Mary Rodgers, the Salinan tribal chairwoman, but unfortunately, sometimes life happens, and things don’t go as planned. Still, I opened the livestream event with an acknowledgment and appreciation of the Salinan people and Chairwoman Rodgers.
Today, one of the AUVs was launched from the deck! It was impressive. The coordination of the crew and researchers was so smooth it made me think of a choreographed dance. I was excited to be able to share that experience with our online audience.
After another successful event, I realized I had only one more day. My time on Okeanos Explorer was coming to an end.
We woke up to another beautiful yet windy day. I wanted to make sure to take advantage of every last moment on board. We ate all our meals outside on the upper deck, beginning with my morning cup of coffee. The wind was chilly, but it woke me up, and the air smelled so wonderful. We watched playful seals, no whales today. And, the crew rescued a runaway NOAA buoy. That was exciting!
The livestream event was so good today! I appreciated the opportunity to talk with the Northern Chumash Tribal Council about the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (the public comment period ended during this expedition). Giving an acknowledgment to our Chumash tribal relatives was really great, and it was so cool to give them a platform to share all the work they have done over the years to protect our Chumash lands and waters in the northern territory. Michael Khus of the Bear Clan and Gianna Patchen of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and I had a nice conversation and were then joined by scientist Steve Palumbi from Stanford University. Steve talked about the work he is doing in collaboration with Northern Chumash Tribal Council to collect environmental DNA samples from the ocean to determine the biodiversity and health of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. This last event, unlike the others, easily filled the 30-minute slot and then some! What a terrific last event, a bittersweet moment when we ended.
At 5 p.m., we joined, also via livestream, a community event with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary crew at the Cabrillo High School Aquarium, the main event we had all planned for. This was also so fun, and my oldest daughter Lacee Lopez helped out at the aquarium for the in-person part of the event. Sam led the presentation, and we talked about the activities aboard Okeanos Explorer and a bit about the Chumash connection with the area off the coast of Lompoc, where the high school is located. We said "Hi" to everyone and fielded questions from students and staff.
The time flew by, and before we knew it, we were done. Done with this event, done with all our livestream events, and done with the last evening of our trip aboard Okeanos Explorer.
This evening, I had the pleasure of sitting on the upper deck to do a little filming with Art, the onboard videographer. We had an amazing conversation. It was so nice to be able to sit and end our journey together this way. The sun was setting and painting the sky with orange and pink wisps on the clouds, the moon coming up on the opposite side of the boat changing the sky to a pearly white and changing the fluffy white clouds to gray.
That night, I didn't want to sleep because I knew when I woke up, that was it, it would all come to an end. Just like the first night on board, I was gently rocked to sleep by the waves.
Day 9, Disembarking
A bittersweet gorgeous morning. We gathered all our belongings and packed up. We enjoyed a brief walk around the deck one last time, said our goodbyes, gave hugs, high fives, and fist bumps.
This was it. We were off the coast of Ventura when we boarded a small inflatable boat from the deck of Okeanos Explorer, were gently lowered to the ocean, and set out for our 10 a.m. transfer to Research Vessel Minke and our journey back to shore. The choreography began with a briefing in the bridge, or the captain's office. Everyone who was involved in the process of lowering the small boat and transferring us to Minke attended. This time, we were part of the dance.
Transferring from the huge ship to the small boat was a bit nerve racking. The small boat felt like nothing more than a rubber raft in comparison to the ship, and Minke was not much larger. How would we get onto Minke? Well, we needed to speed up to match its speed. Once the boats were side by side, they slowly got closer and closer to each other until they were pressed together. THIS was what they called “connected”. Our belongings were handed over to Minke, and I waited for some sort of rope to tie the boats together, or some sort of handle and ramp to walk across. Nope. None of that. A crew member on the small boat stuck his hand out and said, “Ok, it’s your turn. Step right here and then step across to the boat. It’s ok, they’ll catch you.” Oh my gosh, I was so happy my daughter was first. I watched as she stealthily hopped to Minke. Then it was my turn. I was more scared at that point than at any other time during the previous eight days! I grabbed a hand, took a deep breath, and to my husband aboard Minke, I called, “Catch me!” I jumped, leapt, fell onto Minke, into the arms of my husband Ray! Yay! We did it!
The rest of the trip back to land was fast. By 11 a.m., we were loaded into the car and on our way home from Ventura Harbor. What an experience!
By Mia Lopez, Tribal Member, Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation; Founding Director, Su’nan Protection Art and Culture Education (The SPACE)
Published January 8, 2024