Friday, March 11, 2011

Indonesia Expedition: Guest post from ROV pilot Marko Talkovic

[Note: Early reports from the Indonesia Expedition team indicate that they have not been affected by the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that have caused damage in Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific today. As news comes in we will continue to update blog readers.]

This post is written by Marko Talkovic, an ROV pilot with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

As an ROV pilot and amateur undersea photographer, returning to Raja Ampat is a treat indeed. When the opportunity to join this expedition was presented to me a few weeks ago, I was extremely excited. Having visited the same region for the first time last September, I knew what an amazing experience this expedition would be.

Mof Island, West Papua, Indonesia (Photo: Alan Dynner)

Being able to explore deeper reefs than I was able to dive last fall was an adventure that I could not pass up. Fortunately, my crewmates back home on the Monterey Bay were able to cover my duties there, allowing me to participate on this expedition. To them I am extremely grateful.

Dr. Bruce Robison of MBARI and Expedition Leader Dr. Greg Stone of CI and the New England Aquarium

The Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, "flies" much like a helicopter from the perspective that it is capable of moving in any direction, and of hovering on location. However, it does have some extra operational challenges. Where a helicopter is affected by winds and weather, an ROV is affected by currents, poor visibility, pull on the umbilical by currents and by the ship, and the fact that you may not really know where the ROV is relative to the ship.

ROV (Photo: Jeff Wildermuth)

The currents on bottom can also be running in complete different directions than on the surface, further complicating operations. Running an ROV is not done simply from the pilot’s controls, but is a coordinated and choreographed effort between the pilot, camera operator, scientist, ship driver, navigator, deck crew and ship’s engineers. All players are very important and must work together for the operation to be successful.

Chief Helicopter Pilot Tom Sharp and Plan B captian David Passmore prepare for a dive on a seamount south of Misool ... We named this seamount "spoon" mountain because it looks like a spoon from the air. (Photo: Greg Stone)

On board the ROV and ship we have several devices which help to navigate the submarine. Scanning sonars help the ROV "see" in the dark beyond the field of view of the lights, acoustic tracking helps to locate the ROV relative to the ship, and in conjunction with the ship’s GPS to locate it to real world coordinates.

Piloting an ROV on seamounts can be quite a challenge. Often the currents around the seamounts are very strong, at times enough so that the ROV can fly off like a kite at the end of its umbilical. The most effective way to reduce this problem is to fly in the lee, or down-current, side of the seamount. In this orientation the ROV can hide from the current behind the seamount, and be able to maneuver more effectively.

David Shaw of the Sargasso Sea Protection Initiative retrieves the ROV after a dive. (Photo: Greg Stone)

So far on the expedition we have completed seven ROV dives. The first couple were mostly to work the bugs out of the vehicle, after being in storage. Since then we have been doing mostly observational science. Thus far the highlights for me have been seeing two chambered nautilus and two big orange frog fish, neither of which live off the Pacific coast of North America where I have done most of my piloting. We have also seen several different fishes which we believe to be new species to science. This will likely continue as we dive in more remote and deeper locations. Pushing the frontiers of science and understanding in the deep sea is one of the most rewarding aspects of this profession. The best thing for me would be that with a bit of luck we may even see a coelacanth!

- Marko Talkovic

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