I’m impossibly tired tonight after my first real day of operations. We arrived at Pearl and Hermes Atoll sometime this morning and had our safety meeting as dawn was breaking. I was in Avon 1, the cool boat. We launched first of the four boats, at about 7:45am. Marie recommended that I put on my wet suit right away since the transit was long and there would likely be some spray. However, the cloudy and slightly squally morning gave way to clearer skies by mid-morning. We were headed to Seal-Kittery Island, in search of an “LN,” a left net. That’s a net that was surveyed on another day (and in this case, on last month’s cruise), but left behind because they ran out of time. We were able to find it quickly because of its location, at the foot of a sand slope, and its size, BIG. Apparently, the base of this sand slope is an all-or-nothing place to search for nets. There aren’t many nets there, but the ones that do end up there are huge.
Kyle, Marie, Guy, and I got in the water while Mark manned the Avon. OK, if you’re a mere mortal like me, imagine free diving (that is, with one breath, no SCUBA*) to a depth of 30 feet and attaching a lift bag via a cord to a tangle of nets. Now imagine coming to the surface and diving again, over and over. Only on some of those dives, you’re positioning a SCUBA tank under the bag you attached and holding the regulator open to fill the lift bag. The three of them eventually got four bags attached, with 250 pounds of lift on each one. That worked to bring one end of the tangle to the surface. At that point, we attached a line to the net and dragged it with the Avon to shallower water.
Next superhuman feat was cutting this monster into two sections, since there’s no way a net of this size could be pulled onto or fit into one boat. Now the water depth was about eight to ten feet. That was the one good thing about it. Unfortunately, visibility fell to about a foot because sand got resuspended every time one of them started to cut or move the net.
The cutting took well over an hour. If you figure they averaged 2 minutes per breath, that’s about 10 dives per person. Just to put it in perspective, here’s what I was capable of over the course of the whole day: two surface dives to about 15 feet in the deeper water to snap a photo and zoom straight back up, and two dives to try to get my photo taken next to the net. Thanks, Kyle, for making me look like I had anything to do with this effort!
At this point, we had to call in the reinforcements: the four divers on Avon 4. It took all nine of us to maneuver the two sections of net into the two boats. It’s one part brute strength and one part strategy; Marie stayed in the water (yet more free diving!) to tie lines to parts of the net still in the water so we could partly pull, partly roll the sections in. When we got done with the first and larger section, we broke for a late lunch, then hammered out the second, harder-than-expected section. Some well-deserved displays of musculature were called for after we’d heaped the net into the two boats.
I’m exhausted, and all I did is snorkel around with my camera and add my weight to wrestling the nets on board. But it paid off big. This net bundle weighing over one ton is out of the water. It contained numerous cauliflower-head-sized coral chunks, which it had clearly broken off on its journey over the fringing reef. Swimming around us were monk seals and sea turtles, two endangered or threatened species known to be killed through entanglement in nets just like this one. Our grand total for the day was roughly two metric tons. That’s about two Volkswagen Beetles, or one Lincoln Town Car with a model in the back seat.
*SCUBA – Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus