Guy Bennallack hails from Las Vegas, Nevada, just turned 24, is a graduate of UH-Manoa with a degree in biology, and plans to attend medical school next fall in Northern California. He has been one of my skilled and patient teammates on Avon 1 for the last four days. Guy was kind enough to offer to write a blog entry on the training he and his colleagues received prior to the beginning of this marine debris season. While I had planned to coerce him to write the blog by threatening to publish this photo, he was so quick to write it that I decided to use it anyway.
The training for the marine debris mission to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was one of the most extensive and exhilarating tasks that I have had the opportunity to participate in. I have been diving for many different programs and had training for a variety of operations involving the marine science field, but none of the training has been as applicable or comparable to actual operations as the NOAA marine debris training regime.
The training incorporated everything from rebuilding small boat carburetors to dealing with a worst-case, diver entanglement scenario. However, the training began with lots and lots of reading. I did not realize that there is a manual for every task and tool in the marine debris technician’s large repertoire of skills and that every manual was so thick! It seemed like the PowerPoints, handouts, and lectures would never end, not to mention the exams that followed each completed section of training. Some of the most difficult and stressful training had to be the achievement of an active NOAA Scientific Diver status. To become a scientific diver an individual must not only exhibit proficiency and knowledge of the techniques used in scientific diving, but they must also pass a medical exam (Andrew once forgot his pants after changing from his wetsuit to race to the hospital for a secondary check up, but that’s another story), physical fitness test, and pass a cumulative dive exam with higher than 80 percent. Below is a picture of our team before the 20-minute water tread.
One of the final exercises in our scientific diver training is a date with “The Net Monster.” In this exercise we are fully entangled in derelict fishing gear while on SCUBA and must untangle ourselves with our masks completely blacked out. Ray Boland, the NOAA Dive Officer, covers the inside of our masks with tin foil so that we cannot see anything. He then brings us to a depth of 10 feet and completely entangles us in a large piece of net and line. The exercise is meant to simulate a worst-case scenario where the visibility drops to zero because of silt being broken free from the net and substrate and a net falling on top of a diver. The exercise can take anywhere from two to twenty minutes depending on how irritated the net monster is. The main strategy for surviving the encounter with the net monster is to remain calm and slowly untangle every piece of gear until you are able to swim away from the net freely. The experience is definitely a little frightening and I am sure no one will forget their encounter with the net monster. In this photo, Mark gets up close and personal with the net monster.
In addition to reading and studying for the exams, there was the added stress that if we did not pass one portion of the training we would not be able to continue our position as a NOAA contractor. Luckily everyone studied hard and Kyle did not have to fire anyone for not passing the exams.
Once we had received our NOAA active diver status, we dove not into the ocean, but straight into small boat training. The boat training covered everything from coxswain to small engine mechanics and inflatable hull repair. One of the most memorable days of boat training was practicing shooting a channel between coral reefs and not sinking or capsizing our inflatable AVONS.
On the day of the channel shoot training we earned the name “Sea Kittens” for our innate ability to dive to the bow and huddle to prevent the boat from capsizing in high surf conditions. Unfortunately the nickname has stuck and the Sea Kittens continually get recognition from the NOAA dive safety officer Ray Boland. He had to give us something after his legendary Shark Talk. We walked in to his darkened classroom one afternoon with a heavy feel to the air. He then became really serious and proceeded to show us videos meant to scare us into respecting the risk of shark attack. One of the videos showed how a tiger shark can be almost right next to you and you won’t see it, while another showed a tiger shark that had been attacked by another, larger tiger shark. At the end of the lecture Ray had us reach under our desks to find a note card that either said nothing or summarized a shark encounter incident. Every individual had a card and the encounters ranged from small bites to attacks that led to the death of the diver. After hearing what everyone’s card had to say we all had to verbally agree that we understood the dangers associated with our job and that a debilitating encounter with one these oceanic predators is a real possibility.
Once our team received all of the certifications and lectures required to become a marine debris technician we had the opportunity to put it all together for simulations in Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay. During our time in Kaneohe Bay we practiced everything from rescuing divers with spinal injuries to towing broken AVONS. Below is a picture of simulated unconscious diver rescue.
The training in the bay seemed redundant at times but now that I am out in the field, hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital, I am glad that assembling oxygen administration kits and providing first aid is second nature to everyone. The training to become a marine debris technician is by no means a few months of fun and sun (summer camp) nor is it a military boot camp, but the training efficiently covers all of our operations and thoroughly prepared us for our time in the field. There were definitely some good times to be had over the course of the training and it reassuring to have confidence in my own and my coworkers’ abilities to conduct all of our operations as safely as possible.