Spring of 1995 I was invited to attend a three day planning session in Neah Bay, Washington, in the Northwest corner of the United States. The meeting, was put together by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sanctuary and Reserve Division to discuss the new Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Five biologists and oceanographers stayed in a home belonging to a member of the Macaw Tribe of Indians for whom Neah Bay is home. I was invited because I had just completed a masters thesis on marine reserves and I was a licensed captain.
The first night, over dinner, people shared what they’d like to accomplish in the way of research — everything from dissolved oxygen to sea otters. My contribution consisted of trying to impress upon everyone how challenging the conditions would be.
One of the scientists presented a bottle of krill sauce that he had acquired in Antarctica of which he was very proud. The sauce made its way around the table. Everyone took a whiff, shrugged and passed it on. When the bottle reached me I held it near my nose, inhaled, and fell into retching convulsions, as it I had inhaled cyanide gas.
Work the first summer was limited. A single wide mobile home was moved onto an ideal setting next to the water at the Coast Guard base. Lieutenant Commander George Galasso ran the operation. George and Ed spent most of their time in Port Angeles seventy miles to the east leaving the mobile home and boat to me.
The boat, Tatoosh, was 40 feet long, aluminum and powered with twin 250 horsepower Volvos that were supercharged up to a thousand rpms when the turbos would kick in. It would go 31 knots on flat water. The boat had large unlocked hatches through which the engine room could be accessed. Unlike a sailboat the boat was not self righting. If she rolled she’d likely stay upside down and sink. A raft on the cabin top would theoretically inflate.
The spring of 1996 began with some minor projects to get things going. Between June 17 and the 21 we did a major oceanographic study, collecting data on chlorophyll and photosynthesis. The group was comprised of George, Ed and myself from NOAA and Carl, Ricardo and Alice from Oregon State University.
We motored out to the Pacific Ocean where we headed south from Cape Flattery, running at 2600 rpms through three foot waves. The autopilot steered while those of us with sea legs stood, knees bent, in a line down the center of the cabin holding onto overhead handrails. Those lacking sea legs, flopped on the deck violently seasick. It was a bone jarring ride but time was money. On this day only myself and Carl were doing well. Carl had circumnavigated the world in a small sailboat.
We stopped south of Destruction Island about 1000 yards off Kalaloch. Carl, using a tethered spectrophotometer, measured chlorophyl. Alice took water samples and stored them in a container of liquid nitrogen for later analysis. Our work was part of a bigger project, looking for correlations between intertidal and offshore biomass, pelagic activity and primary production. A ship, the MacArthur, sampled offshore at the same time and latitude intervals.
Scientists applied for opportunities to pursue research in the sanctuary. They got one shot and we did all we could to facilitate their work. A total of 85 stations, chosen at random, were sampled over the week. In some instances they were located close to shore among rocks, kelp and waves. The Tatoosh being shallow draft and powerful was perfect for this work. Even so some locations could not be safely reached in which case we got as close as we could.
By Wednesday the seas had subsided and fog set in reducing visibility to about five hundred feet. We ran at 3200 rpms making about 28 knots, watching ahead for floats marking crab traps.
The following day, seas were flat in the morning. We ran out between Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery and south down the Pacific Coast. By late afternoon the wind and seas picked up for the drive home. Running north Tatoosh quartered waves off the stern and yawed heavily requiring that she be steered by hand rather than autopilot. We passed north of Tatoosh Island into the heart of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where we turned east. The wind and waves were now coming directly from astern.
Wind coming from astern at 25 knots and the boat traveling at the same 25 knots meant the apparent wind was zero. A calm, sunny bubble surrounded the boat as it roared dreamlike through whitecaps.
Tatoosh approached a wave from the back side and leapt off weightless and suspended in air, to the lower elevation in front of the wave, making a soft landing in foam. If we had lost power in either engine when coming off a wave the results would have been catastrophic.
On July 8, 1996, we were conducting VIP tours, ferrying federal and state bureaucrats and politicians out to the McArthur lying offshore. Gale warnings had been issued but as of mid-morning winds and seas were still moderate. We arrived alongside the McArthur and were thrown heavy nylon mooring lines, one from the ship’s bow and one from the stern. The lines were as long as possible, allowing Tatoosh to move with the waves. We bounced off soft fenders, measuring 2 1/2 by 4 feet, up against the ship and then away from it, stretching the mooring lines to the near breaking point. We were at one moment abreast of the ship’s deck and the next somewhere down and away.
At day’s end we returned to the McArthur to bring the VIPs back to shore. The wind and seas had picked up making the process even more challenging. As Tatoosh came up to the level of the ship’s deck, a VIP would hop from the ship to the boat. The last one, a State Senator of middle age, refused to jump.
“You have to do it,” the captain of the McArthur told her. “You can’t stay aboard. We need to move on.”
“I can’t,” she replied. “I just can’t”.
The MacArthur’s captain and first mate guided the woman to the edge of the ship and George told me to stand facing him in the center of Tatoosh’s main deck. This was a drill that had been done before. When the decks of the two vessels were next to each other, the woman was essentially tossed from the McArthur to the Tatoosh where she landed half supported by George and myself. She laughed “Oh my God. Well, that wasn’t so bad”.
We did bird counts, following paths that were logged into the Differential GPS, a government version of the civilian GPS that at the time was exceptionally accurate, so accurate that yawing in waves appeared on the screen a half second later. Other groups performed biological and archeological studies. Everyone lived in the single wide mobile home from one to three weeks.
The Sea Otter catch and release project was most resourceful. The work was coordinated by Ron Jameson of Oregon State University. We’d head south to Ozette Island and follow GPS waypoints between rocks to a secure anchorage behind the island where we’d anchor for the day. I mostly lounged around reading. Sometimes I’d help wrangle an otter. In the water they’re cute. But they’re members of the Mustelidae family which includes wolverines and honey badgers and have a bone crushing bite.
Capturing the otters was quite a show. Two highly experienced divers used rebreathers instead of standard compressed air scuba. The rebreathers save exhaled air and treat it and add a little oxygen so that when re-inhaled it will sustain life. The systems require complicated daily maintenance to which the divers would attend every evening. This was all done so the otters wouldn’t smell them approaching behind their electric James Bond underwater scooters.
The divers would sneak up underneath the otters and push off from the bottom giving the scooter full acceleration. The scooter would come flying out of the water with a thrashing otter trapped in a net attached to the front. They’d move to a 20 foot Boston Whaler where the otter and net were stuffed into a plywood box with a sliding lid.
Aboard the Tatoosh, we’d slide the lid open, force the otter down into the box with a rolled up sleeping bag and the veterinarian would knock it out with an injection. They’d tag it if it hadn’t been tagged, weigh it and give it a medical checkup. The vet would give it another shot to wake it up and after a half hour or so the otter would be released overboard.
Occasionally the vet would install a radio transmitter in the otter’s body cavity. Other members of the team working ashore with radio direction finders would track where the otter spent its time. Reassuring bold letters on the side of the radio implants read “not for human implant”.
I sometimes felt that all this bothering of sea otters wasn’t doing them any good. But around the dinner table at night I learned enough to trust the experts. Sea otters had been hunted to the brink of extinction. To recover with such a small gene pool was a long shot. Some otters needed to be moved to create geographically separated local populations as soon a possible. The results were looking encouraging.
The last project I’ll mention is the benthic macroinvertebrate assessment in which divers lay a one meter square metal frame on the bottom and pluck every crustacean, polychaete, chiton and other living thing they can see from within the perimeter of the frame, placing them in a mesh bag. In the evening they’d lay them out on the kitchen table, naming each organism and weighing the total for each square meter. By quantifying the samples they could get a general idea of biomass which could be reassessed over time.
If there ever was a boat I never grew to trust, it would be Tatoosh. She ran fast when she ran right. But she was a dog when things went wrong and such a complicated boat that things often did go wrong. Running on one engine in a following sea, she wallowed and broached in every wave.
On one such occasion we had cell phone service and called the dealer in Seattle. The likely cause was inside a control box. The dealer advised us not to open the box as all we’d find is “kitty litter and tin foil”.
Nonetheless, the work and the coworkers were unexcelled. Astounding beauty abounds at Cape Flattery. Words can’t really describe the place. But I had a budding family in Olympia, a six hour drive south and my patience was wearing thin after being gone for weeks at a time.
One lazy afternoon I was loading waypoints into the GPS at the base in Neah Bay. A Coastie was working on a Rescue 44 across the dock. “Nice boat,” he said.
“Fast. I see you guys out running like, what, about thirty knots?”
“Yeah, about thirty” I replied.
“I can’t do that. That’s great how the deck and the cabin are on the same level.”
“Yeah it’s a handy set up.”
“Uh hum,” he said. “You got a nice boat. Of course, my boat will run upside down.”
I laughed. “I’ll trade you.”
I talked a number of times with the visitor, a boatswain named David Bosley who had been repeatedly cited for bravery. He spent most of his time in La Push, a hole in the wall on the outer coast known for nasty weather, huge waves and rocks.
The following year a sailboat was in trouble near La Push. David and three other Coasties headed out in a winter storm to save them. The Rescue 44 was tossed end over end onto the rocks and all save one were lost. The conditions were just too extreme.
It was up to the Brass in Port Angeles to set some kind of threshold for wind and waves beyond which a rescue would not be attempted. Instead they claimed that the deceased David Bosley exercised poor judgment. Since when has a Coast Guard boatswain ever said, “I don’t think I’ll go out today, it’s too rough.” David Bosley was a hero.