Murphy’s Law: A day on the water

It was one of those rare truly epic days in Resurrection Bay: sun shining, sparkling calm seas, endless snowcapped mountain views.  Our team assembled, and everyone was sipping the last of their coffees as the Jubatus, the ASLC research vessel, pulled out of the harbor.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.

When smiles and nods were returned, I punched the throttle and the twin engines roared to life. I looked around at the great crew on the boat and knew today was going to be a blast!

Sunny Day on the water in Res Bay!

The Mission: As we’ve alluded to in previous posts (here), our team of researchers is starting out on a new project this summer seeking to investigate the physiology and biology of Pacific Sleeper Sharks in Resurrection Bay.

The Plan: Deploy a mooring station outfitted with multiple Go-Pro cameras, and two archival tags recording water temperature, salinity, depth, and light levels. This multi-sensor rig would allow us to hopefully capture video footage of sleeper sharks in waters up to 550ft deep! We’d practiced this type of deployment on smaller loads and had become a well-oiled team.

The cameras in their deep-water housings–hoping to catch some footage of the elusive Pacific Sleeper Shark

All-in-all we anticipated this to be a “drop and be back for lunch” sort of day on the water.


But as the saying goes…..Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.


The first sign of trouble came shortly after setting up at our chosen deployment stop. Everyone started working on their tasks—assembling the cameras and their housings, readying the line, or preparing burlap sacks of fish that would act as bait hanging off of the camera array. Unfortunately, for one team-member, the sloshing of the boat, combined with focusing on sewing burlap while wafting in that fishy smell resulted in a bit of unexpected ‘chumming’.

Its hard being a marine biologist that gets seasick.


Then, while she attempted to regain her sea-legs, it was discovered that the external camera batteries necessary to run the GoPros for 24hours were missing the adapter required to fit in the housings built for deep water deployments.

Checking the underwater housings

Not to be deterred, we decided to go ahead with a short deployment without the larger batteries, and run back to the ASLC for the required adapters (the perk of having your field-site in your backyard!). We’d then come back out, recover the mooring, adjust the cameras, and redeploy.

Preparing for the deployment.

The 400 lb. anchor, cameras, 600ft of line, and some buoys were all nicely deployed and we quickly stopped back on land to grab our needed equipment.

Back out at the mooring, we recovered the line and started hauling the mooring up through the A-frame. Or that is….we tried to. Our boat was outfitted with a capstan, a motor-powered revolving cylinder that multiplies the force for hauling ropes. While this system was said to be able to assist with up to 1000lbs, after about a minute of hauling it quickly became apparent that the little engine in the capstan, could NOT manage the ~400lbs of our mooring. So there we were…our cameras and equipment still about 500ft underwater and no-where near the amount of manpower to haul it all in by hand.

That moment you realize you have to find a way to haul >400lbs of concrete up without assistance….

After some threats of going all ‘Office Space’ on the capstan when we got back to shore, we faced the situation at hand. If there is one thing that is the hallmark of a good team and of a good field biologist it is the ability to plan ahead, and to improvise. So, like the Apollo 13 crew, we took stock of what we had on board to work with: some line, some buoys, a rope ascender (a device that could be clamped onto a line which is tight under tension and loosens when the load is off), a hydraulic lift A-frame, and a bag of peanut butter M&Ms.

Happily we can say that with those items and a little ingenuity we did manage to retrieve the entire mooring using a technique fishing vessels commonly use to pull in their anchor with a little help from the rope ascender and A-frame. Cameras, equipment and even the anchor were all recovered successfully!

A round of cheers when the cameras broke the surface and were safely on board!

Lessons and Reminders:

This story is an example of what is being now affectionately referred to as a “Fieldwork Fail”. Despite best laid plans, field work rarely goes off without a hitch.  From our experience, we recommend the following when “plan A” doesn’t work:

1) Be able to laugh about it, you can’t control all of it and making mistakes is human.

2) Problem solving may be the most important tool you bring with you.

3) Coming back safe and sound is the most important component of field work and makes even days that the goals aren’t attained a WIN.


4) Always make sure you have your M&Ms with you


Written by: Renae Sattler and Amy Bishop

Photos by: Chloe Rossman



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