Saturday, September 12, 2009

Safe Diving in PIPA

Kate Madin, Writer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Nai’a continues on a straight course from Fiji to the Phoenix Islands, carrying scientists and photographers, to study the coral reefs and open water of the world’s largest marine protected area -- the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). The high waves and rolling motion we have been experiencing for days have decreased, making this a good day to hold the second meeting of the entire group.

The first meeting, on the day we departed Fiji, was to discuss the science plan for the expedition. Today, the group heard about the multi-tiered safety plan for diving. Rob Barrel, owner of Nai’a, Greg Stone, Craig Cook reviewed safety procedures for reef divers, and Larry Madin reviewed the procedures for blue-water diving.

Divers--especially if they’re absorbed in marking off sections of reef, or counting fish -- could become separated from others, or come up after a working dive and not see the skiff that will pick them up. Craig Cook and Randi Rotjan, before the trip, assembled safety equipment and a diver safety plan that will work to ensure no diver is lost.

First, diving in buddy pairs is essential. Then there are three methods of letting the skiff driver know where a diver has come up : Everyone will have an inflatable “safety sausage” - - a brightly colored tube a diver can use to wave in the air and signal the skiff. Every dive group will carry short-wave radios that can reach the skiff even at considerable distance. Last, there is a beacon that sends a signal to a satellite, and back down to Maryland receiver, a Coast Guard Station in Hawai’i and thence to the Nai’a, using GPS coordinates to locate a diver. Cook, in the image, is demonstrating the folding antenna to be used for that signal.

Last but not least, Cook spoke about the recompression chamber, emphasizing that it’s very rare to get the bends, but that the only treatment is to be put back under elevated pressure. Most of the divers will be using a mixture of gases called Nitrox, which contains less nitrogen and more oxygen than air, enabling divers to stay down at reef depths longer, with less chance of suffering the bends.

Les Kaufman, professor at Boston University, who is along to study fish, said, about the safety meeting:

“It is at once sobering and reassuring that very extensive preparations have gone into the safety measures for this cruise. First up, we reviewed the normal Nai’a dive protocols. Then comes ‘not getting lost’. … Sharks were up next: billies (shark sticks - long wooden poles) for those who want them… In fact we are hoping for abundant sharks as this is a sign of ecosystem health, and though once abundant, the sharks at Phoenix Islands have not been troublesome to divers on the earlier expeditions. We’ve also got an evacuation plan out of Kanton if somebody must be medivac-ed. DAN (Diver Alert Network) central, which is aware of our activities, stands by in case this is needed.”

Needless to say, we all hope none of the equipment or procedures will be needed on this trip. All are aware of our distance from medical facilities, and will be as careful as possible, but the extra measures of insurance are good to have!

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