Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef Expedition 2012
Mission Information

Thursday: May 31, 2012
Log Day 1

Dr. Kelly Gleason
Maritime Heritage Coordinator
Papāhanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

As the maritime archaeologist working at Papāhanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), I've frequently been asked what I am doing participating in a cruise halfway around the world at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Georgia possesses a rich maritime history stretching back to the days when Native Americans utilized the state's rivers and tributaries for travel and trade. Researchers also believe that an underwater prehistoric archaeological site may exist on the seafloor of Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, a compelling reminder of sealevel's change over thousands of years. But alas, I am not participating in this mission to investigate underwater archaeological sites and explore the maritime history of Gray's Reef. Instead, I am here to help Chief Scientist Greg McFall execute the first NOAA rebreather operations off of the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. This project is an important advancement for NOAA diving and a way that we can continue our efforts as scientists and managers to understand and protect marine resources.

Kelly Gleason double checks Greg McFall's rebreather setup

Kelly Gleason double checks Greg McFall's rebreather setup.
(Photo: Debbie Meeks)

I have been part of a team of divers within NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries conducting technical dive operations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands off of the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai for about the last four years. We began as a small team led by Dr. Randy Kosaki (at PMNM) and we required collaborative efforts to execute our missions. Greg McFall (of GRNMS) has been part of our team from its humble beginnings, and together we have grown our experience and made exciting scientific discoveries underwater that help us better understand the places we manage. The next phase of technical dive operations for our team of scientists is the ability to execute our operations and collect data underwater utilizing rebreathers. After years of testing and evaluation, NOAA Dive Center approved the use of Innerspace System's Megalodon rebreather units earlier this year. In April of 2012, Greg, myself and six other NOAA divers were trained in their use over the course of 10 days in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Greg McFall and Kelly Gleason waiting to get on the small boat to begin the historical first NOAA rebreather dive operations off of a NOAA Ship, the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.

Greg McFall and Kelly Gleason waiting to get on the small boat to begin the historical first NOAA rebreather dive operations off of a NOAA Ship, the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.
(Photo: Debbie Meeks)

Backing up a little bit, a question I get is why we would want to use this type of technology for scientific dives. My first response would be that rebreathers are not necessarily lighter or less cumbersome than the heavy dive gear we wear for deep mixed gas dives (on open circuit). In fact, I would go so far as to say it just might be as heavy and complex. The benefits of diving a rebreather (a closed circuit system where the diver's exhaled air is essentially recycled) is the minimized decompression time on a deep dive (so it is ultimately safer), and perhaps even more compelling is the change in behavior of the fish and critters a rebreather diver encounters underwater. Without bubbles, the underwater world accepts your presence in an entirely new way, and suddenly you, as the diver, become a large and underwhelming creature, rather than a frightening and awkward imposter to schools of fish, turtles, sharks and countless other underwater dwellers. This can allow for a much better understanding of the underwater places we aim to protect.

Kelly Gleason (front), Greg McFall (r) and coxswain Nemo McKay(l) cast off from the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster on their way to the first dive of the day

Kelly Gleason (front), Greg McFall (r) and coxswain "Nemo" McKay (l) cast off from the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster on their way to the first dive of the day
(Photo: Debbie Meeks)

Greg and I have been eagerly anticipating this opportunity to conduct our first dive operations on our Megalodon rebreathers on the Nancy Foster. We completed extensive checklists the night before to make sure we put together our dive rigs just right. We checked each other's rebreathers to make sure we were being thorough and careful. Rebreathers leave no room for error in set up. This morning, as everyone was busy staging their gear for today's dive, Greg and I excitedly loaded our rebreathers on to NF3 (our small boat for the day) with the help of our coxswain Nemo. It was a beautiful day for operations and Tropical Storm Beryl left pleasant seas in her wake. Upon arrival at the dive site, we met up with NF2 and NF4 where two other dive teams were just finishing up their first dive. Greg and I asked about conditions on the bottom and found out that while Beryl graced us with gorgeous conditions topside, she left churned up seas and little to no visibility underwater. Greg and I proceeded to gear up, not sure of how these conditions would affect our dive, and planned contingencies for the challenges of limited visibility, especially when your dive buddy will not be exhaling any bubbles (bubbles are a good way to relocate a separated diver).

Kelly Gleason geared up for a rebreather dive at Gray's Reef

Kelly Gleason geared up for a rebreather dive at Gray's Reef.
(Photo: "Nemo" McKay)

Assisted by Nemo, our coxswain, Greg and I did another checklist topside to make sure our rebreathers were operating correctly and soon we were ready to splash for our first silent dive at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. We were cleared to dive and Greg and I jumped in at the dive site, descending into a column of what looked a lot like an underwater blizzard. Tropical storm Beryl created a washing machine underwater and this was a much different place from the Gray's Reef I started diving last week! Nevertheless, Greg and I proceeded with our dive and it was remarkable to arrive at the seafloor, silently and peacefully, and focused on the small area visible around us. We spent the next hour testing our rebreathers underwater, carefully investigating the seafloor and constantly checking for an okay sign from our buddy, and double checking all of the readings on the three computers we were wearing on our wrists. All in all, it was a great first rebreather dive off of a NOAA ship. While Beryl kept our range of vision limited underwater, operations topside were seamless, and our units operated perfectly underwater. It was an exciting step forward for our dive operations and we look forward to gaining more experience on our rebreathers so that in the future we will use them to dive deeper and explore reef zones beyond typical diving depths. This type of advanced diving technology will allow us to better understand the precious underwater resources we are mandated to manage and protect.


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