As usual, the weather forecast was for strong winds and moderate to heavy seas. There was a strong low depression moving over the U.K. and by tomorrow there would be gale force winds. We reminded ourselves that the weather could not be trusted, and the Captain ultimately decided that it would be all right to continue the survey. All day long, for hour upon endless hour, we looked at images of the seabed and noted some unexciting targets. Again, nothing appeared to be what we would expect of a shipwreck, or at least a pile of half-buried ballast. Around 2:00 pm, we saw something on the computer screen that looked “different.” Not like rocks, and not like sand waves, but something out of character with its surrounding environment. It was 15 meters long and 3 meters wide, and had some vertical sections that seemed oddly out of place on the bottom of the ocean (see image below).We don’t know if part of it could have been buried and not visible, as often happens with shifting sands. But we marked its location and decided we liked it.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and the seas were picking up. STYX was working several miles from us, preparing for a diving mission, but we radioed them to ask for an AUV mission instead, in order to further investigate these new targets. The AUV has higher resolution imaging and can fly closer to the seabed than the towed sonar system. We gave them the coordinates of the targets, and they prepared for their mission, which would begin at 6:00 pm. It would be the last one of the evening, and if the weather forecast was correct, the last one of the entire mission, which would end a day early. We had one chance to get more information on these targets. At 5:00 I spoke with the AUV team and they said that the wave height was borderline for working safely, but they still planned to go ahead with the mission. At 5:30 I was called to the bridge. The AUV team informed us that they could not carry out their final mission. The seismic ship that was working in our area was coming through, and both of our ships had to move out of the way. With the weather worsening by the minute, there would be zero chance for another mission, even after the seismic ship cleared the area.
So that was it. There is always that one dreaded moment during a mission when I know it just isn’t going to happen this time. And that I have to go back home and tell the Admirals again that the results of the mission are inconclusive. Could I ramble off a list of excuses? Sure. Weather, equipment failure, not enough time, etc. But this is just the nature of the beast, and anyone who has worked in salt water knows and accepts this. When planning a mission, we automatically take the total number of days of the mission, and assume that we will be able to work for only half of those days. Mother Nature does not negotiate, and too many other circumstances are beyond our control.
After seven years, I should know better than to feel incredulous and frustrated that a mission ends with more questions, but it still doesn’t get any easier. Surveying in the North Sea is the ultimate test of endurance – of people, vessels, equipment, and spirit. But I think we all passed with flying colors. Where do we go from here, and most important, what have we learned?