GUE’s Project Baseline Fiji 2017: A Personal Reflection

It has been one week since arriving back into Pacific Standard Time here in Reno, Nevada however, my body is still somewhere over the Pacific; shaking the adverse effects of “time travel” across the International Date Line must be exacerbated by the rigorous schedule we kept. I always look forward to these missions and know that my days will be long, body will ache and patience will be tested but there is nothing like being a part of something like this; it rewards with an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment. That said, I always look forward to coming home to my family, and friends. It provides me the “mental” activity (in sharing the stories of the mission) that allows me to fathom (pun intended) what we did during our 13 days aboard the Ad-Vantage in the Fijian Islands.

Kadavu, Fiji – Home to the Great Astrolabe Reef

We set out to accomplish a “Proof of Concept” (Goal #1) type of mission where our group of submarine operators, scientists and divers could perform a valuable and scientifically valid (Goal #2) research expedition aboard a “super yacht” type of vessel and her crew. We had to blend the recreational cultures of a crew specifically trained to offer a high level of service with that of the demanding requirements and task-loading of a commercial scientific endeavor. Well in three words, “we crushed it”! I could not be more elated with the successful result. Our two teams came together, communicated and accomplished 11 goal oriented working days out of 12; weather knocked us out on 23 of May, the only reason we batted 916!

Goal #3 was to expand the Project Baseline Global Mission structure to other Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) teams like the group we collaborated with from TechDive NZ (New Zealand). This would allow Project Baseline to grow Globally and diversify its ability to deploy highly capable GUE teams in order to someday research more than 1.5% of the geographical definition of an impacted area; in this case, the Fijian Islands.

Goal #4 do all this within a strict budget. A budget that was wholly funded by the owners of the Ad-Vantage.

Conclusion? We accomplished every single goal beyond our expectations and the expectations of the others involved and we did this with less than 18 days available for planning from budget approval to mission departure. Great job EVERYONE, a team effort!  It is not only accomplishing our goals nor simply the work that we did but also as important is the information and data that we gathered.

A reef wall on the Great Astrolabe Reef, 20m/65’.
Photo By: Martin McClellan
Camera: Panasonic GH4/Aquatica Housing/2-Big Blue 15000 lumen lights

Regarding our scientific mission, I provide you two comments. First, from the Director of Project Baseline, Dr. Todd Kincaid:

In terms of data, we set out to collect video transects of benthic (coral) and near-bottom fish populations; at different depths and at different locations. Also to provide photo-documentation of representative locations and coral colonies at each site visited, including water temperature, salinity, pH, and dissolved oxygen profiles across the water column over which our work took place. We focused on these data because each one provides an independent and quantitative record of coral reef conditions that will help to establish baselines against which change through time can henceforth be measured. Collectively, these data will, to my knowledge, provide the broadest and most detailed record of coral reef conditions yet achieved in Fiji. Our results surpassed my expectations.

Second, from Dr. Charles Messing, a Marine Biologist and PhD from Nova Southeastern University:

Descending to depths reaching 350 meters below the surface using the Triton submersible allowed us to explore habitats never previously visited and observe and record resident communities of fishes and invertebrates for the first time in Fijian waters. Most habitats were dominated by a combination of sea fans (commonly called gorgonians) and black corals. Although precise identifications must await examination of specimens by experts, initial results indicate that collected specimens include range extensions and first records of multiple species from Fijian waters.”

So here are the stats:

  • Fiji is comprised of over 330 islands with 110 permanently inhabited
    • We visited five:
    • Viti Levu
    • Mololo LaiLai
    • Kadavu
    • Ono
    • Darvuni
  • Had to transport 2500 lbs. of gear from 4 different parts of the world
    • Florida
    • Nevada
    • Washington
    • New Zealand
  • Conducted 11 JJ Closed-Circuit Rebreather Dives
    • Totalling 37 hours underwater per diver
  • Supporting the three Project Baseline Staff were all volunteers;
    • 5 Divers
    • 3 Scientists and
    • 2 Submarine Personnel
      • The Volunteers, at 8-hour days (read: more like 10) and 12 mission days of activity provided 960 donated hours to the research and recording of the coral reefs around Fiji
  • Over 3 terabytes of data collected:
    • Computer Dive Logs
    • Videos
    • Photos
    • Daily, Weekly and Overall Project Reports
      • Heck, my blogs had to be at least a terabyte ?!
    • CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) Water Analysis
    • 120 Scientific Video Transects – 60 Benthic & 60 Stereo Video Fish Transects at 15minutes per transect is 1800 minutes (30 hours) of scientifically significant and reproducible video.
    • Approximately 1500 still images and 15 hours of underwater video collected (not including the video transects)
  • Conducted 12 Sub Dives in “Moby” the Triton 3300/3 submarine
    • Average dive to 244 m / 800’
    • Total dive time of 35 hours
    • Deepest: 362M / 1188’

I am sure that I forgot something but you get the gist; this was not a vacation simply because it took place in Fiji; this was a working scientific research expedition; 6am to 8pm daily.

Fiji’s coral reefs are being somewhat negatively impacted and this baseline data is the only data, data placed in GUE’s Project Baseline’s Global Database, that will tell future scientific study’s whether the Fijian coral reef environments are improving. I am proud to have been a part of this work.

Our whole team was very proud of this Mission. A quote from one of our Scientists on-board, Dr. Brian Walker:

In a time when so much coral reef degradation has occurred on the Great Barrier Reef and throughout the Caribbean, our Fiji mission provided insight that there are still beautiful, amazing, diverse coral reef ecosystems in the world worth conserving and areas waiting to be discovered. Working from a platform like the Ad-Vantage with a competent team, facilitates reaching these remote places and depths. The GUE skilled divers and submarines enable data collection in depths where little historical exploration has occurred. I look forward to conducting similar missions in the future.” [Research Scientist, GIS and Spatial Ecology Lab, Nova Southeastern University, Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography]

Brian Walker imaging massive corals in the 10-20m/33-65’ zone.

I would like to introduce you to the GUE Dive Team on-board.

Dr. Todd Kincaid
Director of Project Baseline

My friend now for the past 8 years and one who has motivated me with his passion for exploration and environment. A fun leader and at times a challenge to keep up with. Thanks Todd for the opportunity you have given me.

Mel Jeavons
Owner: TechDive NZ

An honor to have shared time under the South Pacific with this dedicated and organized lady. She spearheaded this mission and concept and at every stage put in the effort with a smile and kind word. Thanks Mel, you exceeded my every expectation.

Jamie Obern
Owner: TechDive NZ
GUE Instructor

A skilled diver building NZ “tech” diving with a solid reputation for expedition diving. His calm, alert manner and a thorough understanding of the sport, gave me great confidence. It was my pleasure 10 GREAT dives with him.

Russel Hughes
GUE Instructor/Diver

He made me laugh every day, never skipped a beat and demonstrated the most organized and vigilant awareness of all diving activities happening during the mission. A comfort knowing he was above watching out. Allowed me a contentment not usually present on missions like this. Great job my friend…Thank You!

Rob Wilson
Chief Image Creator
Frontline Photography NZ
GUE Diver

A “Gentleman” and solid professional. Always there to help me with the cameras – his patience allowed me to shine behind the shutter. Instrumental in my management of multiple camera set-ups. I look forward to more diving with this first-class team mate. Here’s to Dive #1!

A special note of appreciation:

Thank you to GUE’s Project Baseline Data Manager, Kristie Connelly for her tireless efforts in managing all the data that we tossed at her daily and to Amanda White, GUE’s Director of Communications; she got the posts online, the reports out, created the videos and worked flawlessly in an environment where the technology does not always cooperate.

I close with this image…

The two crews: Ad-Vantage and Project Baseline – just great people! Two teams from entirely different backgrounds coming together collectively to accomplish every mission goal set forth.

…and to say,” my life was bettered by this effort and the great people in the photo above. I saw a level of teamwork and compromise unlike I have yet to experience on a mission of this magnitude. Simply…Thanks…Thanks once again to everyone who came together to make this first coral reef baseline evaluation a reality for the islands of Fiji!”

Thanks for following along!

Parting Shots

Rob Wilson, Russel Hughes and Ben Brodie (Ad-Vantage Dive Instructor) getting ready for a descent.

Hanging Loose scootering with the team…who is that guy!

5-10m / 15-30’ Great Astrolabe Reef