Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Passing Time: Observer Oddities

Location: Seattle, WA (yep, still here)
Temp: 44 F

Everyday I wake up and I have two things to do, ride my bike and read my book. I usually have no clue what time it is, let alone what day of the week it is. I completely forgot about the MLK Jr. holiday, what ever day that was (no offense). The Seattle clouds make it feel like its always morning, until it gets dark, then its night.

There are about ten of us here in fishery purgatory between three apartments, plus another seven or eight in the four day briefing class this week (getting cleared to go out, or more likely sit in waiting with the rest of us). We're all waiting, waiting for storms to pass, for boats to come in, for tickets to Alaska. Everyone handles it differently, some people cook elaborate meals, or baked goods, some watch movies on end, others go out to the bars, and some just sit on their computers all day long. I ride my bike and read. But it starting to get old, riding alone every day.

Gossip about free food travels quickly through the three apartments. Today I was just waking up and pouring a glass of orange juice when another observer came in from the unit next door, "Stealing a bagel. Morning." I didn't even know we had bagels up for grabs in my apartment. Bagel Stealer then informed me that the downstairs apartment has some unclaimed cream cheese that would go great with this bagel. So I toasted my own stolen bagel, put on my slippers, and wandered into the downstairs apartment for something to top my free breakfast with.

As I was finishing breakfast, I heard someone calling from the next door apartment, "Deck Meeting!" Deck meeting, you know, when everyone goes out on the deck of your ship to talk about the important operations of the day, fishing plans, industry info, offload schedules ... oh wait, I'm on land, in the middle of Seattle, decidedly not fishing. So I wandered out onto our apartment's "deck" to see a few other observers, sipping coffee in their sweatpants and slippers.

"Ok, what are we doing today?" - I think I'm the only one that found it even remotely odd that we're having a "deck meeting" across three different apartment porches, spanning two different levels, in our pajamas. Everyone agreed we have pretty much nothing to do today, coffee got cold, and one by one we wandered back into our apartments. Yep, so that happened.

I guess I should go ride my bike now. I need to leave the apartment for at least a few hours today before settling in to finish my current book.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Fishery Purgatory

Location: Seattle, WA
Temp: 42 F

Yesterday was the last day of class. I am now, officially, a certified north pacific groundfish observer! Yay?
Yeah, kinda like this. 
Out of a class of 24, miraculously we all passed every exam, physical skills, and fish identification assessments with a grade of 80% or better! Some of us even got 100% on our Fish ID test ... but I wont name names *cough cough* The last day was kinda fun, but at the same time, nerve wracking. It reminded me of high school graduation in some ways. We were all just finishing a pretty stressful course of study, and going off into a new opportunity where none of us know what to expect. Everyone was rightfully proud of themselves, but honestly a little nervous.

The newest North Pacific Groundfish Observers aka the 2014 Greenhorns! Congrats Everyone :)
As the last day of training came to an end, they generated our research cruise numbers, (kinda like an ID number that will tie all of our data to us within the NOAA file systems) and began calling us up one by one to receive our graduation certificate, vessel assignment. The pollock fishing season in the Bering Sea starts on the 20th, this monday. Needless to say, everyone is flying out ASAP! Our contractors want everyone up in AK ready for the season opening. There's only one small issue, Dutch Harbor is stuck in a blizzard with 20 ft seas. No planes are flying in or out, let alone boats leaving to go fishing! Regardless of real-world weather, logistics and plane jams, upon completion of our training, every classmate received their new assignment. It was like any other graduation, announcing the graduates' next school or job: "And after this accomplishment John is headed to Alaska on the Fish Stalker!" All of the instructors would take a moment to comment about each boat. How much they liked, or disliked it, what kinds of food they serve, if the observer has their own room etc. Some people looked stricken, wondering how the hell they got to this point, and what got into their heads to think this would be a good idea. Others were excited to get out, it was finally happening! And then it was my turn ...

"Next up, Ali Carter!   ... Who does not have a boat yet, and will be staying in Seattle!" ... I'm the only one in the class with no assignment. My mom was stoked, "Oh good, maybe you'll just stay in Seattle!" No, this is what I've been training for, and now I want to go! But as fate has it, I will be spending the foreseeable future in fishery purgatory. Its neither bad nor good. On one hand I want to go to Alaska, start my job and my next step of this adventure. Yet, a small part of me is content to stay here, ride my bike and continue exploring Seattle. Either way, I have no choice, I'm stuck here in this holding pattern until further notice. Maybe once the blizzard raging in Dutch Harbor subsides, planes start moving, and boats start fishing I will get my call ... One Day! Until then I'll be chillin' in Seattle with my bike. Go Hawks?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Luck Favors The Prepared

Disclaimer: More and better photos to accompany this post are on their way- but I didn't want to wait to post it any longer. So, without further adieu, I give you (drumroll please) SAFETY DAY!

Location: Seattle, WA
Temp: 42 F

When I was 11 years old my family moved from the Inland Empire to Huntington Beach, California. Now that we lived so close to the beach, my siblings and I became obsessed with the ocean. Everyday we begged to go to the beach. The very next summer, my mother, who was a little uneasy about all of her babies being "swept into the sea", made us a deal: If you want to surf, you all have to do at least one summer of Jr. Lifeguards.

Shan, Greg and I, the first year all three of us could do Jr. Guards together! 
I'm not sure wether this was initially a plan to scare the ocean out of us or if she just thought we'd get tired of the enormous physical strain included in the jr. lifeguard program; either way you look at it, the plan to keep us out of the water clearly failed. My brother is currently an open water lifeguard, my sister loves to sail, and I am going to work on the Bering Sea, voluntarily. One thing she did accomplish with the jr. guard mandate was a solid foundation in marine safety, emergency preparedness, and situational awareness.

There was a time on boats that it was considered bad luck to discuss safety drills and emergency preparedness, fortunately times have certainly changed. Just as its unheard of for the public to go without a seatbelt, or eat raw eggs, the fishing industry has changed to make its everyday actions safer as well. And believe me, they've made some really amazing developments. GPS and satellite locating systems automatically deploy for the boat as soon as they drop underwater. Making distress signals to rescue crews possible, even if no one on the boat has time to make a single mayday call. All items are designed for optimal use at sea. Life boats include freshwater collectors on the canopies, automatic strobe lights and handheld flares that can go a thousand feet into the air, in the rain. Even the life rafts automatically deploy if the crew doesn't have time to do so, and they have 100% deployment rate in the instance of sinking vessels.

Yesterday was safety day at NOAA Observer Training, and they take no shortcuts during this section of the class. We have access to the best trainers, first hand accounts, and newest technology available. We started out hopping into our immersion suits, which to the unaccustomed eye, look like giant lobster costumes. They are actually specially designed neoprene drysuits designed to keep you afloat, warm, dry and visible while cast adrift at sea (they even have inflatable pillows, reflector strips and their own strobe lights. Survival of an abandon ship event is 7 times more likely if wearing an immersion suit. So we practiced putting them on, a lot, and then we practiced while being timed, and then we practiced at random intervals, some even in complete darkness. It got to the point that our instructor would twitch and we'd jump out of seats ready to abandon ship at the drop of a hat.

I'm the lobster on the left.

After we had mastered our lobster suits the class took a short field trip out to the lake. There we did our in-water exercises. Getting into the water in an immersion suit was pretty trippy. The suit was in-fact dry, but the pressure of the water squeezes all the air out of the suit. It leaves you feeling like you're stuck in vacuum-sealed, insulated bag. The water was in the mid forties but I wasn't even cold! Its much more comfortable than entering the water in a traditional wetsuit, but also less movable. You are not able to swim in an immersion suit, they are designed for you to float in them. Jumping off the high dock, (approx. 7ft haha) we had to take special precautions when jumping to allow for the air to exit the suit while keeping all of the watertight seals intact.

There's a team of us getting into the water, practicing formations, and squeezing into our life raft

We then had to practice a few water formations. Picture a bunch of lobster-suits floundering around in the water trying to do impromptu synchronized swimming, except communication is greatly inhibited by the watertight neoprene covering our mouths and ears. We did a team-swim, where everyone makes a horizontal line, linking arms to the next persons legs to make one long backstroking creature. After the team swim we got into the starburst formation, everyone links arms in a circle laying on the surface leaving their feet free to kick up water, in hopes of attracting the eyes of the rescue helicopter. Lastly we laid cris-crossed in a line, like sardines in a can, creating a human raft for an "injured" teammate to climb on top out of the water. We even practiced man overboard drills. Turns out if you fall overboard and I'm the only one to throw the life buoy, you're probably better off trying to swim back to the boat. I couldn't get it anywhere close to our "man overboard" smiley buoy. Aside from my apparent failure of upper-body strength and aim, the rest of the in-water tests went pretty well.

The Anchorage Alaska coast guard division has a saying, "Luck favors the prepared." I learned from a young age to train for emergency situations, ask safety questions, and make sure of my own situation before ever leaving the shore; the ocean is not a joke. The observer program consistently produces professional scientists, who are as well prepared for any safety situation as the captain and officers of the boats we sample on. Going to the Bering Sea may have it's risks, but that is exactly why these trainings, technologies, and efforts exist. They work, make a difference, and save lives.

Playing around in a 10 man life raft!

Here's some more Immersion Suit Fun that a friend of mine shared with me upon reading my post. No I'm not in this video, but I'm totally going to try to get my boat to do this after one of our safety drills!!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Having the Right Mindset, Hoping For Delay

Location: Seattle, WA
Temp: 43 F

They always say you find love when you're least expecting it. Well, I'm not so sure about that, but I can tell you I have stumbled upon a gem of a city here in Seattle. Sure there are certain peculiar/unattractive things about this city, like the chronic coffee addiction, ever-present cloud layer, and complete and total obsession with their local sports teams. Despite its faults, or maybe because of them, I admire Seattle and its crazy eccentricities.

Firstly, the novelty of rain has yet to wear off. I still look outside wondering what the weather will be. Every time I pass a large puddle I'm temped to splash in it. It's fun to have different weather. Sunny and 75 might be nice for a little while, but I can't really appreciate it without having a contrast. Normally when the sun is out I'm up and going, but here I love feeling guilt free about staying indoors till 11 am because its rainy and cold. Everyone obsesses about how wonderful the summers are here. I never pictured Seattle as a summer destination but I have the strongest urge to jump in the lake every time the sun comes out. I would love to spend a day riding my bike, bbq-ing and swimming in the lakes while they're warm. Putting "Seattle in the summer" on my to-do list.

The University of Washington is awesome. Not only is the library breathtaking, but the whole campus is picturesque. From the outside it looks like a conglomerate of official buildings and big trees, but within the campus its a series of small roads and little areas to ride your bike or run through. Everyone wears school colors. It's right on the lake, and they have a fantastic arboretum with big sycamores, floating foot bridges, and wild river otters.

University of Washington Library: I just want to spend all day here ... everyday. 
The people in the area are so nice, decidedly not LA. Drivers commonly let you over when you signal, IMAGINE THAT!? Pedestrians actually have the right of way. Everyone I have encountered has been welcoming, & friendly; from the servers at a restaurant asking me how the day is going, to people on walking bridges waving as we cross paths. Its as though everyone has decided to compensate for the weather by being extra nice to each other.

Public transportation, exercise, and outdoors activities are popular things here! I have seen college students, mothers with children and even business men regularly riding the public transportation system. It's a useful way to get where you want to go, and it runs on time! There are about a hundred gyms just within my community, but even more impressive is how crowded the trails are throughout the city, even on rainy days. People commonly discuss their favorite hiking destinations, and city parks. It seems like there's always a new place to explore just outside the city limits. Note to self: I still need to go explore "the sound" on the far side of the city. It leads to the actual ocean!

Besides the fact that I have no idea what a seahawk or a dawg actually is (indigenous species of Washington?), I have found myself cheering for the local team every week. Truthfully, I find it convenient that there's a coffee shop on every corner. Two weeks ago I had no intentions to return to school anytime soon, but now I am more and more curious about what kinds of research the graduate programs do at UW. Here in Seattle, I learned that the weather is what you make of it (riding in the rain is no big deal, if you have the right mindset!).

Seahawks in their natural environment. 

I planned to stop in Seattle as a detour on my way to the "real" adventure in Alaska. But I find myself hoping more and more that I will be delayed so I can spend a few more weeks here in the rainy PNW. I may not have been looking for it, but I know a good place when I see it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Eat, Sleep and Dream Fisheries

Location: Seattle, WA
Temp: 48F

Commercial fishery observers can be out at sea for a maximum of 90 days, it's in our contract. What they don't tell you is that 90 days of isolation is the point at which all previous studies pretty much agree that you will go crazy; really, actually, clinically insane. So naturally they structure the training course to simulate that. It must be working too, for the past few days I have had some over the top bat-crap-crazy dreams. Compounded by the fact that I hardly ever dream at all, I have been thinking twice about what I eat or read before going to bed. 

The first few dreams were your average-grade odd-balls, like talking to fish, wandering on the beach with nowhere to go, or ending up in the "I'm on a boat" SNL music video. But last night's dream takes the crazy-cake. It started off in Long Beach Harbor with my day camp, (fun fact: I used to direct a day camp!) on the harbor cruise tour boat. It was an enjoyable field trip, until I spotted a very large orca (killer whale) charging right at us. The whale was pissed and coming for us. Obviously everyone looks at me, the marine biologist, to do something ... so I do the first thing that comes to mind,  I jump in the water. Oh yeah, my subconscious is a bad-ass apparently. I swim towards the shore to distract the whale, while hopefully getting help, because dreams contain no logic and no cell phones. I looked back and all the sudden the tour boat is now a sinking school bus! So I sprint back to them. (I wish I could swim in real-life like I swam last night.) I dove down to save the kids from the sinking bus, in the middle of the harbor. The orca, obsessed with the bus, dove down to spoon with it as it sank to the bottom of the harbor, which apparently was several fathoms deep (60-70ft). When I arrived on shore all the kids broke out their lunch pales for snack time. Problem solved. No biggie. And the best part was that I didn't really see anything out of the ordinary until I woke up thinking "Why was there an orca in Long Beach Harbor?" 

When my alarm went off this morning, I leaned over the mattress to turn it off and found my marine mammal interaction reports laying on the floor. I had fallen asleep right after finishing them. I figure at least I'm sleeping well enough to dream, and getting in some good marine mammal identification practice. It's official, I now eat, sleep, and dream fisheries management. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Notes On Washington: Culture Shock

Happy New Year everyone! I've been in Seattle since Christmas, but between class, life in the bunk house, exploring the city, Christmas and New Years Eve, I just don't have the energy to figure out how many days and/or weeks it's been at the moment. I'm just happy I've had some spare time to continue writing.

What I can tell you is that Seattle is GREEN. Everything is green, grass and moss grow everywhere (without sprinklers!) and there are giant trees all over the city; it's like people here actually appreciate the fact that they produce the oxygen we breath or something. But Seattlites are also green in the environmental sense. The trail I have taken to running on has signs along all the paths about creating and preserving forests for the future. Everyone recycles, composts and commutes on their bikes to work ... in the cold, dark, rain!

That reminds me, about the rain, there's water everywhere. SoCal really is a desert. Here, its misty/foggy/rainy every morning and night. On a few occasions it has "cleared up" to be just cloudy during the day, but it usually keeps with the misty/foggy/rainy theme we have going here. Sometimes the weather plays tricks on me, I'll look outside thinking the clouds have left and realize that I am actually just looking at one big cloud that doesn't end. People tell me this is the most sunny, warm and beautiful winter we've had up in the pacific northwest in years. (Fun Fact: The pacific northwest is commonly referred to as the PNW up here.) I think they must be confusing sunny and warm with another weather pattern, cause I know sunny and warm, SoCal invented sunny and warm, and this - this is decidedly not sunny and warm.

I never know how many layers to put on. Getting dressed is a disaster. I have the same conversation with myself every time I try to pull an outfit out of my duffle: Well, am I going to be out at night? Will it rain? Do I need a sweatshirt if I'm wearing a turtleneck already? Exactly how many layers can I carry around before everyone realizes I have no clue how to dress myself?

The days aren't terribly shorter than further south; plus, I wouldn't think makes a huge difference. Why would you care where the sun is in the sky at a particular time of day if you can never see it anyways ... right? WRONG. The sun isn't up until around 8 in the morning, and its sets at about 4:30. So if I have class from 8:30-4:30, which I do monday-friday, I essentially have 30 minuets of foggy/misty/rainy "daylight"per day. And when you share a room with someone who doesn't have to be up at the crack of dawn (haha, no really) that means you're picking out your clothes in the dark! Whatever, that's fine, I doubt a light could solve my layer problems anyways as we've already discussed.

It reminds me a little bit of All Summer In A Day by Ray Bradbury. In the story the main character is a little girl at school who has moved from sunny and cheerful Earth to Venus where it rains everyday except for a few hours one day a year. On that day, her classmates decide to lock her in a closet and she misses all of the sun that she's been waiting on, for the whole year. NOAA locks me in our windowless training room everyday like that. I make sure to take a walk outside at lunch break. Overall I guess its less depressing than All Summer In A Day. I'm truthfully stoked to be in a new city, meeting cool people, learning some really great stuff and test-driving life in a completely new environment.

2014 is going to be a great new year!

Oh the sun is playing hide and seek with a few breaks in the clouds, time to work on my PNW tan!