It’s a Buoy!

A release party for the Hakai Institute’s newest ocean observatory.

Captain Mike Hevenaar deftly maneuvers the crane on the M/V Central Coaster to move the Hakai Institute’s new buoy into the water near the mouth of Kwakshua Channel on the BC Central Coast. Photo by Grant Callegari

An anchor weighing nearly four tonnes jolts free from the ship’s crane. With a splash smaller than a child’s cannonball into a pool, it plummets to the seafloor. Seconds later, as slack in the anchor’s tether chain is taken up, the previously deployed buoy lurches to life. The dropping weight powers the buoy through the waves bringing a wake of cheers from onlookers. Less than two minutes later, the buoy settles into its new anchorage at the mouth of Kwakshua Channel, bringing to a close years of planning and opening a new window on the dynamics of this ocean ecosystem.

The buoy’s journey began in 2011 as one of five platforms built for the State of Alaska ocean acidification (OA) monitoring network. Deployed in Southeast Alaska for a handful of years until funding dwindled, the buoy found itself furloughed in Seward in early 2016. Hakai research scientist, Wiley Evans, knew of the buoy’s plight from his past Alaskan connections and he inquired about obtaining it for deployment near the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Ecological Observatory at the mouth of Kwakshua Channel.

Kwakshua Channel sits just west of Fitz Hugh Sound on British Columbia’s Central Coast. Twice weekly, the recently OA-instrumented Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, M/V Columbia, passes through on its regular commute between Bellingham, Washington and Southeast Alaska. The ferry’s impressive spatial coverage will be enhanced by the comparatively high-frequency sampling conducted by the buoy and by similar instrumentation at Hakai’s Quadra Island Ecological Observatory at the northern end of the Salish Sea. The Institute’s contributions to monitoring OA on the British Columbia portion of North America’s west coast significantly improves scientists’ ability to answer a range of questions about the spatial and temporal variability of ocean conditions.

Video by Grant Callegari, Jonathan Kellogg, and Keith Holmes

Still bleary-eyed before their morning coffee, Hakai’s buoy team stood at the end of the Calvert Island dock to greet the M/V Central Coaster as it sat in the predawn stillness of the last day of April. The Central Coaster is a workhorse barge in the region between northern Vancouver Island and the many coastal communities to the north. The 36-meter ship moves everything from U-Hauls and fuel to cattle and groceries. And, today, its first scientific buoy.

Following breakfast, the deck was abuzz with the ship’s crew revving the forklift to life and completing countless 27-point turns to create deck space for the buoy deployment. Six crates of gear and two assemblies of nine railroad wheels for the anchor (and its spare) were reorganized in meticulous fashion around Vancouver Island-bound trucks to be delivered after the buoy was launched.

The new buoy floats in its final position at the mouth of Kwakshua Channel. Mount Buxton looms in the background. Photo by Keith Holmes

After the ship’s crew moved the buoy into position on the deck, members of the scientific team honed in on final assembly of the instrumentation and scientific hardware. For nearly an hour, Hakai technician Shawn Hateley perched his body within the buoy tower, computer on his lap, to make sure the OA monitoring brains called a Moored Autonomous pCO2 (MApCO2) system—the first instrument of its kind in Canada—was properly functioning. With Hateley crouched inside, a wildlife deterrent cage and anchor tether were assembled around him by Jessy Barrette, Wiley Evans, Wayne Jacob, and buoy veteran Darren Tuele.

“That cage is to make it easier for seals to climb,” joked Tuele, a veteran of roughly 500 buoy deployments who recently retired from his 33-year career with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Coming out of retirement for this deployment, Tuele put his hands on every shackle, bolt, and cotter pin, writing down each element so it was documented. As he finishes one check, Barrette repeats his steps, tightening each bolt, and curling every cotter pin. Redundancy is the routine for this operation. With a backup for every part of the assembly, experience has taught the experienced crew to go home with spares. One final check and the tether assembly gets the okay.

The buoy’s OA monitoring system will collect calibrated samples every 30 minutes; the design is ideal for the highly dynamic coastal environment where instrument drift may make data unusable. These OA data will be coupled with those from the meteorology suite and a conductivity/temperature/depth (CTD) oceanographic sensor attached to the anchor bridle to measure surface ocean conditions. All data collected aboard the buoy will be telemetered back to Hakai’s Calvert Island Ecological Observatory and made available online in near real time to scientists through regional (NANOOS) and global (GOA-ON) data sharing networks.

For barge Captain Mike Hevenaar, of Shearwater Marine Group, this is his first scientific buoy deployment. He’s been a skipper of commercial boats since he was a teenager in Campbell River, but this is an unusual load for him. The toughest part? The target for the anchor is a flat area roughly half the size of a city block. On either side of the target area steep walls plunge down to nearly twice the intended anchor depth. If the anchor is dropped in the wrong spot, the buoy could either float up onto a nearby beach or tumble to depths well beyond the tether length, dragging the buoy and all the equipment down below the waves.

Shortly after two in the afternoon, preparations are complete, dock lines are slipped, and the Central Coaster cruises to the mouth of Kwakshua Channel for deployment. With a light breeze and sun on their backs, the buoy team is confident, but you can hear an edge of apprehension in their voices.

About a kilometer from the drop point, the barge idles and begins a windblown drift to the target. The crane hums to life and the buoy is hoisted over the side. With the whole structure dangling in the air, gravity compels 20 meters of one-and-a-half inch thick chain to race off the deck, splitting a precautionary two-by-six piece of lumber like a toothpick. The buoy is gently lowered into the water and is released to Hakai’s tender boat.

While the tether streams away from the Central Coaster and football fields open up between the buoy and the ship, the pressure mounts for the final lift—the anchor. In the wheelhouse, Evans studies the GPS and guides Captain Hevenaar toward the center of the drop zone. A few nudges forward from the ship and the anchor gets its last warmth from the sun before it becomes a permanent seafloor landmark. A few minutes after the small splash, some unlucky benthic critters get squished and the buoy bobs happily in its new home just off the aptly named Experiment Point with a great view of the local landmark, Mount Buxton.

As the team heads back to the dock, they talk of the data that the buoy is already delivering, what discoveries will be made, and tomorrow’s plans to get a final position on the anchor to determine just how close to the target they were. They joke that they’ll come back to find the whole thing on the beach, but for the moment, it’s time to celebrate a successful deployment—and Tuele’s re-retirement.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following partners who made this effort possible:

Shearwater Marine Group

University of Alaska Fairbanks Ocean Acidification Research Center – Dr. Jeremy Mathis and Natalie Monacci

NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory – Noah Lawrence-Slavas, Stacy Maenner Jones, and Dr. Adrienne Sutton

Battelle – Jac Fought

Hakai Energy Solutions – James McPhail