Attention on the barge. Stand by. All clear for blast. All clear. All clear.
These were not words I ever expected to live through in real life. And yet here I was, in a helicopter in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, circling an oil platform scheduled to be removed via explosion. Funny how life works.
Let’s take a step back. How did I get here? I attended The Ohio State University for both my undergraduate (Animal Sciences) and graduate (Fisheries and Wildlife Science) degrees. After finishing school, my main priority was to obtain employment that would keep me outside, doing field work, as much as possible. Your girl was not built for a desk job.
So, I found work as a Protected Species Observer (PSO) with NOAA’s Galveston Laboratory, specifically in their Platform Removal Observer Program (PROP). I found the job listing while doing a general online search for fisheries science jobs in my area. The job is a bit obscure; at its peak, our office only supported six observers. Additionally, we are hired by a contract company, which can change over time. All that being said to note that it is a niche corner of the marine science field, but definitely attainable if you know how to look. I was hired on by Riverside, but after my first year my contract was transferred to A.I.S. Observers, who still hold the contract for PROP at the time of this writing.
The goal of PROP, as the title would suggest, is to minimize the impact that underwater explosives (used in platform removal) have on sea turtles and marine mammals living in the Gulf of Mexico. By federal regulation, oil platforms that are no longer in use are required to be decommissioned. This removal process involves severing the pilings from their base in the ocean floor, and then lifting the platform out of the sea. This can occur in a number of ways. There are less invasive ways to sever the pilings, such as blast sanding, but these processes tend to take longer, which ultimately costs more money. In contrast, explosives are quick and dirty, if not always so easy.
PROP work begins with an intensive, 2-3 week training session. This includes information sessions on the relevant laws and regulations, sea turtle and marine mammal identification, GPS and GIS training, as well as a day spent getting your T-HUET (Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) certification. After passing a final test, we were able to deploy.
There was no such thing as a typical deployment. The longest I was offshore was about three weeks, the shortest was for about an hour and a half. We would either arrive to the work site via helicopter (my personal favorite) or crew boat. Upon arrival, we typically began surface monitoring. This meant circling the barge, scanning for any turtles or dolphins. This process was basically indefinite, a tiny purgatory spent waiting for the other mechanisms in the machine to be in place. Following surface monitoring, we would begin our aerial surveys. This meant circling the blast radius in a counterclockwise, spiraling motion for a prescribed amount of time (which depended on the charge weight and depth). We often failed in this mission. Aerial surveys provide a much more encompassing vantage point, and we found dolphins splashing and turtles diving all the time. Which meant we would abort the aerial survey, and resume surface monitoring, ideally locating the offending creature and watching it until it cleared our blast area.
When we finally could complete surface and aerial monitoring for their assigned lengths with no sightings, we were able to call for the blast. I was almost always in the air when this took place. We’d back away and up a good distance, and I’d normally video the blast. I got some pretty cool shots. One time, we’d set a charge on a sub-sea well, so there was nothing to see at the surface, but when the blast went off a bolt of lightning flashed across the entire surface of the ocean. I didn’t capture that one, which I’ll always regret, but it was so illuminating. Imagine how many things we killed… Following the blast, it was our job to continue circling in the air, ensuring we had not taken any sea turtles or marine mammals, and providing a tally of the number of impacted fish. These were often Red Snapper, appearing like little pink gumdrops in an otherwise blue and green and brown sea.
Working as a PSO for so long taught me three major lessons. First, and I know this is cheesy, but it taught me leadership, and independence. PSOs are granted something called “All-Stop Authority” when aboard any vessel. This means that if anything occurs that we deem unsafe, we can call for the entire operation to shut down.
This amount of power is rarely afforded to women. I relished it. Prior to this experience, I was a generally agreeable person. And while I am not necessarily combatant now, I show no hesitation in expressing when something displeases or disappoints me. This confidence in communication has enabled me to have a more active say in my life, and I continue to apply this idea of All Stop Authority to my everyday interactions. I suggest you do too.
Second, it taught me to be calm, and to meditate. There is nothing quite like being in the middle of an ocean with nothing much going on around you but the weather and the waves. I spent up to twelve hours a day staring at the water. That takes a toll. That shapes a psyche. I found great peace in this practice and have noticed a stillness in my life overall that I attribute to this experience.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly… working as a PSO was more a lesson in diplomacy than a lesson in scientific methods and conservation. Here I was, a young woman with her Master’s, attempting to explain the significance of incidental takes and minimum viable population thresholds to company men whose priorities were more shaped by bottom lines and efficiency and profitability. It was not always fun, friend. I was asked once, can’t you just grow more sea turtles in the lab? It was often suggested that I turn my back on potential turtle and dolphin sightings so that the blast schedule would not be delayed. I had never been challenged in this way. Fortunately, I am quite obstinate. Up to this point, I had worked with people who believed in the worthiness of science on face value alone. Here, my purpose was questioned in a way that made me quite uncomfortable. And yet, I am thankful for the experience. These interactions built a resolve and conviction in my character that I believe ultimately made me a stronger scientist. I believe in myself, my work, and our mission as scientists more than I ever have. I no longer work as a PSO, but I will carry the weight of that duty forever.