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Diving the wilds of the Strait of Juan de Fuca; should we stay or should we go?

2012 October 2

By Sean Sheldrake, Steve Rubin, and Alan Humphrey 

EPA Survey Crew: from left, Rob Pedersen, Alan Humphrey, Scott Grossman, and Sean Sheldrake.

Survey crew, from the left: Rob Pedersen, Alan Humphrey, Scott Grossman, Sean Sheldrake.

Some of you may have followed our previous blog posts about EPA’s scientific diving program, including part two of the Elwha River story.   

In this third and final part of our story, we return to the Elwha River to talk more about the challenges involved with the survey of invertebrates and algae. 

Between the divers and the boat operator aboard the EPA Monitor (our 30-foot research vessel), we’ve got over a century of boating experience, but making safe boating decisions is by no means easy.  We’ve got a big job to do in collecting data on this first survey after the largest dam removal in North American history.  The total amount of sediment behind the dam is 19 million cubic meters, enough to fill the stadium of the Seattle Sounders Football Club, eight times.   USGS estimates indicate ¼ to ½ of this material could be transported from the former reservoir areas, eventually finding its way to the coast.  The survey will evaluate the impact on the ocean seafloor. 

However, while conducting the survey at the meeting place of the Olympic peninsula and the wild waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we’ve got to stay safe. 

While doing our work, small craft advisories were issued alerting vessels in our class that danger may be approaching.  Would rough seas really hit our boat, or our area, making it treacherous to retrieve divers from the water? 

EPA Boat Captain Doc Thompson. (Photo by Alan Humphrey)

Doc Thompson, a veteran boat operator for EPA, tells our crew, “That’s it boys: it’s blowing too hard out here.”  Doc is an understated fellow—we all know that when he’s concerned, WE’RE concerned.  Out of the clear blue, gale force winds popped up.  We recall the divers and secure our gear to get back to port as soon as possible! 

When over 40 years of boating experience tells Doc it’s time to go, it’s time to get back to port.  But we were back to finishing our survey the next day.  As budgets allow, we’ll be back in 2013 to evaluate the next phase of sediment release from the mighty Elwha River into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

For more information on the USGS led study, see: http://www.usgs.gov/elwha

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers [http://www.facebook.com/EPADivers]. 

About the authors:  Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Steve Rubin is an aquatic biologist specializing in algal species with the USGS and a lead scientist on the survey.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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