An Unexpected and Exciting Adventure

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It’s late Monday evening.  The phone rings.  It’s Dave Alberg, Superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.  “We need some additional crew to take our research vessel, the SRVx, down to Beaufort, NC.  Want to join us?”

I didn’t even need time to think.  “Sure thing, Dave.  What time do we leave?”

“0-dark-30.  The boat is docked at Little Creek in Norfolk.”

5:30am, 5:30pm, it didn’t matter what time he said.  This was an amazing opportunity to learn about the capabilities of NOAA’s 85-foot vessel SRVx (Small Research Vessel), to visit the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Hatteras, and help bring the vessel down to Beaufort for maintenance work.

Boarding the SRVx at Little Creek in Norfolk, VA.

Tina and I met up with Pasquale DeRosa, the captain for this trip, and John Wagner and Joe Hoyt from NOAA.  We loaded supplies, went over the float plan and some safety procedures, and were soon underway.  We left Little Creek and headed east then south past Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.  The water was smooth and flat.  Not quite like a bathtub, but pretty darn close.

Smooth waters off Virginia Beach.

Didn’t take long before we saw the first amazing sight of the day…a humpback whale swimming slowly on the surface about 3 miles off the beach.  It surfaced a few times, flipped its powerful fluke, and even saluted the SRVx a few times with one of its massive white and black pectoral fins.  Tina snapped away with her camera and captured the moment.

Humpback whale breaching off Virginia Beach.
Humpback whale “waving” its pectoral fin at us.

DeRosa kept a steady eye at the helm despite the calm conditions on the water.  The guy was dialed in; checking the navigation system and sonar, monitoring speed to keep fuel consumption down.  He said the vessel could push 35 or 36 knots, but he kept it a sane 12 knots.  We traded stories.  He told tall tales of trips on ships up and down the Atlantic and Pacific.  We spun yarns about conserving and exhibiting precious artifacts from the Monitor at The Mariners’ Museum.

As we crossed into North Carolina and out toward the Gulf Stream, we started seeing more signs of life on the water.  Large seat turtles swam into view from time to time, but dipped deeper when they detected the boat.  We saw baitfish formed into tight groups, known as bait balls, likely being pursued by larger fish.  Periodically flying fish popped from the wake cutting off the bow of the SRVx, skimming and gliding above the water of the Gulf Stream.  Unfortunately no pictures of those guys.  They are too quick!

Every few hours a few yellowfin tuna would bust the surface of the water.  Their hydrodynamic torpedo shaped bodies launched through the air then back down into the nearly purple water with just a small splash.  I think we also spotted some skipjacks or bonita.

Tina and Dave at the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Eventually we made it all the way out past the Diamond Shoals light, an old abandoned offshore lighthouse, and into the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, a 1-mile diameter column of water that surrounds the ironclad.  As we drifted 240 feet above the corroded, decaying remains of the USS Monitor, Tina and I tossed sprigs of rosemary overboard from the SRVx in remembrance of the sacrifice made by 16 of the crew on December 31, 1862.

Tina and Dave leaving rosemary for remembrance in the waters of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
Captain Pasquale rocking the shades and John Wagner from NOAA giving his best Chester A. Arthur impersonation.

We then continued on a southwest heading as the sun slowly dipped beneath the waters to our west.  Although we were watching very closely, we never saw the famed green flash.  But it provided a beautiful, colorful show.

Sunset in North Carolina.
After the sun set.

We pulled into Beaufort, NC at approximately 10:30pm and docked the SRVx.  After a quick bite of dinner in town, we slept in the surprisingly comfortable crew berths in the forward portion of the vessel.  We were up and moving a few hours later and cruised through the fog past Radio island and beneath the Arendell Street bridge.  We then pushed through Core Creek and slowly worked our way to the Jarrett Bay Boatworks where the SRVx will undergo some routine maintenance in the coming weeks.

The waterway on the approach to Jarrett Bay Boatworks in Beaufort, NC.

The partnership between NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and The Mariners’ Museum is strong.  And although this trip did not utilize divers or recover artifacts, it allowed both groups to discuss additional ways to combine our strengths and assets to accomplish shared goals.  The SRVx is a solid, capable vessel and should provide the necessary capabilites for NOAA to visit and study the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and other important marine sites on the east and west coast.  Staff from The Mariners’ Museum also hope to use the vessel in support of delivering live educational programs from the sea.

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