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The underwater viewing vessel that could!

To complete my doctoral research, I had to overcome a fundamental challenge to any scientist wanting to study marine mammal social behavior. Any study of social behavior involves many hours of observations of interactions between the animals you are studying. That is very difficult to do with dolphins, since they spend their lives underwater out of our view. The one person I knew that had tackled this problem was Dr. Ken Norris. He had built two crazy-looking vessels that allowed him to study dolphins underwater, the Semi-submersible Seasick Machine and the Makaʻala (see previous blog).

By the time I started as one of Ken’s doctoral students at UC Santa Cruz, in 1984, the main part of his soon to be latest installment in the line of underwater viewing vessels had already been procured - a retired 19 foot Coast Guard Crash boat, with a fiberglass, cathedral hull adapted for an in-board-out-drive engine and a rectangular aluminum wheel house, sitting on a rusting trailer at the Long Marine Lab, with a lot of weeds growing inside.

It became my job to turn this vessel into a state of the art research tool, under the guidance of Dr. Randy Wells, one of Ken’s former graduate students that had used the Makaʻala.

From the experience with those previous vessels came the idea to incorporate a retractable viewing chamber in the new vessel, since this would accomplish two goals at once. First, pulling the viewing windows out of the water when the chamber was not in use meant that there would not be a lot of algae growth over the windows to clean up before starting observations. Second, it would also mean that the chamber would not provide resistance when moving through the water, looking for dolphins or heading back home at the end of the day, saving both time and fuel.

After removing the wheel house and all the rusting metal-parts from the fiberglass hull, it was taken to a shop where a 3-foot diameter hole was cut out in the center of the hull. A well was built up around the hole, higher than the boat railing (and later topped by a red-and-white rim). The viewing chamber was then constructed out of aluminum and hung in weirs from an A-frame centered over the well.

The next priority was to make the hull larger, to be able to handle the additional weight of the chamber and the lead ballast that had to go in it to be able to lower it into the water, a job that mostly fell on me: A 1-foot extension (sponson) was added on each side; the stern was extended 3 feet and adjusted to take two outboard engines. Ken asked me to come up with a name for the vessel and I named it Smygtittar’n, Swedish for “The tip-toeing looker”, or Peeping Tom. It quickly became known as “The Smyg” for short.

The Smyg worked very well as a platform for studying wild dolphins underwater. The only drawback was that, with the chamber down, it was very slow - with both 100 Hp commercial outboard engines at close to full throttle the Smyg only made about 4 knots. However, this was about the speed the spinner dolphins normally progressed down the coast in the mornings and since they were attracted to the vessel and mostly seemed to surround it, the speed rarely was an issue when observing the dolphins.

During the first season we still struggled with its poor handling when the chamber was up. Since we didn’t extend, nor modify the bow before shipping it to Hawaiʻi, it was also very slow when the chamber was up. This was due to its high weight, making it sit very low in the water, coupled with the square bow of the cathedral hull, making it act like a break. As a result, after the end of the first season, we ended up extending the bow by 20 inches and modified it to a regular, pointed bow. So in the end, what started as a 19 feet long by 6 feet wide vessel grew to 24 by 8 feet.

In the end, in spite of all the adjustment, the Smyg still had an achilles heel that we never could fix - its heavy weight for its small size. As with all of these vessels, the viewing chamber displaced a lot of water with all the air in it, which meant that this had to be compensated for by putting a lot of lead in the bottom of the various viewing chambers. Otherwise these chambers would have popped up, out of the water and capsized the vessels. In the case of the Smyg, this meant over 1.5 metric tons of lead in the bottom of the chamber. When the chamber was up, the hull of the Smyg felt all that extra weight and the 24 foot vessel settled significantly lower (about 1m or 3+ feet) in the water. As a result, we always felt compelled to stay within swimming distance from shore, just in case.

The result was an extremely stable platform. In fact a little too stable. When heading into waves with the chamber up, the Smyg tended to go through them rather than over them. However, when going at full speed with the swell and a swell caught up with us, it lifted the stern up and consequently tilted the bow down, to the point where the bow that had previously been over 1m (3+ feet) above the surface suddenly ended up well below the surface!!! Fortunately the cabin covered the whole front of the vessel, so no water came in, but as the front of the cabin now suddenly was at water level it acted as a huge break and the Smyg went from being on a plane and surfing with the swell at 16 knots or more, to almost dead in the water in a matter of seconds!! The first time this happened, everybody on board was sure that this was it! However, after coming to a stop in the water, the Smyg slowly came back up out of the water and we could continue on our way. This only happened on a handful of occasions, but they were all very memorable.

This vessel allowed us to raise the study of social organization and social behavior in large groups of wild dolphins to a completely new level.

  • We determined the sex of 52 males and 16 females.

  • We could observe who they associated with and how this fluctuated over time.

  • We showed that adult animals associating with very young calves were often adult males - not females as is sometimes assumed.

  • We also videotaped some 50 hours of focal animal follows underwater, documenting the social interactions between various constellations of spinner dolphins, such as adult males that were close associates, adult males that were not close associates, interactions between adult males and females and between adult females, as well as interactions between adult animals of both sexes with young calves.

Unfortunately once the study was over, the Smyg was sold for scraps, so it could not be used for future studies. However, it also had its drawbacks. So if we ever build the next generation underwater viewing vessel, we can give it the next set of upgrades so it will work even better than the Smyg.

In the end, this vessel became the greatest experience of my life, from the building to field testing to engineering solutions to modifying and working out how to make it work in the best possible way. The highlight of the whole experience was when I was able to drive the Smyg while Ken Norris was in the viewing chamber, photographing and observing the spinner dolphins along the Kona Coast. Ken had traveled to Hawaiʻi as part of his reporting for an article in National Geographic on “Dolphins in Crisis”, with photos by Flip Nicklin (See the September 1992 issue).

Book chapter where the underwater viewing vessels were described.

Norris, K.S. and Wells, R.S. (1994) Observing Dolphins Underwater. Pages 54-64 in: Norris, K.S., Würsig, B., Wells, R.S., Würsig, M. with Brownlee, S.M., Johnson, C., Solow, J. (1994) “The Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin”. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Norris, K. (September 1992) Dolphins in Crisis. National Geographic.


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