Friday, November 30, 2007

III. The Transit

What sets this project apart from others from the search and exploration perspective is how multi-faceted it is. The obvious sides are it's financial philanthropy and technological application, which is what is predominantly reported on (and rightfully so). The other side which isn't so obvious or easily stated on camera is it's emotional and even spiritual aspects. It is impossible to describe the variety and intensity of emotions and feelings each member of the team experience, even while we gear-up. I suppose the collective mood can be summed up as "heavy".

Dockside, the R/V Persistence also heavy, rests laden with fuel and supplies before it sets sail on it's approximate 1,700 mile journey to Aruba. It is midnight. The crew sleeps as I lay in the top bunk of the berth, awake. My mind stirs and torments me as I struggle to find rest, replaying the things of the day. Lists of to-dos and should-have-dones dance through my mind as incomplete bits of information collide. The din of thought is so loud I can almost hear it over the gentle distant hum of the Persistence's Diesel generator propagating through the steel hull. I know I am not alone in my insomnia tonight. Hours tick by while I wait to get up to catch the 6am out of New Orleans. I will head north to my home in New Jersey and the Persistence, south to Aruba. This will be the last posting on board until we reunite in the tarnished paradise about 9 days from now. Struggling to quiet my mind enough to grab a couple hours of sleep just makes me think more of how I am not sleeping. Frustrated by lulling in and out of a half-sleep, ready to abandon the attempt... my mind is suddenly stilled. So much was my mind silenced that it draws my full attention. I am listening. Almost as a whisper or a mist, the words of an old Longfellow poem come pouring into my mind in an image: "Come... wander with me she said, into regions yet untrod, and read with me what is still unread in the manuscripts of God".

It's clear to me that we are again being beckoned into regions of the unknown. We all have our hopes and expectations on what will happen and what we will find. All of us replay slightly differing scenarios through our minds as we lay awake tonight. There is one common thread however that permeates all of us. We know that God has us here for a purpose, and that purpose is being achieved and revealed to us one word of the manuscript at a time.

Transit Route - Approx. 1700 miles, Louisiana to Mexico, to Grand Cayman Is., to Aruba

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

II. Sea Trials - Gulf of Mexico, prior to Aruba

With the mobilization complete, the R/V Persistence and crew set out into the Gulf of Mexico to test all of the equipment to be used during the search for Natalee Holloway's remains. After arriving on site, about 12 hours transit south of Louisiana, we took a SVP (sound velocity profile) to measure the acoustic velocity of the local seawater. Accurate measurements of the sound velocity aid in acquiring accurate sonar data. SVP completed, the side scan sonar is gently lowered into the water with the large winch. A couple steady hands guide the towfish away from the ship's hull to avoid a catastrophic collision, damaging the precious transducers. We anxiously gathered around the primary sonar computer as the first data comes in. Hours of acquisition later, the towfish is dialed in and the data looks very good. The side scan sonar has sufficient resolution to do the work.

The above image is a sample side scan sonar image to illustrate the type of imaging and resolution a high quality digital side scan sonar is capable of acquiring. A wreck (~150ft long 3-masted schooner) is laying upright on the seabed. The dark area to the left of the wreck is the acoustic shadow. A crab trap similar in size and character to the one we will be searching for thought to contain the remains is seen near the bow of the wreck, shown by the black arrow.

After the side scan sonar trials, the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) team and acoustic positioning personnel moves in on location. We moved to a site with about 100ft water depth, adequate to test the acoustic positioning equipment with the ROV. We deployed and calibrated a compatt (computing and telemetry transponder) and then deployed the SeaEye Falcon 1266 ROV. Once in the water, the ROV was tested for telemetry and video functionality. The ROV performed flawlessly.

Seaeye Falcon 1266 ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle)

Seaeye ROV in action!

Monday, November 26, 2007

I. Mobilization

The final and most elaborate search for Natalee Holloway has begun. This is likely the most complicated post-mortem search of its kind in history. This case has had many twists and turns during it's 2+ year history. This is one of the final chapters that will hopefully provide closure both to the Holloway family and to the watching world. I've described this search to reporters and friends as a search for a needle in a field of hay stacks while hovering hundreds of feet above the field. However, we have the best needle-detecting equipment and detectors on the planet. The attitude on board the boat is unanimous and unwavering. We know that if God wants her body found, the chances of success are perfect.
To put this all in perspective...
-We will be searching waters as deep as 6 times the height of the Statue of Liberty, or almost as high as the Empire State Building.
-The equipment is towed behind the boat near the seafloor almost 1-mile behind the boat, or over 16 football fields away.
-There are swift currents, rough seafloor topography, and unknown terrain.
-We are looking for a target the size of a shopping cart within the area of Manhattan.
The target is a ~1m x 1m fish/crab trap. A search of this size and complexity, utilizing some of the best equipment and personnel in the world would typically cost around $80K per day, or well over $1 Million. However, due to some deep-pocketed private benefactors and mass-charitable collaboration among multiple equipment lease and marine survey companies, this project is being conducted... without charge. Neither the US or Dutch government is paying for it. A lot must happen before the ocean search occurs.

The mobilization has gone smoothly so far. All equipment is on board the R/V Persistence. The equipment consists of the following:
-Side scan sonar (Edgetech FS4200)
-SeaEye ROV, or remotely operated vehicle
- Sonardyne USBL (Ultra-Short Base-Line) system providing acoustic tracking of the side scan sonar and ROV
-Navigation provided by WinFrog software
- The vessel positioning is provided by multiple Trimble GPS receivers giving us about 1m accuracy.
-Communications (Phone, data transmit, and Internet) are performed by an Agiosat Global Communications Marine Tracking System.

We will leave the dock at Midnight on 27-November, 2007 to perform a "wet-test" on all the gear. This test will take approximately 2 days, where we will calibrate and test all the equipment under real survey conditions. After all testing is complete, we will go back to the dock to drop off all survey personnel, and the R/V Persistence will begin its long journey to Aruba. The journey (approx. 1700 miles) will take around 10 days including fuel stops in Mexico and perhaps Grand Cayman.

The search vessel R/V Persistence - owned and operated by the Silvetti Group

EdgeTech 4200-FS digital Side Scan Sonar, sonar winch in the rear-center

Survey room: from left to right- Side Scan acquisition computer, ROV monitor and controls, navigation computer Survey room: ROV and Navigation stations Survey Room - Processing station , sonar processing and analysis

Key Personnel: Bios coming soon! Please check back soon.

Louis Schaefer Jr. - Project Lead and Key Contributor

Tim Miller - Project Management -Founder of Texas Equusearch

Tim Trahan - Underwater Expeditions - Project Management

John Silvetti - Project Lead and Key Contributor- Responsible for overall project planning and development. Owner of Marine Surveys, LLC . Providing the R/V Persistence for the search effort.

Marc Broussard - Project Manager

Kent Bourg- Party Chief

Kyle Kingman - Geophysical Engineer and Marine Geologist

Dr. Rob Floyd - Marine Geologist /Archaeologist

Anthony Fontenot - Acoustic Positioning Technician

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