Monday, May 21, 2012

Houston, we have a problem

What we were supposed to be doing today!
The day started well - a bright sunny morning, 16 SCUBA tanks, and a good idea where the larger Porites colonies are growing on the reef. So we headed out, chipper and optimistic, although looking down the barrel at a huge 10-hr day of drilling underwater.

We chose a beautiful colony that Liz had found (this girl is a veritable magnet for large coral colonies!) and maneuvered the boat into place over the coral head through trial and error. And at the 11th hour, just as we were donning our SCUBA gear, we realized that the pneumatic drill wasn't turning. Not even a bit. It was absolutely positively rusted through and through, frozen solid. Nothing to be done but turn around and curse silently (for the most part) all the way back to base, knowing full well that this could be the de facto end of our coral collection on this expedition. It was grim, to say the least. What idiots we had been not to run lubricant through the drill 2 days ago after our first dives! We had probably all thought about it, but nobody really took the reins and did it, probably because we were high from our success and felt invincible. A serious smack-down was headed our way, and the karmatic powers that be certainly chose an effective way to deliver the message - there is no single piece of equipment more important than The Drill. In fact, we brought TWO along just in case one gave out. But of course we had tested both of them in seawater when we thought the drill was broken, so they were both in the exact same condition - utterly useless.
We got on the internet and managed to get the maker on the custom-made drills on the phone, and he basically laughed when we told him what had happened (a most unwelcome response, as you might imagine). He said our only bet was to soak the drills overnight in WD40 and pray. So we bought a can of WD40 for $18.20 (!!!!) and went about trying to get the drills unstuck. By lunchtime I was climbing the walls with anxiety, so we loaded up for a fossil coral hunt on nearby beaches while we waited and prayed for the God of WD40 to smile upon us. The trip did the trick - we found many many Porites fossils and I had a good time talking to the team about how to avoid unhappy corals (corals grow funny when they are smushed up against the water's surface, and we'd like to avoid these for paleoclimate). And everyone worked their hearts out under sweltering mid-day sun, bless them. It was hard to stay in a funk for long.

When we got back, things hadn't changed, so I initiated Operation Christmas Drill, firing off a bunch of desperate e-mails to various corners of the world in a desperate attempt to get a new pneumatic drill shipped down here on the next plane in two day's time. And then I got serious. The local guys began an in-depth project to change the nonexistent brake pads on the mini-truck, and I took inspiration from them to attempt a full-scale dismantling of the drill itself. I enlisted Hussein to help me keep track of parts and think through rough patches. And piece by piece, using vice grips, pipe wrenches, and lots of WD40, the drill came apart! We cleaned all the parts off with (you guessed it) WD40 and began to reassemble. We hooked it up the air, opened the valve up to full throttle, and let her rip. At first nothing happened, but then in a shower of blackened WD40, it spun! An hour later we had freed the 2nd drill from its rusty grave too! So needless to say, I could have done without that little adventure today, but as they say, all’s well that ends well. Tomorrow we’ll drill that nice Porites on the reef from this morning, and carry on with the drilling of fossil corals in the village in the afternoon. A full day, but believe me, I will be smiling with every single revolution of that drill. If anyone ever needs to know what’s inside a pneumatic drill, Hussein and I can give you a detailed overview any day.