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August 6, 2007

Heavy seas in Alboran

BY: Xavier Pastor


© OCEANA / Juan Carlos Calvín


At four in the morning, we were awoken by the sound of the Ranger hitting the island’s dock. The effect of the tide and the undertow created by the wind that had picked up during the last few hours inside the island’s tiny port had neutralised the protection of the fenders that had been shifted by the boat’s movements. Now, the heavy catamaran was being transformed into a toy for the waves attempting to throw it against the concrete dock with more strength each time. With all the crew on deck, we reinforced the mooring lines and placed all the fenders we had onboard between the hull and the concrete. But the west wind and the waves were picking up strength and soon we realised we would have to untie the lines and leave the trap this dock becomes when bad weather hits the Island of Alboran, where the Ranger was the only vessel moored. At five in the morning, we were free and searching for a place, on the southeast coast of the island, where we could shelter ourselves and wait until sunrise, holding our position with the engines on, with winds over 30 knots. As soon as we found a suitable spot, Jesús Renedo, the captain, turned the ship over to the first mate, Carlos Pérez, who maintained the Ranger safely in the area during the next three hours, until we received authorisation to anchor from the military detachment.

The area we were in was relatively sheltered from the wind by the island, but we could not work with the ROV, and much less with the divers, under the conditions outside the area we were anchored. The weather forecast announced winds would be picking up to force 6. So, we decided to take advantage of the day by documenting the place where we were anchored, directly in the middle of the Alboran reserve, and operating with the robot directly under the motionless boat. We let out 200 meters of cable, and for three hours we were able to film in great detail the dense algae forests including various species on the rocky bottoms of this part of the reserve, inhabited by a great number of invertebrates and fish. Now we have very detailed footage that covers more than 12 hectares of sea bottom between 8 and 16 meters depth which we will be able to carefully analyse later. This job, however, also entailed some excitement. We were alone in the area when we began working, but after a while, the trawler Nueva Virgencita showed up, trying to find shelter from the bad weather and determined to do it directly next to the Ranger, at the same time the robot’s umbilical cord was on the surface of the water. It seemed as if the trawler’s captain was deaf and blind: he did not respond to the emergency radio calls on channel 16 made from the Ranger warning about the risk that the cable connecting the ROV to the catamaran would end up in their propeller. Nor did they respond when asked by the military detachment to identify themselves and their intentions upon entering the reserve that is the whole island. But even that didn’t work. The trawler’s crew paid attention to neither the radio calls nor the Ranger’s signs, nor the acoustic signals, nor the desperate gestures the Ranger’s crew was making with their arms as we jumped up and down on the deck like crazy orangutangs. Finally, we had to quickly launch the rubber dinghy and move closer to the trawler to explain, at the top of our lungs, the situation to the captain (who had been sleeping throughout the whole ordeal). Also screaming, he explained that he never listened to mandatory channel 16, but instead used channel 74 because that was the one the fishing boats used to communicate amongst themselves. What a load of rubbish!

After getting over that scare, we continued working and hauled up the robot afterwards. In the afternoon, our new photographer, biologist Juan Carlos Calvín, along with the rest of the usual divers (Jorge Candan, Pilar Barros and Thierry Lannoy), accompanied by sailor Cristina Pérez and the captain, headed towards the island with the rubber dinghy to a shallow area to do some snorkelling. Scuba diving is not allowed in the Alboran reserve (or at least we were not allowed to do it this time). So we managed to obtain images of the sea floors of Alboran not only with the ROV, but also by snorkelling.

It wasn’t a good day to do much more than that. When the divers returned two hours later, the cook, Juan Carlos Ramos, prepared dinner and, after the usual video session, we went to sleep. We are still anchored off the northern coast of the island, almost in front of the lighthouse.