Sandra Camp: Who You Gonna Call? Katie Mahaffey! June 16, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sandra Camp
Aboard NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai
June 14 – 24, 2015

Mission: Main Hawaiian Islands Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Hawaiian Islands, North Pacific Ocean
Date: June 16, 2015

Weather Data: partly cloudy, visibility > 7 NM (nautical miles), winds east 10-15 KT (knots), air temperature 79° F, water temperature 77° F

Science and Technology Log

During science class this past year, we spent some time studying solutions. We learned what solutes and solvents are, and how to tell when solutions become saturated. We made several saturated solutions ourselves, and even made a supersaturated solution by heating up a solvent so it would dissolve more solute.

One of the things we read about related to the study of solutions was decompression sickness, or “the bends,” a condition that can affect scuba divers if they are not careful. Just like heat, pressure can also allow liquids to become supersaturated. Henry’s Law states that the greater the pressure, the more gas will dissolve in a liquid. Because water pressure is greater the deeper under water you go, a diver’s blood can become supersaturated with gases from the air, such as nitrogen gas. If the diver ascends, or comes up, too quickly, the pressure is decreased too quickly and the nitrogen gas comes out of solution in the form of bubbles (like what happens when you release the pressure on a can of soda by opening it). These bubbles can cause fatigue, joint pain, tingling or numbness, a red rash on the skin, respiratory problems, heart problems, dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, confusion, nausea, or unconsciousness. This condition can be prevented by rising to the surface very slowly after a dive, so that the nitrogen gas is released gradually. Sometimes, however, for different reasons, a diver ascends too quickly and then she/he needs . . . Katie Mahaffey!

recompression chamber

Here is Katie, standing beside the recompression chamber.

Katie’s official position is NOAA Program Support Specialist. She is the ship’s dive master, and she runs the recompression chamber in case any of the divers get decompression sickness. This chamber will help alleviate a diver’s symptoms of decompression sickness by returning them to pressures similar to those under water and gradually decreasing that pressure so the body has time to adjust. I interviewed Katie about her job:

What are your primary responsibilities? Training scientists, engineers, NOAA officers, and technicians on how to dive for NOAA. NOAA has its own policies and procedures for diving, which are important to follow so that everyone can work together well. She also operates the recompression chamber on board the Hi’ialakai, and works with the ship’s medical officer and DMTs (diving medical technicians) to make sure things run smoothly.

What do you love most about your job? Getting to travel for work and seeing different places. Although she lives in Seattle, her job has taken her to visit Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in Georgia, Key West, Panama City, and Kodiak, Alaska. And now, Hawaii!

What kind of education do you need to have this job? After graduating college, Katie went to commercial diving school, which teaches people to dive for applications like underwater welding and working in caissons. As an intern at NOAA, she completed all NOAA scuba dive training. She also trained to be an EMT (emergency medical technician). She says that NOAA is very good about providing training for their staff. All you have to do is ask.

Do you have any advice for young people interested in your line of work? It is important to have a strong scientific background, especially physics, anatomy, and physiology. (As a side note, don’t worry if you think you can’t dive because you get seasick. Katie is an expert on diving, but she does get sea sick! She simply wears a patch that provides her body with medicine to prevent motion sickness.)

recompression chamber

Katie was kind enough to let me sit inside the recompression chamber.

Personal Log



As I stated in my first blog, the mission of this cruise is to survey the coral reefs around the main Hawaiian Islands to see if they have healthy populations of reef fish living among them. The first island we visited was Molokai. Two of the divers saw a hammerhead shark that day.

From the deck of the ship, I saw a place on the island that locals say is shaped like a shark: Kalaupapa, a former colony for people suffering from Hansen’s Disease, formerly known as leprosy. In the past, Hansen’s disease spread easily and was incurable, so people thought the best way to deal with it was to separate those infected from the rest of the population. Because Kalaupapa is a peninsula surrounded on 3 sides by water, and cut off from the rest of Molokai by huge sea cliffs, it was thought to be a good location to place people suffering from this disease.

Beginning in 1866, people with the disease were shipped to this location to live without basic amenities, such as buildings, food, shelter, and fresh water. The first arrivals had to fend for themselves and lived in caves or shacks built out of sticks and leaves. In 1873, Father Damien deVeuster, a Catholic priest from Belgium, arrived and worked hard to improve life for the residents of Kalaupapa. Although Hansen’s Disease has since been cured, a few former patients choose to remain there, and still live in Kalaupapa today.

Work Board

What do scientists do at 06:30 in the morning?

Here is a picture of the daily work board. On it is written the times for important meetings, the names of the divers and what boats they will be working from, and other information important to the mission. As you can see, there is a Photo of the Day that gets posted on the NOAA CRED (Coral Reef Ecosystem Division) Facebook page. Yesterday, one of my photos was the winner of the Picture of the Day, and this morning, I was presented with the prize of a huge lollipop. You might also notice that I will be taking head shots of the science team for a poster we will be creating. Another important event is “8-Minute Abs,” led nightly by Paula, one of the scientist-divers. My abs are a bit sore!

Did You Know?

Hammerhead sharks seem to have their eyes in a strange place, but it actually improves their ability to see prey. They are found in temperate and tropical waters all over the world, and can sometimes be seen prowling around reefs for food.

New Terms

caisson – a large, watertight chamber which is open at the bottom that lets workers carry out construction under water

8 responses to “Sandra Camp: Who You Gonna Call? Katie Mahaffey! June 16, 2015

  1. Lol. Huge lollipop = 8min Abs on 1930 Boat deck+ 6:30 ‘Perfect Push-ups’ at the bow. Funny, when I exersize, I do it in the morning not at night, but I understand you can’t because of the many other things on that board. Have an awesome day, but I don’t need to say that because you clearly are already.😄

  2. It’s a little tricky, because they use military time on the ship, which is based on a 24-hour clock. So 0630 is 6:30 in the morning, and 1930 is 7:30 at night. Can you tell me what time 2200 is?

  3. I just showed my brother the photo of you in the recompression chamber and he thought you were going to space!😄 He insists on spending half an hour to try to read your blog. He never gets through the first half, but at least he is reading! But that also means I have to read the other half aloud.

  4. He is six. He really doesn’t like to read or write. But he reads certain things like “Pete The Cat” or your blogs.

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