This work during this period required a great deal of hands-on supervision, often participating in the line-by-line decision-making process. This period was before regular satellite communication links, and our consultants were often isolated from the home office for extended periods of time.
The nature of the seismic survey, particularly the reconnaissance survey that we were mostly involved in, was to prospect an area of an exploration concession for potential hydrocarbons. Seismic surveying involves the introduction of a high-energy acoustic pulse into the earth's crust. This "energy source" comprised of the release of a high pressure air blast into the water, dynamite, electro-mechanical vibrations, a steam injection, exploding propane/oxygen, or other means.
The energy is of such a low frequency that it is able to penetrate the earth's crust to great depths and is reflected and refracted back to the surface. These reflected/refracted sound waves are picked up by an instrument known as geophones (or hydrophones on the water) - extremely sensitive devices used to render the physical sound wave to electromagnetic signatures.
On the seismic ships during the decade Oceanprobe supervised these surveys, a single, long cable was towed behind the surveying ship. These cables were approximately a mile long (2400 meters more or less depending on the technical specifications of the survey). They were filled with hydrophones spaced at precise intervals. Other instrumentation included depth sensors, and attachment points for cable levelers, or "birds".
On a seismic survey, the surveying ship cruises down a pre-programmed survey line, and explodes the "tuned array" of energy source "guns" at specific points along that line - called a "shot point". The array of hydrophones in the cable receive the sonic echoes from the seafloor, convert them to digital data on shipboard computers, which are processed and recorded on magnetic tape.
Sounds easy, doesn't it?
In fact, it is anything but easy. There are precise quality control specifications demanded by the client oil company that must be followed. The "streamer cable" must be towed at a precise depth range. Too deep and the hydrophones lose their frequency response. Too shallow and the signal-to-noise ratio suffers: the phones start picking up the surface noises of the sea which drown out the sound echoing from the seabed. If the streamer is in a bend, the bend point introduces unacceptable noise in the digital record. If currents or tides cause too much of an angle of the streamer relative to the ship's path, the positioning of each hydrophone is not correct. And so on.
Then you have positioning specifications. In those days we did not have GPS (Global Positioning System satellites). Positioning typically was with shore-based radio-navigation systems, each highly susceptible to storms, radio "skip", range problems, and interference. Also the calibration of these navigation systems was highly critical. Other positioning systems used at the time were bottom-tracking doppler sonar, inertial navigation, and a crude form of satellite navigation.
Finally, you had to be very attentive to the onboard computer systems. Even if all the sensors and guns and positioning were excellent, if the recording instrumentation was faulty you would compromise seismic data.
The oil companies turn to seismic experts to accompany the seismic crews as their quality control representative, to supervise all aspects of the survey. This is a demanding, highly technical job, requiring expertise in not only the complexities of seismic surveying, but also in human relations. Seismic crews - also referred to in the industry as "Doodlebuggers" - are a rough lot, spending long months at sea, often in remote areas. A "Doodlebugger" is a very special breed of cat, and a quality control representative or "Birddog" must be able to work closely with the seismic crew in balancing the goals of the seismic company and the client oil company.
Early on, I recognized the need to provide professional consultants. I determined to provide only degreed supervisors with at least a decade of seismic experience. There were very few available personnel who fell under this restrictive category. Our competitors typically hired gun mechanics and junior observers from the seismic companies, selling them as "geophysicists" , and charging bargain basement prices for their "services".
Through this period of unscrupulous competition, Oceanprobe never allowed its standards to drop. I think our clients appreciated this, and they returned to us for other surveys many times over.
The seismic jobs we accomplished over these ten-odd years are too numerous to list, but I have presented here some of the more notable projects that remain vivid in my memory. In future, I will try to add memorable photographs for your enjoyment.
Make no mistake, these projects were Adventure. They took us to the four corners of the world on virtually every major body of ocean on this planet. They were unforgettable and I take great pleasure in sharing them with you:
Geoprobe, Inc. 713-974-3025
Copyright © 1995-2004 Paul H. Kronfield, Revised January 2004
This survey was the first Oceanprobe job. The seismic contractor was GSI and the vessel was the R/V Eugene McDermott. It was my first trip to Asia and I fell in love with the Far East. Chief Geophysicist Dr. C.G. Dahm arranged for an around-the-world air ticket for me: Dallas-Singapore-Bangkok-Athens-New York-Dallas. It was a pioneering 3-D survey and the results of the survey were spectacular: the survey revealed an ancient river channel and brought in a prolific gas field now producing in the Gulf of Siam. Our base of operations was Songkhla, Thailand, and the positioning was ARGO and Maxiran. The positioning subcontractor was ONI. We had one tragedy on this job - the southern-most station was located in the jungle near the Malay-Thai border. The station suddenly went silent and we could not raise the station operator on the radio. McDermott returned to port and we were met with by a squad of Thai infantry. It took us two days by jeep, dugout, and foot to reach the station. The operator had been attacked by bandits and the station ransacked. His body had been savagely macheted. After the survey, I spent a week in Bangkok, and later wrote my report in Athens. Dr. C.G. Dahm gave many technical presentations of the results of this survey at many SEG (Society of Exploration Geophysicists) meetings over the years.
This project started for me in the early winter. I was sitting by my pool in Houston, just getting ready to take a long pull on a drink and settle in to a good read when my portable telephone rang. I answered. There was the unmistakable twang of an Aussie on the other line. Ian MacPhee introduced himself as the Exploration V-P of Beach Petroleum, an oil company located in Melbourne, Australia. Ian said they were planning a seismic survey in the Bass Strait and wondered if I would be interested in supervising this work. We discussed the consulting rates and travel/living arrangements. I finished my drink and walked back to my bedroom to begin packing. Little did I know it would set a pattern for the next four years of spending every Winter in Australia.
The flight - first class of course - was memorable. We had to land in Aukland, New Zealand to refuel. I bought a sheepskin rug in the airport terminal. We continued on to Sydney, and it was my first trip south of the equator and to Australia. I was most impressed with the Australian "welcome to Australia" tradition of walking around the aircraft spraying insect spray at the ceiling before opening the doors. I connected to a Melbourne Ansett flight.
As is customary in the business, the ship (Eugene McDermott would you believe?) was not ready. I sat in Beach's office for a week and called my friend Max DeRham in Singapore. Max needed me to supervise a high resolution survey in the Philippines. Beach was only too happy to turn me loose and get me off fee while I did another job while we waited for the Eugene McDermott to be ready. I flew to Singapore then hopped over to Manila for the survey off Negros Island. Three weeks later I was back in Melbourne.
The ship, it turned out, was in Launceston, Tasmania, moored in the River Tamar. Tasmania is on the other side of the Bass Strait. I took a local puddle jumper over to Launceston, and met the ship. My old friend, Ian Taylor, who had been a party chief on the McDermott in Thailand was still with the ship along with a lot of the crew. But Ian was now the boat manager, the shore-based manager of the vessel.
The Aussie crew told me that Tasmania was the land of A, B, and C. As this is a family venue, I can only inform you that A stands for Apples, and B stands for Beer. You have to guess about the C, or ask any Aussie.
The job started with a very memorable cruise down (up?) the River Tamar to it's mouth in the Bass Strait. There is a very impressive suspension bridge we sailed under.
Just let me say that the Bass Strait is one of the roughest bodies of water in the world. It is situated in the Southern Ocean, where in an east-west direction, there is no land mass. You can sail clean around the world without hitting a continent. This also means unlimited fetch for the raging wind, and there are mountainous seas here. Further, being constrained to the north by Victoria, Australia, and to the south by Tasmania, the Bass Strait has a funnelling effect on the winds, resulting in some awesome seas.
Suffice it to say that I was reacquainted with truly high seas the likes of which I had experienced years before in the Atlantic Ocean aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Another memorable experience on this job were the many scallop fishing boats. I would spend a lot of time on the bridge of McDermott, and on the VHF I heard, of all languages - Greek! I asked the captain if I could have the microphone. In this early morning I radioed the Greeks a good morning in fluent Greek. They inquired about my name. Pavlos, I told them. We talked. Every morning for the next 6 weeks, I would get my daily Greek radio call from the scallop fishermen of Victoria, Australia. They would warn us of their fishing areas and coming snotty weather.
When the job was done, I was dropped off the McDermott to a fishing boat who had been chartered by Ian Taylor to ferry personnel and supplies. The run in to port was also memorable. The captain glanced at me out of the tails of his eyes and advised me to hang on. "Why", I asked. "You're about to cross the Killer Bar, mate," he responded, and I looked forward to see white water breaking over a narrow entrance. The skipper gunned the massive diesel engines, hit the turbulent wild water and actually surfed his 60-foot vessel in front of a huge breaking comber into the harbor.
My knuckles were white from gripping the rail in the bridge. "Yep", said the skipper. "Every year we lose a few boats and crew on that bar. That's why we call it the Killer Bar".
The final memory was meeting some of the Greeks I had been chatting with all these weeks. They invited me to their homes where we sipped retsina and dined on, what else? Fresh scallops! It was a beautiful drive back to Melbourne from Sale, Victoria. They drive on the left hand side down there, and, yes, they have a lot of "beware of kangaroo" signs on the highways.
I didn't know it back then, but I was smack in the beginning of the greatest run of consulting work I have ever seen. Having just finished the Beach job in Australia, flew back to Houston via Singapore, and having just finished my report, and final invoice, the phone rang again. This time I wasn't by the pool - it was a cold and rainy late February.
It was Cook Stacy of Sedco Exploration calling from Dallas. Had a survey coming up quickly in the Philippines. Cook had been with TP Thailand and remembered my services. The boat would be waiting for me at Tacloban port on Leyte, Philippines.
The flight to Manila was, again, first class. Partners in the venture were the Martell brothers in Manila. I met Rudy Martell in his penthouse suite at the Sheraton Hotel. Rudy owned the hotel. We smoked some cigars and looked over the program maps. Rudy had married Marcos' sister. I took a puddle jumper to Tacloban to find the ship.
I used acoustics to find the ship. Meaning - I listened for the sounds of sailors in port. Kind of a combination of enthusiastic shouts, breaking glass, gnashing teeth, and gurgling. The crew of the Rio Das Contas had achieved notoriety throughout Asia. The party chief was Ken (Animal) Haig. The skipper was "Heavy" Foster. This crew really knew how to party. And they loved the local domestic San Miguel beer.
This job was memorable in that we surveyed in the Ragay Gulf, in front of a volcano in the midst of an eruption. The weather was superb, and the view of Mt. Mayon with the smoke pouring out of it's apex was surreal against the deep blue of the Ragay Gulf.
I remember anchoring off a Shoran site, and loading the equipment for the station into a boat. We beached the boat and waded ashore. Natives met us and helped carry the equipment up a mountainside in dense jungle. Yes, there were monkeys swinging from the trees as we perspired our way up to the top. An ONI station technician would man this beautiful site 24 hours per day. As we would be surveying, he would point his directional yagi bean antenna our way for the strongest signals.
I often envied this guy, up there on the mountaintop in the jungle with a spectacular view of the Gulf and the volcano, and a pet monkey (and possible attractive visitors from the village below...)
Once we anchored off one of those palm-covered white beaches, and the captain, "Heavy" Foster, decided to take a swim. "Heavy" was appropriately named. He weighed in at around 350. To my astonished eyes, he did a swan dive from the flying bridge (if a bowling ball can swan dive). The point of impact was his ample belly, and the splash was equivalent to a mega-cannon ball. Rio Das Contas even moved with the shockwave. "Heavy" emerged with an awful looking blue bruise on the side of his belly. It was the most awesome swan dive I have ever witnessed. We all swam from the boat off that beautiful beach.
This job was one of those never-ending jobs. We completed the Ragay Gulf program, and another client picked us up, then another, then another.... A copper mining company (Marcopper Mining) contracted us to survey off an island they were mining - in hopes of finding oil.
We finished the series of surveys shooting a seismic line in the channel between Mindoro Island and the main island of Luzon. This was a real challenge with shipping and fish traps presenting hazards to our valuable seismic streamer. But this crew, after successfully negotiating the countless fish traps of the Ragay Gulf did what no other seismic crew had ever done - surveyed the Verde Island Passage between Mindoro and Luzon using a 2400 meter seismic streamer.
The cruise was concluded at Mindoro's main port of San Jose. Mindoro is one of the world's most isolated locations. There are natives in the jungled mountains of Mindoro who have never seen a white man. These tribes are so primitive, it is said that cannibalism is still practiced here. We spent the night in a hot hotel room with malarial mosquitoes and domestic San Miguel beer before taking the puddle jumper from San Jose airport back to Manila.
This was the first of a series of Oxy jobs that would take me around the world. The second was in Tunisia, and the third was in Spain's Bay of Biscay. I made the initial contact with the Oxy geophysicist in Perth just before I headed back to Houston. Within weeks he was back on the phone asking me to deploy back to Australia.
What was most memorable about this job was the trip there. Usually on a transpacific hop, they give you a night in a hotel someplace to grab a wink or two before heading for the ship. In this job, things were slightly different:
The flights Houston-San Francisco-Sydney were uneventful. The fact that there was a connection Sydney-Melbourne was expected. When I arrived at Melbourne I was paged by the Ansett Airlines counter and received a ticket leaving in an hour's time for Adelaide. By this time, my body clock was totally out of whack and I had no idea of what time it was, except I was tired.
Arriving in Adelaide, I was met by a gentleman with my name on his sign who asked me to follow him to baggage claim. Thank God, I thought, at last a chance to rest up. I could already feel the cool sheets of the coming hotel room bed. We collected my luggage and instead of heading for a car outside the luggage claim area, I followed my contact back into the airport, then down a narrow companionway to the tarmac.
There was a helicopter waiting for me. I groaned. They informed me I would be choppered immediately out to the ship. If you look at a map, it seems a short distance from Adelaide to the Great Australian Bight. But take a closer look! The Great Bight is 1,000 miles wide! I was expecting a short hop to the ship, and I began looking for the familiar Green/white Western Geophysical vessel after two hours in the whirlybird. No such luck. We landed in the middle of a reddish desert.
Crawling out of the chopper, I was immediately struck by the smell. The air was redolent with a heavy spicey odor. It smelled/tasted dry, clovey, thyme, thisle. The chopper had landed next to a mound in the sand. The pilot was poking around the mound and I started to approach to see what he was doing. He glared at me and motioned me to stay away. Reaching into the sand at the edge of the mound he grabbed at something and pulled - hard. He was holding onto the edge of a tarp and peeled it back to reveal several drums, a barrel pump wrapped in plastic, and some moving things. The pilot stepped back, eyeing the shadows between the drums. Then I recognized it.
In the 'states we call them gila monsters. I don't know what they call them down under, but the beaded, black and pink moving monster spelled extreme danger. The pilot glanced at the large lizard as it slowly plodded into the desert then returned his gaze to the drums. "Hold very still, mate," he warned. He picked up a pebble and tossed it against a drum. It clanked against the steel side of a drum with peeling paint.
A black snake rushed with surprising speed out of the shadow under a drum and disappeared into the desert. "Tai Pan snake," muttered the pilot, now standing one of the drums upright, "bloody deadly beasts. Aggressive. I've seen them chase people. You get bit by a Tai Pan, you've got about five minutes to live." I felt a fine sweat on my forehead and it wasn't the heat.
We rolled a drum to the chopper, stood it on an end, and put a barrel pump into the bung. I pumped and the pilot took care of the business end of the pump at the chopper side. After topping off the tanks we rolled the drum back to it's brothers and covered them with the tarp. We took off and continued West for two more hours. Another fuel dump. More critters. And then another fuel dump. I was about spacing out from the heat, the motion, my extreme fatigue, and hunger.
At last we were over the water. I was again searching for the ship. The pilot brought the chopper down near the sea surface. At our speed, the waves were blurring just beneath us. I noticed a long white line on the horizon. The pilot glanced at me and kept the chopper on the deck, near the waves. Very quickly I recognized the line to be the shoreline. And soon I could see it was a cliff. Now it was a very high cliff. Silently, the pilot again glanced my way. Now the cliff was higher than our altitude. I shot a glance at the pilot and he didn't move, his gloved hand curled around the stick.
We were heading right for the face of the cliff! I could make out boulders in it's face. I didn't have time to scream, just enough time to grip my seat with white knuckles.
At the last impossible moment, the pilot jerked back on the stick and I was pushed down in my seat. All I saw was blue sky in the windshield. The bloody pilot was grinning at me. "Welcome to Ceduna," he said. "You yanks did that to me in Vietnam, so I return the favor every chance I can," he grinned as he landed the chopper on a circular concrete pad at the edge of the cliff.
I sat in the chopper for a long time in my wet shirt before I emerged on shaky legs. The air was spicier than ever, and I will never forget that smell.
After refueling at Ceduna, we took off one last time and flew to the ship offshore, just out of sight of land. We landed on the helipad over the stern, and I dragged my bags down to my cabin and put my bones to bed for a long sleep, rocking in the waters of the Indian Ocean's Great Australian Bight. It was one of the greatest sleeps of my life.
Operationally, the project was challenging as Western Geophysical was providing the positioning from a chain of Maxiran they had recently purchased. All navigators were new hires, both on board and ashore. The power amplifiers malfunctioned from the heat and Western had no spares. Signal strength at the distance we were operating from shore was weak to nonexistent, and I had to stop surveying on many occasions due to bad positioning. And we also had some foul weather.