What's It Like To Live And Work On The Ocean? A Q&A With Our Director of Subsea Operations

Our research vessel, the Petrel, is featured in an episode of the National Geographic series "Drain The Oceans." The premise is this: what would happen if all of the water was drained from the ocean? What would we find?

In this episode, RV Petrel searches for the iconic wrecks of the Battle of the Pacific, including the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, and the ship that delivered the Hiroshima bomb, USS Indianapolis. Funded by Paul G. Allen, the expedition's discoveries reveal new evidence helping explain some of the greatest mysteries of World War II at sea.

Ahead of the episode premiere we checked in with the man who spends part of his life aboard Petrel – Rob Kraft, our Director of Subsea Operations. Rob and the Petrel crew will star in the upcoming episode of "Drain The Oceans".

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I understand there is no “typical” in your days on the ship, but during a mission, what is a day in the life like for Vulcan's Director of Subsea Operations?

How right you are, 'typical' is not really a word most of our team have the luxury of experiencing. However, depending on what particular phase of a project we may be in, there is some aspect of routine. My team splits into two 12 hour shifts for continuous operations. My day is split between those two shifts, so I have exposure and continuity between both teams. I begin each day with a very large cup of coffee as I make my way to the online room for the morning debrief from our night shift crew. After the debrief and assigning of any daily tasks, I’m on to emails and admin tasks for a couple hours before making rounds on the vessel to talk with and update various crew. Then it’s on to processing and analyzing sonar data for targets, reviewing research material or ROV video, assisting with launch & recovery of AUV or ROV operations as necessary and finally, I’m continuously developing and modifying search methodology and search areas which is an iterative process depending on what you are or are not finding. And I try to squeeze in time for the gym and a little sunshine.

What makes the work aboard the Petrel more satisfying or exciting or different than your previous work?

Our missions have led to discovery of over 30 historically significant shipwrecks, diverse ecosystems and encounters with rare marine species. The environment we operate in brings inherent dangers, challenges and risk that most people will never experience. Our founder, the late Paul G. Allen, tasked us with a monumental mission – discovery, education, history and honoring service members, all of which touches multiple generations and the lives of families who made the ultimate sacrifice. Our mission, this ship and our crew are continuing an important aspect of Paul's directive for maritime research, exploration and discovery. Every time I read a comment on our Facebook page or from an Instagram post, I am reminded of how important our mission is to so many people.

What missions have you undertaken over the past year and what challenges have you faced?

We’ve conducted dozens of missions in search of capital ships that served and were lost during war. Our projects are typically in remote locations which is challenging in its own right in terms of logistics and support. However, the environment we operate in presents the single largest challenge we have to contend with on a continual basis. Weather and sea conditions affect our ability to conduct operations and extreme depths up to 6,000 meters (which is nearly four miles underwater) creating pressures of 9,000 pounds per square inch exerts a toll on equipment and the crew.

Take high voltage electricity and millions of dollars’ worth of technology and put it in one of the most hostile environments on the planet ... and things go wrong. These are the challenges we face every dive, every day.

What's a common misconception about the ocean you'd like to clear up for people?

Not necessarily a misconception but an important perception: I think the public is largely unaware of how severe marine pollution is and how it affects our oceans. I could show you images from one hemisphere to the other of pollution that we observe nearly four miles below, on the seafloor. It would bring tears to your eyes. Perhaps the misconception is that people don’t believe that their actions cannot change what we’re doing to our oceans. Everyone has a stake in this and can make a difference.

In your opinion, what's the most exciting discovery the Petrel has made, and why?

I would have to say that all of our discoveries have been exciting and in different ways. I know finding the USS Indianapolis generated tremendous public interest in the story of its sinking and the harrowing circumstances for survivors. It was quite an accomplishment to finally pinpoint its final resting place – a testament to our crew, our partners and our equipment. The Lady Lex (USS Lexington) was the first US carrier we surveyed and we were awestruck by the various airplanes that were distributed around her hull on the ocean floor. The USS Juneau brought back memories of the Sullivan Brothers and the sacrifice of one family – reminding us all of thousands of other families who lost loved ones to protect our freedoms. The USS Wasp was finally detected in the last few days of an expedition with a New York Times magazine journalist onboard. The story that came from that is epic and truly reflects the comradery and tenacity of my team. So, no, there’s no one that is most exciting and I challenge everyone to read about each and every ship that has an honored place in history and should be remembered.

*Read more: USS Indianapolis Expedition – What People Are Saying*

A lot of people think of the ocean as a mysterious and sometimes scary aquatic expanse. Why should people appreciate the ocean?

Yes, it is a scary and mysterious expanse, but it’s also as beautiful as it is scary. It’s the necessary beating heart of our planet we call home and should be respected. There are so many statistics that bear out the importance of the ocean – its ecosystems, its economic value and its shear magnificence. There are times when after days and days on the Petrel, running our search operations and plotting our next moves, I look at the expanse of water in all directions, knowing that I haven’t seen another ship for as many days – this tremendous expanse belies the delicate balance of its ecosystems below. We need to continue to explore, discover, understand, protect and preserve our worlds’ oceans and its resources.

You've seen the upcoming episode of Drain The Oceans. What do you think and why should people watch it?

I must say I really enjoyed this program. I appreciated and enjoyed that this program illustrated an accurate accounting of the history as well as the discovery and ship's present condition. I’m honored that they chose to feature the Petrel and its mission to survey the featured ships. It reminds me how fortunate I am to work with an amazing and dedicated crew on a ship that is equipped unlike no other on the ocean. I hope others are inspired by watching this episode and continue to honor our service men and women.

You can watch Drain The Oceans: Pacific War Megawrecks online now.

Two Anchor Windlass Mechanisms
A bell from the USS Indianapolis
USS Indianapolis Anchor
'35' Confirms Wreck is the USS Indianapolis
Indy Spares Box