Channel Islands Research Program

CIRP

Cormorant
built in 1952 by the Missouri Valley Steel Company of Leavenworth, Kansas

Taken from the Waterfront, December 1983, John Davies

                            Tatman Foundation Explores the Channel Islands


   A flying fish skims along the water as people from a small foundation in St. Louis head back to San Pedro with findings that someday might save the Great Barrier Reef, protect the Channel Islands and make commercial sea urchin farms possible.

   Catalina Island vanishes behind them in the haze as their old Army boat chugs toward the mainland.  The Tatman Foundation is heading home to its dock at Los Angeles Harbor.

   The what Foundation?

   It's a common reaction.  Tatman has been running an oceanographic research and dive boat from Los Angeles Harbor for several years, but has remained practically invisible outside of marine science circles.

   Alongside big fish like La Jolla's Scripps Institute of Oceanography or USC's Institute of Marine and Coastal Studies, Tatman is something of a minnow.  Yet it is a minnow that has carved out its own niche in the understanding of sea life around the islands of Southern California.

   From a wharf along San Pedro's East Channel, the foundation operates the 65 foot Cormorant, an Army workboat that has been converted for diving and scientific surveys by Jerry Chomeau of the foundation.

   With Ron Anderson as engineer, fledgling marine architect Tim Nelson as crewman and Chomeau's son Henri as cook, the converted military workboat gets scientists to and from the eight Channel Islands for Tatman's scientific research.

   With the cooperation of the National Park Service, Tatman is pouring data on lifeforms around the islands into a computer and developing the first clear picture of sea life surrounding the Southern California Islands, where warm tropical waters fade into colder northern waters.

   At a cove just south of Catalina's Isthmus, Tatman's field research director, Dr. Jack Engle, weaves his way along a dock crowded with wet-suited divers from USC's Marine Science Center to welcome the Cormorant crew, who are bringing over Chomeau's brother, Dave, a Tatman Foundation executive.  Engle is the scientist-in-residence for Tatman's projects, living at Big Fisherman's Cove and running foundation experiments at the science center's laboratories.  From there, he leads graduate students and professional scientists on diving expeditions to the eight Channel Islands in search of rare samples and exotic underwater color photos.

   Other divers, however, know Engle in a different capacity.  He is a member of the emergency team on call at USC's hyperbaric chamber, where diver with the bends or with a burst blood vessel from air expanding during too rapid an ascent, are pressurized.

   About once a week, a diver is rushed to the big blue chamber inside the building originally put up by North American Aviation for testing a miniature submarine.  Engle or another member of the resident team accompany the victim into the chamber.  Airlocks are sealed and the temperature shoots to nearly 150 degrees as oxygen is forced into the steel tank.  The high pressure forces the gas bubbles to redissolve, as if the diver were back in deep water.

   The air becomes humid and foggy, so thick that it takes a ping-pong ball several seconds to fall to the floor.  In the meantime, doctors and nurses are flown by helicopter from USC-County General Hospital to a landing pad near the chamber.  They come in through the airlock and prepare the stricken diver for a slow return to normal pressure.

   The cove abounds with scientific projects, some either successful or promising, others out-and-out failures.

   One of the failures is a large flotation ring structure that was used in an attempt to grow kelp for conversion into natural gas in a bag of enriched nutrients.  But pumping seawater over the kelp proved to take several times as much energy as could ever be produced from the kelp.  In fact, the kelp inside the bag sometimes failed to grow as well as that left in its natural habitat.

   Another project is trying to find a fast abalone - not one that will win any footraces, but one that might mature in a few months instead of five to eight years.  A quick-growing abalone could make abalone farming successful.

   The cove is also the prospective site for an underwater habitat that would allow divers to safely explore offshore beyond the range of SCUBA tanks.  Underwater scientists could stop at the habitat to warm up, rest and get fresh air tanks without having most of their time in the water tied up by a slow ascent.  A large model of the proposed underwater habitat sits in science center offices, but the federal government has yet to fund its construction.

   In a tank outside, several small sharks fitted with surgically implanted radio transmitters circle endlessly, broadcasting an ultrasonic stream of biological information as they swim.

   Upstairs in a lab, Engle prods hungry sea urchins collected on a Tatman dive - both large reds valuable to commercial fishermen and smaller types that threaten coastal kelp forests.  For the first time, biologists are seeing cannibalistic urchins - small urchins eating other small urchins.

   In another tank are starfish with a strange, temperature-sensitive disease.  Engle said that learning how the disease works might provide clues to controlling a starfish population explosion that has threatened the Great Barrier Reef around Australia.

   Closer to home, Tatman's census of nearshore plants and animals is becoming more and more important in protecting the Channel Islands from increased pressure from oil drilling and other development.

   Engle admits that Tatman's research may have practical results, but he says that those involved prefer to consider it pure research - science for science's sake, and not something done to support the political viewpoint of commercial fishermen, preservationists, the oil industry or anyone else for that matter.

   Dave Chomeau of Tatman acknowledges that it is a fairly gutsy proposition for a small foundation from Missouri to carry on basic research.  "We've done all this without grants, but it has gotten to the point where funding is a critical problem," laments Chomeau.

   Tatman has been able to carry out its work by conducting monthly cruises for biology and geology students from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.  But the foundation is now looking for other support.  Because Tatman is so small, its directors are considering the possibility of a joint venture with a larger foundation or college in seeking a grant.

   Chomeau said Tatman first became involved in marine science almost a decade ago when Ralston-Purina Corp., a St. Louis firm, asked Tatman to do work involving the death of porpoises in West Coast tuna fishermen's nets.  Some of Tatman's leaders had served in the Navy and were familiar with marine studies.  From that grew the current Channel Islands Research Program, which Engle heads.  For the past four years, he has been compiling information on islands that have not been subject of much research because they are difficult to reach.

   With survey cruises, SCUBA diving and plant and animal studies, Tatman has developed computer and photo files that are becoming standard references on the Channel Islands.  More that 200 volunteers have contributed ot the research, Engle says.

   Walking along the hot, dusty road twisting from Big Fisherman Cove to the Isthmus, Engle and the Tatman leaders conduct business in much the same way Christ might have done 2,000 years ago.  They talk through problems ranging from where to moor the Cormorant to how to advance the marine science cause.

   At the one spot where Catalina narrows to a thin, low neck of land, the Tatman executives walk across to the seaward harbor to evaluate whether the Cormorant - which has no connection to the Catalina passenger ferry of the same name - might not be safer here than in San Pedro.

   At the surge-plagued Outer Harbor location, a few weeks earlier, an errant fuel barge had crunched in the Cormorant's side.

   Ultimately, the Chomeaus decided against an Isthmus mooring.  Instead, they decided to ask the USC's Institute of Marine and Coastal Studies if there is space at Fish Harbor, where the university keeps boats that have been donated for eventual sale.  Don Walsh, director of USC's marine program, later said the university is eager to get groups like Tatman involved with its marine institute so that the coastal studies agency will be a regional program used by many schools and foundations, not just by USC.

   Back aboard the Cormorant, the Chomeaus wrap up the day with a steak barbeque as the sun drops toward the sea.  Nelson and intern Dan Nikovich from Carleton College plan an early morning dive.  The sea becomes a sparkle of boat lights as blackness falls over the cove.

   The next morning, the divers cruise out in an inflatable boat and plunge over the side, gliding through brilliant sea plants and large, curious fish that dart in and devour bits of sea urchins as the men pull samples free.

   Finally, it is time to head back to San Pedro.  Engle, who has not been back to the mainland for months, climbs aboard, carrying his prize: an unpublished scientific paper compiling some of what has been learned.  "We're trying to fill in the gaps in the knowledge of the Channel Islands," he said.  "It's difficult, but that's what makes it challenging."