New motors give Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary research vessel new life

By Jenn Little

October 2019

As Captain Zac Montgomery and his team approach Santa Barbara Island, the blue skies of Southern California hang overhead. The island is isolated: a three and a half hour journey for the crew from Santa Barbara. While the R/V Shark Cat cuts through warm, July waters, the outline of the island’s sheer cliffs becomes visible, later giving way to stunning vistas of rolling grasslands. However, it’s not the striking landscape that the team needs to access. Rather, the crew is interested in the deep blue waters that surround the island and the life that lies within it in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

severak people on a small vessel
The R/V Shark Cat supports science and research in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

This three-day expedition is focused on tagging giant sea bass, a fish that is capable of growing to lengths of more than seven feet and weighing over 700 pounds. The size of the species places it near the top of the food web and gives it an important role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems off California. Unfortunately, the population was once reduced to critically low levels because of overfishing. Because of this, tagging expeditions like this one carried out in July 2019 are crucial to efforts to restore the population of the giant sea bass and monitor the marine ecosystems they inhabit.

a diver approaches a giant sea bass
A diver approaches a giant sea bass before tagging it to track its movement around the islands. Photo: Elizabeth Duncan/NOAA

Tagging expeditions require detailed preparation: dive training, expedition-specific planning, gathering like dive tanks and air compressors, and more. However, the first step of putting together a successful expedition is securing a reliable vessel to transport the team. In Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the R/V Shark Cat, part of the NOAA Small Boat Fleet, fills this role.

From patrol boat to research & emergency response vessel

a person on a boat filling scuba cylinders
Captain Zac Montgomery fills four scuba cylinders using a portable air compressor while aboard the R/V Shark Cat. Photo: Julie Bursek/NOAA

Shark Cat, a 28-foot twinhull power cruiser, was once a patrol boat. However, when NOAA moved the vessel to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in 2010, an effort began to gradually transform the patrol boat into a research and dive platform suitable for operating in remote areas of the sanctuary.

Over the years, Shark Cat has undergone significant updates in order to support this effort: the installation of a gasoline fume detector and galvanic isolator to prevent corrosion; a rewired shore power system to provide electrical power; new fuel lines; and the replacement of an old depth sounder. However, the 15-year-old engines, which had not been replaced in the transition, were unreliable and had failed multiple times. In 2018, Yamaha Marine Motors donated two F300 outboard motors for use on the vessel. Now, after a several-year absence, the R/V Shark Cat – refurbished and more reliable – has returned to service for a variety of operations in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The vessel provides a platform for dive support, habitat monitoring, whale entanglement response, and more.

Protecting natural and cultural resources

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is a federally designated marine protected area administered by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. The national marine sanctuary was designated in 1980 and encompasses the waters within six miles of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands in California. Home to incredible marine ecosystems, maritime heritage artifacts, and recreational waters, the sanctuary aims to protect these resources for generations to come.

a view of anacapa island surrounded by ocean
Inspiration Point provides stunning vistas of Anacapa Island. Photo: Donna Hendricks

Shark Cat’s research and emergency response capabilities are crucial to the protection of these remote offshore waters. The sanctuary’s position at the confluence of two major ocean currents sustains remarkable biodiversity: the mingling of cool, nutrient-rich waters from the north with warm currents from the south form a dynamic transition zone. At the same time, this remote location requires vessels that are able to reliably navigate these waters.

R/V Shark Cat Captain Zac Montgomery notes that the new Yamaha outboards have already made a huge difference. “With the re-power, the value of Shark Cat is much more than it was before,” says Montgomery. “As the head captain, I no longer worry about whether or not it is up to a task, as it is now extremely reliable and fuel efficient, and is able to safely get its crew and researchers to and from their missions.”

Ready for research

In addition to supporting missions like fish tagging, the R/V Shark Cat is also used in research efforts like habitat monitoring. Sanctuary researchers regularly survey various habitats to track their health. Eelgrass beds, for example, provide nursery habitat for young fish and invertebrates, improve water quality by filtering runoff, reduce coastal erosion, and support an ecosystem that is important for commercial and recreational fisheries. Shark Cat makes it possible to reliably visit and monitor these important ecosystems.

kelp bass swimming over eelgrass
Kelp bass swim in eelgrass habitat at Scorpion Anchorage, Santa Cruz Island. Photo: Adam Obaza/NOAA

Small boat, big responsibility

The R/V Shark Cat also supports emergency response. Using the vessel, sanctuary staff and partners can provide assistance with oil and hazardous substance spills, grounded or sunken vessels, vessel collisions, and whale disentanglement missions.

Montgomery also notes that with the addition of the new Yamaha outboards, the R/V Shark Cat can now be used as an “on-call” vessel “to respond reliably and quickly to problems that may arise within the sanctuary.” With a continuous cruising speed of 20 to 25 knots (23 to 29 miles per hour), the vessel is a critical asset for emergency response in the sanctuary.

blue whale
Blue whales and other whales are at risk of entanglement throughout the ocean. Shark Cat can provide support for disentanglement missions. Photo: Jess Morten/NOAA

R/V Shark Cat cruises on

“We are extremely grateful for Yamaha Corporation’s support and assistance through the donation of these outboards,” says John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “The engines will further the mission of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, increase the reliability of the R/V Shark Cat, and reduce its environmental impact.”

“The sanctuary is a special place for species close to extinction, sensitive habitats, shipwrecks, and maritime heritage artifacts,” says Martin Peters, government relations division manager for Yamaha’s U.S. Business Unit. “Yamaha’s donation of these two outboards extends our efforts under the Yamaha Rightwaters initiative, which serves to improve habitats, control invasive species, and support scientific research.”

With modern upgrades to research vessels like Shark Cat, the National Marine Sanctuary System is able to breathe new life into its small boat fleet and fulfill its mission to protect America’s most iconic natural and cultural marine resources for future generations to enjoy.

Jenn Little is a communications intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.