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Urban Underwater Missions

April 12 2015

What secrets does the grimy underbelly of a city hold? Raybans, Rolexes, pocket knives, little fish, lots of ducks. I have this fascination with exploring the places we see daily from above the waterline, but never see from below. Potentially mischievous, always adventurous, and forever drawn to search for a small time salvage. These missions seek to talk about all the things we're not supposed to talk about. You in?

April 12 2015


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Mission Underway

Despite constant danger of losing the robot to the murk or grounding it in the perilous shallows, this mission was a fountainous success. Simply pondtacular.

Max depth: 1.2 feet

Visibility: nope

Flora and fauna: chip bag, bugs, diaper?

Intrigued onlookers: 6, plus dog

Post-mission robot care: thorough washing

Water bodies on UC Berkeley's campus are few and far between, but I found one! Hearst Mining Circle fountain was built in 1914 as part of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, financed by Phoebe Apperson Hearst as a memorial to her husband George, a successful miner and U.S. Senator.

Once a vibrant watery hub for student lounging and mischief, this fountain has fallen into disrepair due to the California drought. Murky and green, we believed these mysterious depths may hold forgotten treasures, until an overheated dog confirmed a max depth of 1.2 feet.


After arriving at our intended destination, we discovered that the tide was super low- there was approximately 10-15 meters of much and marsh pretty much entirely across the coast line that we were planning on entering the water from, and we were ill-equipped for marching across marsh and muck. We quickly realized from a distance that a dive was not possible from this location.

We then drove back up to Islais Creek as before, and to our surprise the water line was also very low. We took a hike around the surrounding area, near some homeless encampments under freeway over passes, talked to some of the locals who lived in nearby tents and they gave us their account of the surrounding nature, wildlife and foot traffic in the area. We saw a cormorant, a seal and a robin during this hike.

After hiking to the other side of the creek we decided that it wasn't a good day for deploying the ROV. We headed back to OpenROV HQ to start our workday.

However we shall return to the area soon, and we will check tide charts before we leave next time.



One of the interesting things we got to see was the opening where the Islais culvert connected into the open creek. We've learned that the creek was once entirely above ground - running from Glen Park all the way over to the bay. Today most of it has been paved over, but the tunnel opening looked almost wide enough to walk through. It would be interesting to see how it looks during high tide!

Looks like some good swimming! Any good pubs close by?

Return to Islais Creek:

When I brought the ROV home from last weeks dives, it was packed up in a plastic garbage bag to keep it from contaminating the pelican case. As per your sanitization recommendations, I put it into the bathtub and washed it down with bleach, twice.

I was loosley concerned that the bleach would denature the acrylic pressure housing or cause it to take on a milky, opaque hue, but several days later, it still looks clear.

On our last sojourn to shit creek our little ROV 'Puck' threw off the port propeller. So I replaced it yesterday, secured both props with a drop of locktite and then tested it out in our test tank. All the systems were perfectly operational, so I packed it up and off we went!


Awesome. Glad to hear the weak bleach didn't hurt anything.

Meta data:

Sunrise - 6:22 AM
Sunset - 7:52 PM
Wind - 7 mph
Temp - 54 degrees F

We are on the move again! It's a sunny, blustery day in San Francisco and we're prepping to send Puck back into the bay.

Things we are thinking about:

-Current: Last time, we had some difficulty with this. We are expecting the water to flow at around 1 or 2 knots. Our hope is that the addition of a new prop/ability to operate at a higher thrust factor will help counter it this time.

-The pipe: We're curious about the background of the terra cotta pipe we found. With a little more investigating, we want to be able to identify the time period it came from and what system it belonged to.

-Structures surrounding the water: We drove into the Dogpatch from a different direction this time, and were amazed by all of the abandoned warehouses! If we have time, we may try and pop the ROV into the water at the foot of these buildings. The only concern with this is entanglement, as we would have lots of old pilings and debris to contend with.

More updates to come!

Preparation Stage

Today we are heading out for our second dive in Hunters Point, San Francisco. This time we are diving in India Basin. Finding parking in this neighborhood is quite nutty, not to any surprise.
As recently as the early 1800's this area was prime hunting / foraging land for the Muwekma-Ohlone tribes, the wetlands covering 800 sq/km and flourishing with fauna, fish and wild edible plants. During the gold rush (mid-1800's) when the population of the San Francisco Bay significantly increased, the biological diversity of the region began to diminish, leading up to today (2015)- Where a fraction of the biodiversity still exists.

A few ways this region has been affected are:

-Hydraulic Mining: In the gold rush, this was the most popular mining method, as miners could simply wash away the sediment they were handling and it would carry downstream, affecting croplands and eroding everything in the path of the water stream.

-Blocking the estuaries from tidal action: Beginning in the early 1900's, private industry started blocking off estuaries from tides, calming the water for salt extraction.

-Synthetic Landfill Neighborhoods: Today some of the most expensive real estate on the planet (SF) is build on wetlands turned solid ground via rubble.

At any rate, we are going to explore the water in India Basin today- Hopefully see some native plant and animal species in their natural environment. I really wish we had a water sampling set with us, I'm having trouble finding any information on the water quality in the Bay.

More to come once we leave this coffee house, keep posted!

After reading about the history of the creek, we were initially surprised to see people braving the water without hesitation, but the more we spoke with our new friends the more we realized we had stumbled upon an invaluable source of information. They were able to point us in the direction of the old cannery location, give us some more background on the butchery, and corroborate some of the gritty details we had learned (even filling us in on some that we weren't aware of). Check out this development map of the Islais Creek area during the 1920's!


Last weekend got us really excited about the things we could find along the edge of San Francisco Bay. One of the highlights came from an encounter with some local kayakers. The timing couldn't have been better. Just as we were booting Puck up and running some preliminary tests, they slid up along the creek bank. With their guidance, we've got some ideas brewing for our next deployment.


This second dive required some scrambling to get the robot in the water--and a bit of balance.


Dive Two: Pipe Dreams. We scouted out another dive site across the creek at the Islais Creek Promenade--with even more invasive trash species! Since our noble Puck had lost a propeller, we positioned him right in front of a submerged pipe and powered forward to peer inside. Puck's lights revealed an encrusting mass of mussels and barnacles on one end--and the ubiquitous trash critters on the other. The most interesting part was the pipe itself--it's terracotta--so some chapter of Islais Creek's rich industrial history remains. Any guesses?


The Completely True and Pretty Crappy History of Islais Creek.

Islais Creek was originally the largest inland body of water, at 5,000 acres, in the San Francisco Peninsula. It was named after the abundant berries that Native Americans would harvest along the banks. Once a pristine creek, things have changed dramatically over the last 150 years.


1850s: Source for irrigation water spurred by the Gold Rush population

1870s: Butchertown dump site for cattle carcasses, human waste, and general garbage. Islais Creek picks up the colloquial name "Shit Creek."

1906: Filled with the city's debris from the Earthquake

1950's: The creek hosted the largest sardine cannery in the world, dumping processing waste into the creek.

1990s: Almost entirely filled in. There were discussions of how to clean it up, and a modest park was built.

2000: While drilling an electrical conduit for the Muni Streetcar, a giant sewer pipe, that carried 80,000 gallons of sewage, cracked. The park was flooded and had to be excavated in order to make repairs.

It now has the highest levels of PCBs, heavy metals, bacteria, and organochlorines than any other part of San Francisco Bay.

We're going to go deploy our trusty ROV "Puck" because frankly we wouldn't touch that water with a ten foot pole.

Is it possible to quarantine a robot? What about sanitizing it? We are open to suggestions.


Well it's definitely a job for an ROV! As for sanitation, I think I mild dilution of bleach may be in order after the dive is over an let it just soak for a few hours.
From reading a bit more on the creek, you might also want to invest in some industrial/commercial hazardous material equipment such as gloves, overalls and facemasks for launch and recovery. That stuff is going to be nasty.

Expedition Background

Many cities are built up on waterways, tunnels, rivers, and wetlands. There's water everywhere! These are the missions to see what's happening in places we often overlook.