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Making Science Happen: The Officers and Crew of the Oscar Elton Sette

September 14, 2017

The objective of the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is simple: provide a platform to conduct research for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.

01_Sette.jpg The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette – our floating village! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü.

The objective of the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is simple: provide a platform to conduct research for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. The long hours and hard work that goes on behind the scenes to keep a ship running smoothly, though, are not so simple. While the research is often highlighted in the news and updates, it is the platform that enables these successes. It takes a floating village to make the science happen! While onboard the Sette during the second leg of the ongoing Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS), we took a moment to sit down with various members of the ship’s personnel, from the Commanding Officer to the Lead Fisherman, to better understand the inner workings of the ship, the career paths each individual took, and how each position helps to keep the project (or ship!) afloat.

CDR Stephanie Koes ~ Commanding Officer

CDRs Koes and Tran step outside to watch whales near the bow of the Sette. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

CDR Koes is a great Commanding Officer...and corn hole player! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

How did you end up where you are today?

I was born and raised on Oahu, then went away for college. After graduating from Arizona State, I had a really good civil engineering job, but missed Hawaii.  It’s all sand and no water in Arizona–I wanted to get back to the water. That is when I found out about the NOAA Corps and was able to find my way back to Hawaii via the ships.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to pursue a similar career?
Follow your dreams and don’t be afraid to change. I was mid-career when I decided to make a change and have been in the NOAA Corps for 16 years now. I chose to take a different career path from the typical jobs in Hawaii, like being a flight attendant or working in the tourism industry.

What is your favorite part about being out at sea?
I like being disconnected, not having to hear about all the other stuff going on in the world, the news. I also like it when the scientists are happy because they get really excited about their research findings. Bottom fishing trips are probably my favorite because there is a lot of ship handling, which keeps it interesting.

Mike Caseria ~ Chief Engineer

Chief Engineer Caseria prepares for his next project. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ali Bayless

Chief Engineer Caseria at home in his workshop. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ali Bayless

How did you become a marine engineer and do you have any advice for someone looking to follow a similar career path?
I was born in Waialua and raised in Mililani. I joined the military right out of high school, first with the Navy and then with the Coast Guard. It was this experience in the military that enabled me to get my license as 3rd Engineer for unlimited horsepower vessels, and then later on as Chief Engineer. I would advise anyone wanting to go into this field to go to a maritime college for a degree in engineering and get as much experience as possible.

What’s a typical day like for you on the ship?
Every morning I have a meeting with the entire engineering department on the ship, and I lay out the jobs and responsibilities required for the day. We talk about any issues or safety concerns that may take priority, perform a job analysis, and then make a plan for the day.

How do you keep the ship running?
I always try to be part of the solution and not the problem. I am always taking a look at gauges, temperatures, and pressures, looking for leaks and checking machinery to make sure it’s running properly. You have to train your eyes and your ears to notice when things are not running smoothly, and think outside the box so you are prepared for anything.

What is the biggest issue you’ve ever had to fix on a ship?
A few years back, the AC pipe broke while the ship was docked at Ford Island and there was 4 feet of water in the ship. We had to pump out a lot of water!

Mills Dunlap ~ Lead Fisherman

Lead Fisherman Dunlap with his catch of the day, a mahi-mahi and an ono (wahoo) that will later be served in the galley. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ali Bayless

Lead Fisherman Dunlap brings in a mahi-mahi from the stern of the Sette. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ali Bayless

What are the duties and responsibilities of the lead fisherman?
My role changes a lot depending on what type of research we are doing, but generally speaking, I am a facilitator of data acquisition. I make sure all of the ship’s small boats are functional and help to safely deploy and recover all of our boats when necessary.

What are the most exciting tasks you get to do?
I really enjoy small boat deployment and operation, particularly for the Northwestern Hawaiian Island camp deployments. I also enjoy helping out with the bottom fishing trips, where we help to collect samples for histology of the seven species that are commercially fished.

What are some of your favorite places you have worked while aboard the Sette?
We work in a lot of amazing places: the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, backside of Molokai, northwest coast of the Big Island, Samoa, the Manua islands, and the northern Marianas.

What do you like to do for fun on the ship?
As lead fisherman, I spend a lot of my time making lures and fishing. It’s always exciting when the ship can make passes on logs and FADs [fish aggregating devices], and sometimes we get a big fish.

CDR Hung “Doc” Tran ~ Medical Officer

CDR Tran tends to all living things aboard the Sette, including his container garden. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ali Bayless

The sick bay maintained by CDR Tran. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ali Bayless


Where are you from? What do you do before coming to the Sette?
I was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1981 with my brother and sister and lived in Illinois. After medical school, I worked in the Cook County Emergency Room in Chicago, the same hospital where they filmed the popular NBC show ER. I also worked at the federal prison in Chicago, which I really enjoyed because it was fast-paced and exciting. I saw some crazy stuff!

What is the United States Public Health Service?
It is a uniformed branch of the federal government under the Department of Health and Human Services. We are responsible for looking out for people’s welfare and health all over the world. Onboard the Sette, I work as an emergency doctor for everyone on the ship because we travel to very remote areas, outside of emergency services capabilities.

What’s the most challenging condition you’ve had to treat at sea?
I treat a lot of seasickness! But the most challenging is probably trying to suture a wound while the ship is rocking, that’s not easy. I have also had to cut a fish hook out from a guy’s back, and he fainted.

What do you do to help pass the time?
I love to cook; particularly, Vietnamese food and all types of baked goods. I also like to garden, which is tricky at sea. You have to cover the plants with plastic when the seas are rough because the salt will kill them.

What is your favorite thing about your job?
I love the people–talking to and meeting new people on the ship that come from all over the country and the world. I also love to explore all of the interesting places we go: Guam, Saipan, and Samoa.

We thank CDR Koes, Chief Engineer Caseria, Lead Fisherman Dunlap, CDR Tran, and all the other fine officers and crew from the Oscar Elton Sette and the Reuben Lasker, who are working their hardest to make HICEAS a success. We simply could not do it without you!

Previous: HICEAS Hilite: Diving into the Secret Lives of Short-Finned Pilot Whales Next: From Graduate Studies in Beaufort, North Carolina, to Measuring Seas in Hawaii with the Beaufort Scale

Last updated by Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center on August 26, 2022