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Hollis Hedberg

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

The Doodlebugger Diary recounts the experiences of geophysicists during their working lives. I’ve published extensively on my own experiences and encourage those of you with experiences of your own to also contribute. Your fellow industry professionals would love to hear your stories.


I’ve been occasionally reprinting a series of early 1980’s articles from the GSI Shotpoints and GSI Grapevine that can be found at http://gsinet.us/. I also have reprinted various Western Geophysical Profile articles. These can be found at https://library.seg.org/page/western-profile.



Conceived and Written by John S. Kostanic, Western Geophysical, originally published in the 1974 Winter Western Profile

Recounted by Scott Singleton


Prolog by Scott Singleton


Hollis Hedberg
Dr. Hollis Hedberg in a stereotypical mid-20th century professional portrait.

Hollis Hedberg (1903-1988) (Figure 1) worked most of his career for Gulf Oil, the first half of which was spent in Venezuela exploring what was then uncharted territory and creating detailed sequence stratigraphy of many parts of the country, including around Lake Maracaibo. He then became Chief Geologist and then VP of Gulf Oil Operations, where he stayed until retirement in 1968. This overlapped with teaching stratigraphic systems at Princeton University from 1959-1971. He was an advocate for ‘looking at the other side of the basin’ during his career, and after retirement, assisted with Project Mohole which was the first attempt to drill through the earth’s crust and into the Mohorocivic discontinuity.


The Hollis Hedberg, the world's most sophisticated geophysical vessel, shown during sea trials.

On his far-reaching vision, Gulf Oil launched their first deep sea seismic exploration ship, the 220’ R/V Gulfrex, in 1967. This ship worked around the world until 1975, surveying 160,000 miles. It was replaced in 1974 with the more modern R/V Hollis Hedberg (Figure 2), named of course in honor of Dr. Hedberg [1].

Onboard computer center. Tape decks can be seen in the background. The foreground shows two plotters for QC plots as well as final processed sections (yes! Paper records!). [2]

The Gulfrex proved the concept of having a completely mobile, self-contained exploration system with labs for marine geology as well as a processing center to handle the huge volumes of seismic data acquired by the vessel. Based on this huge success, Gulf Oil management decided to build from scratch a vessel whose primary mission was to acquire and process seismic data (Figure 3). This represented a $6 million investment. In addition to seismic acquisition and processing equipment, the vessel contained a magnetic gradiometer to quantify the diurnal variations in the magnetic field, a hydrocarbon ‘sniffer’ to detect oil and gas seeps, and was guided by a Loran C system which was state of the art at the time [2].


I came across the following story in the 1974 Winter Western Profile about the launching of this historic vessel and thought everyone would enjoy hearing it, as brief as it might be. I remember seeing this vessel while working in the Gulf on my little 100’ seismic boat and yearning to be on a research ship such as that.


After the Western Geophysical folks recount the launching of the ship, I will wrap up with an epilog that recounts ‘the rest of the story’ as Paul Harvey would say…


Rigging-up and Launching


VANCOUVER, British Columbia, was the staging area for the building, launching, and rig-up of the most modern and sophisticated geophysical vessel in the world today. It was also the birth of Party 172, which includes personnel from Party 72 and many new members who recently joined the Company and were fortunate enough to experience, from the ground up, a completely new operation.


Rig-up of Gulf Oil Company's new vessel called the Hollis Hedberg (named after Dr. Hollis Hedberg, who conceived the idea of the Gulfrex Project) was completed in six weeks. During this time the crew members were encamped at the Coach House, North Vancouver, and made the daily 4-mile journey to the Burrard Dry Dock by way of the "Shipyard Express," a mini-bus that was at the crew's disposal--and at the mercy of a certain bleary-eyed, bearded driver named Sam.


Installation of the seismic system went off rather smoothly under the expertise and direction of Instrument Supervisor (and part-time bus driver) Sam Crawford. Everything seemed to work on the first firing up--much to everybody's surprise, but, of course, a most welcome result. The energy source was the air gun system. We installed the two guns, compressors, and Caterpillar diesel drives as well as the other back-deck equipment, such as seismic and magnetometer reels, davits, and the like.


Hardly had the final coat of paint dried on the lab floor when members of the press media visited the ship to look over, write, and photograph the latest in technological seismic achievements. On the following day representatives from Gulf Oil, Western Geophysical, and Cayman Island Vessels (the owners of the vessel), with state and government officials from the various geological and geophysical departments of British Columbia and Canada and other guests, were present to witness the christening ceremony of the Hollis Hedberg. On the platform party was our own president, Booth B. Strange, accompanied by seven fellow company presidents, Canada's Minister for the Environment, and other notable dignitaries.


Among those who came up from Houston especially for the occasion, in addition to President Strange, were: Mrs. Strange, Senior Vice President N. P. Cramer and Mrs. Cramer, Senior Vice President M. H. Dingman and Mrs. Dingman, Vice President Ben B. Thigpen and Mrs. Thigpen, and Manager of Operations-Specialized Worldwide Marine Crews Z. H. Baker and Mrs. Baker.


The christening was performed by Mrs. M. J. Hill, wife of the president of Gulf Global Exploration Company, followed by speeches given by the representatives of the companies concerned. Then to the background accompaniment of a brass band, everyone followed the red carpeted path to board the Hedberg and inspect the latest in marine seismic exploration technology. Later that evening a reception was held at the Bayshore Inn, where 400 guests gathered to finalize the events for the day of May 4, 1974.


Some of the specifications of the Hedberg are: She is 202 feet long, with a 42-foot beam and 14-foot draft. The power is supplied by twin 1,960-horsepower diesels, which can give a speed of up to 14 knots (this was to be proven later in the Cook Inlet, where she was making some 18 knots, with a little help from the local current). She has the fuel capacity to operate around the clock for periods of up to 60 days. The complement is a total of 47--16 crew members and 31 scientists and technicians. With her capability, visits to the polar regions cannot be ruled out.


Vancouver certainly offered things to see and do during any off-work moments. Our resident pilot, and "head" of "Ripcord Airlines," Observer Barry D. (Kamikaze) Brace, would make periodic runs, with three fellow crew members, over the surrounding mountains to look at a glacier or to take in some of the splendor of the countryside. Supervisor John R. Pfingsten was lucky enough to go along on one of these rides and, on disembarking, admitted that Barry was an excellent pilot. In the meantime, however, one of the guys could not help wondering why John's knees were trembling so violently.


Party Manager Roger Johnson certainly had his hands full at the shipyard, organizing and preparing for the Hedberg's maiden voyage. Roger, though, had a slight advantage in that he was reared in Vancouver and was quite familiar with procedures for dealing with the local establishments. Once out to sea, we headed north, "North to Alaska, North to where the rush is on" (as in the song, the only difference being that the gold is now black).


An amusing incident on the way up occurred when we had to take refuge from an oncoming storm and anchored down in Yakutat Bay. Evidently our unexpected arrival was much to the consternation of the village populace, who thought that we had all of the signs of being Russian. Their suspicions were further aroused when one of the village folk eyeballed the visiting mystery ship through binoculars and became puzzled by the flag flying from astern. He reportedly told the others that the flag looked Russian but that he just could not make out why the symbol included a turtle and pineapple. Had the Russians switched the hammer and sickle for the turtle and pineapple? On establishing contact with us via a boarding party, they soon learned that we were not from the U.S.S.R. but from the United States and that the flag was that of the Cayman Islands where the ship is registered.


The Fourth of July saw the Hedberg in Seward, Alaska, in time for the crew to see the famed "Mount Marathon Derby," in which runners from all parts of Alaska and other States compete. Their aim is to break the standing record of running from the town center to the top of the 3,000-foot Mount Marathon and back in 44 minutes. People of all ages enter; and one of the last ones home was a 56-year-old man, who made it in 1 hour and 40 minutes, which is not too bad when one takes into account the fact that a few of our crew tried the course some days later and clocked a sizzling time of 2 hours and 20 minutes-coming down!


A bit of the "Hollywood touch" was in the atmosphere when a camera and sound crew joined us in Homer, Alaska, to record on celluloid the sights and sounds of a geophysical crew in action (for a client documentary). For a few hectic days it was nothing but LIGHTS, ACTION, and CAMERAS! Everyone seemed to enjoy the momentary stardom--even though we felt as if we were being fried by the 3,000-or-so watts being put out by the battery of spotlights or were disconcerted by having a microphone poked under our very noses while endeavoring to take a satellite fix, make a tape change, or restore a bombed-out computer. Final scenes were shot from a jet helicopter out on prospect while the cable, guns, magnetometer, and deep tows were in the process of being put overboard. This necessitated quite a few replays, which fortunately did not include hauling in and out the 3,200-meter cable.


And that pretty much accounts for our first three months of operation. Now we get to settle in as one of the premier seismic boats in the world and many of us are hoping some far north (and south) polar operations are in our future.


Epilog


The original caption on this photo says “Data interpretation office” [2]. Yes, those are paper records being worked on. And you don’t see a computer workstation because they didn’t exist yet.

After several years of successful surveys conducted internationally and domestically (including along the West Coast), the Hollis Hedberg went back to the dock for a refit in late 1978 / early 1979. During this time the energy source was expanded from two air guns to eight 4,500 sq. in. guns, and the computer system was updated to handle higher processing loads. This was the first of its major refits.


During the Hedberg’s operational life, Gulf Oil rotated G&G staff and technicians through the boat on a regular basis (Figure 4). This created the base knowledge for their staff to become well-rounded professionals. I got a real kick out of the following description of this work (while remembering my own work offshore):

“Among GS&T scientists, Hedberg duty has proven an appealing and prestigious assignment - the chance to do one's professional thing aboard a yacht-like vessel and get a terrific tan in the bargain. Pressures to keep up with the demanding 24-hour-a-day schedule spark tension sometimes; yet there's a waiting list for duty assignments. Because the operation covers all aspects of exploration geophysics, it is producing a unique cadre of highly trained professionals and technicians for Gulf.” [3]

The Hollis Hedberg after a major refit in 1982 where a 60’ section was inserted into the midships of the vessel. [4]

After a few years working in the Gulf of Mexico, where exploration was being conducted with a frenzy (oil prices were above $100/barrel from August 1979 to December 1982), the vessel went back to the shipyard in late 1982. This time it was to the shipyard in Vancouver where it was built to undergo a major refit. The idea was to slice the ship in half and add a 60’ section to the midships. Apparently a 202’ long ship wasn’t big enough and they needed to make it a 262’ ship. This was performed over the winter of 1982/1983. During this time the newly disconnected bow section accidentally sank while undergoing the refit [4]. Oops. In addition to a several month delay, I’d hate to think how much that accident cost. Nonetheless, the vessel returned to action in early 1983 (Figure 5).


By 1982, however, the winds of change were blowing in the sails of the oil industry (pun intended). Oil peaked at $144.73 in April, 1980 and began a steady multiyear decline until dropping from $82.94 in October, 1985 to $28.43 in March, 1986 [5]. This steady decline precipitated its own industry reorganization. In Gulf’s case, corporate raider T. Boone Pickens claimed they were bloated and inefficient and made several hostile take-over bids. This messy saga included attempted mergers with Cities Service Company (known as Citgo), and then the eventual sale of Citgo to Occidental Petroleum and Gulf to Chevron which acted as a white knight against Pickens in 1984. But this involved two large oil companies merging and resulted in appearances of their CEOs before the Senate and the FTC, which was considering legislation to prevent the merger.


In a reminder to everyone out there who hasn’t been through this before, two large oil companies merging tends not to be good for employees (recent example: Oxy and Anadarko). The Pittsburg area, where Gulf was located, pretty quickly lost 900 PhD and research jobs and 600 headquarters jobs. The very extensive Gulf Labs research complex was donated to the University of Pittsburg to be used as a business and research complex.[6]


The Hollis Hedberg continued operations until it was decommissioned in 1985 after having surveyed over 200,000 miles. By this time there were several other oil company seismic research vessels and they all met a similar fate (someday I might follow this up with a story about the R/V Arco Resolution). This period marked the beginning of the end for the monolithic oil company business model that did everything itself and kept employees for life.


The industry has never been the same since.


REFERENCES

[1] Wikipedia – Hollis Hedberg (Hollis Dow Hedberg - Wikipedia)

[2] Continental Margins Geological and Geophysical Research Needs and Problems (1979), Appendix C: Research Vessel Hollis Hedberg: Exploration Capabilities (APPENDIX C: RESEARCH VESSEL HOLLIS HEDBERG: EXPLORATION CAPABILITIES | Continental Margins: Geological and Geophysical Research Needs and Problems |The National Academies Press)

[3] Gulf Science and Technology Company Gulf Oilmanac 6-80, pp. 2-4 (Hedberg Rules! (eti-geochemistry.com))

[4] Gulf Oil History – R/V Hollis Hedberg (GULF SHIP WEB PAGES (gulfhistory.org))

[5] Crude Oil Prices – 70 Year Historical Chart (Crude Oil Prices - 70 Year Historical Chart | MacroTrends)

[6] Wikipedia – Gulf Oil (Gulf Oil - Wikipedia)

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