First nBOSS service run!

60%, 78.43%, 83%, 85% data recovery…the guesstimates weren’t sounding overly optimistic for our first service run of the nBOSS network. As I headed out to Borneo, via a Munro compleation party in Glen Shiel, all the things that could have gone wrong were going though my mind – we’d put the regulators in the wrong mode, the soldering had failed, the instruments had been flooded, elephants had trampled the solar panels and so on. It was a relief therefore, to hear that the first four stations, including the one on Mt Kinabalu, that the other’s had serviced while I was still en-route were all looking in great shape!

Screen to show data from the station on Mt Kinabalu installed at the park HQ

As soon as I arrived at Kota Kinabalu airport I headed north with Simone, Felix and Chuan to the very first site we’d installed back in March. We were joined there by two colleagues from MetMalaysia. Apart from a very stiff cap on the firewire cable, everything went well here. However, we were pretty slow so decided to leave our next site for the next day and spend the night in Kudat. After over 32hrs of being awake a bed was very welcome!

Colleagues from MetMalaysia putting the finishing touches on the newly serviced station near Kota Belud

The next day our team headed out to three sites. The first was at a school near Kudat. Again everything went well. The MetMalaysia people were highly amused by my shouting that one of them had a giant spider on them – apparently it wasn’t poisonous, but it was a good 15cm or more in diameter so I feel my alarm was justified! From Kudat we had a long drive round to our next site on a palm plantation south of Pitas. This was a site I was quite worried about because we hit ground water when digging the hole on the installation, but again everything seemed to be well. While we waiting for the data to download – with the older firmware on most of the instruments this takes about 35-40minutes – Simone cracked out his stove and espresso maker to make some fresh coffee. Our final site of the day was on a small plantation very close to the road, and once again nothing seemed to have gone wrong, so we were able to be on the road to Sandakan just as the sun was setting. The other teams had also had good days in terms of data recovery, however Nick, Tim, Charlotte and Linda had got stuck in the mud getting back from their site! Thankfully helpful locals were able to pull them out and they could get back on their way to Telupid.

Simone happy with his coffee

Our first stop the following morning was to the site at UMS Sandakan. Part of the specialism of this campus is agricultural research and the station was located in an area with lots of test plantations. There was some water around the stick the breakout box was on, but this didn’t seem to have affected the data at all. We stopped for an early lunch of fruit before heading to our second site of the day, deep in a palm planation. Getting to this site when we had done the scouting was a bit tricky, but we’d found a better way out and had used this to get in to install the instrument in March. Unfortunately Google maps was unaware of this better way and we spent probably the best part of two hours getting increasingly confused and lost. In the end, we went back to the main road and took the better way, eventually getting the site mid-afternoon. We were pretty hot and tired, however out mood was lifted by seeing the quite impressive fence that the plantation had built around the site. It was after dark again when we made it to Lahad Datu, and for me, finally met up with the others on the trip for the first time!

A substantial fence and only slightly inaccurate sign!

The next day each of the three groups had just one station to service, but they were all long drives. My group headed to the Danum Valley conservation area along a surprisingly good dirt road. Here the plan was to install a Guralp Radian seismometer and Minimus digitiser in order to test this new type of instrument, as well as to service the seismometer already there. The position of the masses in the instrument was a bit far from ideal, and after centering didn’t resolve the issue we ended up sending repeated lock and unlock commands. This solved the mass position issue, however we found we then couldn’t lock one of them. We wanted to do this prior to digging the hole for the new instrument and so spent the next couple of hours trying to get it to work. The hole for the Radian was dug very efficiently by people from Danum valley conservation centre, hard work in the very hot and humid conditions. One of the exciting things about the Radian is that it can apparently work at any angle and has an internal magnetometer so you don’t need to align it to north. This means once you’ve got a hole, it’s mainly a case of putting it in the ground. It will be interesting to see how the data compares with the Grualp 3ESPD situated next it.

Radian seismometer installed at Danum Valley

After a long couple of days we were ready for our rest day. We drove from Lahad Datu to Tawau and on the way we went to the Madai Caves. The massive caverns in the limestone were impressive in their own right, but they were made even more interesting by being shown around by one of the people who collects birds nests (for birds nest soup) in them. The bamboo ladders and scaffolding that they put up to reach the nests looked quite terrifying to climb up! After stopping for lunch we decided it actually did make sense to try and service a couple of stations to save several hours extra driving the next day. We headed to a school most of the way to Semporna where we had tasty deep fried bananas while waiting for the data to download.

Madai Caves

Having done the site the previous day, we had a very straightforward service not far from the main road from Tawau to the Maliau Basin, our destination for the evening. While everything was fine at our site, Nick’s car went to the first station we’d had any data loss from. This was the one where we’d ended up installing the solar panel very close to the building because we were told the elephants would trample it otherwise. Unfortunately this meant the solar panel was shaded part of the day so the battery had repeatedly lost charge, and the instrument wasn’t able to record. They switched the battery for a new one and moved the panel out of the shade – hopefully the elephants will stay away! Because we were at the Maliau Basin Field Studies Centre quite early I was able to go for a nice, but tough, run and then the evening was spent watching and listening to the amazing storm that lit up the jungle and rattled the buildings.

Stopping by the seismometer at the Maliau Basin Field Studies centre on my run

It was an early start the next morning for a very long drive along a quite bad road to SK Saliku. Tim had joined our car while Chuan went with Nick and Charlotte to visit the site in the Maliau Basin. It took us the best part of 3 hours to drive the ~60km to the site from the main road, including a small detour where one of the bridges had collapsed. The river by the village was too high for us to drive through this time so we parked up and crossed by a small swing bridge to walk the last few hundred meters to the school where the station is deployed. It was school holidays when we deployed the instrument, so it was quite nice to meet the kids at the school this time. They seemed to really enjoy seeing the signals they produced on the seismometer by jumping and gave us some delicious rambutan fresh from the tree. Sadly we couldn’t stay very long and we had many hours driving ahead of us to get back to the main road and then on to Sapulut Lodge where we were staying the night. Omry, Conor and Epip were already there when we arrived – they had also had a tough drive, and got stuck in mud many times: they ended up walking the last few kilometres to their station because it was so bad!

Students at SK Saliku jumping

After a quick stop for fuel, it was another quite long drive along a rough road the next morning to get to another school where we had a station deployed. The geology in the road cuts as we drove along was quite interesting to observe. After we’d serviced the station – another full data recovery – the school generously provided us with a tasty lunch, including the nicest rice I’ve ever tasted. Back on the road, we made good time getting to Keningau, so decided to service the site we had scheduled for the following day, where they had some very cute kittens.

Distributing one of the booklets on earthquakes and seismic hazard in Sabah

Chuan rejoined our car the next day and we headed back to Kota Kinabalu. Back in the city by lunchtime we went first to the airport to visit the MetMalaysia offices. In March we’d set up a computer here to obtain a copy of the data from their instruments, and so we popped by to take a copy of this. As it was taking a long time, we left it copying to come back another day. MetMalaysia confirmed to us that the weather was looking stormy for the next couple of days: the owner of the resort on Palau Mengalum wasn’t running any boats the following day because of high seas, meaning our plans had to be altered. The others spent the day servicing stations to the south of Kota Kinabalu. One of the ones that Nick’s group went to had some mysterious data gaps, but everything seemed okay when they got there – we think it might have been vegetation growing over the solar panel that had subsequently been trimmed. We also had a small amount of data loss at one of the stations that Omry, Conor and Epip went to due to some dodgy solder on the solar panel.

Downloading data from the computer at MetMalaysia

Although we couldn’t get to Mengalum Island, tour companies were still running trips to Mantananti Island, so the next morning me, Tim, Charlotte and Chuan got the bus up the coast to the jetties near Kota Belud to get a boat. When we eventually embarked, it was clear that there was something wrong with the engines on the boat as it travelled along the estuary. After some attempts to fix it, the crew decided to get a new boat, and eventually we headed out into the open sea for a somewhat terrifying experience! The waves were pretty big (I think ~2-3m high, possibly bigger) and by the time we arrived on the island an hour later we were completely soaked. We arrived about noon and the boat was meant to be leaving about 2pm, which didn’t leave much time for servicing the station. It was a couple of kilometres walk along the beach to the site, the wind whipping sand against our skin as we walked along. The site was a little away from the shore and surprisingly still, meaning there were quite a lot of mosquitos. We set the data downloading and headed back to paddle in the sea for a short while. About half an hour later we went back to check on the data download and found that 5 minutes before the end it had stopped working! We set the data downloading again, and this time it worked, but it was after the time the boat was meant to leave. Meanwhile Chuan had provisionally arranged a homestay for us in the case of us being trapped on the island overnight, however I decided it was worth seeing if there were any other boats still around who could get us back to the mainland. When we got back to the jetties we were in luck – there was one and they had space! The journey back was also very rough, but the boat was slightly bigger so it was a little less scary! Amazingly the bus back to Kota Kinabalu hadn’t left by the time we arrived back, so we managed to catch it. Our luck ran out, however, when it emerged that the bus had a flat tyre! In the end we got a taxi-bus back to the city where we were able to have very welcome showers and get something to eat.

The windswept beach on Palau Montanan

After the previous day’s adventures the following day was quite relaxed. Me and Nick went to buy some hard drives to make several copies of the data to take back to the UK and I went to pick up the data from MetMalaysia. It turned out the download had stopped part way through, so I just waited there this time to make sure everything worked this time.

Oh dear the tractor is stuck!

Gradually our numbers were dwindling as people headed home, so it was just me and Tim, joined by Felix and his student, that headed to Mengalum Island the following day. The sea was much calmer and so the journey was much more enjoyable! On the island we went in a pickup truck to the small watermelon plantation they are developing and then switched to tractor to get to the site. Unfortunately the tractor got stuck in one of the drainage ditches so we ended up walking the last few hundred meters. Once again everything was good at the site, but we had our first rain while downloading data of the trip – it had also rained while we were installing the site! Back at the resort we were generously provided with lunch and had time for a swim in the sea to celebrate servicing our final station!


In the end we’ve got something like 98% data recovery from this service run, which is better than anyone was imagining! It looks like our equipment set up is working well in terms of being protected from animal disturbance and water infiltration, which were some of the biggest worries. Now the fun begins: what will we be able to uncover beneath North Borneo?

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