Saori Zurita is a Data Processor on the Fugro Discovery vessel, one of the Fugro vessels searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Voyage to Nowhere
It’s one thing to gaze romantically out to sea, dreaming of adventure and pondering what lies beyond the horizon. But boarding a ship that will travel for 6 days straight before reaching its destination - a point of complete isolation, where it will spend the next 6 weeks scanning the seabed - is something else entirely. Offshore work isn’t for the faint hearted, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But it seems Saori wouldn’t have it any other way.
Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a Puerto Rican father, Saori later moved to California with her family and insists on calling it home. “I’ve lived in Perth for 7 years now, and I love it here,” says Soari. “But home will always be where my family is.” It’s clear from the moment you meet her that, despite the distance, family is all that really matters.
As a data processor on board the Fugro Discovery, Saori is part of a 180-strong team out searching the southern Indian Ocean for the missing MH370 plane – one of the greatest aviation mysteries of our time. She joined the project during the early recon stage in mid 2014 and has stuck with it ever since.
While Saori has three ports of origin (Japan, California and now Perth), the search for MH370 has just one. Every 6 weeks the various crews set sail from Fremantle, only to return 6 weeks later. Having Customs classify each journey as a ‘Voyage to Nowhere’ allows Fugro to avoid discarding all the remaining food on the vessel when they return home each swing. (Given 6 tonnes of food goes out each time, its an important classification!) Voyage to Nowhere is also a metaphor for the journey the crew takes each time they set sail, not heading somewhere (as most voyages do), but headed for something.
Before moving to Australia, Saori spent two years working for Fugro in San Diego, which has helped her to rack up a staggering 10 years with the company. “I still feel like I just got here,” she says. As to why almost a decade feels like just a fraction of that, Saori puts it down to the people she meets working offshore. “Plus, Fugro has sent me around the world,” she beams. “Not all jobs are like that.”
Saori’s role in the search demands long working hours. It also brings its fair share of responsibility. On a good swing the vessels can each scan between 5,000 km2 and 6,000 km2 of the seafloor, with around 8GB of data being collected each day. It’s a big undertaking, but Saori focuses on the positives of the job.
One thing that does weigh on Saori’s mind, however, is the distance her job puts between her and her family. “For me the hardest part is that the remoteness of the search location means I can’t be there for my family. I can’t just jump on a plane and head home if something happens,” she says. “That worries me, and it’s probably what plays on my mind the most.”
Despite the worry that comes along with the project, Saori talks humbly of her involvement. “It’s a really big project, so we all want to do our very best. I feel honoured to be able to help out,” she says. “If the weather is getting rough, or things are getting tough, we can’t complain because we all know why we are there and what we need to accomplish. The families of those who went missing are never far from our thoughts, and I find that brings me back to reality.”
According to Peter Foley - Program Director for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) - helping to connect the victims’ families to the search is an important part of the process.
“This project is largely a humanitarian one. Everyone involved is very aware of the needs of the victims’ families, and sensitive to their desire to be close to the search,” says Peter. “Humanising the search is also a way to keep the crew motivated, because it’s really not an easy job they’re out there doing. It reminds us all why we are here and how important what we’re looking for really is.”
Part of the ATSB’s role is to act as intermediaries - keeping the families informed and facilitating their requests to reach out to the search crews, Peter explains. “Occasionally we get requests from family members to send cards, messages and videos to the crew to thank them for the work they are doing. We’ve also helped some families to visit the Fugro vessels in Fremantle, which must be quite a humbling experience for the crew.”
Back on board the Discovery, currently docked in Fremantle port, Saori has just returned from a well-earned 6 week break. She seems relaxed, perhaps even upbeat ahead of her next swing - departing later that day. Even close to two years into the project, the start of each new Voyage to Nowhere brings a new sense of excitement for the entire crew - this may just be the trip when they find what they are looking for.