Science! With humpback whales on the side…
Tuesday July 29
I completed my first 12-hour data collection work shift late last night and immediately went to the galley to ingest some calories before sleeping- not usually a good idea, but things are different on board a working ship.
For one thing, food always tastes better at sea. Perhaps its the fact someone else has prepared it for you, and our cook is excellent; she uses fresh fruits and vegetables, delicious and in-season, prepared well at each meal. Roasted squash, made-from-scratch soup, well-seasoned salads and soups on thick, warm bread. It’s nice to have a great deli down the passageway from the science lab!
Add to that: we have been engaging in physical work for many hours on a cold deck. With cold water running around our feet, and at times over our hands, as we gather water samples and look for plankton and trace amounts of mercury and cesium- the first, a persistent and toxic pollutant, the second, a radiation marker linked to the Fukushima accident.
All of this activity on a pitching deck means our metabolism is on supercharge. The sun is still warm, but the water and air is not, so we keep our skin covered against the ocean breeze and occasional splash of water. We wear hard hats and life jackets while working near the overhead cranes that lift the heavy water collection equipment off the deck, gently lower it into the sea, and retrieve it after it descends to nearly a mile deep water below us.
Also, on board a ship in rough seas, all of the body’s muscles are constant if low level at work: a pitching deck requires core muscles to respond quickly to small, sudden changes in the body’s center of gravity. A swinging door requires extra effort to open and close gently, to prevent it from slamming and awakening a sleeping crewmate down the passageway who has also been on a long shift. And every door and cabinet has an extra hook that must be unlatched to enter, and re-latched to secure. Drawers have sliding latches. Flat surfaces like galley tables and desks in the lab are covered with sticky material to keep cups, water collection bottles and/or computers from tumbling.
It’s a bit like a backpacking trip over challenging terrain, carrying extra weight, using new devices, and maneuvering through foreign, rough territory, except the engines are doing the work of moving everyone forward, while the ocean, wind and currents are occasionally doing their best to impede that forward momentum and toss everyone on the deck overboard.
I’ve never been to sea this long (12 days) before, but I happily jumped at the chance to participate in this research cruise, even before knowing the details of what sampling would be done. I enjoy being in the ocean, surrounded by sea life, but I prefer to do it while also doing science. Lounging on the Lido deck, reading novels while sipping cocktails and eating at the buffet would bore me to tears.
Yesterday, as we left port at 9 am and were in calm waters closer to shore, we practiced preparing, lowering and raising the CTD- a device for testing various components of ocean water. (C= conductivity, T= temperature, D= dissolved oxygen.) 30-liter plastic water bottles are attached and triggered to be opened via computer software, on command from the ship, to collect water at various depths. Other devices measure light transmission/water clarity and salinity. Careful notes are taken during this procedure, to record where/when the water was collected, longitude/latitude, surface water conditions, etc.
Once retrieved, delicate equipments must be rinsed with deionized water to clear it of salt and other debris that could interfere with recording information. Bottles are opened, samples collected, filtering of plankton is done, specimens are placed in small bags and frozen or refrigerated…and this is all done every hour. Time between stops at research stations goes quickly, and then- it’s time to don the hardhats, life vests, and prep the CTD for another dive.
I haven’t worked on this particular device before. It was a lot of learning in a short time, and my brain was tired as I began my first 12-hour shift.
But as we worked, we also saw many puffins flap by, looking exotic and awkward; they are actually more graceful swimming underwater than flying above. Various gulls swarmed overhead but not as loudly as aggressively as the ones down south. And yesterday afternoon, between specimen collections, I spotted a small pod of whales on the horizon, leaping, then turning tails up for dives, and blowing small clouds of mist into the air.
Being on the ocean, at times like this, is like heaven. But I also know a small change in water and/or atmospheric pressure can lead to an angry sea and quickly turn the ocean to hell for those of us on board.
Despite this possibility, I always sleep soundly and deeply on boats and ships- it’s a bit like sleeping in a water bed inside a moving car, constantly moving, with the engine humming through the bulkhead and other noises reminding you that water is nearby: splashes on the hull near your head, or a louder splash overhead as a taller wave washes over the deck.
Unfortunately, when my family travelled by car into the mountains for camping tips, I was often the one who got carsick from the twists and turns. This also happened when we went sailing, but then I bought a boat and lived on board… and things improved. Perhaps sleeping on the water, being in near-constant contact with the sea, helped my body accept the pitching and rolling without complaint.
But going to sea on sailboats is one thing- working aboard a 135-foot diesel-powered boat in Alaskan waters is another. So my first day aboard, while still in port, I took one of the “-ine” drugs (bonine, dramamine etc.) as a preventive measure. I took another tablet the first morning at sea, before starting work, then 1/2 tab at night before bed, to help me sleep and ensure my stomach is up for the rolling seas that can come with little notice.
This morning, as I write this and prepare for my next shift, the seas are indeed rough and clouds have moved in. (I tease the night shift crew, and tell them “it was calm and sunny when I went to bed- you broke the ocean!”) The DVDs and books on the library shelves shift side to side as I write, the empty chairs across the table, fastened to the galley floor, rotate as if occupied by ghosts turning for a better view out the porthole.
Yet my stomach is still calm as I eat a breakfast, drink coffee, and write this post, marveling at how my inner ocean has found peace with the rolling sea around me, hoping it continues for the duration of the cruise…
And then the Chief Scientist comes in and announces: whales!
I grab my binoculars, run up 2 levels to the bridge… but they’ve gone. We joke the captain used them as a pretext to attract company during a slow time between stopping at research stations, and swap a few stories about past voyages while scanning the horizon in front of us. Nothing.
I turn to return below, and through the windows looking back, over the research deck in the aft section of the ship, that’s when I see … a humpback whale. It leaps, lifting its massive body completely out of the water, creating tall waves as it slams back into the sea. Small “puffs” of whale breath dot the horizon: there are more, just out of sight.
They were likely the same whales the Captain had seen, before they dove to let the noisy ship pass overhead, then resume their surface activities.
And that’s how I spent my second morning at sea… so far.
My official 12-hour work shift begins in 45 minutes. More water to collect, more specimens to freeze… and perhaps a few more whales to observe.