Science

Skepchick at Sea, Part 5!

Just got another missive from our favorite ocean-bound geologist, Evelyn. Enjoy!

-Rebecca

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I can hardly believe it, but my Ninetyeast Ridge cruise is more than half over! I have been at sea for nearly a month now, and in about twenty-five days the R/V Roger Revelle will arrive in Singapore. I am excited as on the way into port we will likely pass by the volcano Krakatoa. Hopefully, we can convince the captain to go slowly and give us a good look at the volcanic edifice. There is a small amount of the volcano above sea level, and we should be able to see the volcano’s underwater topography with the multibeam bathymetry. Hopefully, anyway!

Really, I don’t feel that I have been at sea very long. I feel that I have been at sea for a week or two, at most. Certainly, time feels very different out here. Perhaps this is because every day is very similar. There are no weekends or days off, so the days blend into each other easily. One quickly looses track of the days of the week. The ship operates twenty-four hours, so the hours of the day also blend together because there are always people working. In the labs four in the morning is not very different from four in the afternoon. Time also probably feels different because the scenery never changes. While the ship is moving all the time, often at a fast pace of 12 knots or so, the landscape doesn’t change much. There’s always endless water and waves, as far as the eye can see. Up north when we were still in the shipping lanes, we would often see container ships on the horizon. Now that we are further south, however, there are few other vessels. Inside, the landscape doesn’t change at all. Here at sea, my workspace and my living space are the same. Everything in my day is contained within the 273 foot long ship: my bedroom, the petrology lab, the geophysics lab, the galley, the library, the gym, the laundry room, et cetera.

While there are times when I wish I could take a walk someplace besides the treadmill or the deck of the ship, I am enjoying the simplicity of life at sea. I don’t have to think about my day, too much. I just show up for my watches and work a few extra hours when there are many samples to process or when I want to read some background material on the ridge. My morning commute is easy and takes twenty seconds or so: I just walk one flight of stairs to the lab. Three times a day delicious meals appear like magic in the galley, so I don’t have to spend time grocery shopping and cooking. The only domestic chore I have to do is my laundry and even then the washers and dryers are free, unlike in my apartment back in Boston where I pay $4 for every load! Indeed, I don’t have to pay for anything out here at sea, so I’m putting some funds away for my upcoming travels. When I want a break from work, there are several shelves of great books and an impressive collection of TV shows and movies. Every evening there’s generally people in the galley playing cards or board games. There’s also a hot tub, which is appreciated even here in the tropics. The days are sweltering outside, but at night the temperature drops off steeply. Recently, we’ve also had some strong winds which make one feel cold even during the day. Soaking in the hot tub is also nice because although I am constantly surrounded by water, I can’t swim in the ocean. I don’t swim laps in the hot tub, but at least I can get wet.

In any case, I never feel bored here at sea. If nothing else, there’s plenty of interesting people among both the scientists and the crew with whom I can strike up a conversation. I particularly enjoy chatting with the crew about their lives at sea. Many of them spend half the year or more aboard ships. Some of the crew have been going to sea for thirty years or more. This afternoon, for instance, I had a very interesting conversation with the head cook about lettuce. Yes, lettuce… who knew lettuce could be so interesting? Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve been at sea too long, but I found the lettuce conversation fascinating. The cook and I ended up chatting for twenty minutes about various ways of preserving vegetables, particularly lettuce. Remarkably, a month into our trip we still have fresh lettuce in the salad bar. I asked the cook how this was possible, and he explained how he purchases hydroponic lettuce heads that keep growing, albeit slowly, on the ship. We should have fresh lettuce for at least another week although many of the other vegetables are looking wilted and brown recently. I don’t think the cucumbers and tomatoes will last much longer, and our dinners have been largely accompanied by canned or frozen vegetables. Regardless, the food is still excellent and abundant. After our chat about lettuce, I asked the cook about how he prepares for two months of feeding twenty-five hungry scientists and twenty even more hungry crew members. The amount of food the cook orders in port is staggering: hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of meat, flour, sugar, cheese, vegetables, beef stock, and– very importantly for morale– cases upon cases of ice cream. One can help oneself to ice cream any time of day, and I appreciate that ice cream on days when I work out on the hot deck of the ship! There’s a small freezer of ice cream in the galley that is always stocked.

For the most part, I’ve adjusted to my life here at sea. I’ve made new friends and colleagues, and I’ve gained my sea legs. I no longer fall over with every jolt, and I no longer notice that I am walking in arcs or circles, moving with the ship’s motion instead of in straight lines. I’ve learned to time my work in the lab so that the ship helps me. I reach forward for something when the ship is rolling in the direction I want to go, and I no longer leave pens or other easily-rolled objects loose on countertops. I almost forgot I was living on a moving ship.

The past two days, though, the winds have picked up, and the seas have become quite rough. For awhile, the winds were hovering above 30 knots, and the waves were crashing quite fiercely against the ship (see attached photograph). Suddenly, doing the most simple of tasks became very challenging as the ship rolled and pitched. In the morning I had great trouble getting dressed as the ship kept rolling me away from the pant leg or t-shirt I was trying to put on. Eating was a challenge, even with the non-stick mats and cup holders the cooks put out in the galley. There were several spills, all by scientists not accustomed to holding onto their plates while eating. Walking anywhere became a great challenge. I certainly crashed into a number of walls and had several doors slammed back in my face as I tried to open them! In the labs, our rock samples began rolling off of tables, and we had to chase them down, finally rigging up barriers to keep them in place.

The greatest challenge of all, however, has been sleeping. For the past two nights, I have been alternately rolled into a wall and nearly rolled out of bed all night, and the waves have crashed with a loud BOOM BOOM BOOM against the ship. My room is in the bow, so I hear the waves sloshing against the side of the ship every night. Most nights, I find the sound comforting. I mean, people often pay good money for “sounds of the ocean” relaxation tapes. I, on the other hand, listen to the sounds of the ocean for free every evening. The last two nights, however, I though the waves were going to crash through the hull into my bedroom. Every so often, something on one of the decks above my room would get loose and go crashing (probably a rock or a piece of equipment the scientists forgot to tie down), and I waited for something to come through the ceiling, too. Much of the past two nights I didn’t sleep at all and at most I probably had twenty minutes of straight sleep before waking up again. Needless to say, I woke up a little tired this morning and with a headache. When I did sleep a little last night, I dreamed about the soft and STATIONARY hotel bed in Thailand where I slept before boarding the ship.

After a couple of nights of food and water sloshing everywhere and fitful sleeping, I was a little grumpy in addition to being tired and having a headache. Actually, most people were grumpy, especially the technicians and the head scientists, who were concerned because the seas were too rough to do much science. For twenty hours or so, the ship gathered no new data. Because ship time is so expensive (about $25,000 a day), the ship generally operates twenty-four hours a day. However, the seas were so rough that we had to pull in the magnetometer and the seismic air guns the geophysicists were using the study the seafloor. We thought about trying to dredge, but the winds were too strong for even dredging. This cruise is primarily a dredging cruise with thirty planned dredges to collect rock samples (we’ve done sixteen so far). However, the dredging is interspersed with two to three day seismic surveys during which the geophysicists collect magnetic and seismic data to learn more about the structure of the seafloor. The storm hit in the middle of one of the geophysics sessions. During the rough seas, only the mutlibeam sonar mapping system was left running, but the waves were so choppy that the data was meaningless. There were so many errors in the data that the topographic lines on the map came out too thick, too thin, or running across each other in strange curly-cues and figure eights. The seafloor looked alternately too flat, too steep, or– at times– like something from a Dr. Suess book. Some of the students tried to edit the data points to improve the map. This can be done by removing points that are clearly ridiculous– that is, points that give extremely high or low points relative to their neighbors. However, the points were so scattered in the multibeam data collected in the rough weather that we joked that one might as well remove all points except the end two and then just draw a straight line on the page. One can always fit a line well to just two points.

The weather the past few days was not good for our science or our sleep, but aside from that I kind of liked the rough weather as it was exciting. During the storm yesterday morning I put on a life vest and went out on the fantail of the ship to watch as the technicians and geophysicists pulled in the seismic lines. The waves were very impressive and for a moment I was reminded, again, of how alone we are out here. We’ve traveled to the south of the main shipping lines, so we rarely see other ships and boats. All I saw were white-capped blue-black waves, stretching off to the horizon in all directions. If anything happened to ship out here, I realized it would take a long time for help to reach us.

I was also reminded of how alone we are when I earlier asked one of the technicians what the weather forecast was for the near future.

“Forecast?” Meghan, the technician, replied in a puzzled tone. “We are the forecast,” she explained.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Aren’t there satellite maps or something to interpret?”

“Sure,” she replied. “There’s satellite data, but they don’t bother creating weather forecasts for out here. Ships don’t go here very frequently. They have a weather report now for the area, but that’s only because this ship is calling in and reporting the weather. The broadcast consists of our real-time observations.”

Fortunately, early this morning the winds died down slightly. The geophysicists were able to put the magnetometer and one seismic gun back in the water. The seismic data and multibeam data are not the greatest, but data processing will help and at least we’re collecting useful data again! As long as the weather holds, the geophysics survey should finish by midnight tomorrow. We have already selected our next dredge locations, so we should start collecting our next rocks tomorrow night. I plan on becoming nocturnal again. Whenever there’s a dredge, I try to be awake. We have almost finished putting away the rocks from our dredges this last week, so I’m eager to collect more rocks!

Aside from the recent weather, our luck this last week has been mostly good. We had a marathon few days of dredging. I think we’ve done six or seven dredges since I last wrote, and we have hundreds more pounds of rock. We dredged one seamount, and the dredge basket became stuck three times. We broke the basket twice and brought up almost no rocks, but the third dredge came up unbroken and with some very beautiful, fresh basalts– just what we need for geochemistry and dating of the seamount. Some of the basalts even have fresh-looking plagioclase, which is an especially good mineral to use for argon geochronology as it has such high concentrations of potassium, the element which decays to the argon we use to determine the age of the mineral. Our three dredges at the next seamount came up very full. We had three dredges in a row of three hundred pounds of rock or more.

(I’ve cut out some repeat info about the “pink dredge” but I’m including the muffin/pink rock pic because it’s too funny — ed.)

Be sure to keep an eye on the Revelle web cames and to check the updates on the official expedition website: www.joilearning.org/sea90e

All the best,

Evelyn

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Previously on Evelyn’s NinetyEast Adventures: 1, 2, 3, 4

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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9 Comments

  1. Again, many thanks for these entries. Your description of adapting to shipboard routine is interesting.

    I particularly like your conversation with the ship's cook The infrastructures that support activities like months-long sea voyages are something most of us don't think about. But virtually no aspect of modern civilization, let alone expeditions that are weeks from any other help, is possible without them.

    Here's to your safe return to that stationary bed. And thanks to the blog editors.

  2. The days running together is something all too familiar for me. I work in a camp in nothern Canada where I spend six weeks at a time. Last week I am sure I had two July 7th. The compensation for being away is working with and learning from a cross section of the population that I would other wise never meet.

    I am envious of your being at sea and you are making me want to go into grad school.

    I look forward to your next adventure

  3. It all sounds rather dreadful to me, but it's very interesting to experience it vicariously through you. It's a grand adventure you'll always remember, and I'm pleased you're keeping us informed! (Although there's a conspicuous lack of hot tub pics :) )

  4. I have a technique for making the days run together, too. I call it “alcohol”.

    I have a technique for the same, except I call mine insomnia, procrastination, laziness, and a lack of a defined schedule.

    If it weren't for scheduled podcasts, I'd probably have no clue what day it is. It's Thurnesday…right?

  5. I just have to say that it is so cool to get an inside look at an expedition of this type! I would love to have an adveture like this at some point in my life.

    I do wonder, though… how do they keep the water in the hot tub? I have a mental image of the entire hot tub emptying out onto the deck and sloshing about. Do they drain it in rough weather and then re-fill it?

  6. Wright said: I particularly like your conversation with the ship’s cook The infrastructures that support activities like months-long sea voyages are something most of us don’t think about.

    I do! I’ve always been a fan of explorers’ stories, solo circumnavigations (sailing), etc. and I love the lists of provisions from yore. Fortunately there’s no need to carry livestock anymore, but even so the planning (and unforseen circumstances) still must be tricky and requires experience. The hydroponic lettuce sounds interesting. The ice cream availability is great too! On an island we visit off Connecticut that chooses not to have electricity, the gas refridgerators have only been strong enough in recent time to keep ice cream reasonably solid. The wonders of refridgeration!

    I also find it interesting that time on the water seems to be zipping by quickly, which must mean Evelyn is really busy. I’ve always felt that away from all the usual distractions that eat up time in slots, that time seems longer on the water. But then I wasn’t working…

    I’m also wondering if Evelyn will have that rocking feeling for a day or so when she sleeps on land. I guess it might depend on the weather.

    Thanks for sharing, Evelyn!

  7. July 14, 2007 at 2:14 pm, kellbelle1020 wrote:

    I do wonder, though… how do they keep the water in the hot tub? I have a mental image of the entire hot tub emptying out onto the deck and sloshing about. Do they drain it in rough weather and then re-fill it?

    I suppose they just put the lid on :)

    It does sound like a very interesting trip though. And I'm also wondering if Evelyn will get land-sick the first day or two after the trip is over.

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