Saturday, February 28, 2015

Seen around the ship: Part 2

The lighter side of life at sea.

Flying fish! I've seen them jump out of the water several times on other ships, but a couple jumped onto the Thompson deck. They wanted so badly to give their lives for science!

Just the neighborhood kids hangin' out.
Bananagrams! It's a spelling game like Scrabble, but much faster-paced.
The Downwind Apocalypse: a couple of boobies pooped all over the bow.
Adrian's 40th birthday meant a crazy wig and a pinata.
Coffee break on some giant floats

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Let's do some damage

Whenever things are going really well or the lander is on its way to the seafloor, Andrew says "Let's do some damage!" It's just his catch-phrase, I guess. We definitely did some damage to the seafloor this morning, because all four landers on board were deployed to the abyss. We started before dawn, kicking free vehicles overboard and pushing back the frontiers of science, one step at a time. 
Cliff and Michelle deploying the camera lander.

You're already familiar with the respiration lander, but what about the other three landers on the cruise? Well, allow me to introduce you. 

Mackerel on the bait arm of the camera lander.
We'll start with the baited camera. It's a metal frame with two video cameras to film fish, shrimp, and other scavengers on the deep seafloor. A mackerel is tied to the end of a long pole, and it serves as bait to attract the scavengers. We never know what, if anything, the camera has captured until it comes to the surface and we can download the data, so there's a certain element of surprise. A lot of times, Astrid will be watching the video in the lab and let out a "What's that?" - and immediately, scientists crowd around her laptop screen and start offering opinions on the identity of the animal in question. It's actually kind of cool to see. Scientists are very predictable, you know; we just can't resist a good question. Sometimes, the scavengers that show up to the bait interact with each other, swimming around or bumping into each other, eating each other, or chasing each other away. Back on land, someone will be responsible for counting, measuring, and identifying all the scavengers that showed up at the bait and describing their behavior. Biologists spend a lot of time with dead specimens, so it's really neat to see the animals live for once.

Squid on a fish hook. Yum.
Deploying the plankton pump lander.
After the camera lander, we usually deploy the baited trap. The trap is just what it sounds like: a fish-catcher. It's essentially a giant mesh box with openings in the sides and bait hung in various orientiations; in mesh bags or on hooks. For me, the best part about helping with the fish trap is setting the bait. While Astrid hangs mesh bags of mackerel inside, the rest of us slide pieces of squid onto hooks that dangle from the outside of the trap. The squid is sliced on a piece of scrap wood on deck, but if you stand far enough away, it almost looks like fancy appetizers on a cutting board. 

Last but not least is the plankton pump. The idea is to filter a whole bunch of water in the hopes of finding the larvae of abyssal organisms. Once we catch larvae, we can count and identify them to assess the potential for manganese nodule fields on the abyssal plain to be recolonized after a disturbance. The lander has two plankton pumps on it, and rather than call them boring things like A and B, Oliver labeled the pumps "Arnold" (as in Schwarzenegger) and "BBBB," after the famous biologist Edward Forbes (prounounced "four bees"). Yeah, we have our fun.

Our landers are all doing their damage at the deep seafloor, so we'll see what they bring us back tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Seen around the ship

Well, now that I've rambled about the lander for a while, it's time to show you the fun parts of life at sea. Practically every room on the ship is shared space, so we make life more entertaining for ourselves by posting funny messages. Here are some gems currently visible on the Thompson.

On the hand dryer in the bathroom.
Someone hung this blanket to shield their work station from the frigid 
air conditioning. Check out the attached label (enlarged below).

This appears on a diagram of an actual operation.
Diva posted motivational mantras for us every day.
For the record, it was a gummy worm.
It's a bad day when even the ship's navigation system says you'll never arrive.
This copper wire was used with one of the instruments on board, 
but someone thought it should have a different purpose. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Almost perfect

In just 22.5 hours, Andrew and I turned around the lander and were ready to send it back down to the abyssal seafloor. We only get 6 deployments throughout the cruise, and with 3 benthic chambers on the lander, that means 18 chances to collect good data. We need every single one of them. Science is all about replication, so we need as many data points as possible.

Unfortunately, it appears that nature has a different opinion - better said, nature has different priorities. She doesn't want us to collect our data, to uncover her mysteries, to steal her secrets. As of the second lander recovery today, the score stands:

Team Sweetman: 2
Forces of nature, failed electronics, and other random crap: 4

That's right, friends. None of the three benthic chambers on the most recent deployment worked. The sediment on the seafloor was much softer than we expected, so the lander sank in too far and the benthic chambers were full of mud. Granted, there's supposed to be some mud in them, but there's also supposed to be some water on top of the mud. When the lander got back on deck this afternoon, Andrew could tell right away: all mud. No samples.

The most frustrating thing is that the lander deployment was almost perfect! All the electronics functioned how they should; the lander fell and rose through the water column exactly as we hoped; the darn seafloor was just too soft.

For future deployments, we'll try to get information from other groups on board about the sediment composition before we send the lander down. There's another piece of equipment, a so-called megacore, that also gets driven into the mud, and how far it penetrates should tell us how soft the sediment is. As with most things, the solution here is more information and better communication.

We still have 4 lander deployments left, and as in most things, I choose the course of unrelenting optimism. We've gotten the bugs out now - literally and figuratively - so it should work. It will work. There is no other option.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Got data?

So we sent the lander down, and 2 days later we got it back. End of story, right? Wrong. Lander recovery is only the beginning.

As soon as the lander got on deck, Andrew and I swooped in to process the samples. I really wish I could show you some photos of the whole thing, but I didn't have a hand left to hold my camera - I needed 8 arms as it was. Out on deck, Andrew and I were surrounded by tubes, buckets, and bags. I had a pen in my hair, a Sharpie clipped to my shirt, and a notebook on my lap. It was quite the sight.

Crouching next to the lander, I felt a bit like a nurse in surgery. Andrew said "spatula;" I handed him one. "Falcon tube" and I placed it in his hand. If he held a closed lid toward me, I opened it, and I wrote down everything he said. Every once in a while, I had to run samples to the freezer inside, but when I returned, it was straight back to business.

After making it through our sediment samples, Andrew and I split up. He downloaded data from the optodes while I sieved the remaineder of the sediment for macrofauna. Four buckets worth of mud became four jars worth of animals, and I stashed them away. The whole process took several hours, and at one point, another graduate studet on board stepped in to help Andrew so I could finish sieving. I was really thankful she could help.

We also played around with the unresponsive computer. If you recall, just before our last deployment, we were unable to commuicate with one of the three lander computers (the brains that control the experiment at the seafloor). The battery had sufficient charge, so we were concerned something was wrong with the computer itself. Well, we eventually discovered a faulty connection between the battery and the computer. Half of me was frustrated that the problem was so simple, and the rest of me was relieved that the solution was so simple.

We spent most of the evening re-setting the lander for another deployment. That's right; it's going back down just 24 hours after coming up. It's a fast turnaround time, especially considering the technological problems we've been having, but we'll push through to be ready. We do it all for the sake of good data.

Poliris rises

My dear friends, do not be deceived. Appearances are not as always as they seem. You see, you have been misinformed: this whole time that I've been helping Andrew with the lander, I was actually working on a rocket ship.

The lander is nicknamed "Poliris," which is a play on words. It's said that she rises out of the water like the Polaris missile, and since Andrew's institute is IRIS, Polaris became Poliris. I first heard this nickname early in the cruise, and I've been anxiously waiting to see the lander rise out of the water ever since. We sent the acoustic signal to call her up from the seafloor yesterday morning, and from the very beginning, we were astounded. She rose like a spacecraft bound for the moon, launching herself into orbit with titan force.

Rise rates for the landers on board - not that anyone is
keeping score.
When you send an acoustic release signal, you listen first for a response from the lander to confirm that it was released. Then to make doubly sure it's rising from the seafloor, you send out a simple call-and-answer ranging signal. It's like playing Marco Polo with your equipment, except the lander responds with its depth. If you send the ranging signals a minute apart, you can get a good estimate of how fast the lander is rising. Our first range reading was 4162 m, but just a minute later, the lander had risen to 4079 m. That's 83 meters per minute. Freaky fast.

Lander recovery. Photo by Astrid Leitner.
Whenever landers come to the surface, we all go out to the bow and watch for it. Poliris popped out of the water with no problems, and even though I was hoping for more of a show, it was nice to see she had made it. Ok, here's where lander recovery gets complicated: we have to pull the ship up alongside it and pick it up out of the water somehow. We have to get very close to the lander - close enough that we can hook it with a long pole - but leave enough space so that the lander doesn't bang into the side of the ship. Thankfully, the ship's crew has a lot of experience with lander recoveries, and they work like a well-oiled machine. Once we have a line on the lander and it's under our control, we can use the crane to hoist it out of the water and place it on deck. The whole recovery operation went quite smoothly, and we got the lander back in good order. One recovery down!

Andrew signaling the lander recovery was A-Ok. Photo by Astrid Leitner.

Friday, February 20, 2015

There she goes

After about 8 hours of "final" preparations, we finally sent the lander down at 9 am. Deploying a lander is tricky business. The whole thing weighs about 3.5 tons. It's 7' high, not including the 10' mast, and maybe 5 or 6' across. She's a beast.

Andrew and I checked, then double-checked, then triple-checked the lander. We tightened down the screws. We made sure there were no air bubbles in the equipment. We applied high-vacuum grease to each of the electrical connections. We made sure all the connections were water tight.

Andrew and I in our usual pose: crouched next to the lander,
double- or triple-checking something. Photo by Lee Frey.
Actually, one of the great challenges of working with the lander is the juxtaposition of the frame's massive size with the sensitive nature of the electronics it carries. The two exist on completely different scales. Working on the lander means using a delicate touch, fine motor control, and a close attention to detail at one moment, then getting out of the way of a 3.5 ton beast the next. Andrew and I took painstaking meaures to grease the O-rings, remove all humidity, and seal the housing for one of the lander computers; then Andrew climbed over the very same computer to reach the top of the junglegym lander just a few minutes later. The lander is at once miniscule and massive, sensitive and stable, vulnerable and foreboding. Maintaining such a complicated piece of equipment is mentally and physically gymnastic.

Once all the electronics were checked, we assembled a deck crew and armed ourselves with hard
hats, life vests, and steel-toed boots. The plan was to lift the lander using the ship's starboard crane, carry it slowly over the side of the deck, and lower it into the water. The starboard crane was rated to lift loads far heavier than our lander, but when we attached it, the crane was only able to lift the lander about 2" off the deck. We needed a Plan B.

Enter the ship's aft crane. It's much stronger than the starboard crane and had lifted the lander before. We made a quick switch, attached the aft crane cable, and started to lift. The lander rose off of the deck with no problems, and those manning tag lines pulled them tight. The crane slowly swung out over the water and lowered the lander to the surface. When the top row of floats was submerged, Andrew pulled the trigger line to release the lander. With one firm yank, the metal hook slid open, and the lander sank into the abyss.

Right now, the lander is sitting on the abyssal plain, about 4000 m below where I'm writing. It's recording oxygen concentrations in the water and taking sediment samples for us. After 48 hours, we'll call it back up and see if all our preparations were worth it. My hopes are riding on a circuit board in a sealed housing about 4 km away.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Midnight Warriors

My day today began at 1 am.

I was actually a little late. Andrew and I had agreed to meet in the main lab at 12:30, but I somehow missed my alarm. Thankfully, the AUV deployment that was scheduled to come before our lander deployment was taking longer than expected, so I was still in the clear. We only had a few hours before the lander was supposed to go down, and it was time for final preparations. I could feel the air around me, thick with pensive energy, and the Europe song started playing in my head: "It's the final countdown..."

One of the lander weights under a leg of the lander.
Our first task was to put the weights on the lander. Just like the mooring I described in an earlier post, the lander is controlled by an acoustic release. We attached weights to it just prior to deployment, and these weights will be later released at the seafloor when we recover the lander. Here's the thing about the weights, though: they're 500 lb each. We had to lift them with the crane because that's the only way to do it and ensure that nobody gets injured. Also, they are attached underneath the lander. Yes, yes, that means we had to lift the lander with the crane and slide the weights underneath it. It was an eight man job: one operating the crane, three holding the lander still with tag lines, and four sliding the weights underneath the legs of the lander. To slide the weights, we crouched close to the deck in a crabwalk position and  pushed them with our feet in two-man teams. All of this took place at about 2 am.

The Orb of Thor poised high above the
Thompson deck.
After the weights were in place, we attached the lander's 10' mast. The mast has a flag, a radio beacon, and a radar reflector, all of which ensure that we can see and communicate with the lander when it's at the surface. To attach the mast, Andrew and I climbed on top of the lander like a jungle gym, and I held it in place while he tightened the screws. The radar reflector at the top of the mast looks like a mythical orb of power, and the image is made even better by the fact that it's at the top of a tall staff. I call it the Orb of Thor.

The final step before deployment was programming the computers that control data collection at the seafloor. The lander has three benthic chambers, each with its own computer, so we get three replicate measurements during each deployment. We attached each computer to Andrew's laptop in turn and communicated the sampling instructions to it via a fiber optic cable. Unfortunately, one of the computers decided not to communicate with the laptop, so we were unable to program it. We tried disconnecting and reconnecting; we checked the battery; we fiddled with it, and nothing worked. Unfortunately, we had to do this first deployment with only two chambers working, but we can try to repair the third computer for later deployments.

The lander has a lot of parts and pieces, and all of them have to be in good working order in order to collect good data. We have to have respect for our equipment and respect for the environment we're sending it to. With a bit of brute force and lots of attention to detail, it will work!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On station

At about 6 am yesterday, we reached our first station! We recovered a sediment trap that had been deployed during a previous cruise, so now we have a nice picture of organic matter input to the seafloor over the course of a year. The majority of the food that arrives at the seafloor falls from shallower depth - dead animals, fecal pellets, dead plankton, discarded mucus. It sounds absolutely disgusting, but that's the menu for deep-sea benthos. In order to understand how much and what kinds of organic matter are supplied to the seafloor, we have to intercept and catch it, so we deploy sediment traps. 

The sediment trap
A sediment trap is essentially a giant funnel. It has a grate over the opening to filter out large objects that could clog it, and at the bottom, it narrows to a sample bottle. The sample bottles are held on a rotating platform and switch out throughout the year, so you can see how much organic material is deposited at the seafloor during different seasons. 

To deploy a sediment trap, you usually have to attach it to a mooring. Basically, you hook it onto a line, put a weight at the bottom and a float at the top. The weight ensures that the trap sinks and stays in place, while the float makes sure that it stays upright in the water column. In order to get the mooring back, you have to release the weight and allow the float to bring it back up to the surface. Releasing the weight is accomplished by an acoustic release, which is a link between the weight and the rest of the mooring that can receive acoustic signals. We send an acoustic signal from the ship; the acoustic release receives the signal, and the weight is released. Make sense? 
Oliver with one of the sediment trap
sample bottles.

The cool part about acoustic releases is that sometimes you can hear the signal from inside the ship. I remember lying in my bunk during a cruise last year and hearing a series of beeps out of nowhere. I eventually figured out the the beeps were the sound waves sent by a transponder on the ship to the acoustic release. The sound waves were sent through the water, but I could also hear them through the hull of the ship. 

Once we got the sediment trap back, all the sample bottles had to be removed from it. They already contained a fixative to preserve the samples, but we had to put in fresh fixative, seal the bottles, and store them for transport. I helped two others on board with this process. The samples will be sorted and quantified back on land. In case you're wondering, yes, that means someone will be responsible for sorting poop from dead plankton. I've been told you can use the shape of a fecal pellet to identify what species it came from (cool, right?). 

It's nice to have our first station done. On to the next!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Cool water

Downtown San Diego, seen from the ship as we steamed away
When I last left you, my friends, the cruise was just getting underway. The optode software was finally working; the ship was pulling away from the dock; and I was dead exhausted. The Night of Desperate Phone Calls is now two days behind me, and the ship has been steaming away from San Diego ever since.

Sunset over the Pacific, 13 Feb 2015
I suppose that after my last text-heavy entry, I owe you some pretty pictures. Actually, one of my favorite things to do on a ship is to photograph the sky. Out here, far away from city lights, skylines, and smog, we get beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Clouds, if there are any, stretch all the way to the horizon. You can see storms coming from miles away. I absolutely love the sky at sea. 

Shortly after sunrise, 14 Feb 2015
There's not much to do on board for these first few days, since we're just steaming out to the sampling sites. I expected myself to be seasick - I usually am for the first 3-5 days of any cruise - but our weather has been absolutely fantastic. You'll see in my photographs how calm the water is, and I can barely feel the ship moving at all. I've used my time on board so far to finish up revisions on my Svalbard image analysis paper (yes, I'm still working on it!), revise another paper, get some rest, and help Andrew put gear on the lander. Now that we have the time, we're picking away slowly at the lander, adding a little bit to it each day. 

It's nice to have a few slow days, because once we hit our first station, the activity on board will certainly pick up. I'm getting to know my shipmates one by one.  I'm soaking in the sun. Basically, life is good.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Baptism by fire

Well friends, do I have a story for you. It's been 24 hours since we left port in San Diego, and I've already managed to destroy and then re-establish my circadian rhythm. This cruise started with a baptism by fire.

On Wednesday afternoon, Andrew and I had finished building and organizing most of our equipment. We had come far enough that it was time to pull out the optodes (dissolved oxygen sensors) for the lander and get them ready to go. We had already tested the optodes at home in Norway and they all worked, so this was just one final check before the cruise got underway.

Here's the thing: in order to be able to change the settings on the optodes and download data from them at sea, we needed a software package. We had downloaded several different standard packages (called "terminal programs") before leaving Norway, but none of them were able to both control the optode settings and download data from them. Only one piece of software, engineered by the company that made the optodes, could do that. We obtained a beta version of the software from them before leaving Norway, and I had been trained on the program. It was easy to use, with intuitive commands and self-explanatory labels. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.

Did you notice the catch? The software is a beta version - that means it's still in development and isn't yet on the market. Translation: there were some glitches. Major glitches. Software-doesn't-communicate-with-the-optodes glitches.

Since the optodes were shipped to San Diego in early December, on board the ship was the first time we had the optodes and the software in the same place. After several hours of plugging things in, unplugging them, checking and re-checking our connections, we decided to call the manufacturer in Germany. There's a 9-hour time difference between Germany and the western U.S., so we couldn't call until midnight (9 am in Germany), when the company opened for business.

After speaking with the company secretary and patiently waiting for the software engineer to have his coffee, we explained the problem. The software takes 20 minutes to recognize the optode the first time it's plugged in, he said. We left the optode plugged in for 20 minutes. No change.

We called back. A new version of the software has been developed since we downloaded it, he said. He e-mailed us the new version of the software, and here's where the story really goes south. We were sent 3 different versions of the file in 3 different formats, and none of them downloaded properly. The software engineer seemed to think that we were both well-versed in file format lingo, had the capacity to download anything to our laptops, and had the world's fastest internet connection. None of these are true.

We finally got one version to start downloading around 2 am. The file wasn't even that large - 36 MB - but it took half an eternity to load. Now, the ship's internet is slow, but it's not that slow. Someone else on the ship must have been taking up the bandwidth by downloading a large file of their own. Andrew and I decided that since it didn't take two of us to monitor the downloading file, we would alternate watches. We both snuggled into armchairs in the ship's computer lab; I put in my headphones and made sure to jiggle the mouse every few minutes.

At 4 am, roughly half of the file had been downloaded. There must have been a momentary interruption in the ship's internet connection, because when I looked at the screen, it read "Download interrupted." I clicked on the button labeled "Resume," but instead of picking up where it left off, the file started downloading from the beginning. We were back to square 1.

I don't remember the next few hours, which I take to mean that I fell asleep. My body must have just taken over control, because I was freezing cold, sitting in a very uncomfortable position, and listening to heavy metal - not ideal sleeping conditions, to say the least. At 6:30, I woke to Andrew's voice, asking if the file had finished downloading. Whatever I mumbled must have been coherent enough for him to understand a "no," because the next thing I knew, he was on the phone with Germany and carrying the computer into the other room.

I slowly collected myself and followed after him. I only took a few minutes, but by the time I got there, Andrew had downloaded the new software - just like that. I was utterly confused, since the exact same file took 2 hours to download only halfway overnight. If someone else had been taking up the ship's bandwidth, they obviously weren't anymore.

We installed the new software and plugged in the optodes, only to get the exact same error message: the program was unable to connect. Furthermore, we were unable to download data from the optode. A data file was created, but it was completely empty.

We made one last frantic phone call to Germany and were informed that the software engineer who had been helping us overnight was now unavailable; he was in a meeting. The secretary found someone else for us to talk to, who ended up being the man who had trained me on the software. He asked what the problem was. We explained. He asked if we had updated the software. We said yes. At one point, I actually switched into English with him just to explain in graphic terms how tired I was and how little time we had left before leaving port. I was so angry, I couldn't think in German anymore.

Andrew and I were now in the main lab, and other scientists were wandering in as they woke up. I think my little outburst must have gotten the software engineer's attention, because he finally asked the question that solved this whole thing: had we updated the firmware? Andrew and I actually had no idea what he was talking about at first, but firmware is internal software, stored inside the optode, which allows it to communicate with the external software program. We had not updated the firmware, because we didn't know it existed.

The engineer e-mailed us the new firmware file, and thank goodness the ship's bandwidth was clear. We downloaded it. We installed it. Meanwhile, the main lab was filling with people, and an annoucement from the captain came over the PA: all scientists were required to attend a safety briefing in the main lab at 0800 hours. I looked at the clock. 7:58.

Andrew connected the optode to the computer. He opened the software. It recognized the optode! He was able to change the optode settings. He was able to talk to it. It seemed to be working! In one last test, Andrew clicked "Download data," and we watched numbers flash across the screen as the software pulled all recorded measurements off of the optode. Line after line of numbers appeared as people crowded into the main lab - now the first mate, now the captain. I could feel my pulse surging against the phone pressed to me ear. A text file appeared. Andrew opened it, and - "Yes!" I shouted. The file contained numbers! The program worked!

After thanking the German engineer profusely, we hung up - and not a moment too soon. It was 5 pm in Germany, and the engineer had made it clear he wasn't going to stay late for us. Furthermore, we had to attend the safety meeting that was now assembling under our noses.

Our sleepless night, though frustrating, was worth it, because if we didn't get the software working, there wouldn't be a cruise for us. Those optodes are everything, our lifeblood, our only research tool. They'll be attached to the lander to measure oxygen consumption at the deep seafloor, which is the entire point of Andrew's and my presence on the cruise.

I finally crawled into bed about 11 am, and I was out like a rock. I just hope the first day was not a sign for how the rest of the cruise is going to go. We'll see, but for now, I'm optimistic. After a baptism by fire, everything else must feel like cool water.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

And all the rest of it

Slowly but surely, the ship is coming together. Slowly but surely, the deck equipment is getting built. Slowly but surely, the lab is getting organized.

I started the morning with a run to Home Depot for last-minute supplies. Andrew gave me a list of miscellaneous things to grab - cable ties, duct tape, paracord - everything you might need on a ship. I also stopped by a local marine lab to grab some chemicals and non-standard supplies that had been delivered for us there. Have you ever driven through urban southern California with 10' fiberglass poles strapped to the top of a rental car? 'Cuz I have.

I got back to the ship a little after noon and found Andrew on the deck. He had already added some equipment to the lander and was working on putting together a flag. We lashed a piece of bright orange fabric to one of the 10' poles and then bolted it to the top of the lander. When we recover the lander at sea, the tall orange flag will ensure we can see it from far away.

After organizing some things in the lab, we tackled another mess: Andrew's tool bag. We ended up dumping it out on the deck, clearing away the trash, and completely re-organizing the tools. I breathed a sigh of relief  - organization makes me calm.

At this point, cruise preparations are down to the details. I think we might have to grab a few more things tomorrow, but that should be it. Not much longer until we steam away toward adventure!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Blue streak

Mark came up and stood next to me on the wooden pallet. The tall, muscular Scotsman had a cigarette between his lips. "Is that a blue streak on the float over yonder?" he asked, gesturing in front of him. He had been waiting on me for a good 15 minutes.

"Yeah, that's one finished," I answered. Mark stepped forward, heaved the finished float onto his shoulder, and carried it down the dock. To my right, I could see Andrew waiting for him, looking like a child on a jungle gym as he was perched atop the lander's metal frame, bolts in his fingers, whistling a tune. Mark held the float against the frame while Andrew bolted it on. Meanwhile, I finished tightening the last bolt on the float in front of me and marked it with blue spray paint. No cracks. Ready for deployment.
The lander frame and attached floats on the dock.

We spent a large part of the day like this; me opening the float covers to check for cracks, Mark and Andrew assembling the lander. When it came time for lunch, I had to wash about 3 layers of dirt and grease off of my hands - a solid day for sure.

The majority of scientists participating in the cruise have now arrived in San Diego. We hail from all over - Hawaii, Norway, Germany, Trinidad. We had to get to know each other pretty quickly, or at least well enough to be able to function as a team. The majority of equipment was loaded onto the ship today, and while the ship's crew was lifting heavier items on pallets with the shipboard crane, the scientists formed a trail of ants to get anything light enough to be carried on board the ship. The main lab is an absolute mess right now and will probably be that way for a while, at least until we get everything sorted and each group claims their work space.

I absolutely love the days when I have to scrub dirt off of my hands, when the sun beats down on the back of my neck and my muscles begin to ache. It's satisfying to see an actual physical product of my work - a lander ready to go - as opposed to just writing a paper or analyzing data. We still have a couple more days of preparations before we leave port, so I look forward to building up my calluses before hauling out. All's well in San Diego!
The Thomas G. Thompson in port in San Diego.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Traveler, not tourist

I'm not exactly sure why, but I've always despised the word "tourist," and I've never wanted it to be applied to me. The word just conjures up images of pasty people in Bermuda shorts with obnoxious cameras asking ignorant questions. I know it's not an entirely accurate image, but regardless, I'd much rather be considered a traveler. To me, a traveler is someone who goes to a new place and tries to experience the culture, to understand the people who live there, to blend in and really connect with a place. A tourist just treats the world as their personal playground.

All labels aside, I've gotten to do some touristy things in San Diego the last couple days. The majority of the equipment for the cruise was delayed and won't be delivered until Monday, so we have some extra time on our hands. I've never been to San Diego before, so it is nice to experience a little bit of the area around me before we head out to sea.

Fighter jets on the flight deck of the USS Midway
On Friday, we visited the USS Midway Museum. The Midway is an aircraft carrier that was in use from 1945 to 1992 - the longest lifespan of any aircraft carrier in the U.S. Nowadays, the ship sits in San Diego harbor and is open to the public. Fighter planes, helicopters, and jets fill both the ship's hangar and the flight deck above, showing the development of air-borne warfare in the 20th century. I know very little about planes, guns, or military equipment myself, so it was interesting to see the different designs. What astounded me the most is to see the incredibly short space that fighter pilots had to work with - the ship was only 971 ft long, and not even the entire runway was used for take-off and landing. In fact, planes were launched on only about the front third of the ship. A specialized catapult system was built into the deck so that the planes were dragged along and given sufficient momentum to go airborne. They had to gain enough speed to produce lift in only about 300 ft of runway. Simply incredible.

Besides just the flight deck, we got to see the lower decks of the ship, where the living quarters and working spaces were located. It was interesting to see the inner workings of a military vessel, since I've only ever been on scientific ones. There was truly no space wasted on the Midway - even tiny corners with curved walls were utilized as work areas. I was astounded to see the range in accommodation for officers and enlisted men. You had everything from a cattle corral-style mess hall for the grunts to the captain's personal chef. We also got to see the "warroom," where all important decisions on the ship were made. It was a large conference room with a long table in the center and maps on the walls - an incredible part of history.
Chaparral landscape outside of San Diego

Earlier today, we took a drive out of town in order to experience some of the surrounding landscape. Andrew said he wanted to "drive into the desert," but we actually hiked in a more chaparral habitat. Chaparral refers to a community of dry shrub plants found primarily in California and Baja California, Mexico. Chaparral communities are adapted to recover from wildfires, which occur on a regular basis and shape the environment. We actually saw a number of trees along the hiking trail that had charred black bark and new shoots growing over dead branches - evidence of a fire long past. It was great to get some exercise and experience the nature surrounding the city. Here's to experiencing the world as a traveler, not a tourist!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Carmen Sandiego

"She goes from Nashville to Norway
Bonaire to Zimbabwe,
Chicago to Czechoslovakia and back!
She'll ransack Pakistan
And run a scam in Scandinavia
Then she'll stick 'em up Down Under
And go pick-pocket in Perth
She put the Miss in misdemeanor
When she stole the beans from Lima
Tell me where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?"
- "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego" by Rockapella

Ok, true confession: I'm a child of the '90s. The lyrics above come from the theme song to a PBS game show from the early 1990s called Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? According to Wikipedia, "the show was created partially in response to the results of a National Geographic survey that indicated Americans had alarmingly little knowledge of geography, with one in four unable to locate the Soviet Union or the Pacific Ocean." (Ouch!)

In the past few years, my mom has started calling my Carmen Sandiego, not because I'm an international petty thief, but because people are always asking her where I am. When my mom's friends call her to catch up and see how the family is doing, they don't ask "How is Kirstin?" anymore; they ask my mom "Where is Kirstin?"

View from my 11th-floor hotel room in San Diego
The pseudonym seems particularly fitting this week, since I actually am in San Diego. Andrew and I landed here last night, and we're spending a week on land preparing for a research cruise. The cruise still counts as part of my fellowship in Norway, since Andrew invited me on it and I'm going as his student. It just so happens that the cruise is in the tropical Pacific.

I'm actually pretty excited for the cruise, since I'll be helping Andrew with his landers. Landers are huge metal frames that you can attach equipment to and then send overboard from a ship. The lander free-falls to the deep seafloor, sits there and takes measurements, and then comes back up when you tell it to. Communicating with a lander is accomplished via acoustic signals - basically, you generate sound waves of a certain frequency in the water; the lander receives the signal, releases its weights, and floats back up to the surface. It will be good for me to learn how to use landers effectively, because they're a versatile and common research tool for deep-sea biology.
Polar, temperate, tropical: field boots for every latitude

I'm also pretty excited for the cruise because it's at tropical latitude. When we leave San Diego, we're going to cruise south for several days before we even reach our field sites. That means that within a month, I will have done field work at both polar and tropical latitude. My body won't know what to do with itself! I actually had a friend ship me some pairs of shorts from Oregon because the wardrobe I have with me is suited for the Norwegian winter. Heavy wool sweaters and fur boots aren't exactly going to help me survive in the tropics.

It's going to be a good cruise, and I'm really looking forward to learning as much as I can. Here's to a new adventure!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Dreaming out loud

I have drafted this blog post a thousand times.

At first, it was supposed to be a firm protest titled "You can't make me," in which I described my how emotionally unprepared I was to leave Norway. Then I re-wrote it as a contemplative piece, reviewing my time here and reflecting on the simple advice from my adviser that prompted me to apply for the grant. I was so convinced that I was going to feel contemplative on my last night in Norway that I even had a song quote picked out for the post. It was from "Yellow Light" by Of Monsters and Men.

As I sit here now, in the middle of my empty room, I don't feel any of the things I expected to. I didn't cry tonight. I just had dinner with my housemates like any other day. I didn't feel the world spinning around me or feel the weight of a page turning in my living biography. I just felt...normal.

This is my life, I guess. It's hellos and goodbyes, culture shock, and visits to the immigration office. It's suitcases and customs forms; it's changing the currency in my wallet every time I step off a plane. It's traveling and bonding and building bridges and doing everything in my power to understand the world. It's mine.

And 20 years from now, if I am still doing this exact same thing, if I am still jet-setting in pursuit of biological mysteries, if I am still following the scientific questions wherever they lead, if I am still seeing new landscapes and battling diverse climates, if I am still learning about culture and community and kindness and compassion and embracing beautiful humans everywhere I go - well, then I will consider myself to be the most blessed person alive.

This life is everything I have ever wanted. In fact, if you read my diary from my undergraduate years, you will realize that the life I dreamed of then is exactly the life I have now. It's traveling to the far corners of the earth; it's pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge; it's experiencing genuine community in the most unexpected places. That's my life! What astounds me, though, is that I don't feel like I chose this. I know for a fact that I never chose to be a scientist, and I'm pretty sure I didn't choose to be a traveler either. This life chose me. It was laid out before me, and all I had to do was say "Yes."

In just a few short hours, I will get on a plane and fly to my next adventure. I will bid farewell to Norway, to this country that I love, and embrace another chapter. Maybe at some point it will hit me, and I will realize my time here is over. Maybe then I will pull out the card from my housemates and try to decipher the various handwriting in blue pen. Maybe I'll read their heartfelt messages and start to tear up. I am going to miss them so much. Maybe I'll reminisce about evenings with Ingeborg, or look back at pictures of Stavanger landscapes. And maybe then, I will start to feel a little less than normal, like part of me is missing.

But maybe, just maybe, I will feel like part of me has grown. Maybe I'll know that Norway has changed me, refreshed me, blasted me clean and calmed me down. Maybe I'll feel like I have gained something - an incredible half year in a beautiful country with beautiful people. Maybe my heart will start to feel what my head knows to be true; that Norway is now a part of me, that I carry her with me, and that I can always come back.

Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and realize that this whole time, I've been dreaming out loud.

The moon rising over Stavanger, 3 Feb 2015