Sunday, March 29, 2015


"Alabama, Arkansas
I do love my ma and pa
Moats and boats and waterfalls
Alley-ways and pay phone calls...
Home is wherever I'm with you"
- "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Well, I guess you could say I'm almost home. To be honest, I probably misuse the word "home" on a regular basis, because I refer to a lot of places by that name. I blame my parents. When I was a kid, we would take multi-week roadtrips every summer in my mom's minivan. By the time I graduated high school, I had seen all the continental 48 states, plus one Canadian province, and whenever we were on the road, we would refer to our hotel as home. We'd get to the end of a long and wonderful sight-seeing day, and we'd look at each other and say "Let's go home" - to the hotel, of course. My mom always loves to say that home is where your family is.

It's a modern tradition for Oregon residents to photograph their
feet on the carpet at Portland Airport to show they've arrived
home. Here are mine!
Nowadays, if I'm on my way to visit my parents, I say I'm going home. I refer to Bremerhaven, Germany, where I lived in 2011-2012, as my second home. Honestly, if I was traveling with Andrew back to Norway today, I would also say I was going home.

Home is wherever I am. Home is wherever there are people that care about me. Home is wherever I have exciting work to do and a place to lay my head. For now, home is Oregon, and I'm actually glad to be back.

My last few days in San Diego were great. Most of the other scientists from the cruise left town before Andrew and I did, so we got to relax and hang out together. San Diego is a really neat city - not too big, very diverse, with plenty of sun and fun things to do. We went out for dinner. We sat by the pool. We saw a movie and heard some really good jazz music. We talked about science, about project ideas, about what questions to pursue next.

Andrew has had a permanent effect on the course of my career; of that I am certain. Working with him has forever changed the way I think, the way I write, the way I work. He's always encouraging me to slow down and take everything in stride, to pick away at large projects by just doing a little bit each day. He encourages me to explore new ideas and connect concepts that nobody ever has before, to read anything and everything that interests me. Andrew is ambitious, but he's also a fantastic human being. It means the world to know that he trusts me and genuinely cares about my success. One of his greatest pieces of advice was actually to build my own career, pursue my own ideas, and choose my collaborators wisely, so I don't get lost in anyone else's shadow. That man has earned my deepest level of respect.

Of course I'll still be in contact with Andrew. We still have a few datasets to write up together, and I'll collect more data this summer. I'm in charge of two experiments off the Oregon coast, so I'll keep you updated as those projects take shape. Science rocks. Life is good. And I'm almost home.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lonesome dreams

"I land on an island coast
Where the only souls I see are ghosts
I run through a wooded isle
And chase the sunlight mile after mile
And I feel like I know this place
As a tree line breaks in a wide open space
I stare at a bright red sun
And search all day, never find anyone"

- "Lonesome Dreams" by Lord Huron

There's a point at the end of every cruise when I come to the shocking realization that I am alone. Right now, I am sitting on possibly the world's most comfortable chair in a hotel room that I could never hope to afford by myself. I am barefoot; my hair is down (neither of which have happened for the past 42 days); and I am alone. Really, truly alone. I said goodbye to the last of my shipmates a few minutes ago in the hallway, and my room feels strangely quiet and oddly empty.

Gone are the 2-a.m.-to-2-p.m. working shifts. Gone are the steel-toe boots. Gone are the hard hats, the life jackets, and the knife in my pocket. I no longer have to smother myself in SPF 50 just to step outside.

In some ways, the end of a cruise is the worst part. Returning to land is always surreal for me, because I suddenly find myself in a completely different set of surroundings, and everything that happened at sea begins to feel like a distant dream. The effect is heightened for this cruise because we returned to the same port city we left from. As I walk the streets of San Diego, everything looks exactly like it did 6 weeks ago, and part of my brain starts to wonder if the cruise ever really happened. It's like someone knocked me in the head, and I slipped into a coma and just had this amazing dream.

In the dream, I sailed past the edge of the earth. I worked and I strained and I stressed. I struggled and I survived, and I did it all in the company of people I have come to admire and cherish. But when I woke up, they were gone.

I know these people better than I care to. I have seen them depressed, and I have seen them elated. I have seen them hungry, angry, and tired. I could tell you all of their personality quirks, their flaws, and what they're like after a hard 12-hour shift.

And I will miss them.

For 42 days, we worked side by side. We helped each other out on tasks that required 8 hands. We stood around and chatted when there were too many people and not enough work. We shared our meals, our frustrations, our joys, and our dreams. Inch by inch, we pushed back the frontiers of human knowledge, giving everything we had for this sole purpose. Most importantly, we did it together.

You see, if the end of a cruise is the worst part, it's also the best part. By now, the work is all over, and it's time for us to relax. Time to revel in what we've accomplished and simply enjoy each other's company. We did just that at the cruise party tonight, and I was thankful for the opportunity. Thankful that we all smelled nice for the first time in weeks. Thankful that we could talk to each other easily, that for the most part, we have become genuine friends. Thankful for social and professional platforms that will allow us to keep in touch. Thankful that deep-sea biology is a small enough community that I'll most likely see each of my shipmates again, even the crew. Thankful for the past 42 days at sea, for the science we accomplished, for the experiences that we shared. Because we did it. Together.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Red, right, returning

"The '3R' Rule 'Red Right Returning' is the essential rule of thumb for using the lateral system. This means that when entering one body of water from a larger body of water (i.e. returning to a harbor from a bay or sound); keep the red aids to starboard (right) side and green aids to port (left) side. In addition, each aid is numbered, and these numbers increase as entering from seaward."
- U.S. Aids to Navigation System, published by the U.S. Coast Guard

A lot has happened in the last 48 hours, so allow me to catch you up. We'll go in chronological order.

Dolphins riding the Thompson's bow waves as we pulled
into San Diego.
1) The steward made a steak and lobster dinner for our last night at sea. It was epic.

2) Andrew and I packed, palletized, prioritized, padded, and packed all of the gear for the lander on board the ship.

3) I saw dolphins.

4) We arrived in San Diego.

5) All hell broke loose.

Land ho!
6) I lead a field trip to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where an extremely helpful colleague helped us dispose of chemical waste from the ship and freeze-dry samples.

7) I ate my first fresh banana in 6 weeks.

8) A group of us set up lawn chairs on the dock and stayed out late just talking, laughing, and making up cringe-worthy dances. There was also a sombrero and a hula-hoop involved.

9) The following morning, Andrew and I got all of the lander gear packed into his container at lightning speed.

10) Meanwhile, mass chaos reigned on the dock.

11) The scientists checked into a very fancy hotel. Our dirty jeans and sweaty brows did not mesh with the grand piano in the lobby. Note to self: take a shower.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Victory lap

Free vehicles for the win.
Every time I check our coordinates on the lab monitor, the latitude is just a little bit higher. Every time I walk outside, the air seems just a little bit cooler.

We're heading back to San Diego now, and if you think the transit is taking longer than it did on the way out, you're right. We actually stopped and sampled another station on the way, because we finished our regular sampling two days early. Better said, the cruise had two weather days built in that we didn't have to use, so we filled the time with extra sampling. A victory lap, if you will.

Ain't what she used to be
This cruise has been extremely productive - actually, it's the most productive cruise I've ever been on. We had perfect weather the whole time. We had no major catastrophes, and we didn't even lose any gear (both of which are completely normal). For the free vehicles alone, we had 45 deployments. Forty-freaking-five, and not a single free vehicle lost. We actually took a photo of the free vehicle team to commemorate our success. That's the plankton pump lander I'm sitting on, and the broom in Oliver's hands is supposed to show that we made a "clean sweep" of the cruise.

I'll spend the last few days of the cruise packing things up and getting them ready to ship. Andrew has an entire shipping container going back to Norway, so it needs to be filled with our gear. We've taken most of the instruments off of the lander at this point, so she's just a skeleton on the deck. It's a bit sad to see everything come down and get packed into boxes, but I know it has to be done.

I'll catch up with you when we get back to land. For now, I'm just enjoying the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, and the slow end to a very successful cruise.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's a trap

If you were fortunate enough to be on the Thompson deck yesterday, or if you were a bird circling the ship, you would have seen our longest, most complicated operation yet. As our final act before leaving station and heading home, we deployed a sediment trap mooring that will stay underwater for the next year.

The mooring is the same one we picked up at the beginning of the cruise (see my post here). It contains two sediment traps at different heights above the bottom, plus meters and meters of chain, rope, floats, and a train wheel to anchor it all to the seafloor. Yes, that's right. A train wheel.
Round 1: train wheel, acoustic release,
and the first sediment trap. Photo by Brie Maillot.

Deploying the mooring took a total of 4 hours, mostly because we had to do it in sections. There was a small group of us designated to help on deck, and others were welcome to watch from an upper level. We had buckets of ice with cold drinks staged at various places on deck, because when you're out for 4 hours in the tropical sun, it's easy to get dehydrated. Some of the onlookers brought their cameras, and one even filmed the whole procedure. At one point, when there was a pause in the deployment process, I turned around and saw one of the onlookers marching out on deck with a bowl of popcorn. It was quite the spectacle indeed.

We started at the bottom of the mooring: the train wheel, the acoustic release, and the bottom sediment trap went overboard first. The distance between the train wheel and the bottom trap was greater than the height of the ship's A-frame, so we had to hoist the trap beside the acoustic release, in effect folding the line between them to make it all fit. Add to the mix several tag lines to keep control of the trap, and you get a complicated web of suspended ropes. Thankfully, none of them got tangled, and the first trap went over smoothly.

Double-checking a sediment trap before putting it over.
Photo by Brie Maillot.
We let out about 100 m of line between the two traps, so that the second one will be suspended a significant distance above the seafloor. We couldn't actually attach the second trap to the mooring until all the line was already deployed, so we had to hold the line in place at the edge of the ship while the second trap was attached. It should have been easy enough, but the chief scientist noticed at the last minute that some of the shackles on the second trap were old enough that he wanted them replaced. We halted the operation temporarily with the first sediment trap already underwater so he could replace the shackles. One of old shackles was already under tension at the edge of the ship by the time he noticed it, so getting it out and replacing it was a delicate operation. We had to hold the mooring line in place with two different ropes to take all the tension off of the shackle in question, then hold our breath while the chief scientist installed the new one at the edge of the ship. It worked out in the end, but there were a few tense minutes there. Note to self: check all shackles before deployment begins.

Float chain gang. Photo by Brie Maillot.
After another couple hundred meters of line, we deployed two strings of floats. The floats will ensure that the sediment traps return to the surface when the time comes, after one year. Transporting the weights was an interesting experience, because they're connected to each other with a heavy chain. In order to carry them, you need about one person per float arranged in a "chain gang." Each person grabs the chain on either side of their float, and we shuffle along in small steps, traveling sideways. I felt slightly like a minion, or a member of a very strange kickline.

Hoisting the floats. Photo by Brie Maillot.

Once we got them to the edge of the deck, the floats were hoisted high into the air and lowered slowly over the side of the ship. We discovered in the process of hoisting them that the float chain was just a hair longer than the height of the ship's A-frame, so the last bit of chain had to be gently pushed over the side by hand. We alternated between hoisting the floats higher and swinging the A-frame out over the water until they were clear of the deck and could be lowered down, the whole time trying to keep control of the suspended floats so they didn't hit the deck or each other. The last thing you want is to damage your floats on deployment, because without them, the mooring will never come back.

The mast sinking away. Photo by Brie Maillot.
The very last item to go overboard was the mast. It was a long pole with weights at one end and floats in the middle to keep it upright, plus a flag at the top to help us see the mooring upon recovery. Once the mast was in the water, we had to turn on the ship's engines and start moving slowly forward so it would stream out behind us and keep the line from getting tangled. Most of the mooring was already underwater at this point, but one line of floats was still suspended from the A-frame. Slowly, the floats were all lowered down, and the mast was allowed to stream behind. We all stepped back from the edge and looked at each other's empty hands. That was it - the last piece. The entire mooring was in the water, and the only thing left to do was set it free. Holding a spool of thin rope in his hand, the chief scientist stepped to the edge of the deck and gave a firm tug on the quick release. One float at a time, the mooring slowly sank away.

The secret life of birds

My sexy mugs. Photo by Adrian Glover.
Sup, yo. Name's Benjamin Bartholemew Benedict Baker, but most people just call me Booby. Never heard of me? Well, I'm sure you know my cousin, Buster. Dude's got blue feet. Get that - a blue-footed booby. Freakin' whack.

Anyway, I'm just chillin' over the Pacific, catchin' fish, you know the deal. Just flyin' along, seein' fish flicker under the water, dive bombin' 'em like the world's gonna end. It's a pretty simple life. Na, but seriously dude, lately stuff's gotten kinda crazy up in here, ever since this ship full of dudes showed up. Freakin' humans, can't ever get away from 'em. It's like they think they own the world or sumthin'. It's like "Hey guys, just doin' my thing here! Why you gotta put your ship right where I was chillin'? You anti-booby or sumthin?"

Me and my buddies keepin' watch. Photo by Brie Maillot.
And the worst part is these human dudes, they keep dumpin' stuff into the ocean. Who you think you are? You can't just dump stuff! Yeah! That's right! Pull it back up! I usually fly a couple times 'round the ship just to make sure they listen. You know, you can't just go puttin' stuff into my ocean, man. I eat out of that thing. Yeah, but most of the crap comes back within a few hours, so it's all good. The humans get excited when it comes back, too. They like swarm on the deck. Like a feeding frenzy or sumthin, except I don't see any fish. It's all like mud and stuff. Whatever, dude. Freakin' weirdos.
Hey girl, how you doin'?

Yeah, so life is good. Just chillin' out here in the sun. I found myself a pretty nice perch at the front of the ship. I mean, I figure if they're gonna be invadin' my space and throwin' off my groove, I might as well rest my buns, right? Couple of my home boys joined in, too. It'd be a party if we just had some chicks. I mean, sittin' up here, all high 'n mighty, keepin' watch on the humans, I think I look pretty darn good. Yeah, that's right. You know you want some of this.

So the other day, my boys and I, we're just sittin' on the mast, doin' our booby thing, and then this, like, noise just starts up. Then I get like this blast of air up my butt, and it's freakin' me out, man. Like what the heck? So I jump up and fly around a little bit and then I see this hose thing been rigged up to the mast. It's like a wind tube or sumthin'. And there's this human, and he's like watchin' us get freaked out by it, and he keeps turnin' the thing on and off! What are you, freak? Like tryin' make me homeless? Tryin' to steal my swag? Freakin' jerk!

Standin' up to the Man.
Ok, so maybe we made a little bit of a mess. So maybe we pooped all over your ship, man, but really? You can't go takin' my mojo! Not cool, man, not cool!

My home boys and me, you know, we're survivors. Heroes. We tight, man, and ain't no human gonna steal our swag. We're just gonna sit on your freakin' mast and OWN that place. Yeah, that's right. We learnin' to tolerate your stupid wind tube. You can try, but we just gonna keep on partyin'. You want a clean bow? Well, we gonna COVER your precious ship in our poop. Yeah, that's right. How you like me now?

Peace, man. Booby out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The long, slow road

MVP trophy.
As soon as we were finished processing samples from the lander's last deployment, Andrew announced it was time to take her apart. Six deployments is all we get - we're out of weights - so for us, the cruise is winding down. Lander or not, we're still at sea for the next week, so it's going to be a long, slow road home.

The first thing to come off of the lander was the mast. It's a 10 ft fiberglass pole with a strobe light, a bright orange flag, and a radar reflector (aka Orb of Thor). When I disassembled it and brought the parts inside to ask Andrew what, if anything, he wanted to keep, he pulled out the tattered flag from the pile and handed it to me. "I want you to have this," he said with a smile. It's a reminder of the deployment that I ran solo, and let me tell you, I will hang that shredded piece of orange plastic in my apartment with pride.

We took all of the electronics off of the lander, but the frame itself can't be disassembled until we're transiting back to San Diego. Other groups on board have a few more samples to collect, so the deck is still full of gear. It will disappear little by little as we pack up and prepare to return to land.

Monday, March 16, 2015


After 6 lander deployments, the final score stands:

Team Sweetman: 11.5
Forces of nature, failed electronics, and other random crap: 6.5

We win.

To be honest, I was just relieved the lander came back. This deployment was different because Andrew allowed me to take charge. I was a bit nervous at first, but as I worked through the process of readying the lander, I was actually surprised at how calm I felt. By now, I know my way around the instrument, and Andrew made no secret of his faith in me. When the lander had successfully returned to the surface and was about to be recovered, Andrew actually approached me on deck, stuck out his hand, and congratulated me for getting her back. Best adviser ever.

Two of the chambers worked, but the third one failed to close. It was dumping mud as we pulled the lander out of the water, so unfortunately, we didn't get any samples from it. We thought for a while that the battery may have run out of power and not been able to close the chamber all the way, but when we took the lander computers off and brought them inside, we could see a different problem: the computer housing had water inside. Obviously, water doesn't mix well with electricity.

There are two ways that water can get inside the titanium housings and kill the computers. Either saltwater leaks in through an improper seal, or freshwater condenses from the humid air inside. We combat the first problem by cleaning and greasing the O-rings before each deployment, and by tightening the lid down with screws. We combat the second problem by heating up the air inside the housings before closing them, making the gas expand and rush out of the chambers before they're sealed. There's a lot of water vapor in the tropical air, and it can become liquid when the housing cools down at depth.

As Andrew pulled the computer out of its chamber, we both noticed the water droplets on the sides of the batteries, and my heart sank. He quietly inspected the circuit board as I ran my finger along the battery, then touched it to my tongue. "Fresh or salt?" Andrew asked.

I didn't taste salt, but we ended up deciding that the water had leaked in from the outside. It was the only explanation that made sense. Only one of the two circuit boards was damaged, indicating water must have dripped onto it from the lid above. The best we can figure, I put too much grease on the O-rings or failed to remove a speck of dust.

Yes, that's all it takes to ruin your equipment at 400 atmospheres of pressure.

I beat myself up for a while, but Andrew made sure to remind me that the lander was insured. I cost him a circuit board and a pile of paperwork to replace it, but as we put the computer housing back in its box, he said words I probably won't forget for a while:

"Going back, if I had to put you in charge again, if I had to choose to trust you with the deployment or not, I would do it again. I would trust you with it again."

I honestly don't know how I ended up with a mentor who trusts me so much. No part of my memory could recount what I did to deserve this, but I guess there must be something. Knowing that he has faith in me makes me have more faith in myself.

All things considered, I'm going to count this lander deployment as a learning experience. Of course Andrew was still the brains behind the operation, but I was a much more active set of hands this time. I was able to successfully deploy and recover a quarter million-dollar instrument, and I got back two-thirds of the samples we were hoping for. The only casualties were a circuit board and my inner perfectionist.

Some day, probably sooner than I realize, I'll be a professor in charge of my own lab. I'll conceive of compelling scientific questions and come up with ambitious plans to answer them. I'll have my own expensive instruments, my own cruises, my own students. On that day, like every day, I'll struggle with the self-doubt that always lurks at the back of my brain, but the difference will be this: I will remember Andrew Sweetman's faith in me, and I will know that I can actually do this.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Nants ingonyama

"Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba           (Here comes a lion, Father)
Sithi uhm ingonyama                           (Oh yes, it's a lion)
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba
Sithi uhhmm ingonyama
Siyo Nquoba                                          (We're going to conquer)
Ingonyama nengw' enamabala"             (A lion and a leopard come to this open place)
- Opening Zulu lyrics to "Circle of Life" from The Lion King

Sunrises at sea are the best.
14 Feb 2015

14 Feb 2015

15 Feb 2015

15 Feb 2015

18 Feb 2015

Recovering the box core at dawn, 21 Feb 2015

2 March 2015

2 March 2015

Boobies with the rising sun, 2 March 2015

A cloud blocked part of the light, leaving a dark streak 3 March 2015

14 March 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Seen around the ship: Part 3

The lighter side of life at sea.

The International Conference on What Species That Fish Is
Another gem of a mantra from Diva
Umpqua Dairy is located in southern Oregon, but one of their crates made it onto the ship!
These squid flung themselves onto the deck, just begging us to preserve them.
Cup decorating! It's pretty common on deep-sea cruises to decorate
styrofoam cups and then attach them to our gear so they shrink at depth. 

Oh, the fun when old pictures surface. That's our chief scientist, by the way.
This sign appeared at the halfway-point in the cruise.
I'm pretty sure this was supposed to say "Happy birthday," but since
it was made out of single-serving coffee cups, I can understand some letters being used.
Abyssline fitness challenge: bike or run back to San Diego
(on a stationary bike or treadmill, of course).

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The great fish chase

Dear friends, I bring you an adventurous tale, of brave scientists at sea.
Free vehicles they had, in the Pacific east, to discover marine mysteries.
Respirometer and camera were recovered just fine, but next up was the fish trap.
The dreaded lander was cursed, or so say the crew; it could never be recovered last.
The lander rose to the surface as it always did, and floated and flew its orange flag
But when the captain pulled the ship alongside, there was just one tiny little snag.
The fish trap, you see, went under the ship, and had no good time of it
For the captain unaware thrust to port side and broke the poor lander to bits.
The propellor had its way with the fiberglass box and tangled the rope as well
Two fiberglass sides were worse for the wear, and the poor mesh looked just like hell
When the crew finally brought the poor trap astern and hooked onto the blue rope
The scientists squealed and pointed and shrieked - "Don't drive away! No! No! No!"
Three fish, you see, had been hooked on the trap and dangled from outside the frame
All three became detached and drifted away, just as if it were a chasing game.
With the trap now on deck, the scientists found, a new problem was to be seen
One of three floats from the poor tangled line was freely floating, and exiting the scene
Three fish and one float, all loose in the waves, and not one hope to get them all back
But for a long fish pole and a sturdy green net and plenty of scientists on deck.
"Go right!" they all shouted, "Now left!" as they turn, to chase down the fish, one by one
Wearing hard hats and jackets and glasses and shirts to protect them from the tropical sun.
The forces now split to starboard and port, as the fish drifted off and away
"Find them we must!" the science party insists, not willing to lose fish this day.
A swerve and a curve and a turn in the wind, and the captain chased down the first fish
A hunk and a thunk, a decided ker-plunk, as the long net pole had a near miss.
One fish they retrieved, as the others were lost, drifting away in the endless blue
Tossed about in the waves, with whitecaps and swells, to meet death afresh and anew.
So they took what they could and dissected the fish, to make of this bad day the best
Then turned their attention to how to repair the poor trap; of their skills it would be a test.
With the mesh now repaired and new fiberglass poles, same old bolts but new cable zip ties,
The trap is not pretty, but function she shall, to bring fish before human eyes.
Splicing and binding and tying up lines, the trap now has a new tail
Which will aid in recovery and make sure that the trap shall never again set sail
Or slip underneath the hull of a ship, to meet such an uncertain fate
Or even worse yet, to lose her caught fish, because that's just a waste of bait.

Astrid, Oliver, and Cliff working on the fish trap.

The ocean was wrong

It's a hot, sunny day in the tropical Pacific, and I just finished processing the samples from the respirometer lander's 5th deployment. I actually never told you about deployment #4, so before I get ahead of myself, let's back up.

Deployment #4 was about half successful. When the lander came on deck, one of the chambers was hanging open, and water was visibly draining out of another. We ended up getting good samples from only one chamber and halfway-decent samples from the one with the drained water. As best we can figure, the sediment was too hard at that station, so the chambers had a hard time closing.

Andrew and I fiddled with the chambers, and they seemed to work just fine on deck. The computers responded to our commands immediately, and the chamber doors had no trouble closing. I could tell Andrew was a bit frustrated, so I tried to lighten the mood. The ocean was working against us, I told him. It was tired of us stealing her secrets. We knew too much, so like the Mob, the ocean had to shut us down.

Andrew's response to me was simple: "The ocean was wrong."

We turned around the lander and readied her for another deployment in just 24 hours. For deployment #5, Andrew strategically chose a location where the sediment was guaranteed to be just right - not too hard, not too soft. He apparently chose well, because when we recovered the lander shortly after dawn today, all three chambers yielded good samples. Victory at last.

After 5 lander deployments, the score stands:

Team Sweetman: 9.5
Forces of nature, failed electronics, and other random crap: 5.5

We're slowly pulling ahead, and with only one deployment left for the cruise, I expect us to remain in the lead. The ocean may work against us; she may think we know too much. She may rally her forces and exert her destructive will. Her wind and her waves and her too-hard-too-soft sediment are formidable for sure, but if she thinks she can beat us, let me tell you: the ocean is wrong.
A bit tattered but standing tall: Poliris for the win.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hump Day

On Wednesday, just two days ago, we passed the halfway point in the cruise. Hump day! The first 21 days of our 42-day expedition are now in the past, and we're still going strong.

The chief scientist suggested we throw a "hump party" at the change of the watches, around 2 am. I'm on the morning shift, so when I pulled myself out of my room at 0200 hours, I headed straight to the galley to find this supposed party. It was dead. Empty. A ghost town.

Just a tad bit confused, I headed outside. A box core had just come on deck, so the emptiness of the galley was immediately explained. Two shifts worth of scientists crowded around to get their share of the samples. I guess the party was on deck.

Celebration or not, it was nice to know we've made it halfway. I guess you could say that a couple of us made our own Hump Day party when cleaned out the box core, because what started as throwing the extra mud overboard ended up in a mud-and-water fight. I had mud on my shirt, on my face, in my hair. We ended up having to spray each other off with the hose just to get clean, then show up to a science meeting dripping wet and slightly embarrassed. Oh, but it was worth it.

Soaking wet and glowingly happy: the aftermath of a mud fight on deck

Monday, March 2, 2015

Problem solvers

We're getting the lander ready for another deployment tomorrow, so while there were a few calm minutes on deck, we put the lander's weights on. I've described this process to you before - it involves lifting the 3-ton beast about 10 inches into the air and sliding freakishly heavy weights underneath her. It is a delicate operation and a tour de force.

Wire rope: the difference between sinking and floating
Getting the weights on was no problem, but a few minutes later, there was a loud snap. I peeked around the corner to find Andrew standing inside the lander's ring of floats, holding a segment of frayed wire rope. He handed it to me. "Could you go see if the ship has any more of this?"

When things break at sea, you have two options: (1) make do, or (2) give up. You can't just run to the hardware store and buy more of whatever you need. It's either on the ship, or it's not.

I turned to one of the crew members, Brian. He's been on the Thompson for a long time, and as far as I'm concerned, he knows everything there is to know about this ship. If anyone could lead me to wire rope, it would be him. I showed him the broken fragment in my hands and explained our plight. The wire rope is responsible for holding the weights onto the lander, so without it, the lander won't sink.

This place is basically Narnia.
What happened next is actually pretty cool: Brian lead me down the main passageway of the ship, to a door in the wall that I had never noticed before. As he held open the storeroom door for me, I peeked inside and noticed the walls were slanted - narrower at the bottom than at the top. I was inside the bow!

The storeroom was full of boxes and crates in all sizes, and there were giant shackles hanging on the left wall. After about 5 minutes of watching Brian rummage through boxes and climb on the uneven shelves, I walked out carrying a spool of steel wire rope, a wheel cutter, two pairs of safety glasses, and a roll of electrical tape.

Back out on deck, Andrew measured the wire rope against the old fragment and marked the spot with electrical tape. We donned our safety glasses. We clamped one end of the wire in a vice. While I held the free end taut, Andrew turned on the wheel cutter and sliced through the rope. He was immediately showered in sparks, and I was glad to be as far away from the wheel cutter as I was.

We threaded the newly-cut wire rope through the proper places in the lander, slid a metal ring onto it, and prepared to secure the rope by crimping the ring shut. Crimping basically means squishing the ring flat with a giant tool that resembles pruning shears. There were two problems: first, the crimpers were too large to logistically fit into the space under the lander, and second, I wasn't strong enough to compress the crimpers, especially at a weird angle in a small space.

I ran inside to find someone stronger than me, and Andrew readjusted the wire rope so we had more space. Both solutions worked, and it only took 5 more minutes to get everything secured. We both thanked Brian profusely, and while Andrew made final adjustments, I put everything away. The lander is repaired. Crisis averted.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Measuring time

When you're at sea for long enough, the days start to run together. Sea time is expensive, so we don't waste time by taking breaks - or weekends. There are operations going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until you get back to port. So how in the world is a scientist at sea supposed to keep track of the time? Make marks on the walls? Etch tallies into the deck of the ship? Keep a calendar like normal people?

Ah, my friends, none of these extreme measures are necessary. To keep track of how much time you have spent at sea, all you have to do is look at the food being served in the galley. A long-haul cruise goes through very specific stages, marked by the appearance - or rather disappearance - of certain foods.

First, there's No Nutella Day. It doesn't matter how much Nutella the steward stocks for the cruise, it is always the first thing to disappear. It usually only takes a few days. At this point, you probably haven't even reached the first station, and you don't even know who to be angry at, because you haven't met everyone on board yet. The worst part is knowing that it's all gone, and you will have to survive the next x-number of hard working days without your favorite comfort food. No Nutella Day sucks.

Next comes Banana Bread Day. Since bananas tend to get overripe pretty quickly, banana bread appears in the galley early in the cruise - maybe after a week or so. Just about the time when you've settled into a routine and gotten a few good samples, those bad brown bananas get turned into bread. Of course, you'd love to smear some Nutella on your banana bread, but that's not going to happen.

Next there's Frozen Fruit Day. We actually reached this one recently, after about 2 weeks at sea. Enough time has passed that the fresh fruit is going bad, so the steward starts pulling out frozen alternatives. By this point, there have been successful samples, and there have been unsuccessful samples. Maybe there's even been a scare or two. You've been offended by someone on board, but you've also become good friends with several others. You're starting to notice a clique forming, but you don't let it bother you - there's too much work to do.

Tomato Soup Day happens right before the tomatoes go bad, after about a month at sea. At this point, your box of samples is filling. You'd worry about how long it will take to process all of them back on land, but honestly, land is beginning to feel like a distant memory. You have several close friends on board, but there are also a few people you'd prefer to avoid. You find it impossible to ever be alone on the ship. There are people everywhere, especially when you're exhausted and all you want to do is be alone with your Netflix. Then you remember there's no Netflix at sea either, and the world begins to seem like a dark, cruel place.

Shortly following the appearance of tomato soup is No Lettuce Day. Now, granted, I've never actually reached this day, but I've come hair-raising, nail-bitingly close. No Lettuce Day is a scary day, because it means you've been at sea for over a month with no breaks. By this point, you've forgotten that land exists. The people on board are your best friends and your worst enemies, and every interaction seems more dramatic as a result of your complete and utter exhaustion. You start to wonder if there's been an apocalypse on land, if your country exists anymore, if your mother remembers your name. You have a hard time believing that anyone else in the world exists besides your ship, your samples, and the frozen vegetables they're serving in the galley.

I don't know what happens after No Lettuce Day. I've never made it that far; it's uncharted territory, and frankly, I'm a bit scared to find out. The steward has already warned us that No Lettuce Day is coming for the Thompson, so I will soon find out what lies on the other side. Godspeed, my friends.


After recovering the respiration lander today, the score stands:

Team Sweetman: 5
Forces of nature, failed electronics, and other random crap: 4

We have officially turned over the score.

Absolutely everything worked this time. All three benthic chambers penetrated the seafloor to exactly the right depth. All three lander computers carried out their sampling programs flawlessly. The algal injectors worked; the optodes recorded their data; the stirrers did their job. If there was an official deep-sea biology victory dance, I'd be doing it right now.

Lander recovery days are always the longest days. We called Poliris to the surface about 3:30 am; she was on deck at 5:11, and I finished processing samples around lunchtime. By the time the 2 pm science meeting rolled around, I felt like three days had passed since the morning.

Ah, but life is good. We have three more deployments left in the cruise, and we're going to make the best of them. Bring. It. On.

Let's do some damage: Part 2

We recovered three of the landers yesterday - basically everything except the respiration lander. The baited camera, baited trap, and plankton pump all need to stay down for 24 hours at a time, while the respiration lander stays down for 48.

Anyway, I suppose I may have been a little overzealous in my last post, describing how we were going to "do damage" to the deep seafloor, because the sea decided to rebel. It heard my words and lashed back. The deep did damage to us.

You see, one of the floats on the fish trap lander imploded. It just couldn't handle the pressure of the deep sea anymore. We could tell something was wrong soon after calling the lander to the surface with the acoustic release, because the trap was rising much more slowly than normal. The trap has four floats, so with one of them rendered useless, it only had 75% of its normal floatation.

Glass powder - the remnants of an imploded float
Thankfully, only one of the floats was affected, because floats usually give out in groups. When one implodes, it sends out a shock wave that destroys anything in its range, including the other floats. In this case, the floats were spaced far enough apart that none of the others were damaged. Phew!

The floats we use are glass spheres housed in orange plastic covers. When we got the lander on board, we could see there was a big gash in the orange cover, but when we peeked inside, there was no glass sphere to be found. The entire thing had been converted to glass powder. That, my friends, is what 400 atmospheres of pressure will do to you.

If you're interested in hearing a plastic float implosion and the subsequent shock waves, check out the audio library of the ALOHA cabled observatory. One of their hydrophones captured the sound of an imploding float off the coast of Hawaii: