Tuesday, July 28, 2015


The low-hanging moon reflects on the
sea surface, 27 July 2015, western Atlantic
The ship feels a bit different at night. Most people are still awake, but they’re working slower and having more fun. Tossing things across the room instead of carrying them. Taking a minute to chat between samples. Grabbing a snack in the galley, playing a board game, watching a movie, then disappearing one by one to go to sleep.

There’s a group of us that gathers on the bow before bed. We finish all our samples for the day, then step outside to escape the fluorescent lights. The group is different every night – there are some regulars, but there are also a few that have come only once or twice. We chat and laugh and decompress under the stars. I find it helps to have a few minutes of darkness before I go to bed, because I have to convince myself it’s time to sleep. There’s so much stimulation inside the ship - lights and people and things going on - that it’s sometimes hard to unwind. A bit of moonlight does good for my brain.

As I write this post, it’s approaching midnight on my last night at sea. This cruise has been relatively short compared to others that I’ve done - only three weeks instead of five or six – but it’s time to go home. We're all exhausted, and even though I feel fine, the reflection of my bloodshot eyes reveals my tired state every time I walk past a mirror. It’s going to be an abrupt ending, considering that we got our last samples at 4 pm today and will hit port tomorrow morning by 9. The transit takes no time at all. To be honest, the cruise feels a bit like some of the organ music that Philip Glass wrote in the 1970s, pieces like “Two Pages” and “Contrary Motion” and such. Give some old-school Glass a listen if you have a chance, because it’s really strange music. There’s no introduction and no finale, no development, no climax, and no direction. It just starts; then it stops.
Every day when we finished sorting larvae, we printed out
photos of the species we found and hung them up in the lab.
So much diversity!

This cruise has been a learning experience for me. I’ve actually noticed a lot of things about OIMB that I had never seen before, and which were only made apparent by contrast to other institutions. OIMBers are curious; in fact, if I had to describe my labmates in one word, that would be it. We’re curious. We’re interested in natural history, in morphology, and we know our larval forms like nobody else. We can tell a planula from a pelagosphaera and a pilidium from a pluteus. When someone walks into the lab with an invertebrate in a dish (which happened a lot this cruise), we jump up, take a look, turn it over, examine it, stick it under a microscope. We love invertebrate diversity.

I’m going to walk away from the ship tomorrow with a much greater appreciation for my institution. I guess I never realized it before, but OIMB has a very unique culture. The elements of community that are normally scattered across our campus to the point of being invisible were for the past three weeks concentrated in a 12 x 12’ lab space, and it rocked. The dynamic among the 9 of us was positive, team-oriented, non-competitive, and respectful. I can say that all of us on board are genuine friends. We worked together; we were curious together. We sorted larvae; we spawned adults. We investigated new organisms and pursued interesting side-projects. We were a team.

The OIMB team with Sentry and the SyPRID samplers
I’ve been in grad school for three years now and this is my ninth cruise, but I have to say, it’s been one of the highlights. For crying out loud, I got to dive in Alvin, but even more, I can feel myself growing. It’s a process that started in Norway and has only intensified since I got back: I’m getting more scientifically mature. Now granted, I’m a biased observer and completely unqualified to make that assessment, but I definitely know I feel different. Recently, I’ve found myself thinking in different patterns, thinking about bigger concepts, asking bigger questions.

The good news is that I still have one more year of grad school, one more year to appreciate OIMB for all that makes it unique. One more year to be curious, to indulge in interesting tangents, to explore the diversity of invertebrates around me. One more year to soak up all that I can and carry it with me into my career. Because no matter where I end up working, an attitude of curiosity will pervade my lab.

That’s a promise.

Bonus: Listen to a piece for string quartet that I wrote in 2013 called "On Curiosity." It's meant to capture the energy in the lab when someone walks in with a new specimen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBkoELbxvP8&feature=youtu.be

Friday, July 24, 2015

Because nobody has looked

Back when we were planning this cruise, maybe a month and a half ago, we ended up with one free place on board. The spot had to be occupied by a man because it was in an all-male cabin. Well, all of the grad students and most of the undergrads currently at OIMB are female, so Craig started looking into other options. He ended up inviting a good friend and long-time collaborator of his, a sponge expert from Spain named Manuel Maldonado.

In Manuel's words, "when Craig invites you on a trip, you go, because it is always going to be an adventure." The two of them can tell stories about outrunning terrorists in Sri Lanka, diving in a sketchy tin-can submersible in the Bahamas, hiring a fishing boat to take them SCUBA diving and watching their captain find the reef by ear. Their adventures have been numerous, and it's so fun to hear the stories.

An encrusting sponge (not carnivorous) on a piece of
carbonate from a methane seep. 
Manuel and Craig traded places with two other scientists on board via an at-sea transfer about a week into the cruise, and since then, our lab has gotten sponge-ified. It took Manuel less than 24 hours on board the ship to discover a new species of carnivorous sponge living on carbonate from a methane seep, and he hasn't stopped since. I think he's up to something like 4 new carnivorous sponges and 3 new calcareous sponges. It's flat-out ridiculous, and at one point, Craig even asked Manuel if he had found a single known sponge on the cruise - if there were any species that had already been described. Manuel thought hard for a few seconds and then said, "Well, there was that one..." 

Personally, I was astounded that there could be so many undescribed species at what I feel are pretty frequently-visited habitats. I mean, we're not in the middle of nowhere; this is the eastern seaboard of the United States. The sponges are even large enough to be seen with the naked eye. We're not talking about some tiny gastrotrich in the middle of the abyssal plain.

For Manuel's first Alvin dive, we baptized him with sponges
before the traditional ice water. Photo by Laurel Hiebert.
Well, Manuel is not so surprised that cold seep sponges have been ignored up until now. To him, the reason they have not yet been found is simply because nobody has looked. Better said, the right person has not yet looked. Manuel actually gave a presentation on sponges to the scientists on board, and to conclude, he showed a photo of an anemone taken on a previous cruise for this project. Right next to the anemone, clearly visible in the photo, is a carnivorous sponge - a new species - that nobody else had noticed.

It's amazing what you can find when you look.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The legend of the dog sticker bandit

When I first started at OIMB three years ago, I noticed there were some random stickers placed around our lab. On the windowsill, on the corner of a desk. All of them were the same approximate size and artistic style, and all of them featured dogs. They must have been part of a pack. At the time, I just assumed that someone had an extra sheet of stickers one day and decided to get rid of them by sticking them around the lab. It added to OIMB's charm. No big deal.

Every once in a while, I would notice a new sticker and scratch my head for a second. It wasn't frequent at all - every few months, perhaps - seldom enough that I could convince myself the sticker had always been there and I had just never noticed it before. But recently, I've changed my mind. Ever since I've gotten back from Norway, dog stickers have been appearing in the lab on a regular basis, and they are showing up in places where I am positive there's never been a sticker before. Someone must be placing stickers in the lab one by one.

Dog sticker in my notebook
And the sticker bandit is closing in. There was one on the corner of my desk, in a location that could only be reached by someone sitting at my desk. There was one day I taped a series of graphs to the wall, and when one fell off, a sticker appeared in its place. The sticker locations are getting personal.

And stickers are showing up on the cruise! I'm sure any of the OIMBers would be glad to tell you about the look on my face when I found a dog sticker in my scientific notebook. It was impossible. The dog sticker bandit was on board! And in my notebook of all places!

Dog sticker on my door
Just a few days later, a sticker showed up on the lab bench under a microscope. Then there was one on my door! The door to my room! I have no problem admitting to you that the mystery is driving me nuts. It's like an Agatha Christie novel in reverse: And Then There Were Ten. The stickers keep multiplying, and I cannot for the life of me figure out who is behind it all.

My current hypothesis is that it's a team effort: someone back at OIMB must have one or more agents on board placing the stickers for them. It's the only explanation that makes sense, because each of the OIMBers on board insist on their innocence, and I believe them. Plus, I'm not the only OIMBer that's been hit. The sticker on the lab bench was under the microscope that Caitlin usually uses, and stickers appeared on Katie and Luciana's cabin doors today too. We're apparently all targets for the sticker bandit.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to set up a single light bulb in a dark room on the ship to interrogate my shipmates one by one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Boy-girl party

If you spend enough time in Craig Young's lab, he's bound to make you spawn something. I define myself as an ecologist, but just by working in the Young lab, I've learned a lot about reproductive and larval biology by osmosis. I've gotten comfortable injecting sea urchins with potassium chloride and mussels with serotonin to make them release gametes. I've grown accustomed to the weird facial expressions one receives when using words like "gonad," "ripe," and "oocyte" as if they were normal. I know how to recognize a fertilization envelope, and I can find a ciliated larva in a slurry of copepods and diatoms like a champ.

Urchin + electrodes = ?
Besides sorting larvae on this cruise, we've been opportunistically trying to spawn deep-sea invertebrates to describe their reproduction. Let me tell you, it's made for some pretty entertaining evenings on the ship.

There was one day that we got fantastic urchin specimens but found ourselves short on potassium chloride. Well, apparently, there are a couple alternative methods to make urchins spawn. One is shaking them and then placing them upside-down in a dish of cold water. Another is giving them a mild electrical shock. We tried both, but neither worked. A few hours and several "mad scientist" acussations later, we were just about ready to give up. Then someone found the potassium chloride.

On another occassion, we found onuphid worms at a cold seep site and decided to spawn them. Our lab was a popular place that day, and we had scientists from other labs crowding around to take pictures. We pushed the worms out of their tubes with a wooden dowel (because blowing them out like straws didn't work), put them in cold sea water, and waited. After just a few minutes, yellow eggs and milky sperm showed up in the bowls. At one point, I had to shove my way through a crowd to pick up a sample of sperm with my pipet, then spun around to find myself 2 inches from someone's face. Note to self: don't poke the human in the eye. We successfully fertilized the eggs in a dish that night, but they've failed to develop since. Nevertheless, when I ran into a technician later, he referred to our lab as having hosted a "boy-girl party." Oh yes, it was a party.
Mussel maternity ward

A new post-doc in our lab, Luciana, has been working on cold seep mussels. She wants to do some experiments with their larvae, so she's been spawning new specimens pretty much every day. That means a lot of mussels, a lot of serotonin, and a lot of larval cultures. We actually had a good laugh when she had to cut a block of white serotonin powder with a razor blade on a mirror. Thankfully, the mussels are responding to the neurotransmitter, so our walk-in refrigerator has turned into a mussel maternity ward.

In a lot of ways, I thrive on our chaotic evenings. We buzz around the lab with pipets and slides and finger bowls full of eggs. We joke about turning down the lights and putting on music to get our organisms to spawn. While other groups on board are playing cut-throat Settlers of Catan, we're working together to create a new generation of deep-sea invertebrates and understand how they develop. It's busy and creative and frustrating at times but mostly a lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Xi Beta Theta

Friends, I'm going to let you in on a secret: scientists like to have fun. Sometimes, we even tease each other, give each other a hard time. It's hard to believe, I know, but scientists do have personalities.

An XBT thermistor with copper wire attached.
White paper used for contrast.
Allow me to explain. There's one particular instrument for physical oceanography known as an XBT. It's used to measure the temperature in the water column, giving oceanographers an idea of what water masses are present at what depths. The X in XBT stands for Expendable, because an XBT never comes back. It's essentially a thermistor inside a weight with a copper wire attached. You toss it over the back of the ship while transiting. The wire pays out until the weight hits the bottom, and temperature readings are transmitted through the copper wire to a computer on the ship. When you're all done, you snap the copper wire with your fingers and say goodbye to the XBT.

Well, there's a certain tradition surrounding the XBT. Some may call it hazing, but in my mind, hazing is what sororities do to their freshman. It usually involves waking them up rudely in the middle of the night with buckets of cold water and then doing something marginally legal. What we do is much more innocent, much more academic, and much more fun. If you've never fired an XBT before, stop reading now, because otherwise the surprise will be spoiled.

Every first-time XBTer is warned up-front how dangerous the device is. They are told that deploying an XBT is something akin to shooting a rifle, just with stronger kick-back and less opportunity for control. They get dressed up in all sorts of safety gear, marched out to the back deck, and instructed to brace the XBT gun against their shoulder. More experienced lookers-on stand a safe distance away, lest a misfire should send copper wire streaming across the deck. We warn them; we prepare them; we tell them to brace for a nasty kick-back.

Katie launching her first XBT while wearing steel-toe boots,
a life jacket, a hard hat, goggles, ear plugs, and a
headlamp. For the record, only the headlamp was
actually necessary, and that's only because it was dark out.
Friends, all of this is crap. "Firing" an XBT actually involves no fire at all. There is no gunpowder, no trigger, no explosion, and no kick-back. You simply remove the pin, tilt the "gun" forward, and drop the metal ball into the water. The only sound you'll hear is the splash of the thermistor on the ocean surface, and the only danger is that you'll want to sink through the deck for embarrassment.

It's been fun to razz some of the students on their first cruise with XBT nonsense. I was exposed to the initiation rite on a cruise two years ago, so now I get to further the tradition. It's one of the ways we keep cruises entertaining.

Now you know the secret, but if anyone asks, you didn't hear it from me.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Minon glasses: Part 2

I promised I'd update you once Sentry's plankton sampler had a name, and it finally does now! The sampler is officially called SyPRID, which stands for Sentry Precision Robotic Impeller-Driven sampler. Clever, right? Well, I'm personally pretty excited about this name, for two reasons:

1) Cyprids (spelled with a C) are a larval form, and they grow up to be barnacles. The SyPRID sampler can be used for a lot of things, but I think it's neat that the name reflects its origins in larval biology.

The Young lab in our Sentry shirts.
2) OIMB came up with the name! We had a brainstorming session in our lab, so deciding on the acronym and the meaning was a group effort. Carl, the leader of the Sentry team, told us some of the words he wanted to have in there, and we went with it. It was quite satisfying to see our name win.

Because OIMB came up with the winning name, Carl offered all 7 of us free Sentry T-shirts. He travels with a large box of merchandise to sell or give away, so we all got to pick our favorite design and color. When Craig came on board, we showed off our shirts to him, and he responded by pulling out his own! He had packed a Sentry shirt in his bag, so we all matched!

Since getting its official name, the SyPRID sampler has been very busy. We've had a Sentry deployment almost every night for the past week, and we've spent our days sorting the larvae. It's exciting for me to see what larval forms are present in the bottom water. We've had a lot of visitors stop by the lab to see what kinds of things we've found, and we actually talked about rigging up a fluorescent sign. Kind of like Krispy Kreme has their "Hot Doughnuts Now" sign that attracts humans to their shop like flies to a lamp, we could have a fluorescent "New Larva Now" sign in the main lab of the ship. We'd hook it up to a switch in our lab so that anytime we found a new, interesting larval form, we could turn on the sign and tell others it was a good time to visit. If only I had thought ahead...

One last comment on Sentry: she has a face! One of the technicians used electrical tape to create a mouth on Sentry's facade, so the vehicle now looks like a real minion.
Sentry has a face! To the left is Andy, the Minion Commander,
one of the main minds behind the SyPRIDs.

Seen around the ship

Seen in the Sentry lab.
We caught this beauty in one of our plankton samples.
Rules are rules.
Laurel's birthday!
OIMBers on the bow.
For Joe's first Alvin dive, Doreen went all out.
She's wearing a shark suit and the flag of their university, NC State.
Joe's sash, crown, and scepter are all made from rolls of XBT copper wire.
Yes, the ice-bucketing ritual was performed in these costumes.
"Big Red" ctenophore from one of our plankton samples.
Sunset out our lab's porthole.
I made a calendar with a different musical genre for every day of the cruise
so that larval sorting would never get boring. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

4804: Part 4

As we glided around, exploring the mussel bed, our pilot said words that neither Adam nor I wanted to hear: "We're running low on battery."

It wasn't entirely clear why Alvin's battery was running lower than usual on our dive, but I suppose we had been sampling a lot. We did end up having to cut the dive short - it lasted 6 hours instead of the usual 9 - but to be honest, I really can't complain. I went on a journey to the bottom of the ocean, discovered a new cold seep habitat, collected samples from it, and saw amazing organisms in the process. We went to an entirely unknown site and came back with evidence of a thriving biological community. Exactly three humans have ever seen that particular patch of ground, and I am one of them. In fact, I am the only woman.

Chris had to get clearance from the ship before we could ascend, so there were a few minutes when we just hung suspended above the bottom, waiting for permission. Alvin climbed slowly up a jagged ridge in that time, giving us a dramatic view of the habitat we had just sampled. We then hovered over the top of the cliff, gazing down at the rugged landscape, the geyser-like bubbling, the countless mussels, the fuzzy bacterial mats. In that moment, I felt like an alien, a visitor to another planet, slowly making my departure and wishing the terrestrials peace. It was an incredibly tranquil, serene moment, but in another way, it was sad. There's just something forlorn about gazing downward into dark water that I really can't explain. If I were to compose that moment in music, I would have the violins gradually climb their way away from the cellos, using perfect fourths and fifths to build my chords. Then I would add the violas, giving them strange harmonies, minor sevenths and major seconds. It would sound like lifting away and convey a deep, deep sense of longing.

As Alvin dropped its weights, I felt the sub tilt to one side, then another. I silently bid farewell to the deep seafloor, holding back my tears. My mind was flooded with various thoughts, but only one of them materialized into a word: Gratitude. That's all I felt as we pulled away. Gratitude. Gratitude for my life, for the breath in my lungs, for the wide, beautiful planet I inhabit and the deep, gorgeous ocean that covers the majority of it surface. Gratitude for this place that I am and all the places I have been. Gratitude for the opportunity to visit the bottom of the ocean and for the doctoral adviser who brought me here. I've only recently started to appreciate how deeply he wants me to succeed, how strongly he campaigns on my behalf, but I finally got it today. My adviser cares so much. I saw it in the mussels and the mats and the myctophids. Gratitude. Nothing but gratitude.
Stepping out of the sub. Photo by Luciana Genio.

The ascent went pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was watching swimmers out my port hole again. When we were lifted out of the water and I could see the sun, it felt like I had just woken up from a really incredible dream. Alvin dive 4804 was over. I almost blinded myself stepping out of the sub and moved slowly, silently, utterly speechless, down the stairs to my labmates below. It was absolutely the most incredible experience of my life so far, and I can tell you with certainty that two things will happen from now on:
1) I will do everything in my power to get back into that sub.
2) I will do everything in my power to get others the chance to dive. There is absolutely nothing like it.

I suppose you're wondering if I got an ice-water baptism, as is tradition for first-time Alvin divers. Of course I did, and if you want to see pictures, I can actually do you one better. There's video. Once Adam had both made our way over to the waiting crowd, another grad student on board shoved a GoPro in my hand and told me to push Play. We got the whole thing on tape, and here it is. Watch it as many times as you want, my friends, because I don't care. I don't care that I squealed and screamed and wanted to run from the shocking sting of the cold. I don't care that everything on me got soaked. I don't care. Because I went to the bottom of the ocean today, and compared to the beauty of the world that I experienced down there, dear friends, nothing else matters.

4804: Part 3

We flew over the jagged precipice and continued across the mussel bed. It looked for a while like the mussels might have been thinning out, but then we reached another jagged cliff. It stuck up from the seafloor by about a meter, so it was much smaller than the last one. We saw only a little bit of bubbling, but the mussels were still pretty dense. We collected a few more and also used Alvin's slurp function to suck up animals living between the mussels. We couldn't really be sure what we were getting, since the in-between animals are too small to see, but we thought it would be an interesting sample to examine back in the lab.

Our third precipice was the most dramatic by far, and as we pulled up to it, we could barely believe our eyes. It rose a good 8 or 10 meters off the bottom, and when we reached the top, we could see it was a straight shot down the back side. The entire surface was jagged carbonate covered in dense mussels, which created an even more jagged surface, and it was the most vertical drop we had seen so far. If you were an underwater aqua-man and you fell off the back side of this cliff, you would have a very, very bad day.

The mussels were covered in a bacterial mat at this third precipice, and even some of the crabs were decked in white fuzz. We found a spot of active bubbling and focused an ultra-high-definition camera on it to record for a few minutes. After collecting a few more mussels, we looked back at the bubble source and discovered it had stopped. Hm, we all thought, that's interesting. Around this time, all of us were getting hungry, so in the time it took us to pull out sandwiches, take two bites, and decide where to go next, the bubbling went from a full stop to gushing like Old Faithful. Adam was particularly interested in what turns the bubbling on and off, so we turned the ultra-high-def camera back on and watched while it gushed. After a few minutes, the bubbles slowed a bit to a steady stream, then started spurting again and eventually stopped. It was really interesting to note that the bubbling rate can vary on such a short time-scale. Besides, sitting in a submarine next to a methane seep is without question the coolest place I've ever eaten lunch.

We still had more sampling to do, so we flew out over the mussel bed in search of sediment. We needed a few different spots where the seafloor was clear enough to push plastic cores into it, but we had a really hard time finding one. Even when the mussels thinned out and there were mostly dead shells, the shells were so dense we couldn't get any cores. We eventually found one location with a patch of bacterial mat and drove the cores in there. It's not as many replicates as the scientist analyzing them wanted, but we tried.

I sketched out some of the organisms I saw on the bottom.
The labels are in Craig's handwriting, partly because he
helped me identify each thing, but mostly because his
handwriting looks way cooler on a diagram than mine.
Flying to the edge of the mussel bed was actually a really neat experience, because we saw a lot of pelagic animals on the way. There were giant rays laying on the shell hash. We saw one shark and lots of bony fish. One in particular was pretty common, and it kept swimming in front of my window. It was about 3 inches long and had a yellow-orange head but a blue-brown body. I sketched it out on my note pad so I would remember it. There was another organism, which I presume to be a pelagic holothurian (sea cucumber), that hung suspended in a J-shape about a meter above bottom, motionless. There was some little swimming guy that was shaped like a ghost in a sheet, except every once in a while, the sides of the sheet would fly up like wings. I have yet to figure out what he was. But there was one organism in particular that caught my eye. I couldn't tell at all what it was, so I asked Chris to fly as near to it as he dared. I got as close to the front port hole as possible, practically laying on my stomach and pressing my nose on the acrylic until I could get a clear view. The organism was long and thin and red, and it had fleshy orange spikes all along its body. There was a clear gelatinous structure at the end closest to me. As we approached, the clear part got blown up into the water column until it was vertical, hanging suspended.

Just as soon as I had gotten a semi-decent view of the animal, we got too close to the seafloor and kicked up dust with Alvin's thrusters. My port hole view was obscured by benthic sediment, and Chris started moving away from the dust cloud. I grabbed my clipboard to sketch the animal, and as soon as I did, my ears caught wind of a familiar song playing softly over Alvin's speaker system. It was "Hopeless Wanderer" by Mumford and Sons. My theme song. I can't explain to you how high my soul was soaring at that moment - at the bottom of the ocean, seeing unidentifiable creatures, discovering new habitats, listening to my very own musical mantra. That moment will be forever seared into my memory.

When I first showed Craig, my doctoral adviser, my sketch of the unknown red thing, he asked if I had been low on oxygen and imagined it. I insisted I wasn't, so we looked at the video recording together later to see what it was. Our best idea for now is that it was an enteroneust, an acorn worm, and the clear part was its extended anterior end. Craig still wasn't sure about the fleshy orange bits, but a tentative identification is the best we can do for now.

Part 4 of this post is coming soon.

Friday, July 17, 2015

4804: Part 2

I'm obviously going to have to split up this post into multiple entries. If you're confused about the Mumford and Sons reference, I know I never followed up on it in Part 1. It shows up here in a little bit; just keep reading.

Me inside Alvin. Photo by Adam Skarke.
Once we were all in place and the hatch was sealed, Alvin was hoisted by the ship's A-frame into the water. Deploying Alvin is a relatively streamlined process, but it involves a lot of people. Besides those on deck, there are two swimmers in the surface water that are responsible for unhooking Alvin from all its various cables and tethers to the ship. I had seen the swimmers do their thing from the surface before, but I didn't realize how much of their work was underwater. I watched through the porthole like a 5-year-old seeing reindeer land on her neighbor's roof, fascinated by the process before me. It took a few minutes, but then, we were off.

On the way down, our pilot, Chris, asked if it would be ok to turn on some music. I had no idea it was possible to play music in Alvin, but I guess for the pilots, it makes the dives more interesting. Chris's playlist was largely composed of indie folk artists, so it didn't take long for Mumford to come on. I'm telling you, those four Brits manage to be present on the best days of my life.

Before long, the water column had gotten dark, but I kept my face glued to the port hole. Tiny blue sparks flew through the water before me, the result of various bioluminescent organisms. Bioluminescence is a phenomenon by which organisms produce light. It's accomplished by various mechanisms and for various reasons. For example, if you hang out on the bow of a ship while transiting at night, you'll see bioluminescent diatoms glowing in the bow waves. It looks just like a blue sparkle on top of the waves. In our case, I don't know what the glowing organisms were, but they must have been small. I just saw tiny blue points passing my window, and all of them were headed up. Well, more accurately, we were headed down, which means we were disturbing the organisms on our way through the water column, and they responded to that disturbance by glowing temporarily. After a while, I started seeing glowing plumes of what appeared to be a viscous liquid. It could have been mucus or ink, but my eyes followed it every time, trying to discern the shape of an organism from its billowing form. It occurred to me then how effective bioluminescence can be as a technique to avoid predators. Emit a glowing fluid, and your predator will follow it instead of you. Heck, I had no interest in eating the things outside my window, and it worked well enough on me!

Unbeknownst to me, Adam took a picture of me gazing out
Alvin's port hole.
By the time we reached the bottom, I was thoroughly enchanted. We landed a little bit away from the site we were actually supposed to investigate, because it's better to approach benthic targets from the side than from the top. We could see soft sediment around us, very sparse organisms, and a few dead mussel shells. Mussel shells usually mean that a cold seep is close by, so we set a waypoint for the site of the suspected plume and started gliding towards it.

My notes from the dive reveal what happened next. Just a few minutes in, I noted the presence of a bacterial mat. A patch of fuzzy white carpet appeared on the soft sediment, the first indication of methanotrophic (methane-eating) biota. Ten minutes in, I noticed that the mussel shells were getting denser. Fifteen minutes in, we found our first live mussels. Adam, my dive buddy, spotted them first, but he turned to me for biological insight. He asked if I thought they were alive, and after a few seconds of assessment, I agreed. The mussels' valves were slightly ajar, and I could see their white tissues in the gap. Two orifices in the white tissue were the mussels' siphons, indicating they were actively filtering the water around them. Live mussels could only mean one thing: we had found a new cold seep habitat.

It was only a matter of time before we discovered the source of the gas, so we asked the pilot to fly over the mussel bed a little further. We eventually reached a jagged precipice covered in a dense population of mussels, and there it was: active bubbling. The pilot, Chris, has been on enough cold seep dives that he recognizes methane plumes quickly. As Alvin hovered in the water column just a few feet away from the precipice, we all scanned the seafloor in front of us. One, two, three streams of gas bubbles were right there, supplying methane and hydrogen sulfide to the bottom water.

We decided the precipice would be a good place to collect mussels, so Chris looked for a flat place to sit the sub down. A lot of the mussels were covered in the same white bacterial mat we had seen on the sediment before, and there were lots of crabs. Large, red brachyuran crabs, all flexing their claws in defense against Alvin, the bright alien invader from above. We collected several mussels and also grabbed some crabs. Chris was really curious to know whether the crabs would still be alive when we reached the surface, and for the record, they were.

I wish I could show you photos of what I saw, but the Alvin data isn't mine to share. I guess my words will have to do for now. Stay tuned for more in Parts 3 and 4, which I'll post tomorrow.


Somehow, the best days of my life always end up being accompanied by Mumford and Sons. I remember in the summer of 2013, I drove up to North Cascades National Park in Washington to meet a college friend. I hadn't seen her in two years. As we drove through the mountains in her red Mustang convertible, eating organic strawberries and feeling our ears pop with the ever-increasing altitude, Mumford and Sons came on the radio. We sang the words to each other as loudly as we could, and as the cool alpine wind teased our hair, we both laughed for the sheer beauty and joy of the moment.

Then in Norway, on the day I went canyoning with two housemates in Voss, our Canadian driver had Mumford on repeat in his repurposed old school bus. I had honestly no idea what I was getting into at the time, but as I settled back into the bus seat, I looked to my housemate, Jonathan. He was wearing a wild smile and and was practically bouncing in his seat for anticipation. He had planned our whole crazy adventure, and on that cold morning, his bright blue eyes told me what I already knew: I was in for a ride.

Mumford has a way of being present at the moments when my heart is pumping the hardest, my eyes are open the widest, and my soul is soaring the highest. And Mumford was present today, to accompany the single greatest adventure I've had so far.

Today, I went to the bottom of the ocean.

That's right, friends, I got an Alvin dive, and it was the journey of a lifetime. I find myself struggling to find the right words to describe the experience, or actually to find any words at all. Yes, I know how cliché that sounds, but it's true. When I stepped out of the sub today, I moved like a robot: I climbed the ladder, retrieved my shoes, walked down the catwalk toward my labmates, and prepared to be doused with ice water. I couldn't think; I could only move, and there was this odd moment when Luciana, a fellow OIMBer, looked up at me and asked, "What, no words?" They all expected the same bubbly, enthusiastic Kirstin that had climbed into Alvin that morning, but that girl didn't know what to do with herself. She was stunned silent. It was the first time in my life that I've ever been truly speechless. 

I'm going to do my best to describe to you the beauty that I experienced today. I'll use whatever words the English language has to offer, and if I have to draw on other languages too, I'll hope you'll follow along. Here we go.

The adventure started last night, or maybe it was afternoon. Craig, my Ph.D. supervisor, came into the lab where my fellow OIMBers and I were sorting larvae from the previous night's MOCNESS tow. We were getting toward the end, which meant we were all a bad mix of exhausted and impatient, so when Craig walked in, I was happy enough for an excuse to step away from my microscope. I leaned on a table near the door, and Craig came up and stood next to me. 

"You're going in Alvin tomorrow," he said. 

I honestly couldn't believe it, and I'm afraid my reaction wasn't what he was hoping for. I had convinced myself that I would never get a dive, just to protect myself from disappointment in case my expectation came true. But there it was. I was going to get an Alvin dive.

Craig then informed me that the site I would be visiting was completely unknown; no one had ever been there before, via submersible, ROV, or otherwise. The site was scientifically interesting because mulit-beam SONAR data from 2013 showed a plume of gas at the seafloor, and gas plumes usually correspond to methane seeps. The senior scientists on board all thought the site could potentially feature an undiscovered cold seep habitat, and it was my job to go investigate. Well, mine and my dive buddy's.

Adam, Alvin, and I before our dive. Photo by Caitlin Plowman.
My dive buddy was Adam Skarke, a geologist from Mississippi State University. He's spent most of his time on the cruise so far collecting and analyzing multi-beam data, and he's good at what he does. I was really excited to go on my dive with a geologist, especially if our dive site had never been visited before. I figured he'd know how to navigate us to interesting habitats, and besides, Adam is a pretty nice guy. It was the first dive for both of us.

We spent a few hours in the evening conferring with a couple other scientists on the cruise, making sure we knew their research objectives inside and out. If the site turned out to be an active methane seep, it was our job to collect samples for everyone on board. Because only three people can be in Alvin at a given time (two scientists and one pilot), the diving scientists are responsible for carrying out the wishes of their fellow shipmates. Those underwater are responsible for everyone's research, not just their own. Of course, the diving scientists have a little bit of latitude, but there is definitely a sense of responsibility there. Adam and I made sure we knew what we were doing.

I was actually surprised how little I had to prepare for the dive. Alvin is a well-established platform, so the Woods Hole team has pretty much worked out all the kinks. Any personal items you want with you on the dive go in a blue bin in the Alvin hangar the night before. Lunch is packed for you, and the chief scientist prints out checklists of all the sampling to be done that day. Anyone who might dive in Alvin gets their saftey briefing at the beginning of the cruise, so by the time your dive comes around, it's already taken care of. There are pre-formatted note pads for you to write on, so you don't need to bring paper. You're not allowed personal electronics due to fire hazard. Pack a few warm clothes, and honestly, you're done.

Getting into the sub. Photo by Caitlin Plowman.
Because preparations for the dive were so minimal, I actually spent about an hour pacing the ship this morning. I got up for breakfast, but I didn't want to start any tasks before my dive. I ended braiding another girl's hair to keep myself occupied. I used the bathroom several times so I didn't have to in the sub (it's possible but embarrassing and difficult). As Alvin exited its hangar and my fellow OIMBers gathered on deck to see me off, my excitement grew to the point that I was bouncing across the fantail. Oh yes, my reputation as Enthusiastic Girl grew a few sizes today.

Adam and I climbed the stairs, removed our shoes, and lowered ourselves into Alvin, where the pilot was waiting. The scientists in Alvin essentially sit on the floor, one on either side of the pilot. There are cushions arranged in a reclined position facing backwards, and there are port holes on the sides and front of the sub. The front port hole on either side is essentially behind the scientist's head. It may not make a lot of sense to you now, but I insist it makes sense in the sub. It's the only way to comfortably fit three people in a spherical space and let all of them look out the window. The scientists are able to see out the side port hole from the reclined position, but to see out the front port hole, you kind of have to roll over and lay on your side. Anyway, I got into place, glued my face to the port hole, and braced for deployment. Alvin dive 4804 was underway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Heaven and earth

"I will move heaven and earth to get you to the bottom of the ocean." - Craig Young

Caitlin (right) with her dive buddy, Abbe, a Ph.D. student at
Duke University, before they entered Alvin.
On a sunny afternoon shortly before we left Oregon, my labmate, Caitlin, came bouncing down the hallway to my desk. She leaned across the green table top, putting her face close to mine, and practically burst open as she spoke.

"Guess what Craig just said to me!" she gushed.

Craig had promised to do everything in his power to get her on DSV Alvin, and she could barely contain her excitement. I was more than happy for her, especially because our adviser's word is good. I'm not sure if any of you felt it, but heaven and earth have moved. Because yesterday, Caitlin got her first Alvin dive.

Stepping out of the sub, Caitlin is all smiles.
Dumping ice water on my labmate in the name of tradition!
The word that comes to my mind right now is "compersion." It's a vocabulary word I recently learned from a friend, and it means the exact opposite of jealousy. It's most often used in the context of romantic relationships, but compersion is being genuinely happy when things go well for someone you care about. I have compersion for Caitlin, because if anyone deserves a trip to the ocean floor, it's her. She did her undergraduate work at OIMB and made the transition to grad school while I was in Norway, so I really only got to know her as a Master student and a labmate since I got back in April. I can honestly say she's both a hard worker and a genuine friend. She's been on four research cruises so far, and her Master's project is about the reproduction of cold seep mussels. Unfortunately, most of her Alvin dive ended up being spent searching for a lost mooring, but at least she still got the chance to see the seafloor in person.

It's tradition that after a newbie has their first Alvin dive, they are christened with buckets of ice water. Caitlin was on an Alvin cruise last year, so she was well-acquainted with the tradition and knew full well what was coming. Our entire OIMB team was standing by with buckets when she got out of the sub, so she marched right over, stood where we told her to, and embraced the cold shower. It was an awesome day, and I'm so glad my labmate got an Alvin dive!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Minion glasses

Just as soon as we finished sorting all our larvae from the MOCNESS, another gear deployment promised to bring us more. This time it was the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry, which belongs to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Woods Hole is in my opinion the best oceanographic institute in the world, and to put it simply, they have all the best toys. Ships, ROVs, AUVs, submersibles - Woods Hole has it all. The AUV Sentry is an amazing vehicle, and the team that keeps her running really knows their stuff. They're creative, intelligent, skilled engineers, and they're pretty agreeable people too. I have only positive things to say about Sentry.

Sentry with the plankton pumps attached.
Is anyone else thinking Despicable Me?
Anyway, autonomous vehicles haven't traditionally been used to collect plankton from the deep sea. The capability to do so is a new innovation. I remember being on a conference call in my adviser's office in Oregon a year and a half ago and overhearing some discussion of putting plankton pumps on Sentry. My adviser wondered if it was even possible and asked the Woods Hole team to investigate. Well, investigate they did, because now, Sentry is equipped with two fully-functional plankton pumps, one on each side. The pumps were invented by a team at Woods Hole, and I've got to say, I'm deeply impressed. Each pump has a swinging door on the front that can open and close at pre-programmed times, thereby controlling the depth at which plankton are captured. Water is filtered through fine mesh in a long tube, and any remaining particles are collected at the back end. One common problem in actively pumping water is that the larvae get smashed against the filter, but the Woods Hole team was able to keep the water at the end of the tube moving so no larvae get squished. So cool!

A few nights ago was Sentry's first real deployment with the pumps, so we weren't even sure our sampling scheme would work. In the end, it proved to be a highly successful deployment, because we spent all of this morning and part of the afternoon sorting larvae. Got to admit, it was a lot of fun to skip down the hallway and inform the Sentry team that their devices had worked. A couple of the guys insisted on seeing their precious larval catch, so we showed them a few under the microscope.

One final note: the plankton pumps still don't have an official name, so after the larvae were all
sorted, we spent a good hour or two brainstorming titles. Our suggestions ranged from clever to cheesy to downright stupid, but Carl, the leader of the Sentry team, seemed to like two of our ideas. I'll keep you posted if they decide on a name!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The longest day

After leaving port yesterday, it only took us about 12 hours to reach our first station. The habitats we're sampling in this cruise are located on the continental margin, so they're relatively close to land. There was a short multibeam survey of the seafloor once we got the station, and then our first gear deployment immediately after. Not even a full day at sea, and we already had gear in the water. Freaky fast!

Caitlin strikes a power stance while
waiting to deploy the MOCNESS.
The first gear deployment was a MOCNESS tow, which is our main sampling gear. MOCNESS stands for Multiple Opening and Closing Net Environmental Sampling System, and it's basically a series of giant nets. We lower it down into the water column with one net open (only one net is open at a time), then open and close the nets in series on the way back up. That way, we get plankton samples from different depths in the water column, all cleanly separated in their respective nets. The ultimate goal is to sort, preserve, and identify all of the larvae we find in the plankton samples to be able to tell how different species of larvae are distributed in the water column. Maybe some species send their larvae to the surface to disperse in faster currents. Maybe some species of larvae stay near the bottom so they have a better chance of finding suitable habitat. No matter what the larval strategy is, it's our job to figure it out.

Deploying the MOCNESS is tricky business, because we have to make sure none of the 10 nets get tangled on their way into the water. It took four of us on deck, plus two crew members, to get it straight. Hopefully, we'll get better with practice as the cruise goes on. After the nets were safely in the water, most of us went to sleep, but two stayed awake to monitor the net on its journey to the deep. We had to be vigilant about watching the on-screen displays, checking the angle of the wire, the velocity of the net, the speed of the ship, the payout of the winch. I'll give you more details later, but suffice it to say we were on high alert all night.

Kara and Laurel analyzing a larva in the lab.
When the MOCNESS came to the surface in the morning, 3 more members of our team woke up and helped with recovery. We carefully brought all 10 nets on deck without getting them tangled (thank goodness!), brought our samples into the lab, and started sorting. The two of us that stayed up overnight went down for a nap while everyone else settled in at their microscopes. It took us from about 6 am until 5 pm to sort the entire sample, and that's with 7 people working on at least a semi-consistent basis. So. Many. Larvae.

The beginning of this cruise has been a whirlwind so far, and it feels like the past 36 hours all belonged to one extraordinarily long day. Of course, I've been awake for most of them. (Don't worry; I'll sleep after I'm done writing.) I think our first MOCNESS tow went surprisingly well, all things considered. None of the seven of us on board are particularly experienced with the MOCNESS, and the grad student who was responsible for our gear in the past isn't on this cruise. We've been able to figure it out between our fragmented recollections and help from the ship's personnel, but I definitely look forward to smoothing out the rough spots in our process as the cruise goes on.

We survived our first deployment and our first long day at sea. It can only get better from here!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Setting sail

Well, friends, I'm at it again. Yes, that's right, I have in the past 48 hours flown across North America to join another research expedition. I come to you now from Morehead City, North Carolina.

In some ways, every cruise is the same, and in other ways, every cruise is different. This one is unique in that I'm traveling with a large group from my institute. There are 7 of us, and one more is joining us after the first week at sea. For a seasoned lone traveler like myself who's never afraid to board a ship full of strangers, it feels a bit weird to be surrounded by people I know. It's a change, but it's good. I'm excited for this cruise.

Getting all of us here was actually easier than I expected. We flew into Raleigh, North Carolina, spent the night there, and then drove out to Morehead City yesterday. Only one person had a delayed flight; our rented full-size van got us safely down the highway; and when we arrived, one phone call to a colleague got us an escort into the port. Not half bad, if I may say.

We divided and conquered for the afternoon. Two of us went to return the rental car; the remaining 5 set up our lab. Getting in and out of the port to return the car was actually a bit of a hassle, because only individuals with security clearance can move about as they please; all others require an escort. None of us OIMBers have the necessary clearance, so when our original escort disappeared, we asked one of the ship's crew to help out. Thankfully, she was patient enough to escort us, letting us out of the port and then back in. As we headed out, though, there were a tense couple of minutes as a police officer realized the person escorting us out of the port was not the same person that had escorted us in. Profuse apologies and a couple signatures on a form took care of it, but there were definitely a few moments when I had to remind myself to breathe. Port security does not mess around!
Microscopes galore.

We're scheduled to leave port in another hour and a half, so the ship is buzzing with activity. We got our lab set up last night, and it's probably the cleanest it will be the entire expedition right now. We'll spend most of our time sorting larvae, which requires a lot of manpower, a lot of time, and hopefully some strong stomachs. Staring down a microscope at sea can induce motion sickness, but once we get going, it's usually fine.

Here's to a good cruise!

Friday, July 3, 2015

She flies with her own wings

Last week, when Mom, Grandpa, and Fran were visiting, we stopped at the Oregon state capitol in Salem. There were sidewalk tiles all around the capitol building with historical anecdotes, quirky place names, tributes to each of the Oregon counties. One in particular caught my eye, because it listed the Oregon state motto. I honestly had no idea that American states could have mottos, but there it was at my feet.

"She flies with her own wings."

Kind of a weird sentiment to describe a state, if you ask me, but the phrase has re-surfaced in my mind the past few days. I've been getting very frustrated recently, since each of the scientific projects I'm working on have stalled out at once. I've run into brick wall after brick wall, and I've been waiting for responses from collaborators for who knows how long. I've described this problem to you before, because it's been going on for over a month. Up until now, my response tactic has been to let go. I detached. I took time off. I visited friendsI re-discovered Coos Bay. I spent an entire week and a half traveling around Oregon with family.


It occurred to me yesterday that I've never had this problem in Europe. Sure, sometimes logistical issues got in the way, but it never took weeks to get a response to my e-mails. Colleagues made time for me, both in Germany and in Norway. The problem I'm having is uniquely American, at least according to my personal experience, because on this side of the Atlantic, we have a culture of overload. Each person routinely operates at their absolute maximum, so there is no time left to help others, no room to squeeze things in at the margins. We're full.

And I'm done. Done waiting, done spinning my wheels. After a month of detaching and enjoying the view, it's time for something different. I'm not exactly sure which is the healthier strategy - detachment or seizing control, patience or powering through - but this is the one I'm going to try for now. Today, I fly with my own wings.