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Dispatch 15 – Life Aboard a Research Vessel

Principle Investigators, Tom Trull and Philip Boyd ‘hanging’ like copepods in an attempt to understand their behaviour. (Photo by Carolyn Walker)

Lat: 47° N
Long: 160° E
Air temp: 12 °C, 53.6 °F
Sea temp: 11.5°C, 52.8°F

Sky: Foggy
True wind : 13.5 knots
Waves: Flat, 1-2 feet

It’s 5.00am on board the R/V Roger Revelle, 300 nautical miles off the Kamchatka Peninsula. Soon, the sun will rise and once again be obscured by the dense layer of fog that surrounds the ship. For now the ship slips stealthily through the gentle seas shrouded in darkness, essential for the preservation the watch keeper’s night vision in the fog. A dim glow from the navigational lights at the fore of the ship illuminates its profile giving it a somewhat ominous look. Large phosphorescent Ctenophores disturbed by the movement of water, flash brilliant blue in the dark ocean as they collide with the ships hull.

Towards the back of the ship, red light escaping an instrument hanger reflects blindingly off the working vests of personnel moving quietly on deck. The hanger houses a large metal framed CTD rosette silently awaiting its next deployment. It has long been the scientific life blood of oceanographic voyages, playing a central role in water collection of the deep ocean. On this voyage it shares the limelight with a large number of complex instruments; sediment traps, large volume pumps, O2 respirometers, all designed to investigate marine snow, its composition, settling rate and remineralisation.

Winch and CTD operators busily prepare for the next sampling station. Inside the hanger, a large bar heater affectionately named “the nuclear heater”, provides the light to work by in the early morning, and welcome warmth in the 10º C air. Spring loaded CTD bottles are cocked, the deck awash with unused freezing water that originated deep within the ocean. The smell of bacon cooking percolates through the corridors signifying to weary-eyed personnel working through the night, that another day has started.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
For 4 weeks the 280 foot R/V Roger Revelle has been home to some 55 people with a wide range of backgrounds from all over the globe. Chefs, Oilers, Wipers, Engineers, Electricians, Mates, Master, AB’s, Research Technicians, Computer Technicians and Scientific Personnel skilled in a variety of disciplines all work together in an attempt to add more pieces to the carbon flux puzzle. Every crew member has a skill essential to the success of the cruise, whether it be keeping lookout on the bridge or strategic planning of the grid that is to be sampled in order to provide context to the data acquired from the central sampling station. There is no nine to five at sea. Ship and scientific operations know no diurnal boundaries. When the rest of the world is sleeping, the ocean is alive with activity. Zooplankton swim hundreds of meters vertically to the ocean’s surface to feast on carbon fixing phytoplankton under the cover of darkness; bacteria chow down on particulate organic matter raining from the surface and return life-supporting nutrients to the water; filter feeding ctenophores create currents bearing food by beating fine hair-like cilia along their axis. They all play a part in the relentless 24 hour carbon cycle and to investigate it thoroughly scientists and crew members must also be relentless and available to work 24 hours of the day, sometimes in tiresome and difficult conditions. However, it isn’t just all work and no play. Every person on board has their own way of unwinding after a long shift.

During periods of back deck inactivity, PI’s and science groupies can frequently be found ‘hanging out’ within a 10 meter radius of the espresso machine in the Hydro-lab, the Café Thorium headquarters of the cruise. If you crave constant injections of caffeine and humorous scientific discussion, then this is the spot for you.

Once you realize you can’t pop down to the pub for a cheeky pint after dinner, you set out to find social activities within the confines of the ship and imagination takes over. Card games involving a lot of hand slapping and yelling seem to be incredibly popular and provide endless hours of entertainment in the galley for many of the younger crowd. Those wanting a more quiet past-time strum guitar in the corner of the library, play chess, read or sneak out to the back deck to secretly practice the harmonica. Outside, people occasionally congregate after dinner in small groups, sharing cigarettes, drinking their nightly ration of one can of beer or just shooting the breeze. At night, movie viewing is without a doubt the most popular way to wind down. Combine a large sofa lounge, wide screen TV, DVD library containing hundreds of relatively recent movies and what seems like an endless supply of popcorn and coke and you have the next best thing to the local cinema without the worry of parking.

Sarah Smith, Ken Buesseler, Deborah Steinberg, George Hight and Philip Boyd (shy and submerged), braving the elements in the back deck hot tub. (Photo by Carolyn Walker)

If your needs aren’t meet by the suspense of a thriller and tend towards a more relaxing activity, check out the back deck Jacuzzi. On the fantail the crew has rigged up a 4 person brine bath filled with heated sea water pumped from the engine and water purifying unit. Although at this latitude, with the air temperature often falling below 10º C, only the hardy, those wearing survival suits or zooplankton ecologists are advised to brave the hot tub.

After 4 weeks of scoffing the sugary delights constantly on offer and the impending impact good chefs like Jay Erickson and Pete Steiner can have on the waist line, you may no longer fit into your swimming trunks. Fortunately, the Revelle has two cardio rooms and a weights room to help ward off the big bellied frog physique typical of ocean going voyages. It takes just one look at the crew and captain of the Revelle (although most honest people will admit they sneak a few more) to realize that exercise and weight lifting is definitely a favorite past-time on the Revelle. A mid afternoon workout with the boy’s, is bound to bring bulging biceps, increased agility and the loss of ability to dress oneself the following day. To top it all off, the location of the on deck weights bench provides one of the best views in the world for a gym, with plenty of fresh air while one puffs and pumps their way to a better body.

If its wild life spotting you’re into, you may be a little disappointed by the lack of marine life visible through the fog, although sightings of crazed nocturnal Australians launching hand lines off the back deck in a desperate attempt to catch salmon is fairly common.

Events coordinators James Pearson and Eric Magellan watch on as Tornado shows his flare with a rope. (Photo by Carolyn Walker)

If organized events are your thing, well…… there’s always the Revelle’s first ever crew versus scientists shipboard skip off to entertain you. Armed with plankton enumerators and thumbs of steel, score officials Debbie Steinberg and Toru Kobari recorded hundreds of skips as contestants Fireball Freddie (Friederike Ebersbach) and Quickfoot Quijano (Chris Quijano) competed head on in a series of grueling challenges. After an awesome display of talent, fitness, and madness by both contestants, Fireball Freddie was finally awarded the trophy beer chip. Her manager, Tom Trull was clearly bursting with what we think was pride.

— Carolyn Walker

Tilla Roy hanging out for sushi. (Photo by Carolyn Walker)