Tag Archive: ship


what’s it like, then

Imagewell, the vampire squid is a hard act to follow.  although we did see some more very beautiful things, they’re all going to seem a little anticlimactic. so i’ll show you some nice photos of another squid anyway, Chiroteuthis calyx, which is more photogenic even if it doesn’t have the vampire’s notoriety, and i’ll tell you about something less sciency: life on the boat.

you can get a feel for the vessel itself, the western flyer (technical specs here) by taking a virtual tour.  my overall impressions, compared to other ships i’ve been on (the rainbow warrior and academic ioffe), are that it feels very stable (although it has an interestingly unpredictable pattern of rolling, which we experienced during the first two days as the wind gusted up to 30 knots; still, nothing like the conditions that inspired me to write full tilt in 2004, reposted at the bottom of my ‘about’ page) and runs very quietly, although the noise from the hydraulic equipment for the ROV is significant.  the common areas feel comfortable and spacious, while the cabins are extremely economical on space—the non-bunk floorspace in the double cabin i share is less than 2x2m, and that includes a sink and a desk.  toilets/showers are shared between two cabins, so four people, but we’ve never had any timing crises that i’ve been aware of.  maybe i’ve just been on the right side of the door.

the daily schedule goes something like this: ROV into the water around 0630, camera on and filming begins immediately.  observers trickle into the control room to watch what’s going on any time over the next few hours (and drift in and out in the meantime); the live camera feed can also be viewed in the dry lab (where everyone’s computers are), the mess, the bridge, and on monitors in each cabin, so if you see something exciting come into frame, you can rush to the control room to share in the mass hysteria.  breakfast is at 0730 and lunch at 1130; those operating the ROV (navigator, pilot, camera operator and video annotator) swap out about a half hour into each meal so everyone gets to eat.  the food is consistently superb, unlike on some other voyages.  the dive usually runs for 8–12 hours, depending on the goals for the day (sometimes there are two shorter dives), and that time is spent somewhere between  300 and 3000m on this trip, although doc ricketts can go to 6000m, with the entirety collected on film.  during this time the ROV operators take shifts and the science  crew are involved if data for their projects are being collected, or if they want to watch what’s going on (who doesn’t?!).  dinner is at 1700 and the ROV is usually back on deck shortly thereafter.  in the evening we’ve also been setting a short trawl down to 300–500m to collect pteropods, shrimp, jellies, and fish and squid that come to the upper layers as darkness descends.  the net is hauled somewhere between 2000 and 2100 and then anyone with samples to process takes care of those.  most people head to bed reasonably early after that, but i’ve been up late most nights, partly reporting here and partly because in my head it’s four hours earlier and it doesn’t make much sense to get readjusted for just a week.  that does mean that the early mornings begin really early though; i confess to arriving at breakfast one morning to hear that i’d already missed five squid sightings by ‘sleeping in.’  a mistake i have not repeated.

so that may give you an idea of what life is like out here.  it doesn’t convey—because words simply couldn’t—the overwhelming awe that this whole operation inspires, with its smooth running amid extremely advanced technology, innate expertise of those involved, and easy camaraderie among scientists and crew alike.  it is an incredible privilege to be here, and photos like these, that can almost convey the magic of seeing these animals alive, will serve as a reminder for me (long after we’ve returned to the shore) of this wonderous week.

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sealog 10: naval gazing

looking back, i see that i haven’t really described where i’ve been living for the past month.  since i have ample time for meditating on my surroundings now that the sampling is finished (actually, with a week to go before we arrive at port, ‘excessive’ time might be more truthful), here’s a bit of info about our digs.
i share a cabin, about 3x6m, with a benthic biologist from uruguay.  we get along famously, having startlingly similar senses of humor and each eagerly studying the other’s language.  i can’t actually imagine being randomly thrown into co-habitation with someone more compatible, and i’m well aware that not everyone on the ship has been quite so lucky.  one of the other biologists, who has his own room, shares a bathroom with a russian guy we have informally christened ‘senor enojado’ (mr. angry) – among ourselves only, of course, so shh – because he never smiles, and in fact meets any attempt at pleasantries with a heavy scowl.  apparently, he also mutters to himself constantly in a low, semi-threatening tone, when using the shared bathroom.  did i mention that i love my roommate?
but i digress.  the cabin is a little like a shared twin college dorm room, with furnishings in shades of blond wood and a nice dusty blue.  there are two twin berths, each at normal height but with raised sides (for sleeping security during heavy swell), and drawers underneath.  there’s a desk under the porthole and a dangerously comfy sofa (site of many a siesta, some unintentional).  there are several small bookshelves affixed to the walls, each with a bar across the front to prevent sudden avalanches, and the three tall cupboards all have similar bars across their shelves, plus locking doors.   one corner of the room is cut out by our 1.5x2m bathroom, a true ‘water closet,’ which contains a compact sink, toilet and shower.  the floor is recessed a little so that the water from the shower runs freely over it but not into the main part of the room; the ship’s movement eventually herds the slosh into the corner with the drain.  mercifully, the bathroom is also well ventilated – the floor is dry within about two hours after a shower and laundry hung in there also dries quickly.
this ship, designed in part for acoustic work, is unusually stable and quiet – we can’t always tell without looking outside whether we’re moving forward or not.  its normally gentle roll, perpendicular to the beds, is actually rather soothing, and apart from the occasionally noisy maintenance work during daylight hours, peaceful sleep is possible at any time of day (and believe me, i’ve tried them all.  the only time i couldn’t sleep was when a strange, rhythmic thumping started up nearly exactly above my head – i figured it was some kind of maintenance thing, as usual, but in fact senor enojado was on the top deck jumping rope.  go figure).  we’ve had to address a couple of small creaking issues in our room – carpentry, right-angle corners and constant swaying don’t seem to go together very well – but through the cunning use of paper wads, bandanas and occasional blunt force, we’ve won nearly every time.
and so we’ve spent four weeks in our little cubby in the sixth deck, about 9m above the sea surface (on average).  in our gently rocking sleep, i think we’ve traveled about 2000km, which is kind of a strange thought (plus another ~5000 during waking hours).  we have floated anywhere from a dozen meters to five kilometers above the seafloor and doubtless passed by many unseen strange creatures, and we’ve traveled over about 45° of latitude. (the chilly weather now certainly drives home how far we’ve come from the tropics.)  it’s also odd to realize that for four weeks, we’ve lived entirely within a 110m-long steel box, and haven’t seen trees, or cars, or dogs, or a newspaper.  (our newsless bubble was burst  briefly when the pebbles slyly fed me a rumor about michael jackson’s death being a publicity stunt… my credibility on board was shot for a few days after that.)  it’s odder to realize that we haven’t actively missed most of these things, apart from our respective important people onshore (news hoaxes notwithstanding).
i remember the culture shock of returning from my previous voyage in 2004 – suddenly on land, there were street lights, shoe shops, tall buildings.  we had just lived for three weeks without any of this; was it really necessary? gradually we got used to city life again, and bought cups of coffee and high-heeled boots and electronic gadgets, but i think one of the things i like the most about time at sea is the stepping back from these things for a while.  for a few weeks, i don’t need any of them (well, ok, i confess, my music player has been extremely useful during whale-watches); on future trips (if any), i think i would only extend my packing list to include many more books and several kilos of chocolate.  it’s a good life out here, and while i will be very ready to be home by the end of six more days without any work to speak of, i know that i will also look back on the weeks spent in our little floating world as happy ones.

sealog 9: more squid!

well, we’ve come a long way since the first squid report i made after we completed superstation 1.  now we’re up to station number 9, and we have just one left to go (although we’ve been collecting some extra samples as the chance arises).  we’ve found 40 species from 21 families, and a good mix of things from the surface waters and things that live much deeper.  our little friend Pterygioteuthis gemmata (with the lovely photophores) has been present in nearly every sample, while some other things we have only seen once on the whole trip.  and nearly every catch has brought in at least one thing we haven’t seen previously, so it’s still exciting whenever a sample comes in.
our favorites so far, in addition to Vampyroteuthis and the silly-looking cranchiids, have included some more cranchiids (one in particular, Egea inermis, is just a beautifully clear sac of fluid, but with huge golden googly eyes); a tiny, bright-red deep sea squid called Bathyteuthis; several onychoteuthids in perfect condition (but i’m a little biased); and a few different species of Histioteuthis, a genus of particularly spectacular squids that are covered in blue-green photophores, and have one huge eye and one ‘normal-sized’ eye.
and yesterday’s trawls brought in some more bizarre and wonderful things. the benthic sample contained two specimens of a small, round squid called Heteroteuthis dagamensis, endemic to this region and not previously encountered on this cruise;  two other new records for the cruise followed in the nekton samples.  the first was a small squid whose family we couldn’t even decide on at first, but after some research we think it may be Alluroteuthis antarctica (since we are in a region where antarctic species occasionally turn up, especially in deep water).  the whole second trawl contained one single, lonely squidlet (among the fish, crustaceans, jellies and pyrosomes) – but a very interesting one.  it’s a strange-looking thing, with almost perfectly circular fins and a gladius (or ‘pen’) that extends in a thin spike so far beyond the fins that it nearly doubles the animal’s mantle length.  this seems to be a paralarva first described in 1920 (from the sargasso sea) by s. stillman berry, who poetically called it Enoptroteuthis spinicauda; more recent authors suggest that it’s a junior synonym of Lepidoteuthis grimaldii, so we’ll have to look at it closely and see what we can find out.
one thing i had hoped to encounter, especially in this particular area, has not turned up yet.  it’s a species or group of species with a lot of associated systematic confusion (their family status isn’t even certain), and it was first reported from here (the walvis ridge), so chances of finding it here should be reasonably high.  there’s still one station to go and i’m keeping my tentacles crossed, but even if it doesn’t turn up this time, there’s plenty to keep me busy and i certainly won’t complain.  i just wanted to officially let the squid gods (or cthulhu, or whoever’s listening on the cosmic ceph frequency) know that if they feel like rewarding me for being a good little teuthologist this year, a few specimens of Walvisteuthis in the next net would really make my day.

sealog 8: welcome to russian camp

i spent many blissful summers at a set of camps in northern minnesota that teach foreign languages to kids through immersion.  the kids come for one, two or four weeks, and do all the usual fun summer camp stuff (swim, play outside, get poison ivy, push food they don’t like around their plates three times a day), but while they’re there, they only hear the target language spoken by the staff.  they are free to speak english among themselves of course, but at the table, and when interacting directly with staff, they are encouraged to use words and phrases in the foreign language, and it works amazingly well.  i learned norwegian this way, two weeks at a time, for six years.  later, when i learned (much more) german, i went back and taught for five years, and that too was incredibly good for my language skills – speaking only german for six weeks a summer was like a mini living-abroad experience, and i loved it.
but it’s been a long time – 21 years, actually – since i had the ‘new villager’ experience and tried to learn a language from absolute zero, just by being immersed in it.  yet here i find myself, listening hard to the ship’s announcements (all in russian), to see whether i can catch anything at all.  by studying a detailed wall chart of the ship with labels in both languages, i refreshed my memory on the cyrillic alphabet, by sounding out words that were similar and extrapolating the letter sounds i didn’t know (‘tweendeck’ is твеендек, ‘tveendek;’ ‘elevator’ is лифт, ‘lift’ (i mean, er… what elevator?  this isn’t a luxury outfit, you know), ‘meteorological laboratory’ is, well, ‘meteorologiski laboratoria’ or something like that).  apart from the really alien characters, like the letters for ‘zh’ (ж), ‘ts’ (ц), and ‘ui’ (ы), i managed to get most of them on my own.  for the rest i entreated help from a friendly kitchen guy, who has also been trading us some informal russian lessons for some english and spanish ones.  embarassingly, while we learn to say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you,’ he (an avid reader of english detective and crime fiction) is perfecting phrases like ‘i won’t answer your questions until i consult my lawyer.’  (we do wonder what his life on land involves.)  he also used the word ‘insalubrious’ in casual conversation the other day.  but lessons in humility are always good for the soul, so i can grit my teeth and soldier on with ‘a little, and very badly’ (my hypothetical answer to the question ‘do you speak russian?’, probably doubly useless in that (1) no in their right mind will ever, EVER think i can speak enough russian to even comprehend that question, and (2) a much safer answer would just be ‘no’). and as my understanding of the letters and sounds improves, he has less and less occasion to laugh at my attempts to render the phrases i learn into intelligible written form, although i think my handwriting will be like a russian five-year-old’s for a good long while yet.
with my newfound skills, i can have such meaningful exchanges as ‘hello / goodbye’ (at any time of day, i hasten to add), ‘thanks / you’re welcome,’ ‘how are you? / well, thanks, and you?’ (this last actually occurred unprompted yesterday with one of the mates in the bridge – apart from the ridiculous look of concentration and 10-second delay between question and answer while i dredged the words out of my brain, i was very proud.  we won’t talk about the fact that my russian experiences must always be cheerful because i can only say that i’m doing well), and i can ask how to say something in russian, probably the phrase i use the most often but with the least effect, since i have to hear the word/phrase at least five times before i can remember it.
yesterday’s other big accomplishment was reading the names of the countries whose flags are stored in wooden cubbies in the bridge, for when the ship is in foreign ports – ‘iapano,’ ‘nova zelandya,’ ‘avstralia,’ ‘urugvaya,’ ‘egyepto.’  look out, next i might actually be able to read the menu in the dining hall!  … although then i would have to decide whether the joyful anticipation of, say, pizza, would cancel out the dread of knowing in advance that we were having liverwurst for breakfast (like this morning).
i don’t think i’ll be turning spy any time soon, or passing myself off as a local if i ever make it to russia, but i’ve always loved foreign languages, and i have to say i’m having fun with this one.  the pleasantly camp-like atmosphere probably helps, although the drawback of being on a shipful of adults is that they dare to serve things like aspic and tongue.  luckily, i can now say, ‘no, thank you’ … assuming our friendly russian teacher hasn’t taught us to unknowingly say ‘my buttocks are on fire’ instead.

the first green flash

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sealog 7: what luck

every morning (well, those when we aren’t still in the lab at daybreak), we are awakened by an announcement at 7am.  today, it went like this: ‘good morning, everybody.  ship’s time is seven o’clock.  today is friday, the 13th of november.  we are still drifting at the station.’
two things about this announcement struck me, although i didn’t think them related at the time.  first, it’s friday the 13th.  second, we should have had two nekton samples, starting around 4am, and the station should have been finished by now.  yet here i was, still happily in bed.
it turned out there may have been a connection after all, at least to anyone of a superstitious nature.  while reeling in the first nekton trawl, just as the catch was being lifted from the water, the cable holding the net snapped – literally, twang, ends flying and crew on deck ducking for cover. this could have been completely disastrous, but by extreme luck, it wasn’t – no one was injured, and what’s more, the net wasn’t lost.  the seaward end of the snapped cable wrapped itself twice around the top of the gantry used to deploy and retrieve the net, securing itself in place in just about the most unlikely way possible.  so the net dangled, but in relative security, until an additional cable could be secured to reel it in.  (this was all related to me over breakfast, just before i spilled my cup of tea over most of the table – i’d like to say that that was also abnormal bad luck, but i should probably just confess that i’m not the most coordinated person in the morning.)
when the catch was finally brought in, we weren’t sure what it would hold, and what condition it would be in after all the morning’s drama and delay. but we should have predicted that if there was one day of this cruise destined to bring in Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid, friday the 13th would be it.  and not one, but two specimens – both small (mantles about the size of a walnut and an almond), but in quite good condition, relatively.  Vampyroteuthis is an ancient order of cephalopods, with a very gelatinous body and thin, delicate skin that ranges in color from brick red to deep purple-black.  it looks like a small octopus, with eight shortish arms and a deep web, but it also has paddle-shaped fins and two photophores (light organs) at the end of the mantle, and two tentacle-like sensory filaments that retract into pouches near the first (dorsal) pair of arms. our larger specimen was in better shape, although its mantle was inside out (we gently rectified this before fixing it in formalin).  the oral face of its arms and web were deep, solid, inky black and the tiny finger-like cirri on the arms could still be seen.  the eyes were perfect and some shreds of delicate skin still clung to the mantle and fins, and both photophores were present.  although Vampyroteuthis is not terribly rare in the oceans, specimens of it are rare, especially in decent condition, so today we consider ourselves lucky indeed.

sealog 7: what luck

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adopted by a gannet

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sealog #6: more of the same

(how’s that for an enticing title?  … accurate, at least.)  guess what, we’re still at sea, still eating four times a day, still watching for whales, still sampling at night, still catching up on sleep during the day.  of course there are interesting aspects of each of these, but overall there’s nothing earth-shattering to report for now.  so i’ll adress them in order.
still at sea: we’re at about 12°S now and have been having very windy weather, with fine misty spray constantly wafting around even the uppermost deck, some 12m above the surface.  some nights are cloudy but some have spectacular stars, and the other night the moonrise was particularly lovely – the amber half-moon floated huge above the horizon for about an hour.  we have movie nights every couple of days, and the south american contingent and i have been exchanging language lessons by writing down and explaining song lyrics, which is good fun and excellent for the vocabulary.
still eating: the food continues to be mostly good, with a few extreme exceptions.  my new un-favorite is something called ‘herring in a fur coat’ (and doesn’t that just sound appetizing) – it’s chunks of raw, salted herring under a mat of shredded/grated pickled beets, bound together with mayonnaise.  i threw up a little in my mouth just writing about it.  and chicken jello was on offer again yesterday at afternoon tea.  but let’s be positive: we’ve also had chocolate layer cake (about 1/5 of a cake each – portions are nothing if not generous), tangerine ice cream, and many good soups.
still whale-spotting: the other day we saw a group of baleen whales breaching in the distance.  which is to say, we saw the splashes (considerable) and the spouts, which told us they were baleen whales.  we didn’t see the whales themselves (that would be too much excitement), so we don’t know what species they were.  but the fact that there were about six suggests humpbacks; most of the other baleen whales are solitary.
still sampling: we’ve had about a dozen samples in total, and have about another 20 to go.  results have been excellent – among ~200 specimens of squid and octopus, we’ve seen 27 species from 13 families, a very nice diversity.  the strangest are still the cranchiids (like Cranchia scabra, of golf-ball-resemblance fame) – the latest bizarre newcomer, Leachia, has its eyes out on stalks longer than its arms; the arms themselves form just a small rosette at the end of a long ‘neck.’  there are enoploteuthids with hundreds of blue-green photophores scattered in tiny galaxies over their ventral sides, deep-sea mastigoteuthids with long tentacles covered in tiny suckers, and octopuses that are completely transparent except for the eyes and shiny, spindle-shaped digestive gland/liver.  where we have enough material within one species, we are also saving some specimens or tissue samples for DNA analysis when we return, which will help determine how closely these species are related to other cephalopods.
still sleeping: daytime naps are critical to our night-time productivity. the siesta (or siestita, depending how much time is available) is  a near-holy concept and can be interrupted only if the napper is in danger of missing a meal.  in fact, with 35 minutes before lunch, i think i can just squeeze one in…

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sealog #5: zero degrees

yesterday afternoon, we sailed across the equator.  although we joked about feeling the bump as we went across, this is actually a big deal at sea, attended by rituals and ceremonies that are specific to each ship.  those who have not crossed before (at sea; by air and land don’t count) are initiated, usually in some way that involves getting dirty and wet.  and our ship is no exception.  the crew had been building up to this for a week, giving each other and the 22 of us equatorial newbies significant conspiratorial or ominous looks.  (actually, that’s about all the communication we get from many of the crew, since they’re russian and there’s a rather significant language barrier.)  announcements were made on the ship’s intercom much more frequently than usual during the morning (all in russian, of course), and we were instructed to stay away from the aft deck until 13.30, when we were to appear in, yes, clothes that could get dirty and wet.
with some trepidation, but mostly curiosity, we arrived at the appointed time – and to what a sight!  a makeshift hip-high pool had been constructed on deck and filled with seawater.  the costumed crew represented king neptune and his queen, several sirens, some very impressive sea demons (painted black from head to toe, with masks, tails, grass skirts and cuffs, and various noisemakers), plus some other apparently more random characters – a nurse, a bizarre hairdresser, the ship’s captain in full uniform, and a wizard.  don’t ask me, i just work here.
the initates were corralled into a roped-off waiting area and then led forth and presented to the oceanic royalty singly or in small groups, kneeling before them and receiving liberal smearings of black goo from the sea demons, plus ice down the backs, dustings of flour, strands of spaghetti hung from the ears and many other physical delights.  each person or group was given a task to complete, from playing soccer with the sea demons, to drawing portraits of neptune, to carrying the sirens around the deck piggyback.  the biology team (mercifully abused as a group) danced around the deck with the demons, ultimately forming a conga line.  some initiates also had to crawl through a large pipe/tunnel while being rolled around on the deck and receiving percussive encouragement on the sides of the pipe; apparently it was also full of potato peelings.  everyone was ultimately dumped in the pool.  (and all of this was accompanied by speeches and possibly explanations… but of course they were in russian, so it all remained a mystery to us.)  after about two hours, all hoops had apparently been jumped through satisfactorily and we were released.  i suspect that the showers that followed made a significant dent in our fresh water supply. and i still have flour in my ears.
but in the evening, there was a feast – a barbecue on the aft deck, the best meal we have had so far, with grilled chicken and pork, baked potatoes, fresh veggies (usually in short supply), pickles, watermelon, and spanish melon.  this probably sounds like a standard barbecue to you, but to us, after two weeks of a plate arriving with three food items, which you either eat or don’t, this was like christmas.  quantity!  variety!  choices!  given our drooling, they probably had to hose down the deck afterward.  (on a side note about food, further to my earlier observations about sea fare, another two unfortunate meals have been presented – liver and tongue.  by extreme luck, my lovely, carnivorous roommate is somewhat ambivalent to vegetables, so we’ve come to an arrangement that suits us both.)
the luxurious, languorous meal continued on into the evening hours – another nice change, since we’re usually in and out of the dining hall in about 20 minutes.  we were presented with certificates of our equatorial crossing (which we are apparently supposed to bring along on future voyages to avoid repeating the spectacle – but of course that will only work if future crews can read russian; for all we know, they actually say that we failed and should be initiated again next time).  a little dancing rounded out the day, and everyone went to bed full and happy – if still a little floury, and smudged black in some strange places.
the photos below are not mine, but are reused with permission.

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