Tag Archive: voyage 2009


the ship

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sealog #3: the flying food chain

although the days tend to run together a bit out here, each is usually marked by at least one unique event.  the day before yesterday, it was the flying fish.  they leapt out of the water singly, in small groups or by the hundreds, to spread their huge pectoral and anal fins and glide away from the ship’s bow, just centimeters above the water but for dozens of meters at a stretch.  when they caught the sun, they flashed silver, blue and copper, and they were quite lovely.  i had seen them before but never so many and never at such leisure.  they have excellent directional control (best demonstrated by the one that launched itself toward the looming bow, experienced a small mid-air freak-out and then deftly executed a tight u-turn to splash down a safe distance away).  watching whole airborne schools is nothing short of marvelous.  but i did find myself wondering whether, in their ingenious avoidance of marine predators, they ever put themselves into other harm’s way.
well.
yesterday afternoon on whale watch we were joined by a young gannet.  its aerial grace was breathtaking (although it did unfortunately remind us that our friendly neighborhood owl was rather far from home and its usual comfort zone).  it wheeled and soared, scratched itself in mid-flight with its bright orange feet, zoomed past the ship and then dropped back to make another swooping pass.  and soon, it began to dive – not into the water, but skimming just above its surface, in hot pursuit of (you guessed it) the flying fish.
the chases were intense.  the gannet would make a few high passes, then drop and put on a burst of speed and rocket over the low waves; the gliding fish shortened their flights noticeably in response, and usually escaped back into aqua firma just centimeters from the pursuing beak.  of the ten or so attempts i witnessed, i believe the gannet took three unlucky fliers, diving briefly into the water following each catch and floating smugly for a few moments before rising to start again.
watching the whole sequence elicited the usual mixed feelings – the excitement of the chase, the admiration for the sleek and speedy gannet, and the simultaneous inner cheer whenever the splash of safety came just in time.  and as usual, these emotions had absolutely no bearing out the outcome – probably for the best, since i caught myself half-hoping that a higher trophic power (say, a whale) might suddenly rear its head and snatch the careening gannet in a blaze of karma.  (of course no such preposterous event transpired.   but my camera and i were ready just in case.)

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flying fish

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sometimes the most mundane aspects of a travel experience make the biggest impression, so i’d like to dedicate today’s entry to food, preceded by a brief weather report.  neptune has continued to smile upon us, with very gentle swells accompanied by light zephyrs, or sometimes more refreshingly stiff gusts, as we move further into the tropics.  it is now decidedly muggy and the air conditioning is on in most parts of the ship, although in our cabin we prefer to leave the porthole open instead.  conditions have been fairly good (in theory) for whale-spotting, although the whales are not playing along.  instead we’ve had flocks of flying fish and visits from several birds, including – of all bizarre candidates – an owl.  before today i would almost certainly have scorned the idea of a sea owl, but short of a mass hallucination and some very weird camera tricks, i can’t explain it away. this should-be nocturnal land-dweller  flew with us for several hours this morning, in fact, and may return tomorrow, if it decided to roost somewhere on the ship.
and it was far and away today’s most exciting wildlife event.  apart from the whale-spotting efforts, the days until we reach our first biological sampling stations are mostly revolving around meals.  we are fed four times a day, every four hours starting from 7.30, and all other scheduled activities (plus naps, owl-spotting, and cards) are meticulously slotted in between.
my biggest reservation about joining this cruise, after the inconvenience of its timing and the nearly six-week absence from home and the pebbles, was actually the food.  i freely admit that i am a picky eater, and i’m pretty sure the relief i felt when i started cooking for myself was surpassed only by my mother’s relief at the same development.  my usual list of don’t-eat foods includes (but is not limited to) onions, seafood (including fish), green peppers, ketchup, and mayonnaise, plus a few more things usually too obscure to bother including (but hey, what the heck: veal, duck, any kind of organ meat or amorphous meat product including most sausages, and beer if that counts as a food).  the list of foods that don’t appear on my home menu but may be eaten as politeness requires is much longer; a small sampling would include pretty much any bread other than white bread (especially ‘chunky’ bread with any kind of seeds, or sweet bread products like cinnamon bagels), peas, red and yellow peppers, things with nuts or raisins in them (although i like both on their own), anything with banana or banana-flavoring other than actual bananas, and most savory-sweet combo dishes.  you can see that the probability of finding an entirely tintenfisch-approved meal anywhere outside my own home is near zero.
luckily i married a saint who is both an excellent and accommodating cook, and whose own don’t-eat list is short and very compatible, consisting of seafood and the easily omittable parsley and pineapple.
unluckily, my saint was not coming along on this voyage, and i would be at the mercy of an entirely unknown russian kitchen crew for over a month, who would be cooking on a scale capable of sustaining sixty people four times a day (enough to give the strongest of constitutions pause, i suspect) .  i packed a few chocolate bars, and a bag of cookies, resigned myself to probably suspending a few of the don’t-eats (fish, for example), and envisioned either making illicit friends with some kitchen staff (a working knowledge of russian would have helped here), and/or returning home in a nearly translucent state.
to no one’s astonishment more than my own, i have eaten almost everything put in front of me; i blame the constant motion of the ship (it takes a lot of effort to stand ‘still’), and the invigorating salt air.  the top-ranking meals so far would have to be the daily soups, a delicious creamy rice pudding, and a couple of pasta dishes.  the ‘surprisingly palatable’ list contains borscht; a bizarre salad of peas and chopped pickles, beets, cucumber and carrots; and several kinds of fish.  the ‘consumption ban temporarily lifted by necessity’ litany (so far) reads: fish, shrimp, duck, and some kind of salami that was probably mostly made of blood.  and until today i wouldn’t have been able to list anything i actually avoided/refused. but the honeymoon period couldn’t last, of course, and when we sat down to ‘tea’ (the 3.30 meal) and were faced with bowls of cold chopped chicken buried under a 2-inch layer of cold chicken-broth flavored gelatine, i drew the line.  i did flop the gelatine layer aside and at least try the chicken, but i really couldn’t get over the resemblance to jelly-meat-style cat food and had to give up pretty quickly.
it was then that the unlikeliest event of the day, and perhaps of my lifetime, transpired.  the other four biologists in my team watched my chicken jell-o investigations closely (which i would like to say stopped short of turning the bowl upside down just to see if it would hold… but i can’t; it did).  when i put my fork down, perhaps a little visibly green around the gills, they pushed away their untouched bowls as one and shook their heads.  and one of them said, in complete seriousness, ‘we know by now that if you won’t eat it, we shouldn’t even try.’
well.  anyone who knows me will realize how utterly ridiculous that statement is.  i chuckled to myself for the whole rest of today.  and i am considering calling for a helicopter to take me to shore right now, because i can just tell – no matter how the sampling goes, and what cool squid we find, i’m pretty sure that at the end of the cruise i will look back at that statement as my single proudest moment.

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water & air

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sealog #1

hi.  i’m in the atlantic ocean, off northwestern africa.  in fact, this morning we officially passed into the tropics by crossing the tropic of cancer.  but let me back up a little.
on saturday/sunday i traveled  from auckland to the canary islands (that sounds so simple… but it involved auckland, lax, heathrow, madrid, and las palmas over the course of 36 hours).  the ship departed around 10pm (about two hours after i arrived), and by the following morning we were well and truly at sea, out of sight of land.
so far the weather has been excellent – partly to only slightly cloudy and very calm seas (although today we have gentle, but noticeable swell – enough that if i sit back in the chair, squarely on the floor, at the very farthest point of the roll it starts to feel precarious).
we spent the first day settling in, and all the biologists on board (about 15, covering a range of zoological fields from plankton to sponges to fish, squid and marine mammals) met yesterday afternoon for our briefing about this expedition and our planned sampling schedule.  traveling at 10-11 knots, we won’t reach our first official sampling station (about 1600 miles from las palmas) for about another five days (with one ‘practice’ station on the way), but in the meantime my group is helping with a cetacean-spotting effort, with each of us watching for whales and dolphins two hours a day. so far one pod of dolphins at a distance and one pod of about 20 pilot whales have been spotted, but neither by me.  hopefully by the time i’m able to upload photos (december) that will have changed…
but i did see something rather unique this morning, when i woke up at 4am (hello, jetlag!  there you are!).  a glance out our porthole suggested that stargazing might be worthwhile, so i went up on deck and watched the ship’s antennae swaying through orion, taurus and the pleiades for a while.  when i stood up, i realized that something even better than stargazing was on offer: our passage was disturbing thousands of pyrosomes, which were flashing underwater like muffled fireworks, sometimes one every few seconds, sometimes dozens at once.  pyrosomes look like glowing green cucumbers, and i saw them once on the rainbow warrior, but didn’t have the chance to watch them like this.  so i stood by the railing for about two hours, captivated.
and then the squid started flying.
among the pyrosomes,  they popped out of the water for short, gliding hops, each flight maybe 2m, with some individuals making several jumps in a row. i didn’t get as good a look at them as i would have liked – the sides of the ship are partly illuminated at night but within a few meters the light dissipates, so while i could see that something roughly squid-shaped and about 30cm long was definitely jumping, i can’t be absolutely certain that they were squid.  but flying squid do exist (i studied a number of hapless specimens myself that were originally collected from ship decks, following ill-fated jumps), and these didn’t fly like fish, so i’m going to stand by my first impression, darkness, jetlag and glasses notwithstanding.
i realize this is sounding like a bad acid trip, but i woke up my roommate and she can at least confirm that the pyrosomes were real.  i’m not sure whether the others believe me about the squid, since i was the only one to see them, and we were talking about flying squid just yesterday (probably seems just a little too convenient).  the conditions weren’t exactly conducive to photography, but again, perhaps by the time i can put photos up here, there will be some evidence.  for now i’ll leave it to your imagination.

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possible upcoming radio silence

inkspotters, there is a chance that the entire month of november will be update-free.  i am off on a five-week research trip as of tomorrow, to the south atlantic ocean.  i hear that there will be email access (kind of counting on that actually), so i hope to get a few posts up here via the pebbles.  but if that doesn’t work out, i’ll tell all when i return in early december.  until next time, whenever it may be!

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