Gems are seen as the epitome of beauty. There is nothing to compare to the luster and shine of a well-cut stone. The refraction of the light mesmerizes through its rotating shafts at every curve and crevice. The only thing that rivals the beauty of gems is that of the ocean on a calm day.
Gems are polished smooth, but the ocean takes it one step farther, becoming a large mirror. Deep, bottomless blue reflecting the cloudless sky. As you gaze into its depths, rays of light dance under the surface, disappearing into the depths. This is the time when the depths seem the closest, as the sun’s rays reach for its secrets. The ocean’s mysterious depths though, will show no secret, unless you have the gall to go looking for it. Just below the surface if you look towards the sky, the ocean changes colors, from a deep and mysterious blue to that of a cloudless day. Like sunlight under a canopy of trees, the sunlight is constantly in motion, leaving rippling patterns behind. Everything is calm, so calm you can almost hear the ocean breathing as it evaporates to join the atmosphere.
On cloudy, slightly windy days, the surface reflects that of chipped polished obsidian. The luster of the smooth shell of the rough surface leads way to the dark depths underneath, never seeming to end or begin. Every now and again a white crest peaks its head out of the dark mass. Water shifts, ever changing, never in the same place twice, swirling in patterns. The small swells give shape to the land, like plains in the Midwest. Here the depths look menacing as the deep blue of the ocean takes a blacker tinge, darker, like the slight frown that you know will get you in trouble.
Then there are the days that you can never forget, days where the wind has taken on the persona of a monster and is howling its frustration and the ocean responds to its fury. The blue luster is lost in that of the foaming spit of a monster. From underneath the foam rise the depths. Dark and furious, they crest and roll, following the wind’s desires. This is when personal agenda has no purpose, you are at the mercy of sheer force, riding it out is all that you can do.
Today the sea is brewing its anger and with each passing hour the flat surface has begun to boil. The winds are beginning to speak to the waves and they are not very happy. Soon the ocean will take up the wind’s call and we will begin to see the monster. But, for now, we shall push through the deep blue and look on in awe at the magnificent creature the ocean truly is.
Underwater Robotics – When most people hear that, the first thing they focus on is the robotics part. People easily recognize that robotics is hard, and it is, but the hardest part of underwater robotics is the underwater part. I am serious. When I first started to work on Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) I was focused on the electronics and thought that the whole ‘keeping the electronics dry’ would sort of work itself out. How wrong I was. It does not matter how amazing your product is, if it cannot withstand the elements, you have a scrap heap. As my ocean technology teacher clearly laid out, “Water is like a parasite. It worms its way into anything. If you even vaguely believe that water could somehow, maybe, if ever, get in, it will, and it will fry your electronics, freeze your mechanics, and wreak havoc.” I could not have received any better advice. In the two years that I have been focused on ocean technology I have worked on ARGO floats, built my own transmissometer, worked on student-built ROVs, as well as student-built junction boxes. In just two years worth of work, I have horror stories of hours lost due to small, tired mistakes and having to fully start over due to a small leak or condensation problem. But it’s not just the water itself; it is the harsh environment of the ocean.
To start off, keeping things watertight. In the case of housing electronics a pressure hold is the item of choice. There are two standard shapes of pressure holds, round and cylindrical. That is because structurally round objects are able to withstand more pressures (more on that later). To seal the pressure holds two standard methods are a face seal or a piston seal. A face seal is just two flat surfaces forced together until they are water tight, with an o-ring of some kind between the two. An o-ring is a soft plastic seal that squeezes under pressure. The face seal relies on a vacuum within the pressure hold or outer screws to hold it together on the surface and at depth the two pieces are forced together by water pressure (more on that later). A piston seal is when a surface is forced into a larger container and the inner surface is tightly pressed against the outer surface. This seal does not need help keeping the seal on the surface, and the water pressure does not increase the seal. These are two ways to keep the water out, but the presence of water still makes things difficult.
The ocean is filled with salt water. Not that different than fresh water, right? Just fresh water with a little bit of salt – and therein is the whole problem. The salt amplifies the chances of something going wrong. First of all, salt water is highly, highly conductive, much more than that of fresh water. This leads to a grounding problem. The metals touching seawater are grounded to it, which can easily create an electrical current if you are not careful. Immediately an anode and cathode are created. If you have two different metals next to each other, battery! And the metals begin to fuse together. Recovered technology from the ocean, if not grounded correctly with a sacrificial anode, have pitting across the surface where the metal was zapped away. Some metals also react with the salt water itself. This leads to another issue, structural stability.
If you read a standard textbook, not focused on oceanography, it will state that water is nearly, or is, incompressible. Nearly. That itself is the key word. Nearly incompressible is very important when you have 3,000 m of water on top of each other. Yes, water is compressible. No, it cannot be compressed much, but think about this: a cubic centimeter of fresh water is one gram. If that block of water is layered on top of each other until we get 3,000 m (the average depth of the ocean) which brings the total weight to 300 kg. That means that the bottom water molecule has 300kg of other water molecules on top of it. Yes, it does compress slightly, and note that that is the calculation for fresh water; salt water is heavier per cubic centimeter. So, if water can be compressed, think about anything being sent down to the bottom of the ocean, it must also be able to withstand the pressure as well. Structurally this leaves us with two standard shapes: cylinders and spheres.
So let’s just go over the points so far. You are only allowed to use certain metals so that you don’t get corrosion, you must also have material that can withstand high pressure, and not have it leak. The options are narrowed down quite a bit. Actually for long-term deep sites, the materials of choice for housing electronics are titanium and glass spheres. Another metal that is commonly used is aluminum, but it is not as structurally sound nor as noncorrosive as titanium.
Even after writing over a page of reasons why underwater robotics is much harder than robotics, I have only gotten started. Maybe some other day I can continue my list, but I am sure you are bored out of your mind right now, so I will quit my rant. All I really wanted to portray, dear reader, was to hopefully give you a newfound respect for underwater robotics and its challenges. Until next time then!
What is the meaning of life? It is a time old question. Basically unanswerable at this time, but that does not stop us from trying. It has been contemplated in literature for hundreds of years. Some even try to answer the question, as in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” is calculated by a supercomputer to be 42. Whether or not you accept this conclusion is a personal choice. Personally, I take all suggestions into consideration, but where I feel I get closer to the answer is through my daily life. Sometimes I make a decision or have an experience that strikes me, lifting me up another step of personal understanding. It does not happen often, but when it does there is no feeling to compare. Today was one of those discoveries.
This story begins a full year previously when on the Visions ’14 cruise, Brendan, a recent graduate of the University of Washington, was sitting watching the ship’s sonar and happened to see noise in the water column. After analysis, it was hypothesized to be a methane seep site. This year the Visions ’15 cruise received permission to dive at the site. So in the afternoon of July 23rd, 2015 ROPOS took an exploratory dive. As the site was at 1,000m the dive to the sea floor took an hour, an hour of anticipation. The excitement in the ROPOS room was so dense, you could almost reach out and grab it from thin air. As ROPOS inched closer and closer the atmosphere grew thicker. ‘Theres bubbles,’ cried Deb. And just like any scientist would, we followed the bubbles down the last few meters to the newly discovered methane site.
The excitement, the questions, the awe; it is indescribable to be part of the discovery process. I felt like I had just been given the ability to fly. Here at 1,000m was something that science has only begun to explain. To suddenly realize how much we know and know that it is not enough drives me forward to learn more, to push the boundaries in front of me. After surveying the area around the methane seep and collecting a clamshell for carbon dating, the adventures began again. From the initial sonar scan there was a potential second methane seep. So off ROPOS was again heading southeast, seeing what human eyes had never seen before.
The afternoon turned to evening and evening turned to night, still ROPOS explored. South of the initial methane seep was found another in the middle of a large area covered in knolls and holes from what may have been explosions of methane or some other form of destructive movement. Everywhere around these methane seeps biology thrived. Fish, anemones, bacterial mats, and crabs were discovered. Some were easy to identify, others less so, but every discovery as exciting as the last.
This experience allowed me a glimpse of what I now have added to my web of the meaning of life. There is something unparalleled to exploring where none have gone before and expanding knowledge as we know it. To push the boundaries and strive to understand what used to be unobtainable; that is, in my opinion, one of the most important things in life. This experience has pushed me to break my boundaries and now it will be a goal for me to achieve. So, I am off to go further and push myself farther so that one day I can be one of the people who are privileged to uncover the underwater world.
I am going to start with the moral of the story first: a Dramamine a day makes you sleep all day. That is right, on my first exciting day on the Thompson, I took a precautionary Day Dramamine and it knocked me out periodically all day. It was not very fun. But other than that, I had a very exciting day!
The day started out early in the morning, 7am, when I woke up to have breakfast before the mandatory safety meeting. Do you know how well we are fed on the Thompson? Very, very well! I feel like I am being offered a three-course meal for each and every meal. Breakfast consists of fruit salad, sausage, bacon, and at least three different choices of a main course like French toast, pancakes, or waffles. After eating a filling and delicious breakfast of fruit salad, biscuit with honey, and French toast, I was off to the safety briefing.
Have you ever tried to put on a monster suit before? Well, when you get the chance try on a full-immersion suit. A full-immersion suit is used when you have to abandon ship and survive in waters below 17°C (it’s cold). Think of it as a large, three-fingered monster shedding a large wet-suit material skin that you must somehow fit yourself into. In turn, you look like a new oddly shaped buoy. Hey, at least you will float.
I had the privilege to try on this fashion atrocity due to the ship safety briefing outlining what you should do in all emergencies. Who knew that being in a large hunk of metal floating out in the middle of the vast and seemingly endless ocean could be a safety hazard? Fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong.
Soon after shedding my own personal red second skin and replacing it back in my bunkroom, the gangway is pulled and we were off! The first thing that I learned after exiting the harbor is that I need to get myself a pair of sea-legs, because I can tell you, I definitely don’t have them. I spent the hours after casting-off trying to keep my feet underneath my body. The swells were not that large, only a few meters, but we were traveling in the trough. This means that instead of facing the waves head on we were traveling parallel to the waves and so the boat was rocking from side to side with every wave. I probably looked like a drunken sailor.
After all the excitement of the morning I started to feel tired and despite the Dramamine I felt a little woozy. As I am not needed until 2pm for the student meeting I go and lay down in my bunk, as suggested by my fellow students.
My nap though was pulled short by a six-alarm drill – fire drill. I somehow groggily get out of my top bunk, grab my full-immersion suit emersion and life jacket, and make it up to the science lab for roll call.
As it is now almost 2pm I decide to stay up in the science lab. Unfortunately I am now feeling the affects of the Dramamine and fall asleep on the science table, where I basically sleep through the student meeting. Luckily everyone is very understanding and gently force me to go and lay back down in bed.
A few hours later I woke myself up to watch the deployment of an HPIES, which as far as I understand, is a device that is able to measure the movement of the water through electrical field changes created by the water itself (still working on fully understanding that). I then had dinner and surprise, surprise went back to bed.
I had to wake up one more time for my shift, which runs from eight to midnight every day. On shift, I sit in the ROPOS room where I am in charge of logging all of ROPOS’s movements during a dive. If the port arm is used to unplug a cable, I enter it into the log (with a picture of course)! It was very exciting to get to sit in the ROPOS room and watch the team work. Underwater robotics is a very complicated thing to do and watching it amazes me. I cannot wait to get a chance to see more of ROPOS’s work!
I want to take this time to remind myself that I am not a morning person. Getting up with the sun is a very foreign concept to me. Despite that, I was up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed long before my alarm went off, excited and ready. Today is the day that I board the R/V Thomas G. Thompson for a 10-day research cruise off the coast of Oregon to work on the Cabled Array component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). So excited!
Like an over energetic puppy I ran around the house going through my mental checklist. Camera, check. Computer and charger, check. Clothes, already on board, check. At 6:30am I am in the car, pulling out of the garage and by 6:45am I am meeting some of the students that I would be working with for the next ten days. I would just like to say this now, I am privileged to meet and work with these students. They are going to be the next generation of engineers and scientists that will lead the world in exploring, discovering, and preserving the ocean.
At 7am sharp, we pull out of the University of Washington Oceanography parking lot and start on the five hour journey to Newport, Oregon were we will meet the R/V Thompson docked at the Oregon State University (OSU) Marine Science Dock. I wish I could tell you how beautiful Oregon is, but truthfully I fell asleep an hour into the drive and did not wake up until we reached Newport, Oregon. So my memory of Oregon is a little bit, well, nonexistent. What happens when a night owl is given the chance to see daybreak? She sleeps through it.
By noon we reach the OSU dock and my excitement mounts. Don’t get me wrong I have been on the R/V Thompson before (I have been on several student day trips out into Puget Sound), but this time I am actually going out to sea! We are enthusiastically welcomed by the few scientists and crew on board (everyone else is enjoying land time) and are ushered down to our bunks to unpack and get comfortable. I am bunked in a two-man science room below deck, near the bow of the ship. The room is about the footprint of a small car, with a built-in bunk bed opposite a metal closet/storage space, and a small sink. Through a second door is the toilet and shower that we share with the room next door (remember to lock the door to the room next door when doing your business and unlock it when you leave). As I unpack my small suitcase that I had placed on the ship before it left port in Seattle two weeks prior, I realize that I had forgotten that I planned to bring my pajamas in my backpack… I should have left myself a reminder note. Oh well it’s okay; I have a pair of yoga pants and an old t-shirt that will do the trick.
As the Thompson will not leave until 10:30am tomorrow some of the students decide to walk to the nearby beach area, at least a mile and a half away. For me, the best part of a beach is the orchestral music, ‘Where Water Meets Land.’ The underlying rhythm begins as the water crests into waves washing ashore. Then the seagulls join with their call breaking the monotonous sound of the wind blowing ashore. And if you are lucky, you can hear the faint sound of the foghorn finishing off the melody with a low undertone.
One of the things about being out at sea is that there is no need for a car. This means that when onshore you have to walk everywhere. So for dinner we walked across a mile long bridge into town where we walked another mile to taste heaven-in-a-pie at Nana’s. You may think I am joking, but I’m not. Nana’s Irish Pub had the best chicken potpie that I have ever had. And according to the other students the beef-pie and shepherds-pie are just as delicious, if not more (they raved all the way through dinner).
After distending our stomachs to fit as much pie as possible, with the reassurance that the two mile walk each way to and from the diner allowed us to stuff ourselves, we waddled back to the Thompson to decompress with Guardians of the Galaxy in the movie room.
So ends my adventures for the first day. I cannot wait to see what adventures lay in wait for me in the days to come! Casting off tomorrow!