Katie Bighams Blog

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Having now been on board for all three legs of this summer’s cruise, and with the end of the final leg in sight, I find it interesting to look back and compare the different legs. Each had a very similar goal, load the ship up in port with equipment and instruments and use these to replace similar instruments installed last year. The difference between each leg was the exact group of instruments on board, the group of engineers and scientists there to install them, and the exact location of deployment. With all of these differences it should have been no surprise that the rhythm and the workflow of each leg would be different, and yet I was still quite surprised with just how dissimilar each leg has been.

Take Leg 1, the longest of the legs with a varied suite of instruments and equally disparate locations to deploy them at. This leg was full of furious activity with the only really reprieves coming from a clever dance from site to site in an attempt to outwit the weather. While this technique got the job done, I’m still not entirely sure when certain people, particularly the APL engineers, actually slept. Basically as soon as the ROV was in the water with an instrument, prep work began on the next one.

Leg 2 on the other hand was much more methodical and predictable. The main instruments being worked on were the profilers, specifically the deep profilers, which took a special winch and intensive deck ops to deploy or recover. There was never a surprise about what was happening during Leg 2. Deck work started with first light and continued until the afternoon or evening, then the ROV would dive to complete the installation underwater. Unlike Leg 1, where it was totally possible to go to sleep at one site and wake up miles away with a completely different plan for the day, during Leg 2 all one needed to know was the time of day to make a very accurate guess about what was currently happening.

And then there’s Leg 3, if I had to compare it to the other two it’s the most like Leg 1 since we don’t have any deck ops to make our days predictable. However, we didn’t have the luxury of a multitude of sites to work at, so we were more hemmed in by the weather. This led to an unavoidable hold on work until the weather became more cooperative. On a ship that is usually a buzz with activity, this forced pause was at first restful and finally madding as everyone sat around staring at any device that reported wind speed and hoped that willpower alone would cause the wind to slacken. Of course, now that the weather has given us a break, its once again business as usual as the team onboard races a ticking clock to get everything they had hoped to accomplish this summer done.

July 26th

I’ve spent the last few days pretty much wrapped up in helping with the processing of past dive videos. This is an amazingly, extremely, and incredibly time-consuming task. Each dive takes multiple passes to boil it down to its core content, and after spending too long on an individual dive, even the most interesting things look like they should be deleted. Despite this, I am really enjoying the task, as it gives me a chance to watch some of the dives I didn’t see in person.

During my breaks from video editing (when I’m not eating, on watch, sleeping, or hanging with my pal Lauren), I’ve been reading up on Southern Hydrate Ridge. I’ve been working on a project at this site since the cruise last year, to better understand the animals that call the methane seep home. This, in turn, means I need a better understanding of the chemistry and geology as this animal community is powered by chemosynthesis rather than sunlight and photosynthesis. All of this amounts to a rather thick (electronic) file of research papers and overviews of the site. I think Lauren has been finding my hunt for research papers very profitable, since I pass along any papers relevant to her own work with methane fluxes at the same place.

July 22

We’re back at it, the ship left Newport yesterday morning and after a short transit to the Slope Base site got started working right away. The two days in port were a nice break, which I spent mostly walking. Being able to walk for miles and miles turns out to be something of a novelty after spending two weeks on a 274ft vessel. The other big thing that happened when we were in port was swapping out personnel. With the next batch of instruments came a new group of APL engineers that specialize in them. We also swapped out about half the students, those of us that have stayed on from Leg 1 have been busy the last couple of days helping the new students get up to speed. This has involved tours all over the ship, many explanations, and training them on the jobs done during student watches. Hopefully they found the instructions more helpful than confusing, my throat was definitely feeling all the talking I did yesterday when I finally made it to bed.

July 15

You never know what you are going to get on watch. Since ROPOS works around the clock, there really are no set expectations for what we see when we log and take pictures for the dives. Sometimes something won’t be working right or we will be doing other operations so there will be nothing to log during the four-hour shift. Sometimes when our watch starts it will be in the middle of a busy operation, giving us lots to keep track of and take pictures of. Most often we spend some or all of our watch observing the water column race by, during an ascent or a descent.

So far Lauren and I have had more of the latter than either of the former. The last two days of watch have been a perfect example of these different types. Yesterday, we started in the middle of a busy dive. There were a number of instruments that either needed to be checked or recovered and a bit of distance between them. Flying from location to location could be boring but when the ROV hovers just over the bottom you get to see amazing sites. The area we were working in yesterday, is covered in lava from previous eruptions and in some locations portions have collapsed creating amazing “architecture.” Some of these look like creepy caves that a sea monster should be coming out of at any moment, while others look like Roman columns.  Maybe its karma but that amazing dive was followed up by todays dive that didn’t start until two hours into our watch, and then was two hours of descending most of the 2500m to the seafloor. If you keep your eyes peeled during these times you can catch a glimpse of different jellies that live above our study sites, but most of the time its just dark blue with unidentifiable specks zipping by.

Regardless of what a watch brings, each one is an interesting experience and really helps keep me plugged into the action. Even ascents and descents give you a chance to peruse the dive plan and quiz the people around about what is happening next.

July 7

Since arriving on site at Slope Base, which is about 60 miles west of Newport, Oregon, the evening of the 5th, the last couple of days have been full of activity. The APL engineers have been going nonstop, the ROV has been working round the clock, and we’ve done two CTD casts. This has trickled down to lots of activity for myself and the other students.

Whenever ROPOS is in the water two students are in the control room, logging events and taking pictures. Each pair of students sits a four-hour watch once a day. My watch is from 1600-2000, with Lauren. It hasn’t been the busiest watch, since our first one last night was mostly ROPOS ascending, but at least we’ve had better luck than Jesse and Jessie who have yet to have a watch with ROPOS in the water.

We’ve also been helping with the CTD, which is an instrument that can be lowered from the ship and takes constant measurements of conductivity, temperature, and depth. There are also twenty-four Niskin bottles on it that can be triggered from the ship to take water samples. When the CTD is brought back on to the ship the water in the Niskin bottles is separated into different containers depending on what analysis is going to be run on it. 

We’ve been doing these between ROV dives, while the vehicle is being prepped for the next dive. The data and samples collected are being used to calibrate the sensors and instruments that are part of the cabled array.  

When we’re not on watch or helping with something on deck, we’ve been working on our personal projects. Jesse and I have continued working on our project from last year, of creating a biology catalog. The goal of the project is to create an online resource of all the animals that we see at the study sites. A lot of work was done on it last year, and this year we are hoping to work on the finishing touches and have it launched by the end of the cruise. 

Last year we spent a lot of time looking at animals on the dive footage, so it has been exciting this year to spend time watching animals from the ship. While transiting we were able to see some whale spouts. And today we saw a whole bunch of Dall’s porpoises swimming past the boat. A couple of them even came over to check us out and to put on a little bit of a show.

July 5

The last two days have been spent transiting from the UW dock to Slope Base. Because of this, things onboard the ship have been relatively quiet. Everyone has been working to make sure gear is tied down and secure, while the engineers are preparing the instruments to be deployed.
Highlights from yesterday included getting up early when the ship left the dock and enjoying the early morning quiet while we traveled through the Ballard Locks, an on deck barbecue for the 4th of July, and seeing fireworks even if they were far enough away to be tiny.

Today has been about getting back into the swing of shipboard life. Getting used to the constantly rolling hallways is an ongoing process. There have been a couple of meetings to help the students who haven’t been out before get an idea of what they will be doing, and to give those of us who have been out a refresher.