Quae Atwood’s Blog

I had a little bit of a hard time getting up this morning, having not got a lot of sleep. The ROV dive last night lasted until after 2:00 am due to numerous rock sample collections and extensive searching for  "snow blowers". These particular diffuse systems are filled with bacteria colonies from underneath the rock surface so dense that, when agitated by the sudden increase in water flow, billow forth so much bacteria that they resemble a snow blower in appearance. Unfortunately, no distinct snow blowers were found that night.

Operations began at first light and went smoothly, as usual. This was to be the last of the deep profiler moorings to deploy, at least for this leg of the journey, and since things had gone so smoothly, we would have time to dive on another section of the eruptions site later in the evening. Once the mooring was installed into place, ROPOS went into the water but found that the  profiler was not yet at the dock. We hoped for the best and ROPOS continued according to plan plugging in the profiler. After some waiting, the crawler had not made it down the cable to the dock and it became clear that there was something wrong…

ROPOS began climbing the water column in search of the crawler to see what the crawler was up to. The crawler was sitting in place, almost exactly half-way down the cable. An APL engineer on shore who was on the line for powering up the cable was part of the discussion concerning what could be learned by communications with the crawler by way of the docking station. Communication with the crawler was intermittent and the values returned from the pressure sensor were invalid. ROPOS would need to bring the crawler to the surface. This sort of maneuver had not been tested with the equipment onboard and the task of mounting it on the ROV would take 12 hours, more than we could spare if we were to troubleshoot and repair it in time for a reasonable deployment time the next day. ROPOS would have to bring it up by hand.

Meanwhile, I found Chris, an electrical engineer from APL, told him that I was ready to help with whatever I could. I was ecstatic to hear him say that he could use my help and didn't mind me sitting in on even the things that he didn't need me for! I followed him around everywhere, keen on soaking up all of the knowledge and alleviating all the work that I could. Chris improvised a connector to create the link to the computer and started communicating with a pressure sensor that had been recovered from one of last year’s models to make sure that when the crawler was retrieved, communications would be possible. No such luck, the pressure sensor would not respond. Upon further inspection, the connector that linked the pressure sensor to the main board had a loose connection. Although this didn't necessarily explain the intermittent communications of the profiler, as Tim, another APL engineer, said, "we found a smoking gun." The crawler was put back together and test were conducted by the APL engineers. But the crawler wouldn't start its tests. The shipboard team communicated with an APL engineer on shore who was primarily responsible for the software and he assured us that the crawler would be fine once it finished its startup sequence which At this point, it was around 2:30am and deck operations to redeploy the profiler were to start at 5:00am. All that could be done was accomplished, now we would just have to wait and see if it worked.

July 26
We are in for a very busy day today. Operations have gone very smoothly over the duration of the expedition so far and, as a result, we will have time to visit this April's momentous volcanic eruptions and we all want as much time as possible. While conversing with Skip, one of the ROPOS operators approached. "So it looks as if we may have some time for exploring?" he asked. The anticipation was clearly audible in his voice. Anyone could tell simply by the bustle on the ship that virtually everyone is extremely excited to see the new eruption site. Even crew members, such as the ships engine crew, are approaching the scientists on board and asking about the ROPOS dive that Dr. Kelley will lead. It's days like these that the chief personnel on board live for. Decades of many of their planning and hard work have gone into creating the opportunity to observe such phenomena. This is what makes it all worth it.

After recovering one of last year's deep profilers in what seemed like record time, we promptly began transit to the eruption site. Around the time that we began transit, at 3:00 pm, the other students and I met with Dr. Kelley, the chief scientist, in the conference room for a briefing on the scientific relevance of tonight's dive. Hearing Dr. Kelley talk about underwater geothermal activity and her awesome involvement with the study of sites such as this one is truly inspiring, no matter what your area of interest. She explains that the discovery of the organisms living around and within these hydrothermal vents has influenced our understanding of the origin of life on Earth, one of the oldest and most intriguing mysteries.

The atmosphere in the ROPOS control room tonight is exemplary of just how friendly and cheerful everyone is on this expedition. From the moment I stepped foot on the Thompson, I don't think that 20 minutes have passed without some joking and laughing going on. "It’s a wonder the whole boat isn't leaning to this side," exclaimed one of the ROPOS operators as he entered the room. At this point, the control room was shoulder to shoulder with scientists, engineers and students, all keen on not missing any of the action.

The new eruption site is just as beautiful as I imagined, the sea floor is covered newly-solidified rock. Pillow basalts line the sea floor, speckled with caves and pillars of varying sizes. Brandon, a graduate student in oceanography at UW, explained to me that these caves are formed when lava flows out from below the semi-solidified rock, leaving a sort of dome shape. This dome then promptly collapses and water rushes in, leaving the cave and the pillars that supported it.

I got a little tired of standing in the crowded control room and made my to the main lab to watch the feed while I got some work done. Some of the other students had decided to go to the bow to see some stars and I joined them. The cloud cover cleared away shortly after we got to the bow, showing a few constellations. After conversing with the other students for a while, I grabbed some snacks and headed back to the control room. It was even more crowded than before, even some of the ROPOS operators were without a seat, standing and watching with the other personnel. I took the opportunity to cozy up to one of the operators with Jessica, the M.E. student, and pick his brain a bit. He was more than willing to tell us all about various components of the positioning and monitoring systems and their sources. This gave me a much better idea as to the state of industrial and research class ROVs and the outfits that produce and support them. Not only will this help me to get an ideas for the ROV that I am building for competition, but also ideas for potential career paths.

July 25

Last night we began transit to the base of Axial Seamount, the volcano which we are studying and deploying instrumentation on during this expedition. The trip took about 18 hours, most of which I spent asleep in my bunk to avoid feeling sick from the motion, as the sea was much rougher on the way to our destination. At about noon, we reached the work site at the base of the volcano. A new HPIES instrument was dropped into the water to replace a previous version which was deployed last year.

The water is quite a bit deeper here than at previous locations which makes for about a two hour trip to the sea floor for the ROV ROPOS. The ROV would need to make its way to the old HPIES instrument in order to unplug it, so that the cable could be plugged into the new HPIES. When the new HPIES came within view, it appeared to be very close to the cable. "It looks like it’s a meter away from the cable," exclaimed one of the ROV operators. "What part of a meter," chuckled Skip, the chief engineer. The new HPIES had fallen directly on top of the cable with one of its legs… Luckily, the sea floor here is heavily coated in sediment and more than soft enough for the cable to sink in and not become pinched by the leg of the HPIES. Had we dropped it in a rockier area, this might not have been the case.

Back in the main lab I was admiring one of the pressure housings for the docking station of the deep profiler when Nick from APL came over and filled me in on some of the design obstacles and shortcomings of said device. Noticing my interest in the pressure housing, he offered to show me some of the plans for the housing, as this is much easier than actually taking it apart and physically showing me. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the design and construction of this device. I was pleased to learn that the basic design of the housing was very similar to an idea that we at the Marine Tech Club at WWU had for the pressure housing on our own ROV for next year's ROV competition. It is this sort of interaction that shows why this trip is so beneficial. Being that the NSF (the National Science Foundation) is the overarching body funding this whole operation, all of the technology and data that results are open to the public and thus can be shared at will. If only the vast majority of engineering and science were done this way, I could only imagine how much further human knowledge would be advanced.

July 24

This morning I awoke a little earlier than usual and started for the main deck to observe operations. The APL (UW's Applied Physics Lab) engineering team was already hard at work lowering the mooring and crawler for the deep profiler into the water. After releasing most of the cable from the winch, the usual grueling process of applying grips to the cable and lowering it ensued. With almost the entirety of the cable in the water, the large orange float was attached. I was making sure to pay close attention to this part of the process. I was interested to see what the engineers would do to release the cable, given that there was still a considerable amount of tension still on the cable. In order to relieve some of the tension from the winch, the float would need to be lowered into the water so that the mooring could rest on the sea floor. But how then would they release the float? When I asked, I was met with a very matter-of-fact response: "with an acoustic release, of course." An acoustic release is a device that can hold a tremendous amount of tension, ~6500 lbs. in this case, and release upon hearing an acoustic frequency in the water eliminating the need for a person to enter the water and perform the dangerous task. It is just this sort of incredible technology that is commonplace on this wonderful expedition.

After lunch, Nick from APL was nice enough to spend some time explaining the construction and inner workings of the deep profiler's crawler to myself and Jessica, a mechanical engineering major from UW. Although Nick is from a mechanical engineering background, he had a lot to say about the electrical characteristics of the crawler and the underlying scientific motivations behind the device. Such interactions are precious to me as they help me to gain a greater grasp of the difficulties that go into designing, deploying and maintaining such advanced marine technology. Technology not unlike what I hope to soon produce myself.

At 14:30 sharp, we met the chief engineer of the R/V Thompson for a tour of the engine. I was surprised to learn that all of the ships faculties, including the main thrusters, are electrical and powered by 3 gigantic diesel generators. The sound of the generators was almost intoxicating even with earplugs. It became clear to me that these engineers have a deep love for the sea. Although they spend most of these days in confined, loud, hot and humid spaces, they continue to leave land and loved ones behind, often for months at a time to do just that. Why? It will have to be the sirens call, because I'm not sure that I can offer any better explanation.

With some down-time after the tour, I grabbed one of the cameras, to see if I could get some good photos of the other students in their activities. While meandering about the ship, I came across Jessica, conversing with Avery, another APL engineer. He was showing her a device that is used for the splicing of cables. I sat in for a while to see what I could learn and was very glad that I did. Avery next showed us a device, developed at APL, called an HPIES, which is used to measure currents in a water column by measuring the electrical field produced by the water molecules' interaction with the magnetic field of the earth. He elaborated that to do this, the device measures micro volt differentials in the water. Such a measurement would be reasonably chalked up to an error in even relatively precise electronic applications. The fact that such a device exists, let alone one that went without being serviced for a whole year, seems incredible.

July 23

Today I woke up feeling like an actual human being! I was delighted to realize that I could eat breakfast and regain my strength; I was beginning to feel very weak after a day and a half without digesting any real food. I played it safe with a light breakfast and headed down to the deck to begin my watch of the deck operations. I got a second chance to see some of the operations involving the moorings for the deep profiler; the engineering team was in the process of recovering a deep profiler that was deployed during last year's expedition.

The atmosphere on deck was awesome. The team had gotten in a rhythm in their process of putting grips on the deep profiler cable and pulling it up, in a hand-over-hand sort of motion. The satellite radio channel that had been picked was playing Beastie Boys and the job was going smoothly. After relieving some of the tension on the heavy cable and getting enough slack, it was transferred to the drum of the winch and easily pulled up. Following lunch, the mooring was pulled out of the water, disassembled and cleaned from a year's worth of dirt and biological buildup.

I was able to attend my first of the student meetings in which we were described the procedure for logging photos of the various biology which we may encounter during the ROV dives. Tonight I saw my first ROV dive from the control room which was a really enchanting experience. I am astounded by the beauty of the control room for ROPOS, a screen for each camera on board plus the systems monitors. Part of the mission of this ROV dive was to investigate some of the methane seeps that were discovered last year. Down at the methane seeps we saw a crazy amount of diverse biology including hag fishes, snails, crabs, starfish, rockfish, etc. Although, all I could see was the graceful maneuvers of the ROV ROPOS thanks to its very adept team of operators and the astoundingly gentle, yet powerful actions of the manipulators.

July 22

I awoke early in the morning, hoping that I had overcome my motion sickness by this point but, unfortunately, was still unable to stand much longer than 20 minutes without rushing to the bathroom. I took a shower and laid back down to rest, to later be awoken by a call to my scheduled watch at 8am. I started my watch sitting on deck and observing the deck operations, during which the mooring for a deep profiler were being deployed. Word of my affliction had seemingly traveled throughout the boat, causing personnel of all sorts to approach me with every motion-sickness cure known to man. Although I wasn't particularly in a talkative mood, it felt great to have everyone looking out for me.

I endured most of my watch and headed back down to my bunk in hopes of keeping some Dramamine down long enough to digest it. I climbed up the stairs to the main lab periodically to see if I was feeling well enough to participate and observe operations. I went to sleep as early as possible in order to make sure that I could wake up early and take some medication before starting the day.

July 21

Today I awoke to the soft rolling of the R/V Thompson as she lay docked in the Newport's southern harbor. I ate a great breakfast of fruit, eggs and bacon, grabbed a cup of coffee and joined some of my shipmates in the main lab. There, I conversed with some of the students and engineers about some of the technology that we would be seeing and interacting with while at sea. Shortly after, we did our safety training and a few drills to ready ourselves for our voyage.

We set sail at 10:30am, beginning our 5 hour voyage, out to the first work site of this leg of the expedition. I felt full of anticipation for my very first multi-day trip at sea. I watched from the bow as the Thompson slashed through the swells and made her way out to sea and my anticipation gradually turned to anxiety as I began to feel clammy and light-headed, the first signs of motion sickness. I made my way back down to my bunk which is, fortunately, at one of the lowest levels of the vessel. I slept for a while and then made my way up to the main lab to see if I could endure, but was much too weak. I resigned myself to my bunk and enjoyed a nice long rest.

July 20

This morning I arrived bright and early to the UW to catch a ride down to Newport, Oregon and begin our journey. Fortunately, the car trip to Newport was shorter than expected and well-spent in the company of Alex, Krista and Juliana. Once we had arrived at the dock where the R/V Thompson was located, we wasted no time in getting onboard, meeting some of the other students, scientists and engineers and stowing our gear.

Not long after I got settled into my berth, I ventured out to the beach south of the jetty in Newport, with a few of the other students. It was great spending some time on a beach that is on the open ocean, something I don’t often enjoy living in Bellingham. I got some sand in between my toes and watched some people surfing in the shallow water caused by numerous sand bars. At the beach, I enjoyed getting to know some fellow students and hearing from them about their experiences on the expedition.

After getting back to the ship, we soon set out again with a larger group to walk into Newport and have dinner. The walk over the bridge into Newport was amazing, we could see all of downtown, the beach and behind us, the R/V Thompson. I underestimated the portions of the steak and mushroom pie that I ordered at dinner which made for a tiring walk back and a very sound night of sleep.