Tracie Barry’s Blog

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I can see the coast of Newport off in the distance. The view of the magnificent rocky coastline shrouded in marine fog and gleaming in the sunlight is shrouded by the feeling of loss that reaching shore means. I’m riddled with regret for all of the conversations I didn’t get to have, and the stories I didn’t get to hear, and the science left behind because I was wrapped up in a million other incredible moments. Yesterday, and the night before, were full of firsts in the world of deep sea technology. ROPOS worked overtime to bring a deep profiler online. So did the profiler’s designers. There were moments of elation, humor, and loss. If everything had gone perfectly, I imagine we’d have a lesser appreciation for the trials of the universe unexplored. Not just for the sea, but for the galaxy. What we learn down there through trial and tribulation, better prepares us for where we send technology in the future.

We got our ROPOS tour yesterday as we began steaming eastward. The power and mechanics behind the ROV are mind-boggling. But, with all of the space-age technology onboard the lovely beast, you find familiar parts too. A part made by Firestone, a flow meter like we use at hatcheries; a little glimmer that we too, can build things to take us further than our bodies can. The engineering students ask questions that get someone like me closer to understanding than I ever could on my own. The two students from Western, and two from UW, are both working to build marine ROVs. Their understanding enhances mine, and allows me to hear explanations to questions I’d never thought to ask. I hope I can relay all of it when I get to shore. Keith, who gave us our tour, later asked if I was the “artist at sea.” I was unsure of exactly what that meant, but said no, I am the doodler at sea. He laughed. He said that they used to keep an artist on board to document voyages, and that he hopes that I do so. I of course will, and plan to, but the compliment and the background of the blue water and hazy sky made the thought of “artist at sea” sound much more beautiful than it would on a resume.

There are no words for the experience one obtains on this ship. There are no words for the conversations, images, and information. Advice to future students, and to those switching our quirky group out: after three days you know where you’re going and where the doors lead, you stop being in Kim’s way in the galley, you know the names of your shipmates, you feel comfortable just wandering and seeing what people are up to. Write your blog as soon as your watch ends. If you can, go to the bar with your shipmates, they are hilarious and you never know what story you’ll get to keep with you after you leave. Never skip a meal, they are awesome, and you’ll need the sugar boost to keep up the pace. Don’t miss any ROPOS dives, ever, from descent to ascent, and even when ROPOS is secured. Get your sleep when you can, but don’t miss anything. Spend at least five minutes a day on the upper deck, you will see amazing things every single time. Try to get out if the sky is clear, you’ll never see the green flash like you do from sea. One last note, be prepared to have your face hurt from smiling.

July 27

Watch today began with another mooring and deep profiler retrieval. After a slight rain delay the APL team expertly completed their task. ROPOS was deployed to attach a cable to a massive buoy which is then used to secure the package on deck. Winching up such sensitive equipment is a labor of love. Grip after grip is installed to relieve the tension on the line: a long and impressive demonstration of ingenuity. I’ve had the pleasure of observing process a few times now, and it does not lose its luster.

Our souvenirs from this voyage are decorated Styrofoam cups. They are drawn  in marker and then sent to depth on the CTD. The pressure at 9000 feet shrinks them to tiny distorted versions of themselves. These silly shrunken oddities have actually been helpful in honing my marine life drawing skills. This is useful as my project is a biological and geological survey of the Cabled Array. I am now proud to say I have become quite proficient in octopus form. We’ve colored some keepsakes for the crew as well as our loved ones. I’m not sure why, and am somehow embarrassed by it, but Dr. Kelley allowed me to doodle on the “flag” that ROPOS will place on top of a lava flow. My art will sit atop a newly born mountain, much like a flag on Everest or Rainier. I’m choosing not to delve too deep into the motivation behind my getting to do this, but I was giddy. I hurriedly sat down to sketch ROPOS onto a bucket lid with a float and nylon rope attached to it. Later on, I walked to the ROPOS staging area and found the team taking photos of the lid placed with ROPOS. The fellas were glad to let me take one last photo with my new favorite robot and my scribbles.

Every ROPOS deployment is enthralling. ROPOS descends at approximately 25 m per minute, and a descent usually lasts around two hours. Through the water column she goes, through pulsating ctenophore forests, salp chains, and marine snow. Under the excellent guidance of his driver, ROPOS lands directly on target. This dive was greeted with a vast plain of pillow basalt, gently rolling out of sight. To just look, and not know, there is no evidence of the violence of the creation of this magnificent mountain. I love to see that the ROPOS guys still take photos with their camera phones while actively working. They see the most incredible things from the view of their control room, but still ooh and ahh at the secrets of these places. Steve, who acts as ROPOS’s arm and pincer, quietly munches on cookies as he expertly inserts temperature probes into what seem like impossibly small places. Watching him use the forced feedback robot arm-shaped controller to collect rocks on the seafloor is incredible. He looks cool as the cat he is, but you can feel the tension secreted behind his mischievous smile. It’s a strange feeling looking at the world through ROPOS’s lens. When you reach the summit of a mountain, the end of a trail, or any new place, you stop and look around. You touch and feel and smell and run. It’s the same with ROPOS except that you’re at the mercy of a joystick. Deb will direct the operator towards unusual and important geology, or have him zoom in on some incredible, sometimes unidentifiable animal. The biology of the deep ocean is curious, surprising, and unforgettable. Many of the animals we’ve seen are common to these areas, and have been seen many times, but can still not be accurately described. Without samples, we can only postulate as to the lineage of these improbable creatures. That in itself, regardless of all the amazements I am experiencing, keeps me glued to a ROPOS stream somewhere on the ship until I doze, and abruptly find myself drifting toward the floor.

July 25

It’s easy to question one’s career path while on this Thompson. The ship’s crew from oilers to able bodies, lead lives that rival rock stars. The Applied Physics team is astonishing in their labor, as well as their humor. The science party, each and every one of them, truly work to bring discovery and learning to the world. I’ve never imagined a work place where everyone genuinely respects every specialty, interest, and question.  There’s a comradery here that crosses disciplines, and I can only imagine the kind of barriers that are broken within such a community. I was suspicious that the powers that be must cull any person who frowns, but I did after a minor embarrassment and was not thrown overboard. It is still very hard to believe that a group this dynamic could be collected on this tiny island in the Pacific.

On watch I’ve been allowed to photograph deck ops. Not one image belies anything but joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction. The incredible weather may have contributed to the magic of these captured moments, but I can feel the excitement in them nonetheless. This is a workplace that encourages creativity and culture. While most of us spend our lives in jobs that are often stifling, it is empowering to know that that does not have to be the status quo.

We are currently en route to Axial Seamount 300 miles from the coast of Oregon. The skies have clouded but the swells are even. The inhabitants of the Thompson are busy repairing, planning, and catching up on their duties. I expect to have more lab time as we have yet to process yesterday’s water samples. There is something about an Erlenmeyer flask, nitrile gloves, and pipette that give you a sense of exhilaration. The data recovered from each niskin (sample collection bottle) has the potential to change the future. I hope to someday use this very data, and take great pride in contributing to its collection. All that said, the microscope UW loaned me beckons. Last night as I was analyzing a sample, one of the APL guys noticed I had some tiny scallops collected from a mooring buoy that had since been recovered and redeployed. The shells are translucent, and as such lend themselves to observation. The boys were fascinated and I gladly gave them my seat. Often we overlook the improbable engineering of life, but a single magnified glimpse brings one down the rabbit hole of life microscopic.

July 23

I remember reading about the submersible Alvin as a child. Alvin was my Sputnik. Dr. Kelley and Dr. Delaney have both 'met' Alvin, and had the joy of hitching a ride. These people are my heroes. Alvin made the universe bigger all of a sudden. There is a place just beneath us that we know so little about it might as well be Europa, or the moon. The VISIONS cruise (Interactive Oceans) is changing that. You and I can explore this subterrestrial universe via the data from deep profilers, CTDs, and ROPOS.

Last night’s ROPOS dive was indescribable. Bacterial mats covered the massive carbonate field. Ridgelines jutted out across the deep. A distinctive dragon shape stood monolithic at one of the peaks. The site teamed with life: Snails were adorned with anemone, red fan coral swayed, countless rockfishes, eelpouts, a deep sea sole, a skate, scale worms, clams. Katie, a second year student pointed out the diversity and shared names and thoughts. Her assistance, insight, and leadership this voyage have been invaluable. If I don’t see another creature, I will leave this ship overjoyed. The night ended with Krista and me on the bow. We waited for the green flash just as the sun dips below the horizon. The universe smiled on us and gave us two as the ship rose. What I suspect was a moon jelly bioluminesced below the surface.

So much happens here it is impossible share it all. Joe and I were allowed to collect animals from the one of the ships filters. Transparent crab larva, jellies, krill, isopods, fish, and a million other creatures I didn’t get to see scurried about across its metal grate. My collecting was abruptly cut short by the last few minutes of dinner. One cannot miss dinner out here. The food is divine and I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t get to taste it.

I managed to peruse two slides of water collected at 2895 meters down, 500 m from Slope Base. I haven’t been able to identify much just yet, but I am hopeful and undaunted. We ran some chlorophyll samples, and dissolved oxygen analysis. I think I’ve got those down. It’s nice to feel as if you’re helpful. I can’t quite sit still. Every moment I spend in one place, I know that I’m absent from some demonstration of brilliance.

July 22

Watching ROPOS descend to the seafloor last night was stunning. Fingerlings, comb jellies, and salps, lingered in the marine snow as ROPOS raced by at 25 meters an hour. I was entranced. Sitting it the computer bay it feels like you are seeing the future. At roughly 2300, a veil of sediment shrouded the cameras to herald ROPOS’s arrival. ROPOS gently rotated HPIES’s (Horizontal Field Pressure and Inverted Echo Sensor) slightly skewed arm into proper alignment. I imagine them as robot brothers and that they will probably high five each other when they have AI capability. This image occurred to me as I drowsily slipped off my stool.

My watch lasts from 0800 until 1200. I did a lot of watching, but not very much logging. Thousands of meters of cable were being lowered to the seafloor using a system very much like something you’d see on a logging site. Yale grips were installed on the cable every 15 feet. One would be replaced by another as they reached a pulley, in the seemingly endless and physically taxing job of wrapping and unwrapping this cable with its critical load. It appears that the Applied Physics Crew would also be very good at making friendship bracelets. I might get up the courage to ask one of them.  Massive pulleys and blocks mounted on an A frame cast a new home for a deep profiler in the Pacific. A large buoy was attached to the end of the cable for future retrieval. It sits 104 m below the now quiet waves. 

It seems quiet in the science lab now, but 30 feet from me great feats of engineering genius are occurring. The technology is almost shrouded by the talent dispersed about the ship. The whir and hum of sea life masked by the rapid fire of synapses at makeshift desks and cocooned in bunks. It’s that feeling when you step off a plane in Vegas, that heightened awareness of energy, but this energy is changing the world.

July 21

This morning felt like a dream. I startled awake around 0400 not quite sure where I was. I gently tapped my noggin against the top of my bunk and quickly realized where I was. A brief moment of claustrophobia was replaced by excitement and a strong desire to go back to sleep, which I did. Newport was beautiful. Jellies flowed passed the ship with the tide, and what I thought were coots, actually guillemot, a perusal of the OSDFW website informed me, awkwardly scurried about via their bright orange webbed feet. Small boats dropped crab pots all throughout the harbor. I only saw one pot retrieved, which contained all undersize dungeness which were promptly released. We were pleasantly surprised by a fog-free morning. Growing up in a coastal town, I understand how lucky we are to have actually seen further than our mooring. After a brief safety meeting, a guided tour of the nearest exits, and the fitting of our survival suits, we were finally ready to depart. I am quite pleased so say for the first time that I passed muster. We stood on the deck enraptured by the removal of the Thompson’s massive teal moorage ropes. Departure was rapid. So much so, that in my rush to take a preemptive anti-nausea pill, I missed our passage under the magnificent Newport Bridge. Gratefully, I made it back to the deck in time to see what I suspect was a gray whale just off the jetty, send us off.

Once through the open arms of the Newport Harbor, the Thompson showed us how fleet she truly is. She danced over waves and plunged through swells with more grace than force. As we moved inside and out of the wind, I was often surprised when I put my foot down and was not met with anything solid. I mostly lifted one foot and simply waited for the ship to meet it. Once I realized moving about was not the most efficient use of my time, I just hoped the experienced interactive oceans team would let me scratch at their brains. The mosaic images that the students are working with from ROPOS are stunning. Tiling images and counting sea stars might become my new favorite hobby. I was also informed today that my life has been missing two very important things; the bloody belly comb jelly, and the cockatoo squid. I now feel that my day was successful just adding those two images to my, “can you believe these are real” repertoire. I am surrounded by brilliant students, and find myself in awe of almost every kind, and enthusiastic word. Thus far, I’m patiently waiting to find exactly where I fit in, trying to stay out of the way. The halls on the ship are quite narrow and there are doors roughly every two feet. I have no less than three times came very near to banging one into someone. I’ve gotten better at looking before leaping, but something about the motion of the ship shrouds my axons in their own marine layer. Now that we’ve reached the Slope Base site at the foot of the Casecadia subduction zone, the floor seems to be synchronized with my feet. I no longer here the clang of the anchor, just the hum of the ship punctuated by the occasional rumble of pipes and cabin cabinets.

As they say, “red sky at night.” ROPOS is descending, and I look forward to tomorrow as much as anything I have before.