Joshua Lai

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June 28, 2019

Staring back at where I came from. Off to the horizon and beyond. Photo: J. Lai, University of Washington, V19

It was the last day of the work on the ship. The moment is bittersweet. I’m sad to not be able to be on the ship anymore around such cool people in such a cool project, but I also miss land and trees and some of the connections that aren’t present.

I took a moment to reiterate the importance of safety. There’s a lot of time I feel like I can just skim over safety trainings and that things are self-explanatory or common sense but a lot of the time, it feels divorced from a perception of an actual threat.

One of the engineers gave a presentation about where they went with engineering and the field exercises they were able to participate in. He went to the arctic and had adorable pictures of polar bears. He emphasized the importance of applying oneself to studies and pushed engineering a little. I suppose I’ll take it into consideration if I feel lost for a direction?

Near the end of the day, things started winding down. No more dives were planned, and everyone felt a little tired. We played some board games. Afterwards, some of the student scientists went out to stargaze. We were away from any lights on land, with just dark ocean on the horizon. The weather aligned to have a perfectly clear night with no clouds in sight. We stared up at the sky and as our eyes adjusted, the sky filled with stars. It was breathtaking. It was dark enough that we were even able to see the milky way stretched across the sky. Given that I came onto the ship filled with wonder about the ocean, I think that it’s fitting for this journey to end awash in awestruck wonder.

June 27, 2019

Part of the expansive engine room. Photo: J. Lai, University of Washington, V19.

We got a tour of the engine room today. The first thing that is apparently obvious even before entering is the noise. The roar of the room can be heard through the closed door and deafens conversation when it opens. After proper ear protection we went in. Even with an explanation and time to look around, it was hard to keep track of things with all that was going on. There were multiples of most things for redundancy with machines filling the two leveled room. Pipes snaked throughout the interior like some steampunk design and it was just a lot to take in. There were a bunch of rooms we were led through, including a battery room ‘bat cave’ for Alvin, the massive winches on the ship, and where the thrusters on the bow were. I definitely gained more respect for the  engineers who do the vital work below deck. It was really cool, despite a bit too much noise and fumes.

I went out to get some fresh air out on deck afterwards and the contrast in air quality and noise level was very apparent. It was a great day also with sunshine, clear skies, and calm seas.

A couple of the science team gave talks about their paths to being able to work on the Atlantis. They had wildly different backgrounds, with some immigrating to the US to study. They all had setbacks on their paths which was encouraging to think about how these successful scientists also face struggles also.

For my watch, JASON was further out from shore at the slope base site. The JASON crew and scientists were surveying a main cable from a primary node. We saw a lot of biology along the sea floor though. There were some weird fish and anemone that looked like Venus fly traps. After a while though, some of the biology felt a little repetitive though. Before JASON was deployed, some Styrofoam cups and a Styrofoam head were secured to the basket. At almost 3000 m the pressure from the water shrunk the cups and head to about half their size and all the cups looked really cute. I’ve seen a lot of shrunk cups in oceanography people’s offices and it’s nice to have my own now.

June 26, 2019

The library is also a conference room but otherwise is a nice place to unwind. Photo: J. Lai, University of Washington, V19.

I’ve been wandering around the ship a bit more. Sometimes I feel like there’s so much going on that I don’t have time to focus on my surroundings and the little parts of the ship that might not be noticed. There are a few connections and doors that I just didn’t notice before following the same paths.

I spent some time out on the bow of the ship watching the water. One of the other student scientists was there and we peered over the edge at the very front where the ship curves inwards and felt like I was falling for a brief moment. I sat for a while in the mess and appreciated the hum of the refrigerator, the smell of the coffee and the interspersed tap of a chair with an uneven leg.

In the library, I noticed that there was a severed hand (not real of course) and that while some of the books were older or nonfiction, there were also some pretty fiction books including the amazingly named parody “sense and sensibility and sea monsters”.

One of the ship’s crew, the mess attendant, gave a small talk about their experience on the ship and how they got there. I’ve spent more time interacting with scientists, so learning about the other ways onto ships very much separate from the science and engineering side of things felt new. I’m glad that non-scientists that love the ocean have a way to spend time on research vessels also.

We visited one of the sites to take some pictures and survey how the instruments were doing. On the way up, a fish seemed to get caught on JASON. Its head seemed to be in a crack and its body flicked up and squirmed for a while. I was curious if it would be trapped and eventually it got out. One of the scientists showed us some sediment with shells in it and a clamshell that seemed sealed. We pried it open, but there was just some mud inside which was disappointing. The mud inside also smelled bad. All the sediment I interacted with before was just through a screen and there was a little disconnect between what I was seeing and what I was interacting with. So being able to have a tangible thing of mud and shell in my hand was really cool anyways even if there wasn’t an organism living inside.

June 25, 2019

Getting water from the osmotic fluid sampler. Photo: E. Hudson, University of Washington, V19.

I went off seasickness meds given that I was feeling a lot better yesterday. It’s basically been fine, but there are a few infrequent wavy moments. It’s fine though, and I’m just really glad to be over the hump.

We had a student meeting where we talked about the things we were working on and the resources we would need. It was nice being able to bounce ideas off each other and see the different perspectives and approaches people were taking. I’ve known some of the student scientists for less than a week, but being at sea together and working together has brought a level of camaraderie that I don’t think would have existed.

One of the JASON crew members gave a small talk about their wayward path to where they were now. They bounced around a couple places sometimes totally separate from what they had done just before. It seems like it’s been fairly consistent that very few people got to where they were on any sort of direct linear path. They seemed to emphasize maintaining  flexibility and not being stuck in a role for the wrong reasons. It felt particularly relevant as I ponder the future during my journey as an undergrad.

Afterwards, I was able to help work with some fluid samples that had a quite a bit of sulfur. I did not expect water to have such a strong smell. I’m thankful that most water is not so pungent. We looked at the salinity of some of samples and a pump with freshwater had been contaminated to have salt where there shouldn’t have been any which was a bit disappointing to find out.

At night, because the ship was conducting a multibeam survey to find methane plumes, Jason didn’t go into the water during my shift. Not much else was happening at the time, so most people took the opportunity to get some more rest. It was nice to be able to get to sleep at a more normal time. I know a few other people were running on very little sleep and I’m glad they didn’t have to stay up.

June 24, 2019

Alvin! Much larger outside than inside. Credit: J Lai, University of Washington ,V19

I feel like I’m slowly coming around to getting my sea legs! I’m no longer feeling every single shift of the ground beneath me and my head feels so much clearer. Also, apparently my face used to have a green tint that’s faded away which can’t be a bad thing.

I was out getting some fresh air on the side of the boat and was able to talk with some of the ship’s crew for a little bit. It was super neat getting to hear different pathways people took to get onto the boat and what paths people wanted to pursue. Also on the deck were a scientist and engineer from the University of Bremen in Germany who were assembling an instrument. One of the components was sensitive so it was brought separately to be put together on the ship. It was super neat being able to help put some of the pieces together and troubleshoot some of the issues that came up and it was great being able to share in the happiness when the problems were solved.

I’m getting more used to logging things in the control van and knowing what and when to log things is becoming more intuitive. Also, I was able to see how the pilots worked around limitations of JASON, making sure not to crash into anything with the frame of the ROV and pulling cables in a way that they wouldn’t get tangled. There was a super pretty crab on one of the junction boxes we moved and a bunch of chill fish that did not seem to care that we were there.

But the most rad part of the day was being able to take a tour of Alvin and go inside. It’s incredible to be able to engage with such an iconic, unique, part of oceanography. The inside looks like something out of a space capsule, with switches, glowing lights and portholes. It looks very cramped at first but seems a bit larger after spending some time inside. I learned about the range of redundancies and safety features that are built into Alvin for whatever could come up. It almost seems a bit much until thinking about how it can carry human beings thousands of meters of crushing water beneath the surface.

June 23, 2019

It’s been an exciting second day out at sea! I’ve slowly been recovering and even though the sea hasn’t been too rough, I still have not quite gotten my sea legs. There have still been a couple stressful moments when larger swells impact the boat, but the moment subsides and it’s okay.

Some of the student science party around the CTD Credit: M. Elend, University of Washington, V19

I’ve felt steadier on my feet and been more able to help with the tasks on the ship. There was a cast of a CTD with a rosette of Niskin bottles to sample different depths; I helped to collect water from the bottles and process them for salinity, chlorophyll and DIC measurements among others. Thinking about the work that goes into even one measurement at one depth has really helped to contextualize some of the research that been done. It’s been easy to just imagine the data springing up after visiting somewhere instead of imagining the hours of lab work that is needed to process even just one CTD cast.

At the same time, I also learned about bowline knots. While I learned the mechanics of how the knot is tied, I was also able to see how the knot is used on a ship and how lines are used to safely maneuver large object on and off the ship without hurting anyone.

I took a nap before my first watch at 1 in the morning but was awoken by the blaring of the alarm. I was definitely a little shook and confused at first but headed to my muster station to learn more. We were eventually dismissed, and for the first few minutes after the alarm, I did not feel seasick at all, but that certainly is not a long-term strategy.

Control Room
Photo: Joshua Lai, University of Washington, V19

I couldn’t get to sleep after the alarm, so I grabbed a couple snacks before going to my watch. The control van for the JASON ROV dives felt completely foreign and otherworldly. One of the walls is covered with screens with navigational and technical information but also different cameras on JASON into the water. The blue-green hues of the water are speckled with marine snow pulsing the currents. Fish dance and weave into view, reflective bodies sparkling flashes against the lights of JASON. Squids dart and jellyfish sway and that was even before approaching the bottom. I helped to log the replacement of some equipment and watched the mechanical arms piloted right in front of me. It was surreal coming the realization that I was in ‘the room where it happens’ and that JASON wasn’t just on some livestream a thousand miles away but connected to the boat I was on 800 m below. It was a unique moment to be present even in a small step in a much larger system.

June 22, 2019

My Cabin
Credit: J. Lai, University of WashingtonV19

I knew how large the R/V Atlantis would be, but it seemed even larger in person.  Carrying my luggage up to the ramp onto the ship felt like entering another world. It was an adventure exploring the ship and figuring out where things were and getting settled into my surroundings. Everywhere I went, I felt surrounded by the legacy of others who came before.

There were awards and posters that marked the interior of the library and galley. We got a tour of the JASON ROV and saw all the components that allow it to function and do the things it needs to do. It has so many things that need to work and that could go wrong, it’s amazing that such a thing could exist and explore the deep sea. Also, I got to see the submersible Alvin just chilling by the side which was wild.

Plus, there are so many amazing scientists and engineers from around the world on the boat with us. I’ve been trying to match names with faces and positions, but it’s been slow progress so far.

Soon though, we left the dock! But as excited as my mind was to be out on the water, my body very much was not. My stomach churned and rolled with the swell of the ship and despite how wonderful lunch had been, it was not so great the second time through. My mind felt raced and sluggish and powerless to the thrall of the waves. I had taken some Dramamine beforehand but I’m not sure how much it helped.

I had some ginger tea and crackers and felt a little better at least and taking a nap helped to relieve some of the symptoms momentarily. I have never appreciated ginger as much as I have now. Everyone has been extremely supportive and helpful, and it has been a definite silver lining to the mess that is seasickness.