During my shift on the evening of August 10th, I was tasked with taking pictures of the recovery of ROPOS, our remotely operated submersible, and its package, a mooring part of the cabled array we are servicing. I had not yet spent much time outside past sunset due to safety rules, so it was ecstatic to get the opportunity to see true darkness away from city lights, especially given the fact that the sky was clear of clouds.
When I first stepped outside it was to take pictures of ROPOS being slowly lifted from the water. Its bright lights turned the water an eerie blue/green color as it got closer and closer to the surface. Moments later one could make out the engineering beast as it dramatically mixed the water around it, slowly being carried into the air by its crane, revealing the massive mooring beneath it.
I was in awe at the scene, not just because of the sheer awesomeness of the engineering I was observing, but also because of the coordination of the deck operations. The main deck was crawling with people each busy with a task, be it to guide the mooring onto the deck, man the crane, or trigger the latch connecting ROPOS and the mooring.
After this hub-hub of activity was over, and my shift with it, I took. A few brief moments too look out to the horizon. Despite the lights of the ship lighting the waves within a few meters of the hull, the ocean was dark. The only light piercing through was a big bright white moon, lighting everything below it and hiding even the stars.
Earlier that evening we had taken advantage of the clear skies to observe the sunset at golden hour. The ship was glistening as if covered by a gold filter as the sun set, and perhaps more beautiful was the effect of this light on the moon. The moon had just started to rise opposite the sun. Thanks to the vast flatness of the ocean, one could see them opposite each other just by turning one’s head. As the moon peaked through the pink-blue clouds it revealed itself to be a light hue of pink. I was mesmerized.
Yesterday, August 11th, the ship cruised full steam ahead towards Axial Base. Although no dives were taking place, the transit was by no means a restful time. Everyone was working to make up the time lost due to longer than expected dive times and ROPOS turnaround times. The Chief Scientists were figuring out how to merge dives together so that all the science planned could be done in a timely manner, including Dr. Rika Anderson’s work to take fluid samples at hydrothermal vents. I did not envy the chief scientists. Somehow, they developed a plan that satisfied everyone.
Meanwhile, the ROPOS team was tasked with figuring out how to hook up the Universal Fluid Obtainer (UFO) to ROPOS. The UFO is the instrument the Anderson team is using to sample. Because the nature of their project is hydrothermal vent microbiology (my lab is interested in deep-sea bacteria as well), I have been very invested in their work, and have tried as much as I can to familiarize myself with it to be a helpful hand and resource when needed. Finally seeing the UFO on ROPOS was very exciting.
During the 18h transit to Axial Base we also had the chance to tour the bridge, and ROPOS itself. These were very informative. I especially enjoyed learning about the many ways ROPOS can sample the ocean and its sediment. Perhaps this knowledge will be useful in the future if I write my own hydrothermal vent research proposal. I also had the chance to familiarize myself with perhaps the most famous oceanographic tool: a CTD rosette. A CTD rosette measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth over a vertical section of the water column. Many Niskin bottles are mounted to the rosette, a quasi-cylinder frame, and each fires at a different depth. This provides us with an understanding of how these essential parameters vary with depth in the water column. However, nothing surprised me more than discovering the movie room. I thought I had explored every part of the ship, but I had missed a door facing the library. The movie room is probably the highlight of non-science facilities onboard this ship. A large TV, plenty of comfy sofas, a mini fridge stocked with ice-cream, and an XBOX! I wish I had discovered it at the start of the transit rather than at the end. I expect to make good use of it on our day-long transit back to port in a few days.
Today, in the next few hours, we will transit for a short time from Axial Base to the international district hydrothermal field in Axial Caldera. This will be our first hydrothermal vent dive, and my first time seeing them lived, beamed up through fiber optic cables over 1500m from the bottom of the ocean, through an HD camera and into my retina, all at the speed of light. This will be a busy time for me not only because my shift logging events in the ROPOS control room is sure to be exciting and demanding, but also because I will be taking samples on the dive as well. For my project I have asked to sample water surrounding the hydrothermal vent using Niskin bottles mounted to the sides of ROPOS. These bottles fill with water and then can be shut closed by ROPOS. Moreover, the UFO will be sampling and I intend to work in shifts with the Anderson team as their work will go well into tomorrow morning. For this special occasion, I have donned my sailor’s shirt.
August 10: Over the last two days, ROPOS has made around 4 dives to replace instruments and lay down extension cable. I had the privilege to be on shift in the ROPOS control room when the first dive landed on the seafloor. As the ROV descends, all one can see is blue water, marine snow, and the occasional jellyfish or squid. As I follow the depth gauge I slowly move towards the edge of my seat, anticipating an amazing sight: the bottom of the ocean. A few moments go by and then suddenly a cloud of sediment covers our camera, we’ve landed.
It is quite a feat of engineering that from the cozy temperature controlled control room, I can see the bottom of the ocean 2900 m beneath me, in full HD. The ROPOS team is incredibly competent, they navigate the tasks at hand and the alien depths with skill and composure. This made me think of those in the Mars rover control rooms navigating an alien planet with a 20 minutes of delay. How amazing that we’ve built robots to allow us to explore the most hidden depths of our universe.
When I was not on my shift, my time was dedicated to developing my project idea, writing, reading, photography and exploration of the ship. I was particularly focused on developing a project idea for my time aboard. Dr. Rika Anderson has two days of ship and ROV time to conduct dives to different hydrothermal vents around axial caldera. Her team will be collecting large volumes of diffuse flow seawater (seawater that leaks out the side of the vents) to understand the microbial and viral population inhabiting these extreme environments.
My project will hitch a ride on her dives in the form of Niskin bottles. Niskin bottles essentially allow us to take water samples at depth, and are triggered manually by the ROV in this case. By collecting samples at each of Dr. Anderson’s planned sampling sites, I will accumulate a series of spatially distributed samples. Once in the lab, I will concentrate these samples onto filters and store them. Finally, once back on shore, I will quantify the amount of polysaccharides contained on these filters. Once these values are normalized to the number of cells (cell count will be done by Dr. Anderson’s lab), I can then map out how polysaccharide production varies around hydrothermal vents. This is interesting because these compounds take on many critical functions, one of which is biofilm formation. Biofilms are an agglomeration of bacteria stuck together by these sticky sugars.
Understanding the frequency at which these exist in hydrothermal vents has impacts on our overall understanding of microbiology at these sites, but also will inform the hypothesis that life first evolved within primitive biofilm in these vents.
To that end, I have been coordinating with the Anderson team here, and getting familiar with their instrument and protocols. I plan to help them out as much as I can, and will most likely rotate on shifts when their dives happen, as dives occur 24/7, but someone has to process lab samples, and sleep eventually becomes necessary. Their sampling instrument, called the Universal Fluid Obtainer (UFO), allows them to pump water from a precise point the ROV can place the water input at, into large bags or filters. It was fun troubleshooting their instrument together with Eve and Joanne (Dr. Anderson’s representatives on-board).
This morning I saw some whale flukes, and it has motivated me to take more time to be outside and just watch the sea, especially with my camera. It is quite amazing and humbling to see nothing but ocean around one’s self. I realized how tiny humans are on the scale of our planet, of which most of looks like this, just water. Despite being on the ship, we are at the mercy of the ocean. This little island of steel may be impressive, but the sheer scale of the ocean, the forces of its wave moving us up, down, left, right, is simply overwhelming. Looking out at the ocean yesterday, an overcast sky above, the whole world took on a silvery tint. It was truly beautiful. The open ocean is such an alien place to us, despite this being our home. I wonder if more people got to experience this, if they would be inspired to act to protect this ecosystem which does so much for us.
In the evening last night I poked my head outside when the ROV was descending because I was told that the darkness is absolute. They were right. I have never seen such a deep black. The envelope of black around the ship was absolute despite the lights around the deck, as soon as one looked onto over the horizon it quickly became all-consuming darkness. As if the ocean itself had disappeared. Of course, the overcast sky helped with this effect by blocking out the moonlight and stars. I am completely sustained by and reliant on the ship I am on, and for that, I am very grateful to the engineers of the ship, and its crew.
August 7-8: The adventure began at around 1300 on Sunday, august 7th. As we entered the gate of the NOAA Marine Operations facility in Newport, OR, I got my first glance at the silvery blue ship I would be aboard for the next ten days: the R/V Thomas G. Thompson. This expedition would mark many firsts for me. First time aboard a research vessel, first time aboard a large ship, first time sailing the pacific, first time on the ocean as an oceanographer-in-training… I was incredibly excited for this adventure to start, and to discover whether I had what it takes to conduct science at sea.
The expedition is called VISIONS’22, its main goal is to maintain instruments and equipment that make up the Regional Cabled Array. This cabled network of instruments sits on the seafloor off the coast of Washington and Oregon. These sophisticated tools record various characteristics such as salinity and temperature all year long. This veritable treasure trove of data enables vast amount of science to understand our ocean and the Juan de Fuca ridge.
The first leg of this cruise, which I am on, has a special stop: Axial Seamount. I will have the chance to explain why this hydrothermal field is especially relevant to me in a future post.
We pulled up to the dock, and after the second COVID test of the day, boarded with our luggage. My cabin happens to be the first one you see when you board from the port aft door, on the 01 level, room #32. I was expecting cramped quarters and few heads per person. Boy was I wrong. The TGT is a luxurious home as far as research vessels go. I share my room with one other person, and together with the room next door we share one toilet and shower. The room has a desk, closets, and its own sink. I quickly unpacked, made my bed and started exploring in anticipation of dinner.
I discovered the gym’s well-equipped gym, its lounge and library with board games, cards, books, darts, and DVDs, and the 24/7 snack service in the galley. I also took in the ship’s history, character, and characters. I appreciated the ship’s design and focus on its mission, there is no waste of space, no superfluous markings, no ambiguous instructions. Everyone on board has a job, and the ship is built to perform it. On board, the atmosphere is set by the ship’s metallic structure and late 90s décor. The light-brown colored wood accents, and blue chairs perfectly complement the beige metal of the interior. The ship would be a husk of rusty metal though, if it weren’t for the complement of crew that lovingly take care of it, and for whom the ship is truly a second home. Overall, I feel like I am on a modern research vessel with its own charm, and part of a team dedicated to understanding our oceans together.
Dinner was the occasion to meet people. I was told to expect amazing food, and I was not disappointed. The food so far has been great. I am very thankful for the amazing cook on-board. Over a delicious tofu Thai curry, I got to know some of my fellow students. Meal times are going to be a great social gathering. That evening, I walked along the docks and appreciated our ship and the others present at the NOAA facility from shore for one last time before going to bed.
This morning we set off from Newport, and as the shipped made its way from the port to the open ocean, I was suddenly very happy I had chosen to take my sea sickness medication. We are in relatively calm waters, and yet I still underestimated the movement of the ship. It’s hard to describe what it’s like being on a moving ship. As the waves roll by below the hull, the ships bow lift and sinks, and I with it. In this way we are all one unit with the ship, and through it, we are all connected to physical forces that shape three quarters of our planet. Although it’s tiring at first, an extra cognitive load your body and brain is trying to adapt to, it becomes soothing after a while. The ship gently rocked me into a nap in preparation for my night watch from 2000 to 2400 tonight.
Each of us works two four hour shifts a day, during which we are on-call to help with duties as assigned. For me, tonight, that will most likely be helping log data from the first ROPOS dive which will start soon. ROPOS is the Canadian remotely operated submersible vehicle we have on board. It will carry instruments and equipment to the seafloor to do maintenance on the cabled array, and take samples for us.