Cal Mills Blog Leg 1

A number of humpback whales joined the Thompson as we transited to Newport. Credit: M. Elend, University of Washington, V23.

19&20 August 2023

Last night, a few of the students and my professor, Dax Soule, all got together in the ship’s media room and watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was like a 4D experience, having the rocking of the ship and the sounds of the waves outside to accompany the movie, and it was nice to just sit and turn off my brain for a little while.

Even though being on weather hold means we don’t have to wake up for our shifts and go into the control van, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For our individual projects, the students must create a presentation to show a small group of the science team before we leave the ship, explaining what we’re focusing on and what we hope to accomplish. Public speaking has always been really difficult for me, so I’m nervous about it, but I know that the people we’ll be presenting in front of just want to see what we’ve been up to.

We have 3 days until we leave but, unfortunately, this is our third consecutive day on weather hold. We’re making the most of it and doing what we can to stay positive, but I don’t think this is how any of the people on board imagined Leg 1 would go. Apparently, the past two years have been gorgeous, with time left over to do extra dives, but this is just the way things go sometimes and there’s nothing we can do to control it. We still have had the chance to see some once-in-a-lifetime interactions, though.  

A dolphin plays alongside the R/V Thompson during Leg 1 of VISIONS. Credit: W. Ruef, University of Washington, V23.

On the night of the 19th, we were all called out to the deck to see a huge pod of dolphins playing in the huge, rolling waves right on the sides of the ship. We must have watched them for an hour as they moved around us, jumping and flipping around in the water as the sun set in the distance. The dolphins were a species I’d never seen before (I think they’re called Pacific white-sided dolphins) and they were so much smaller than you’d expect, like you could just reach over the railing and pick one up. I was so mesmerized by how easily they cut through the water, just riding the waves before diving back down. I’m sure they were having the time of their lives. It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen and a major highlight for the expedition.

When we’re not being called out to see whales off in the distance or some cool fish someone spots, we all sit around the student table and do our work or talk or make bracelets out of rope. It’s a different dynamic than I thought it would be, but we all get along well and always find something to talk about. I’m going to miss it, for sure.

17 & 18 August 2023

Last night, I was on watch during what I believe was the deepest dive of this Leg of the expedition. We deployed Jason in an area called Slope Base, where the seafloor is at a depth of about 2900 meters. I had been anticipating this dive for a few days now, especially since we found out that, due to the unpredictable weather, we won’t be able to make it out to the hydrothermal vents at Axial Seamount, 23 hours west of our current location. It took almost 3 hours for Jason to reach the floor, but once we arrived, we saw some really cool biology. Pink Venus Flytrap Anemones had stationed themselves on some of the equipment that had been deployed there in previous years and sea cucumbers littered the soft, muddy silt.

This strange fish, Genioliparis ferox (Stein), was first described in 1978 from a single specimen and never seen afterwards. It was imaged at 2901 m at the Slope Base Site during ROPOS Dive R1757. G. ferox is a ferocious mid-water predator, with many sharp teeth. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/CSSF; Dive R1757; V14.

One of the more interesting sightings was a fish affectionately named “weird fish” that Dr. Kelley said comes to greet us every year. Unfortunately, he avoided Jason‘s cameras, so we couldn’t get any high-quality footage of him. We also saw a few other fish (one may have been a Rattail fish), a squat lobster, and plenty of tiny creatures that drifted past us in the current. I think it was probably my favorite dive yet.

We’re in transit again, heading back towards the continental shelf where we’ve been before, but it’s a nice short trip that most people on board will be able to sleep through. I still haven’t experienced much seasickness, but the rocking of the boat while we move isn’t the most comfortable feeling. My bunk is situated near the bottom of the ship right by the bow thrusters, which are programmed to keep the boat as still as possible when we’re stationed at a site. Apparently, they can keep the boat from moving even 1 meter from its intended position. However, the bow thrusters are very loud, and we can hear them clearly from where we sleep. Our first night onboard, I was so disoriented by all the different noises that I couldn’t sleep, but now it’s just white noise and I’m usually pretty exhausted by the end of my shift anyways. The funny thing is, I actually look forward to the sound of the bow thrusters kicking in because it means we get to be stationary for a while.

Unrelated to the boat or the research being carried out, the food on the ship is incredible. There’s assorted fresh fruit at breakfast and veggies at lunch and dinner, and I’m always surprised at what’s on the menu each day. I’m sure that it’s not sustainable on longer trips, but we have definitely been eating well this past week. Last night we even had lemon bars, my favorite!

I understand why I was so nervous when I was preparing for this trip, but now that I’ve been here for a week and have gotten into the groove of things, there isn’t anything that warrants all the anxiety I had. I’m just happy to be here.

Jason emerges from a dive at the Oregon Offshore Site. Credit: M. Elend, University of Washington, V23.

15 and 16 August 2023

To my delight, days 4 and 5 of the expedition were very biologically active. During a Jason dive in the early morning on the 15th, we encountered a massive shoal of shiny silver fish that swam down alongside the ROV for several minutes and larger fish waited for us at the seafloor, along with shrimp, squids, jellyfish, and a few different types of worms. On the 16th, another student in our group saw an octopus! It’s incredible to see all the critters we pass when Jason is ascending and descending, and you will almost always find something you’ve never seen before. Additionally, we saw a few whales off in the distance from the bow and two sharks swimming by the side of the ship. I was also able to sit out on one of the upper decks and film Jason surfacing and docking, which takes a lot of communication and precision from the crew and the Jason team.

After some delay, we’re on the move again and heading towards Slope Base, where we’ll send down some Styrofoam artwork all the students have contributed to, including cups, eggs, and even a mannequin head that have all been decorated. If everything goes well, the pressure at the seafloor will compress the Styrofoam down into miniature versions that we can keep as souvenirs, like Shrinky Dinks of the sea.

My main tasks on board are usually carried out during my watches, where we sit in the Jason control van and help the crew log the actions on each dive or control the cameras. I personally like the camera work best, as I can take photos using the cameras mounted on Jason and take 4k videos when we see something particularly interesting.

The control van resembles a shipping container on the very back of the boat and the inside is kept dark and very cold. There are computer monitors covering one of the walls with various camera feeds from Jason and the deck, and another student and I sit behind the pilots at separate monitors. It feels a little overwhelming at first and I was pretty nervous about messing up the feeds or missing something in the log, but after a few shifts I feel really comfortable navigating the technology.

While I’ve avoided getting too seasick, I’m still getting used to walking around the boat and the rougher waves make me a little queasy. I just try to keep myself busy, including learning some sailing knots, reading, and, when all else fails, napping is always an option.

August 14, 2023:

Ahoy VISIONS ‘23! It’s Day 3 aboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson and we’ll be setting off to our first dive site this afternoon. Most of the anxiety I had about the trip disappeared as soon as I stepped onboard, probably because it finally hit me that the expedition was actually real and not just a concept I’d been anticipating for weeks. The one thing I’m still nervous about is the seasickness I’ve been hearing so much about, but we’re well-stocked in Dramamine and ginger candies and I’m sure we’ll all get our sea legs after a few days. There are a few other students on board who I’ve been able to get to know over the past 48 hours and every crew member has been exceptionally kind and understanding– it really feels like someone’s home that you’ve been welcomed into. 

As we’ve been docked for a few days longer than expected, we had the opportunity to drive into Newport the past two nights and go out to dinner at local restaurants. We stopped at Fred Meyer on both trips to get candy, snacks, and easy meals for the voyage, as well as some extra flannels and base layers to help keep warm. On Saturday night, we had a picnic at Yaquina State Park and walked down to the dunes below after eating just as the sun was setting. It was very windy and heavy fog had rolled in, but I had never seen anything like it—I felt like time had stopped and we were in some sort of liminal space or a desert on a different planet.

Yesterday, we were given a tour of the engine rooms and it was incredible to see such massive equipment (even though I didn’t understand the functions of most of it). We learned that the reason why the ship is kept so cold is for the “comfort of the computers”, rather than the comfort of the passengers, but it’s nothing a few layers and a sweatshirt can’t fix. We were also able to sit out on the bow and soak up the sun for a while, which was much needed as our bunks are down below deck.

As gorgeous as it is here at port, there’s been some severe wind out where we’re supposed to be heading, so we’ll stay near the coast for now until it settles down. I’m most excited to see Jason in action and help log observations during my watch, which is from 4-8 am and 4-8 pm each day. In my lab group at Queens College in New York, we’ve recorded observations on footage collected in past years, but I imagine it will be much different in real time. The project that I’m working on is centered around the 3D Thermistor Array, which is an instrument used to map the temperatures of the surrounding water over time. I’m hoping to see the instrument in action during one of the dives and talk to some of the scientists onboard who have had experience working with the data it collects. Overall, I’m very excited to get out into the ocean and I’m incredibly thankful that I get to be a part of this expedition.