A Shifting Perspective

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Guest log by Katie Bigham, University of Washington, Cabled Array Team.

"Once we're on station we'll dive to unplug and recover the mooring. We won’t need the winch or crane until they start the deck ops"

The confidence with which I said that doesn’t surprise me until much later, when I'm lying in my bunk trying to sleep as thoughts about this blog rattle around my brain. “How has your perspective changed? That would make an interesting blog.” That’s the question that sparked this writing and it is a fair one to ask. This is my 5th Visions cruise, the 4th one I've been on for the entire trip. That's 164 days at sea. I've sailed as a first-time student, a returning student, the only student, a recent graduate, and now a full-time employee. With each of these iterations has come a shifting of perspective, and though it has been a slow and subtle shift, it is one that when reflected on has been substantial.

The most obvious change is simply knowledge. When I first sailed in 2014 I was mystified by the complex code of acronyms, shorthand, and ship speak being bandied about. Now I've been around the ship and project for long enough that I've become fluent in the unique language that the Cabled Array team uses. I know the difference between the “SCIP” and the “PIC” and that they’re the same thing as the “SPA” and the “PIA”. I know to how to “dog” the door and when to go “forward”’ or “aft”. It’s one of the first things I advise new students to do: learn the lingo. Beyond just the language, I’ve accumulated a wealth of varied knowledge. I know transit times and can estimate lengths of dives on the fly. I can identify a plethora of animals, some by scientific names and others by their affectionate nicknames. With this knowledge comes the confidence to not only advise a student about what might be happening next, but also to advise the bridge or ROV team as well. Not with parroted phrases someone told me before they went to bed, either, but with my own words and understanding of our plans.

The actually most obvious change is that I'm not a student anymore. I don’t stumble around lost and overwhelmed by the ship’s passages or get overwhelmed by the constantly changing schedule. All of which I'm grateful for, but I also don’t have the giddy excitement and boundless energy that I see leg after leg from the newcomers. And isn’t that the rub, that every two weeks or so I get a new reminder of how much I've changed with each new batch of students that comes aboard. I remember people telling me how infectious our enthusiasm was when I first sailed, and now I'm the same way. Seeing a whale is cool, but seeing a whale while a student grins giddily next to you is much better. It's a reminder of how awe inspiring a life I have begun to see as commonplace truly is.

And maybe that's the heart of it right there. I've been out here 40 days this year. It's all become routine. Ship life breeds routine, and this project more than others. We go to the same sites each year, deploy the same equipment, collect the same samples. If we don’t see something or document something just so, it's fine; we'll be back next year. It's a worn groove that my body fits back into easier and easier each year. Almost like the divot in my mattress. I know how to ward off the unpleasantness of transiting, my stomach growls at 4:45 PM because it already knows dinner is around the corner, and I don’t worry about packing the right gear because I know what I'll need.

So why do I still come out here? That is something I've asked myself a lot this leg, even before writing this blog. The answer isn’t simple and I’m still not sure I know it, but even though nothing compares to the first time I saw a hydrothermal vent or saw my first sunset on the open ocean, I'm still captivated when we dive at Axial or when I spend a quiet evening watching the sky change colors. The hours are long, but my better understanding of what we're doing and why it's important makes it that much more satisfying. The long hours I’ve already put in also open the door to more opportunities. I led my first full dive this year. While it didn’t leave me as giddy as the first time I sat in the hot seat in 2015, the warm satisfaction I felt after finishing a long job made me certain I wanted to continue this work. It isn’t an answer, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. Each year and new perspective takes me further away from the sea-struck student I was and closer to the confident oceanographer I hope to be. I love what I do, not just when its novel and extraordinary, but even when it's been 40 days and we're transiting again and all I really want to do is be asleep in my bed at home. Because even when I'm feeling like that, I know I'll be back out here next year.