Discovering a Life at Sea and Peace

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Inside the ROV Jason control van working at the International District hydrothermal field, nearly a mile beneath the surface. Credit. S. Karaduzovic, University of Washington.
Steve Karaduzovic onboard the R/V Thompson during the NSF-funded Regional Cabled Array Expedition. Credit: University of Washington.

My last cruise gave me an idea of what it is like to have a hands-on experience and be involved with science at sea. I knew from my last cruise I needed to be out again. There has been roughly a year gap between Pythias Oasis 2019 and VISIONS’20. During that gap, I felt drained, I felt as if something was missing in my life. I got back home from the Pythias expedition and back into the routine of school/work and became emotionally drained. Something about the monotony of day to day repetition on land just does not feel “right” anymore. All it took was two days aboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson for the NSF-funded OOI RCA VISIONS’20 expedition and that drained feeling turned into invigoration. I felt recharged, energized…. I felt motivated, and I also felt at peace. Peace is somewhat of an ironic word to use considering the semi-chaos that comes with working on a skeleton crew science party amid a pandemic, but that feeling…. of being centered is something I missed and was happy to feel again.

The R/V Thompson begins its transit out to sea with a full set of RCA infrastructure to be turned during the 30-day expedition. Credit: M. Elend, University of Washington.

Going to sea is a surreal experience…. going to sea while a global pandemic is ongoing…. even more surreal. There are a few safety precautions that needed to be taken to ensure people boarding were COVID negative. First, preliminary COVID testing at the UW dock. A PCR test, and blood test. After testing, isolation for 2 weeks (which is truthfully amazing when you have a nice view of Yaquina bay). In my scenario, my initial test at the UW dock came back inconclusive on 2/3 tests ran. I was required to go through 2 more rounds of testing throughout my isolation period. After having a swab jammed into my sinus’s 3 times in a 2-week period, I got my results back as negative and was cleared to board.

Steve cleans an osmotic fluid sampler installed for a year on the seafloor. Credit: University of Washington, V20.

Mobilization (Mobe) days are insane on a ship. The movement of cranes, baskets, boxes, shipping containers, bags, and cases can be overwhelming if you are just getting on the ship for the first time. “Lift things up and put them down” is the quote I like to refer to when Mobing. You can expect a certain level of chaos on day 1, but when your chief scientist informs you that you are working on a skeleton crew, a new type of ordered chaos begins. My last cruise encompassed 12-hour watches (shifts). I came into this cruise expecting to be working for 12 hours a day. Remember that chaos I referred to in the last paragraph? Here’s where chaos sets in. 12 hours becomes 15 hours very fast. 15 turns into 18 even faster. Sleep deprivation is a constant factor but staying vigilant and looking out for the safety of everyone you are working with is priority. Everyone pulls as much weight as they can, and where people can’t pull, we all help out to pull together. This is one aspect of ship life that I admire and love. Collectivism. This mindset is an absolute must out here for the completion of work but more importantly survival. This contrasts drastically from where I was, where an individualistic mindset is more pronounced. For this cruise, my watch has been 1200-0400 (Noon-4 am) with being woken up as needed. I was happy to be able to help out wherever and whenever help was needed. Most people would shutter thinking about a 16-hour workday, but myself? I would not trade that for anything in the world. As far as I’m concerned, that’s 16 hours to potentially learn new information, and skills (which I did learn!).

Steve samples ocean water taken during the RCA cruise for chlorophyll (a green photosynthetic pigment) analyses. Credit: M. Elend, University of Washington.

You learn a lot about yourself out at sea. I described a 16-hour workday in the previous paragraph. In those hours working, I had time to reflect on myself as a person and on the work, that is being done out here. When you think about embedded energy involved with food, they teach you how to calculate the actual cost of the burger on your plate. Think about the embedded energy involved with getting an ROV (remote operated vehicle) to the bottom of the ocean. Think about the amount of human ingenuity and time invested in getting “us” to this point. The point where we can conduct scientific expeditions using these amazing instruments and machines. At a certain point, I found myself in awe of everything. The engineering, the science, the nature, the spirituality involved with this type of work is a completely different side to life. Science itself is spiritual. The nature of science may be clear cut on paper, but being out here has reinforced that, I am engaging with a dynamic process of logic-based decisions using the data and methods developed over hundreds of years. That is just one of the many spiritual aspects of being out here. If you do come out, remember… it’s science all right……but there’s more to it than just work.

Under gentle seas, the sun sets during the VISIONS’20 expedition. Credit: K. Gonzalez, University of Washington.

At times you will feel as if you do not know what is happening or how it is going to happen, and that’s true. This experience is something you may have never had before. Flying out to the west coast, loading a bunch of your own gear plus the gear of the team you work with, being around loud cranes, generators, vehicles, hearing acronyms and initialisms that sound like a foreign language, assembling instruments, logging ROV events on camera… it can be overwhelming at times… but, you will have one of the most unique experiences you could have in a life time. On my first cruise, I cried when I saw the ocean floor. That feeling of awe and connection was just as pronounced when I saw the hydrothermal vents throughout Axial Seamount.

Being able to see these places in their magnificent natural setting…. having my eyes and hands on science. That is what it is about. Having my hands-on science in such a unique way that does not even compare to classroom learning. I will give one piece of advice that someone dear to me had once told me, “If you have the opportunity and time to do it, take it. You may never have that type of opportunity or the time ever again”.

  • Steve Karaduzovic