August 14-15: Busiest of Days
These past two days have been my busiest of all the cruise, but they’ve also been some of the most fun due to all the new skills I’ve learned and things I’ve gotten to try for the first time. On Saturday I got to learn how, and help with rigging the instruments that measure flow of fluids into the seafloor out out of it (FLOBN-C, FLOBN-M) and a time-series fluid sampler (OSMO). These uncabled instruments where placed in the "undervator" for their dive so that ROV Jason could deploy them easily and without issue at Southern Hydrate Ridge.
It all initially felt like a return to my roots with all the rigging and knots used to make sure the instruments are all tied down to the frame so that even ones like the cat, (Chemical Aqueous Tracer), with its large frame won’t catch the water on the way down and get jostled, disturbing, and possibly damaging the delicate components.
A lot of the knots were ones I were already familiar with, such as square knots, sheet bends, clove hitches, etc. But one of the new ones I learned that I really like was the trucker’s hitch. Its essentially just a loop that you pull the bitter end of the line through to take out the tension, which can then be pinched at that junction and using half hitches tied off without losing any line in the process. At that point all you need to rig is the pull pin with two loops on either side and you’re ready to deploy. That was where all the splicing came into play, as I learned how to make the pull pin cords that Jason needs to remove instruments from the undervator for deployment.
You essentially take a three-strand polypropylene line and unbraid it before re-braiding it into a continuous loop which you can then weave a weight, (usually a washer or nut), as well as pull pins on. Once you do that, if you throw a few wax twine whippings on, you are ready to go. When made correctly and used right, these little pull rings will float for the ROV to grab onto and when pulled will ultimately release the knot. I just thought it was all neat.
Besides that, during my down time on that day I also practiced a lot of my decorative knots. I tried to re-learn how to eye splice, (which is still very much a work in progress), but I managed to make a new sailor’s turkshead bracelet, as well as a few monkeys fist, so I was well occupied that entire day.
When the time came to deploy for the dive, everything went down in the undervator and went perfectly without a hitch, (get it). At the end of the dive, I felt very accomplished as not only had I learned a good bit, but I also managed to help get a few instruments to the seafloor, one of which had an electrical tape cat face on it.
The next day for me began with a dive to recover the low-voltage junction box LV01A, which was routine, although there were also a few spectacular siphonophores scattered throughout the water column during the ascent back to the ship. These are a unique group of colonial hydrozoans that while they are functionally one animal, are comprised of thousands of smaller organisms called zooids each with a specialized function to keep the colony going. Autozooids are involved in feeding and digestive functions while gonadozooids will as the name suggests serve reproductive functions. Some members of the colony will serve as little floats to keep the colony oriented; some will form jet propulsion with swimming bells called nectophores, and others will be nothing more than glorified cnidocytes or stinging cells that defend the colony and help capture prey. The list goes on which is part of the reason why they’re spectacular animals both internally, and visually as they can come in all shapes and sizes with some such as Apolemia being one of the most alien looking organisms on the planet which is characteristic of deep-sea biology.
But that wasn’t even the highlight of that day. On our transit to Pythias Oasis, we were lucky enough to witness an orca hunt! This was one of those things that make you shake a little with excitement because almost no one will ever get to see something like this in their lifetimes. The pod of orcas was split into two groups and was sandwiching a fin whale in between the two groups as they closed in. They were frighteningly fast and at some points would physically lay on top of the fin whale to drown it. All in all the entire ordeal lasted around 15 minutes before the group swam out of sight, but that was definitely the highlight of my cruise so far and I can’t wait to see what will show up in the days to come.
August 13: Visiting Underwater Sheep
Today was ‘sheep day’, which has lived in my mind with both excitement and dread since day one of the first leg. Named for its appearance, the “sheep” is also known as MJ01C and is one of two remaining junction boxes from the original infrastructure of the Regional Cabled Array.
It has been installed on the cable since 2014, making it seven years old, which is a bit mind boggling when compared to the yearly turnover that many of the instruments on the array get with each maintenance cruise.
As I woke up for watch and headed for the control van, glancing at the readout for J2-1360, I was shocked when I came face to face with this cabled monstrosity. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but what stood before me in the video feed was a junction box, (which are massive by the way), only except there was no junction box visible.
The only thing that could be seen was this white mass of goop and slime that only upon close inspection reveals itself to be Metridium farcimen or as hundreds of Plumose anemones as they are commonly known. These are some of the largest anemones in the Pacific Northwest and are commonly found in subtidal areas of the Puget Sound usually on dock pilings and other hard surfaces.
They are simple animals, with nothing but a muscular foot to grasp the substrate, a mouth, tentacles, and most of the body being comprised of a star-shaped gastrovascular cavity with walls branching inward to expand the surface area. Despite this relatively simple nature they are incredibly beautiful to stare at for hours on end, (which I found myself doing a lot today), with a long white stalk supporting a large frill of fine tentacles which allow the anemone to suspension feed by capturing particulates in the current using cnidocytes or stinging cells.
However, despite being very pretty, the anemones certainly proved a challenge in the recovery and swapping of the junction box. Anemones such as Metridium sp. are broadcast spawners, meaning young often settle randomly in the substrate and in an area like the 80-m site where MJ01C is found it should be no surprise that a large hard-surface like a junction box would become a favorite of the local populations. However, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen just how thick the literal carpet of organisms was, as the nematocysts the Metridium released alone were enough to cause issues with the latches when Jason attempted to dock with the junction box to relocate it to the recovery position. But with some robotic-elbow grease and many broken toilet brushes, eventually the junction box was “clean” enough to be transported back to the deck of the ship where the students of the science party had the inglorious task of using paint scrapers and a hose to “evict” the residents of the junction box.
All in all I’m ready to move away from the nearshore site, (despite the fact that I get cell-service), and steam back towards the open ocean where we can get back into the deep ocean where I can be free of the giant plumose anemones for now.
August 10: On to Leg 2
Today marks the first day of Leg two and it certainly has a different feeling to it than the first one. We departed around 1500 from Newport after finishing up preparations and tie downs for all the new scientific equipment that was brought on board – both for this leg and the next two. We then began our steam out of Newport Harbor to the tune of pelican calls, sea lions, and fishing boats zipping back and forth.
Our transit to the work site, while it certainly could have been worse, was not in the best of conditions, as we were met with a heavy fog wall and high winds, all while the waves picked up to about 5-8 ft as soon as we crossed the bar.
After about 5 hours, our rocky transit was finally finished, and we arrived at the operation site where the recovery of Primary Node 1B would begin along side the massive cable ship the I.T. Integrity, that arrived before us.
As the cable ship continued its work, during the down time, some of the other students and I got a chance to relax and play some board games before the real work starts up again and that same time will probably be spent sleeping.
A quick tour of the ROV Jason and the control van shortly after was graced by a lone humpback whale fully breaching out of the water as if it was showing off for us, which is always a pleasant way to kick off any operation if you ask me.
And with that, at approximately 2000 the first dive, J2-1354 at Primary Node 1B began to assist the cable ship with the recovery.
The ROV was launched and began its decent of approximately 1200 m to the seafloor. On the way down, a bloom of jellies and siphonophores nearly blocked out the camera before disappearing back into the water column, and those fleeting moments of strange events occurring are always my favorites personally.
Once on the seafloor, Jason located the frame used to recovery PN1B and towed the recovery line before attaching it to the bridle on the node. A quick check of the tow cable confirmed that everything was in order before the Thompson was positioned for recovery and all clear signal was given to the cable ship so that they could begin their side of the operation.
All in all, I feel much more at home on the Thompson everyday and am still always looking forward to seeing what the next day of ops will bring and all I will be able to learn while on this trip.
August 9: Leg 1 Comes to an End – What an Experience
It’s been a bit since my last blog. I’m not exactly the best at writing them so this probably won’t be worth the wait, but that also doesn’t mean that over the past Leg I haven’t learned an enormous amount from the Regional Cabled Array teams, (as well as a few tips and tricks from the ship’s crew as well). For one, when the ROV Jason recovered the science interface assembly from the primary node PN1B, an enormous amount of deep-sea marine life came with it. It was an amazing experience to see as everything from spider crabs, tube worms, and scallops came with it making this dive alone worth the trip as almost no one in their lifetimes will ever get to see and handle these organisms firsthand. In addition, a 10 cm deep-sea snail came up with the node as well, yet despite the barotrauma the organism was still in remarkable condition.
Rachel then taught me how to preserve and clean the shell which was a ton of fun as it makes you feel like one of the original deep-sea oceanographers who were pulling new species up with every trawl and were desperately trying to preserve them. The entire process took about three days.
First Rachel explained that because of the barotrauma that the animal experienced upon surfacing with the primary node, we needed to put it in the -80 freezer in the main lab and let it rest for 24 hours to cause the body of the mollusk to shrink and break down the tissue connecting it to the shell.
From there it was placed in the cold room so that it could thaw at a controlled rate without cracking the shell and then it was finally running under room-temperature water. At this point using a pair of tweezers the entire body of the snail could be teased out of the shell easily leaving both the organism itself and it shell in pristine condition.
Both parts were interesting in their own ways in both what they could tell us about the deep-sea environment as well as about the organism itself and how it lived. The shell compared to intertidal species like Nucella sp. was incredibly thin and delicate, which is apparently due to the lack of nutrients and predators in the deep-sea environment making a thick, heavy shell a waste of energy. In addition, the body of the organism featured a pronounced siphon and reduced eyes, as well as a defined fold in the mantle that all differentiate from shallower-water species and would have gone unnoticed if you couldn’t examine the animal like this.
The deep-sea biology wasn’t the only exciting organism we got to see either. On the surface, throughout the leg, we got to see a huge flock of albatross, (I’m told they always congregate around the ship to be feed off food scraps), and seeing one was a special bucket list item for me ,so to see so many at once was a little bit overwhelming.
We also got to see a four-foot cat shark and a blue shark, both of which are open-ocean, migratory species so again the concept of getting to encounter one of these animals that most people will never get to see in their lives was a little bit jarring and wonderful at the same time.
It doesn’t end there either. The first leg alone was an utter dream for any marine biologist, as in addition to all the marine life we already saw a Mola mola or oceanic sunfish. The massive fish have pronounced dorsal and anal fins that they move side to side to move slowly near the surface of the water column. They feed on small fish, squid, crustaceans, and jellies and are also known to surface near seabirds to have them consume the parasites off their bodies.
I was also informed by the Chief Scientist Mike Vardaro that when startled this normally docile fish can swim fast, which is quite a terrifying though if we’re being perfectly honest. Finally, I also had the opportunity to observe a pod of humpback whales for the first time and we got to see one full breach during transit which made me ecstatic for the entirety of that day.
And while the all the amazing marine life I got to see on the first leg alone would have made the entire trip worth it, learning all about the yearly array/cable maintenance and the work that the Regional Cabled Array does was a fantastic experience.
Everyone on the science team and the ship’s crew are so knowledgeable and friendly that I have yet to have a bad or even mediocre experience with any of them. The marine techs are all incredibly knowledgeable about the deployment and use of the R/V Thompson’s CTD rosette and learning about how it works and how to process water samples from depth was a refreshing shift from the constant boredom and eye pain of online school where I only got to read about how they worked and stare at pictures.
Towards the end of the cruise one of the most exciting dives to participate in was the deployment of the HPIES, a type of inverted sonar that scans the water column and collects data on its properties. After taking a CTD cast to collect data from the same depth that the instrument would rest, the HPIES was deployed simply by lowering it into the water using the ships crane and releasing it into free fall. The instrument then falls through the water column until it hits bottom and while it might sound chaotic, I learned its quite controlled and deliberate. One of the APL engineers I had a chance to talk to explained to me that the legs of the HPIES can be extended before deployment and the structure itself creates a drag through the water column that results in it reaching the sea floor only slightly faster than it takes the ROV Jason to reach the same depth.
And if all that wasn’t enough to convince someone that VISION’s is an incredibly experience for anyone, then all the time you get to spend in the ROV control van for one of the coolest and most advanced pieces of scientific equipment on the plant surely will. All of the Jason team members are incredibly professional, while at the same time more than willing to let students learn about how the ROV functions and is controlled.
The operation requires three separate controllers, one for the rovs thrusters themselves and another two for each of the manipulators. And the manipulators aren’t controlled by joysticks either like you would think. They’re controlled by smaller models of Jason’s manipulators called masters which are synced to the arms on the ROV such that any movement you make with the master is translated perfectly to the ROV no matter how deep it is. This allows the pilots incredibly fluid and precise control during tense operations such as at the 80-meter site where the currents were so strong around the shallow profiler that the ROV team needed to work together to essentially stabilize and climb around the platform so that the vehicle wouldn’t drift away.
And while I might have been panicking in the back of the control van, the pilots, and navigators themselves were incredibly focused and calm and were able to complete the entire operation without issue, (we also got to see a beautiful congregation of crinoids or sea lilies growing on the shallow profiler platform which was exciting for me).
This blog is already getting really long so I better cut it here, but although I was excited to begin with when I got on for the cruise, I am even more so now especially given the fat that I have three more legs to look forward to and learn so much on.