When I woke up this morning, for once, there wasn’t a dive going on – but I was told one was going to start shortly after 4 AM. AKA: time for a cup of coffee. Or two. I feel like the 6 hours of sleep every day is finally starting to catch up to me, because I feel exhausted as heck. I am in constant admiration of my cohorts that can lay down for an hour and powernap – that’s definitely something I’m not so great at, and tiny bursts of sleep usually lead me to feel even more exhausted afterward. I suppose it’s my own fault for not napping during the day, but I think I would much rather work 8 hours straight and have 16 off than this 4 on, 8 off thing.
The chimneys that I had mentioned yesterday were pretty cool to see – we’ve been getting lots of 4K videos of them, which I’m sure will be posted on the Interactive Oceans website. In comparison to the other dives that have been flat seafloor or pillow basalts, it provides an occasional burst of excitement here and there – and … color?
Most of my afternoon, up until the 16:00 shift, was spent helping a few others on deck offload the equipment that came up in my AM dive.
This instrument called a “RAS” (remote access fluid sampler), holds 48 canisters filled with different vents fluid and gas. It had been deployed at the Tiny Tower site since last year (if not the year before), next to the hydrothermal vents. There was a plastic bag inside each tube – and a a lot of filters and tubing, so that only certain components could get in.
Each canister was opened, the bagged samples were taken out, and the fluid was checked for color… as well as scent, to see how much like sulfur they smelled. Yes indeed, it was a full-on rotten egg smell at 11 AM. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the unfortunate soul who had to do the sniff-test (sorry, Andrew), but on the plus side, out of 48 samples, very few of them smelled.. Sniffing containers to see if they smell sulfuric or not certainly doesn’t seem scientific by any means but if the samples smell like sulfur, it means they are rich in hydrothermal fluids.
The samples will later be processed and analyzed. My job today was just to get them out of the canisters and into bottles, which were then placed into the fridge.
Another set of canisters came up full of what hopefully contains microbial samples, but we have yet to go through those to prepare them for analyzing. Interestingly, the original water samples had a few white splotches in some of them, and tiny floating bits – which made it seem like some bacteria perhaps might have gotten through the filters, even though that was not the intention for those water sample canisters. Perhaps it bodes well for the other containers that were actually meant to capture bacteria?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do much of the processing, as it was time for a dive at the start of my 16:00 shift – so, into the control van I went. More cables were moved around and rearranged, and some equipment deployed last year was brought up – and then it was time for an hour of blue as Jason once more ascended.
The next dive wasn’t scheduled until 20:00, which is when my shift ended, but I was asked to stay awake until then anyway – I have to say, the exhaustion is definitely building on me, and lately I look forward to the end of my second shift so I can get some sleep before the rinse and repeat.
There were some serious ‘déjà vu; I’ve just been in this place before’ vibes this morning when I woke up. Upon arriving in the van at 4 AM, once again I took over during the middle of a Jason ascent. It takes an hour for Jason to come up from 1500 m water depth and once the ROV was on deck, it a new junction box was latched in beneath the ROV to be taken back down and switched out with an older one.
Jason was only on deck for a handful of minutes, and the next dive started immediately after – which meant another hour of blue as the ROV once more descended into the depths of Axial in the early hours of the morning.
This time, though – there was a twist! — literally; cables had to be unplugged from an J box, and it kind-of looked like cord spaghetti on the seafloor. It was a delicate dance of mechanical maneuvering to get old cables plugged into the new junction box. When all that was said and done, the final dive in the Central Caldera site was finished – and it was time for a quick transit to the ASHES field, where we’d be able to see some hydrothermal vents.
At 12:30, we were treated to a tour of the bridge on the top deck. And, let me just say – the bridge was awesome. Seeing the horizon from that high up is something else – it’s majestic and inspiring, even if said horizon was coated in a blanket of fog. I would definitely sleep up there if I could, though I’m told the rocking from the ship is more noticeable the higher up you go. I’m not sure how true that is, as the rocking in good ol’ Room 17 is insane when the waves are rough, to the point of feeling like you’re levitating off the bed. At any rate –
There were a ton of panels aligned with a myriad of buttons, but we went through each on the grand tour to learn what their functions were. For example, one of the panels controls the dynamic positioning, which allows the ship to hold its alignment… this is extremely important for a Jason dive, because you wouldn’t want the ship to drift all over the place while Jason is swimming down below… or if he’s coming back up.
Speaking of Jason – they have these cool purple tubes that serve as levelers, basically, to make sure both parts of the ship are equally balanced. Because Jason (and the cranes) weigh so much, they have to put extra weight on the opposite side to keep the ship stable. This is done by filling up empty tanks on the lighter side of the ship with fluids.
I thought it was cool that they keep ye olde fashioned paper charts and star charts, even though everything is more or less electronic nowadays, and therefore the paper is unnecessary. The idea behind doing so was that if electronics fail, they have something else to go to. My thought, of course, is that if electronic systems fail, we’ll probably have much bigger problems related to the functionality of the boat (such as getting it to go in the first place).
The engine room tour led me to believe that 99% of it is run off electronics, though I suppose a system or two could go down from some unforeseen error at any time, unrelated to the other systems on the ship.
Shortly after, it was my time to get to work. At the first dive at the hydrothermal field called ASHES, which happened during my last shift from 16:00 to 20:00, I was finally able to see some of the stereotypical “hot spring” things – tubeworms, vents, and smoke. It’s always a little weird to me to think about the fact that we are literally on top of an active volcano right now. Granted, we’re 1500 m above the caldera, and it’s not like we’d be sent flying up into the air if it did erupt – but still!
It was neat to see the distortion of water where the high temperature fluids were coming up through the vents, and what appeared to be tiny "flames" spewing where they were the hottest. Underwater flames. Well, after I go to bed, we’ll be off to the International District for more equipment replacement and more smokers!
I awoke at 3, as per usual, to head out to the control van, as the noises from the winch in the night were a telltale sign that a dive was taking place, and I was needed.
The seas today are incredibly calm, which hopefully alleviates some of the seasickness that my cohorts are all facing – at least until our next transit.
When I arrived into the control van, though, it turned into a two-and-a-half-hour ordeal of waiting for Jason to rise to the surface after grabbing onto the a Deep Profiler vehicle installed in 2020, that was coming out, like some kind of crazy claw-machine game. The depth read well over 2500 meters, and for some reason, I wasn’t expecting it to take hours for the thing to come back to the surface. It did.
I was staring at an empty blue screen just waiting (and praying) something exciting would happen, as I was SO ready to log videos and snag screenshots just in case. I didn’t have any such luck, but I did learn that the tiff grabber, an application that takes screen shots from the video feed, has something of a delay on it – so unless something hangs out in front of the camera for a good long while, you’re probably going to miss it. There surely is an art to it that I’ve yet to master, like just about everything.
Afterwards, I snagged some breakfast and decided to stay up for the day – since my project involves information obtained from Axial. I’m logging it all as it comes in, adding biological events to my own spreadsheet with dive numbers and time stamps. From there, I can retroactively go back and find video feeds linking to the events – and, hopefully, I’ll be able to grab some high-def pictures to update the catalog. All of these things can be done from home, so there isn’t much of a scramble or time crunch to do them now – it just gives me something to look at that helps pass the time.
There’s already at least one species that can be added to the website, so I’d say that’s progress!
Nonetheless, most of the day was spent in the van watching the next dive – I didn’t have much else to do and chewed through my data cap, as we’re limited on bandwidth – so internet was more-or-less off the table. Note to self: turn auto-updates off before connecting back to the internet.
I did hop into the van to provide relief to those who needed it, whenever they needed it – since I was just floating anyway. And, really – though the seats aren’t the most comfortable thing in the world, I don’t mind hanging out in the van reading or playing a game while watching the feed. It’s cool (and a little surreal, to be honest) to know that everything that’s going on is happening right under you.
Jason had some difficulties on that dive – an undervator (basically an underwater platform that carries things to and from the seafloor) was dropped, as the winch wire broke away unexpectedly – something that I’ve been told has never happened before. After being brought to the surface, both things were repaired, and Jason made the dive down again to retrieve the lost undervator (a tale which I called ‘Jason’s redemption arc’). The dive started during my shift, so it was another hour of blue screens until I was finished – the end of my day was very reminiscent of the beginning, only it was going in the opposite direction. At least there was some music this time – I could have done without the Frozen soundtrack, to be honest, but Take on Me is too good of a musical masterpiece to not appreciate!
After my last shift from 16:00-20:00, I’ll catch some much-needed z’s after being awake for 17 hours – I won’t get to see the epic retrieval, but I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the AM! You got this, Jason!
August 26: Chemistry scramble! … and the Engine Room.
For some reason, this is the second night of me waking up literally every hour. I’m not sure why, because the bed itself is quite comfortable – maybe my body is still confused and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Where am I? What am I doing? Who am I? — I think I know that last one. (?)
Anyway, 3 AM for me – I got dressed and headed out early for my 4 AM shift. I found myself in the wet lab, and then on deck, because the CTD had just come up and out of the water. From my extremely limited knowledge, the TL;dr of the CTD is that it’s a device with a bunch of open cannisters (Niskin bottles) that go down into the water. When they begin to recover the CTD, they pause at varying heights, and close off different bottles along the way to ‘grab’ water samples at different water depths … which they then analyze for numerous things.
My morning began with taking copious samples in bottles of assorted shapes and sizes for different things. Measuring carbon, CO2, chlorophyll, and oxygen – the process was more-or-less the same for each. Fill a bottle three times, rinse it, dump it out – then fill it again, cap it, and move on to the next. At the very end, we opened all the Niskin bottles in their entirety, as we no longer needed the water, and flooded the deck in the world’s tiniest tidal wave. I was told to put on some higher/longer rubber boots (to which I said “nah, I’ll be fine, it’s just water”) – but the amazing chemist leading us through the process (Julie!) insisted otherwise. And – let me tell you, I’m glad I did, because even with her boots, it was still a crazy wet mess!
After all that was said and done, I was struggling to keep my eyes open – so after scarfing down some breakfast, I took a nap until about noon. I totally missed lunch (RIP – the food is always 10/10), but the sleep was helpful – I get the feeling it’s going to be cattywampus while I’m out, but I can make do! The good news is, my project has been solidified thanks to some help from the biologist (who isn’t currently on board) – Mike Vardaro. I’ll be doing a fish population diversity study at the Axial sites, comparing data and species from this year to what’s historically been seen in the past. Additionally, the biology catalogue on the website could use some updating, so I’ll be tackling that as well as I parse through older entries from previous dives. I am a ‘fishy’ person, so I’m glad to be able to work on something fish-related, and I’m happy to up my fish ID game. (Shout out to my amazing coworkers/colleagues at the UW Fish Collection!)
The majority of my afternoon was spent learning about titration, an analytical process used on the water samples collected earlier this morning to determine the levels of oxygen in each sample. With an amazing teacher (Julie!) – I learned what it’s like to do chemistry in an extremely uneven work environment- which, I must say, beats the heck out of remote Zoom learning, that’s for sure. To go from 0% hands on, to lab experiments on a rocking vessel — is truly the epitome of hard mode.
A few of us practiced the techniques on distilled water… in a button mashing frenzy of adding another chemical to the solution until it was pale yellow, starch was added at long last to turn the solution blue – and then more button mashing (as it was set to dispense a VERY small amount of chemical at a time) ensued to turn the solution clear. That’s when it was ‘done’. It’s a good thing I grew up playing Mario Party games. I’d like to think of myself as something of a button mashing pro.
Finally, to wrap up the day – a quick tour of the engine room! It was a tour for only two of the students, myself and one other who had also been on Leg 3, as the other four were all down for the count with gnarly seasickness.
The ocean has been rough the entire day – sustained rolls that rock your entire body, and make you feel like you’re levitating like some kind of wizard each time the boat goes bouncing. Those crashing waves that make Room 17, which is plastered up against the side of the ship, sound like a T-rex is drawing near with every thunderous shake of each approaching wave. Fortunately, noise aside – I’m not sure if it’s the Dramamine or not, but I’ve been perfectly fine. I’ve learned if you allow your body to move with the waves instead of fighting it, you find this kind of comfortable rhythm to sway back and forth. No idea if that actually helps – it also sounds cooler in my head. But, I digress.
The engine room was neat, if, as expected, noisy. Spinning turbines and pipes and buttons galore – one factoid that struck me as interesting in particular, was that there are really strong UV lights that sort-of ‘filter’ the water that comes in, killing any microorganisms that may be present. This prevents inadvertently dragging any kind of invasive species where it shouldn’t be. I had no idea! Anything to prevent invasive species is A+ in my book – prevention is ALWAYS better than intervention.
And — that was my day. We’re scheduled to arrive at Axial Base some time after 20:00 – which would be the end of my shift, but with everyone missing, I’ve volunteered myself to take over as many shifts as necessary. The others definitely need their rest, and I don’t mind burning the midnight oil! For science!
First thing’s first – I woke up bright and early at 6:30 AM, and popped a Dramamine. I usually try to take as little medication as possible, so I looked for the natural kind – and found out literally the only ingredient is ginger. A LOT of ginger, but ginger nonetheless. Breakfast was booming in the kitchen – all the meals thus far have been fantastic. Props to the hardworking culinary team!
After that, and a brief glance at the board to see what was going to happen today, it was safety meeting time. I am now fairly convinced if something happens, I’m out of luck should I be left on my own. I’m not sure what’s worse – the struggles of putting the fitted sheet on the bed with no space to work in, or trying to put on an immersion suit. I don’t know if mine was just too big, or if I’m completely incompetent (or perhaps a little of column A and B) – but I had a bad time.
Lay it out, stick your legs in – stand up (easier said than done) – and then pull on your non-dominant hand. Then, you stick in your dominant arm, and use your newfound bright-red crab pinchers to tug the zipper closed… and by ‘closed’ – I really mean ‘closed’ – all the way up to your eyes. Mine went a little beyond them. Claustrophobia started to sink in as I struggled to take it OFF – a challenge far worse than putting the thing on. The final boss, if you will. Alas, I eventually made it to sweet freedom – though I needed assistance reaching the zipper. The panic attack crisis was averted.
Shortly after that, we were introduced to Jason. Let me tell you about Jason – he’s an ROV designed to do all kinds of operations, mostly related to the infrastructure of the cable array – as well as scientific sampling.
He has a multitude of attachments for various tasks (including moveable arms!), he can bring in specimens – he has tons of cameras – he can lift 4000 pounds – and they say there is no such thing as a man who can ‘do it all’!
After that was done, I received my schedule – seems I’ll be working the 4-8 shift both AM and PM. I worked as a pastry chef with shifts starting at 4, so (in theory) it shouldn’t be much of a problem. The only foreseeable obstacle with a 4 on, 8 off, is that you’re never going to get a full 8 hours of sleep – and I usually take a bit to wind down before zonking out. My first thoughts immediately are that sleep may be a bit difficult to obtain – and now I know why there are many cans of Redbull scattered around.
Finally, it was time to set sail – so, that natural Dramamine I took earlier? I started feeling a little woozy the moment I came inside.
When it started getting a worse, I decided maybe natural “just ginger” Dramamine isn’t for me – and instead switched to a regular Dramamine at about 16:30. Making trips outside was a blessing – being able to hang out on deck even though you’re probably just burning your retinas staring at the sun on the horizon was really nice and relaxing. I wanted to stay out there as long as possible; eyes on the horizon was a blessing, to be sure, to quell the seasickness — but, alas – duty called!
The first operation was scheduled for 19:00 – an hour before I’m off the watch schedule. I was good to go, but there were some minor difficulties in regards to Jason at first launch, being weighted properly to support the DP (or the ‘Deep Profiler’) it was carrying. I was able to log ‘off deck’ ‘in water’ ‘out of water’ ‘on deck’, and that was about it before my shift ended – before the dive they needed to pull the vehicle out to add more weight so that the operation would go more smoothly. Though I am tempted to stay awake to watch the dive, if I don’t make an attempt to correct my sleep, I’ll absolutely regret it later – so — time for sleep!
August 24: Arrival at Newport —
After spending well over four hours on the road from the UW campus in Seattle, we finally arrived in Newport, OR, sore and stiff like overcooked beef jerky … but considerably less salty. It was a trip comprised of great company, with awesome (and informative) conversation exchanged along the way. Honestly, it felt like the hours flew past, though admittedly the early afternoon was something of a struggle without a second (or third) cup of caffeinated goodness to power me through.
Finally, we arrived at the boat at around 13:30 – the R/V Thompson – and the first thing I did was check out my berthing to toss my heavy trio of minty-hued bags into my cabin. (Tiny stairways + copious bags = a strong desire to punt a bag down the steps and scoop it up along the way, for the record.)
This just made me laugh. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not wood and rope. This looks like some kind-of questionable, crazy Indiana Jones-esque contraption. Through it over the side and jump out!
When I made it to good ol’ Room 17, the gods had decided I was fated to hold the top bunk. It was then that I learned what real torture is like – attempting to put a fitted sheet on a mattress up high with about two feet of clearance overhead, in an awkward squat-crawl. There seems to be a trick to putting the last two corners on without the first two unfurling, but it is not a skill I am versed in, it turns out.
There is nothing on the agenda until tomorrow morning – breakfast at 7:30 AM, and a safety meeting at 8:15. From there, I’m sure jobs/roles/expectations/etc. will become a lot clearer. The boat leaves at 15:15. I’ve been told to take Dramamine first thing in the morning BEFORE the ship leaves, and from there .. it’s a matter of hoping for the best, and trying not to psycho-somatically trick myself into feeling worse than I actually do.
I spent the rest of my day wandering around the ship a bit, meeting new faces – sharing company on the deck – and then made a swift retreat below-decks, as I was feeling exhausted from a day of travel after getting up early. And now — time for sleep! I at least have a companion here to join me on the way – in the form of a little fuzzy black cat. Until next time!