Jenn Willson Blog Leg 1

A stubborn octopus sits on the BEP, patiently waiting for the Jason ROV to finish operations. Credit: J. Wilson, University of Washington, V21.
August 8: One Last Shift

Tonight, I’m staying awake much later than my usual bedtime for the sole purpose of soaking it all in. Just as I’m starting to acclimate to life on the Thompson, we’re heading into Newport and preparing to disembark the ship. But for now, I’m watching one last Jason dive from the back of the control van.

Update—I saw an octopus! He is fearless and insists on staying put while Jason moves parts of the node he’s curled up on. My bucket list of sea creatures to see on the ROV cameras is complete and I’m so thankful I stayed awake to see him sitting on the node. We also confronted a very stubborn sole fish who had decided the hydrophone made a great hang out spot.

Earlier today, Genevieve pointed out a Mola mola fish (sun fish) swimming at the surface about 50 yards from the back of the ship. It was difficult to see with the glare from the sun but still awesome to witness.

During my last watch shift earlier this evening, we didn’t see many new sea creatures on the shallow profiler and instead spent most of the dive fighting against the current which was stronger than predicted. The dive plan seemed relatively straightforward: carry down the PIA and attach it, then, recover the SPA and surface. This plan got more complicated with a strong and inconvenient current blowing Jason out of position for most of the operation. Up to the challenge, the team of Jason pilots persisted in unlatching and relatching various parts of the platform—finally succeeding after over 45 minutes of attempts. That final, relieved cheer when the latch clicks into place has been one of my favorite moments during my time in the control van because everyone can finally take a moment to just breathe and enjoy the small victories.

Awesome sunset in a fog-free sky to end the day. Credit: J. Wilson, University of Washington, V21.

To top off the shift, I stepped out of the van to enjoy a pretty amazing sunset off the port side. Most days, I look out to a sea of fog at sunset so this was an absolute treat!

Tomorrow, the plan is to arrive in Newport after lunch. I’m already setting my alarms to ensure I’m awake while we transit into port because the route to Newport is beautiful when the fog lifts. After we arrive in port, the other students and I will give a short presentation about each of our projects and our plan to complete our work post-cruise. We are all excited to head into Newport for take-out dinner and walk around on land before spending one last night on the ship and leaving Monday morning.

This has truly been one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in a while. I know I’ve said this already and I’ll say it again–after 4 quarters of zoom classes and online labs, I’ve been so happy to finally get a feel for oceanographic research out in the field and to work with the instruments I’ve been learning about for a year and a half. I’m already looking forward to my senior year research cruise and will be actively looking out for any opportunity to come back on board again soon.

Weird fish spotted swimming along the sea floor towards the junction box ~2900 m deep. Credit: J. Wilson, University of Washington, V21.

August 7 – Diving Back Down

The past two days have been busier than usual—but the fulfilling kind of busy. There were a series of Jason dives where the ROV seemed to always be diving back down to the sea floor. Most of my time in the control van yesterday consisted of watching the same blue screens of water and particles whizzing past while Jason either surfaces or descends. It kind of looks like making a jump to hyperspace in Star Wars. In the 2 hours it takes to descend, I can only spot a few fish or jellies but once Jason reaches the instruments, it’s a whole other world.

Anemones, feather stars, crabs, flytrap anemones, sea pigs, urchins, a skate, and something they refer to as “Weird fish” all gather on the nodes and junction boxes. My camera roll is now overflowing with photos of all the interesting sea creatures including a funny video of the Weird Fish bumping into the J box numerous times. The control van debated changing his name to “Dumb Fish” due to his poor navigation skills around the instruments. There were tens of small crabs on the profiler hiding under feather stars and around the anemones.

Anemones sitting on top of the profiler are surrounded by feather stars. Credit: J. Wilson, University of Washington, V21.

I’m hoping to see an octopus or another squid! We captured great video and photos of the suffocated profiler before beginning the more serious operations of transferring cables.  

Before heading back into the control van yesterday afternoon, Genevieve and I assisted Julie in taking samples from the two Niskin bottles attached to Jason. We only took oxygen and salinity samples from these bottles rather than all 5 different samples we’ve done on a CTD cast. I’m looking forward to helping Julie titrate and analyze these samples later today or tomorrow.

We took a short break yesterday to talk with Liz, the steward, about how the galley works and her experience working on the Thompson. As someone who’s worked in the restaurant industry for a few years, I have an incredible appreciation for the amount of planning and organization she does to feed everyone on the ship 3 times a day. To say the food has been amazing is an understatement. Liz makes almost everything from scratch and with fresh ingredients, even on a boat. She loves traveling all around the world on the Thompson and learning new recipes from the places she visits. I’ll miss her cooking when I have to leave in a few days.

Right now, we are transiting to the Oregon Offshore site. The fog is dense this morning so the Thompson is taking it slow and steady. When we arrive, Jason will prep for a series of dives this afternoon to recover the PIA and deploy the SPA. This means more time in the control van today and more opportunities to spot some cool sea creatures. I’ll write an update tomorrow if I see anything cool!

Genevieve and Anabel smile for a quick photo while exploring the back deck in the sun. Credit: J. Willson, University of Washington, V21.

August 5: Time is Flying By

The majority of yesterday was spent transiting to Primary Node PN1B, which took about 20 hours so we arrived a little after midnight. Unlike the first long transit, there were plenty of tasks to fill the time.

A few days ago, Julie, myself, and a few other students collected water samples from the Niskin bottles in the CTD cast to measure dissolved oxygen. We kept the samples organized in a box secured in the Bio-analytical Lab until we had time to process and analyze them. Julie walked us through the steps of titration to measure the amount of dissolved oxygen in each sample.

Since all of the students have been taking our lab classes over Zoom for a year and a half, we were quite rusty with our titration skills in a lab setting but Julie was incredibly patient and taught us exactly how to analyze each sample correctly. Titrations are always fun because the water sample drastically changes colors with just a few mL of solution. Our sample started as a gold, yellow color to which we added starch which turned it to a deep purple, and then clear after the titration—Husky colors! Just a coincidence but go dawgs!

During the afternoon, Rachel helped Genevieve, Andrew, and me hose down some of the recovered instruments out on the back deck. These instruments had been sitting on the sea floor or in the water column for a long time so they were pretty well covered in gunk. We actually had a lot of fun spraying down the frames and scrubbing them.

Like I mentioned before, online school deprived us of the hands-on aspects of oceanography so we’re pretty content helping with anything—even cleaning.

The sun came out briefly, accompanied by some blue skies peaking through the fog. We enjoyed spending time on the deck watching for whale spouts. There were at least 3 humpbacks that swam by but they kept their distance from the ship.

I ended the evening with many rounds of a card game version of Monopoly with Katie in the Bio-Analytical Lab. Right around the time we arrived at PN1B, the Jason team began prepping for the series of dives planned throughout today. I’m looking forward to watching the dives in the Jason van today and helping out with more CTD casts. We’ve seen some sea life during the dives and I’m excited to possibly see some new critters today—maybe a crab or a squid!

I can’t believe it’s already Thursday. The time is flying by so I’m trying my best to soak in all of the amazing parts of this experience before we head into port on Sunday.

These graphs show chlorophyll-a concentration over depth. The peak in the graph is an example of a thin layer—this is what we are hoping to find in our project. This figure is from a paper written by James Sullivan, Percy Donaghay, and Jan Rines titled “Coastal thin layer dynamics: Consequences to Biology and optics” published in 2009.

August 4 -  Thin Layer Identification Project

During the cruise, each student is working on their own projects. Last fall, I learned about a project with Dr. Rob Fatland to observe thin layers with shallow profiler data. I began meeting with Rob and another student, Marie O’Connell, over zoom to discuss the goals of the project and begin to deliniate strategies for gathering more information about thin layers.

Together, we learned that thin layers are aggregations of phytoplankton that sit at about the same depth in the water. They can extend horizontally across many kilometers, but are no thicker than 5 meters. There is little research about them because they are difficult to find, as they can be observed from the surface.  However, with the continuous high-resolution data collected by the Shallow Profilers on the cabled array—we are hoping to identify a few.

Upon boarding the Thompson, I learned that two other students on Leg 1 are also focusing on thin layers for their projects so we’ve spent the past few days combining our accumulated knowledge and creating a plan to work together.  

During this Leg, we are learning more about Shallow Profilers, fluorometers, and CTDs to gain context for the data we will analyze. Our main focus will be on fluorometer data because the chlorophyll-a measurements are a great proxy for the amount of phytoplankton biomass in the water at a certain depth.

I’m interested to see how the other measurements collected by the shallow profiler (dissolved oxygen, salinity, temperature, dissolved inorganic carbon, and nutrients) may change in a thin layer region.

Because there’s so little research about thin layers and they are difficult to find, my goal for this project is to identify the date, time, and location of at least a few thin layers so that future research can explore more about how they might form, when they are most likely to form, and how they effect the rest of the ecosystem—if at all.

After Leg 1, my group and I will meet to complete our project and build an algorithm that will scan through shallow profiler data and output the date, time, and location of qualifying thin layers. I can’t wait to see our final project completed and to see if we can find out new information about thin layers!

A Flytrap Anemone clings to the Sea Cube biological experiment that was deployed on the sea floor in 2020. Credit: J. Willson, University of Washington, V21.
August 4 – An Afternoon in the Van

Most of yesterday involved silently observing the sea floor from the back of the Jason control van. It took about 2 hours for Jason to reach the bottom because it’s descending at 30 meters/min. On the way down, the cameras displayed the same deep blue screens with the occasional blob whizzing by.

At around 2600 meters depth, the seafloor appeared—very brown and murky with tens of small, white sea stars called brittle stars. They like to crawl around the seafloor and can move surprisingly fast. There were a few Flytrap anemones clinging to the cables and Sea Cube (a biological experiment deployed last year), which I’ve never seen before.

During operations, a Sea Pig occasionally wiggled in front of the cameras. Sea Pigs are a type of Sea Cucumber that like to swim above the sea floor—moving in a “S” shape. We also saw a Rat Tail Fish swimming by towards the end of the dive.

A Sea Pig at Axial Seamount: Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/CSSF; V15.

Aside from pointing out every critter on the cables, the Jason dive kept me busy logging each cable connection and instrument recovery as well as capturing key moments on camera.

I’ve really enjoyed listening to the Jason pilots communicating with the scientists and engineers to decide on the best approaches when changing equipment. It’s fascinating to watch them troubleshoot potential problems before they happen so that the dive goes smoothly and efficiently. Most of the decisions revolve around how to orient Jason between two nodes to improve the ease of cable transfers and not create a tangled mess. The other big piece of decisions is future-focused. Will this be a good position when we have to replace it again in a few years? That kind of planning is strategic and critical to ensuring future dives can perform maintenance easily.

Stepping out of the Jason van after my shift always feels strange. I usually enter the van during daylight but leave long after sunset when the dark skies and water blur together. The past day or so, it’s been foggy on the water which I thought would be scary but it’s actually really cool. Every where you look is like a fancy painting, truly surreal.

Today, we are in transit leaving Axial Seamount to Slope Base. It should take a little less than 20 hours. During these transits, we usually work on our personal research projects and spend some time decorating Styrofoam cups. The plan is to attach a bag of our cups to the CTD rosette when we cast it at Slope Base. As the cups descend, the increase in pressure will decrease the air in the Styrofoam and shrink the cup. I’m looking forward to seeing my cups when they surface and helping with another CTD cast when we get to Slope Base!

The first CTD cast goes over the side of the Thompson on Leg 1 of the RCA expedition. Credit: J. Willson, University of Washington, V21.

August 3 – An Exciting 24 hrs

The last 24 hours have been exponentially more exciting and busier as operations on the shallow profiler begin. I can’t possibly fit everything that’s happened into this post so I’ll stick to the highlights.

During our transit through the Strait, we spotted 6 or 7 humpback whales hanging out at the surface! They were mesmerizing to watch as they circled a patch of water just a couple hundred yards off the side of the boat. I’m hoping to see more whales and porpoises before the end of Leg 1.

On my shift yesterday evening, I observed and assisted with the first CTD cast of the cruise. After learning about CTDs on Zoom school for the last year, it was amazing to help complete the cast in person and see the whole process start to finish. We helped open the niskin bottles and prep the rosette before watching the dive from the computer lab control room. The data streamed in real time with each measurement tracked on a graph as the instrument descended. The whole cast only took about 45 minutes because we only went to 220m. Julie, our dive operator for yesterday, communicated with the team outside via walkie-talkie to close specific niskin bottles at each depth as we ascended. This allows us to collect and analyze water samples at specific depths. 

After the rosette was back on board, I assisted Julie in collecting seawater samples from the niskin bottles so that we can measure dissolved oxygen, dissolved inorganic carbon, nutrients, salinity, and chlorophyll. The whole process of bottling water in separate containers for each type of measurement took about 3 hours. We take this samples by hand to crosscheck and make sure the instrument measurements are accurate.

A look inside the Jason operation van during the first dive taken at 2147 as the vehicle worked at the Axial Base Shallow Profiler Mooring. Credit: J. Willson, University of Washington, V21.

While I finished putting samples in the fridge and freezer, the first Jason dive started! I felt so lucky to sit in the back of the Jason operations van during the rest of the dive. The van feels like an icebox with the air conditioning keeping the wall of computers cool for hours on end. Each screen displayed a different camera angle, map, or information about the ship’s location relative to the ROV—as a newbie, it feels like something out of a sci-fi movie. I learned that the ship hands over it’s controls to the Jason team during the dive so that the movements of the boat can be controlled directly from the van. With the bow thrusters, the team can keep the boat relatively still and can adjust the position to block the ROV from waves.

As students, our job is to help log what’s happening during the dive and capture these moments on the camera so that researchers in the future can crosscheck data with timestamped dive movements. I stepped in for a few minutes to help log. There was a small issue after disconnecting a cable when the team tried to store it in a bucket. Turns out the bucket was not attached to the platform very well. The team had a good laugh at the bucket drifted across the camera screens and out to sea. I was impressed to see how calmly they handled the minor error and continued to secure the cable in a different location before completing the dive. It takes a while for Jason to surface so someone played music. The music choice? The soundtrack to Frozen and Frozen 2. We finished the dive listening to “Into the Unknown” which seemed fitting.

Today, I’m looking forward to logging more dives in the Jason van and assisting Julie with another CTD cast planned for tonight! The time is already flying by so I’m trying my best to soak it all in and experience everything before Leg 1 is over and we head back to Newport, OR.

The ROV Jason rises from the deep after diving in the International District Hydrothermal Field. Credit: University of Washington.

August 1 – A day of Firsts

The past 24 hours has been a day of many firsts for me. First time on a research vessel, first night sleeping on a boat, first time going through the Ballard locks on a boat, first time in a room of more than 20 strangers since before the pandemic. It has been overwhelming in the most exciting way.

As we head out to sea this morning, we are focused on ensuring everything is strapped down and stable so that nothing falls over if we hit rough water. I learned that securing everything means EVERYTHING. Computers, baskets to hold water bottles, lab equipment, paper towels, buckets, tool kits, etc. I spent my first 10 minutes on board in the main lab drilling holes into the table and tying my laptop down. These are important steps to prevent objects from falling or breaking during the 40 hour transit to Axial Seamount.

This morning, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution crew introduced us to Jason, a spectacular and famous remotely operated vehicle (ROV ) that will assist with maintenance on the cabled-array. We toured the Jason operations van, which is a revamped shipping container with dozens of screens displaying the various camera views from the ROV. This is where we will be stationed for 8 hour shifts every day. We are in charge of logging important aspects of each dive as they happen and capturing photos and videos so that future researchers have a detailed log of what happened on each Jason dive. These dives will start when we arrive at Axial Seamount accompanied by CTD casts and water sample analysis.

Though we’ve been busy setting up wifi, watching tutorial videos, and taking tours of the ship, we enjoy sitting down in the Mess Hall for meals together. The kitchen (galley) crew has served us incredible meals so far with a wide variety of snacks available anytime. I have a feeling that I’ll be relying on coffee and caffeinated tea to keep me energized for the next 8 days.

The beautiful Seattle waterfront at the beginning of Leg 1, as seen from the R/V Thompson. Credit: C. Fink, University of Washington, V21.

Standing on the deck during transit has been my absolute favorite part of this trip. I feel so lucky to have experienced the transit out of Portage Bay, past the Space Needle and Gas Works Park, through the locks, and watching the Seattle skyline at sunset as we pulled into the fuel dock last night. It was incredibly special and I look forward to spending time on the deck today as we continue up Puget Sound and to the coast.

This experience feels surreal right now. I have been planning for this cruise since before the pandemic started and I am so thankful that we are able to participate in the cruise this summer. Even though these first days are overwhelmed with new information, instructions, and tasks, I am beyond grateful to be surrounded by new people, new places, and a whole new experience out at sea.