19 August 2023
Plop me down on a ship a few hundred years ago and I could reasonably be convinced that the Earth is flat. When you’re outside and staring out onto the horizon and all you can see is blue – above, below, around – it looks like the world just stops at the horizon. There’s no hint that something lays past what we can see, it’s just us, not us, then nothing. Now, assuming for some reason I was living, however, many centuries ago and had set sail, I’d like to think that I’d put together the fact that I had left from some piece of land, could no longer see said piece of land, and therefore there is likely something beyond the horizon because somewhere out there was my original starting point. Now that is slightly aside from the point, but this is all to say – having explored a small amount of the ocean’s surface, and an even smaller amount of its depths, I have a newfound appreciation for just how simply massive the ocean is.
It’s hard to truly comprehend, and even harder to put into words, the feeling that comes from seeing down to the bottom of the ocean nearly three kilometers below you. In some ways it’s underwhelming. It’s just images on a screen of a metal frame filled in by plastic with holes punched into it so it looks like a massive, very ineffective green cheese grater, standing in some pale dusty sand, surrounded by some murky greenish blue water. If you’re lucky there may be an anemone or three somehow stuck, defying gravity, to the side of the frame – Anemone frons just hanging out, flowing with the current. If you’re unlucky, maybe the paint will be chipped in an interesting fashion.
You can reasonably understand that yes, this ROV is in fact 2900 meters down in the water, and yes, the images on the screen are coming from the ROV, but it doesn’t feel real. But then, Jason moves a long, metallic arm, and twists it around in a way that would be painful for any living organism to do to grab the head of a connector that contains fiber optic cables and a mechanism to put a tiny drop of oil on the end of each cable so that when plugged in it will make a solid connection to another cable without seawater getting in allowing wiring of the two together at the bottom of the ocean, and the oppressive darkness that floods in everywhere the flashlights aren’t shining makes it feel like instead of being three kilometers down we’re 100 kilometers up in space, and suddenly you are down there, at the bottom of the ocean fighting the current, and the pressure, to plug this one cable into the other – and then a fish comes by and suddenly you’re no longer Jason but you’re you again and marveling at this fish that is somehow at the bottom of the ocean, is possibly seeing light for the first time, and being seen by humans for the first time and it is just so cool. It feels like there should be a better word for this then cool, like awesome or incredible or mystifying or any other larger more impressive word, but it really just is the epitome of cool. It’s cooler than any other cool, its colder than ice, it’s difficult to process; it simply doesn’t feel real. But at the same time, it’s Tuesday – when this is your job it’s normal, an everyday thing. To me, the fact that this can be Tuesday is possibly one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. But at the same time, there is so much to the ocean that even the people who year after year go out and participate in these cruises, still find something amazing to marvel at.
There is so much we don’t know. It’s overwhelming how a space can be so large, and contain so much. It’s easy to trick oneself into thinking that the ocean is smaller than it is, in the same way that me three hundred years ago could’ve been convinced the Earth is flat. I keep coming back to how massive the ocean is. I’m reminded of it every time I look outside, or on a camera, or even feel the rocking of the ship as I’m lying in my bunk about to go to sleep. Numbers don’t help me understand, analogies don’t help me understand, it’s just so big. It makes any one individual feel so, so small. But at the same time, I’m out here, looking down somewhere I was never “intended” to as someone who couldn’t hold their breath the two hours needed to get down there let alone withstand the pressure. Put together people can do a lot, let’s use that power for good – to find more cool fish and to make sure that those cool fish will still be there in another few centuries so some other student can marvel at them too.
16 August 2023
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we left port for our 8 day excursion into the North Pacific. Would I get seasick? Would the food be good? Would I miss land? So far, things have gone well, but I’ve noticed the prevalence of different hums coming from the machines, fans, and vents all about the Thompson. I’ve found three of them to be particularly impactful in my two and a half days at sea so far.
The first hum, perhaps less of a hum and more of a whoosh-boom-hum hybrid. It’s the bow thrusters; they control the front of the ship. While moving they’re not as important, the main engines are in charge, but when stopped, the bow thrusters prove their worth. They’re used to keep us pointed the “right way.” To balance the influence of the wind and waves so that the ship is generally pointing into the waves as opposed to letting them hit side on. It also prevents us from rotating around and potentially getting Jason tangled up which, to say the least, would be bad.
Now the Thomas G. Thompson is no small craft, so the thrusters needed to control it are also quite large. This is fine when you’re up in the main lab or the Jason control van, but when you’re trying to go to sleep and suddenly you hear a giant whoooosh followed by the room shaking it’s less than ideal. Even so, after a long day and with earplugs firmly in place, getting to sleep isn’t too hard.
The second hum is that of the air conditioning. It’s everywhere, in the staterooms in the main lab, and even out on deck. Up on the O2 level, two levels above the main deck, there is a large flat area meant to hold shipping containers. There are two thick beams painted grey that have mounting points for the containers. There is about a fully grown greyhound dog’s length of space between the wall and the beam, small enough to be cozy, without being too tiny and claustrophobic. In front farther forward beam, the deck is left open, providing a nice sunny spot that’s high enough off from the bow to not get splashed. On this cruse there are two containers mounted to the beam, one on the port and another on the starboard side. They provide shade and you can sit against the beam either in the direct light or not, depending on how you’re feeling. One of these containers has a fan on it and will periodically turn on and, according to the sign on the side, is part of the AC system. This hum isn’t nearly as loud as that of the bow thrusters. You can still easily have a conversation, but you’ll have to speak up. It’s about the same level as the road noise coming in when driving on the highway, loud but nothing crazy.
The third hum comes from the fans cooling the camera rack in the Jason van. The van is the name of the shipping container outfitted with all the screens and controls and equipment needed to run and control Jason while out on a dive. Inside it is pitch black except for the glow coming off of the wall of monitors, each showing a different camera angle, or data point about the ROV. The closest set of seats to this screen belongs to the crew actively operating Jason, they are the ones driving it, operating the manipulators, and speaking to the other crew members out on the deck or up in the bridge. Additionally, the main scientist or crew member, really the person who most wants to collect images from the dive, is in control of a camera which they can pan and zoom and take images as they please. Behind them sit the two people, one controlling the video stream and 4k camera capture, and another person logging all the events taking place. This can range from things like Jason entering the water to seeing interesting biology or geology. For this cruise the students are in control of these two tasks. Behind them there is a long, raised couch with two thin tables splitting the length of the van. If you popped it out and dropped it down into a hip café it could fit right in. This is where people can watch the dive from who are either supposed to be there, but aren’t doing anything for the moment, or where people who just want to see what’s going on can hang out. The front half of the right wall is taken up by a small deli-fridge looking rack which holds all of the receivers and drives for the camera equipment on Jason. There are a number of cameras dotted around the ROV, all of quite high quality, each capturing at least in 1080p if not 4k. The video, or still images, captured is sent to these units, which can store the footage for later use, and also send it off to be live streamed. The sliding doors of the rack mute the hum of the fans, but at the same time make the whole van sound like a spaceship. They give off an ethereal consistent whine, which when combined with the specks passing by Jason on a decent, make me feel like I’m inside my own little Millennium Falcon just jumping into hyperspace.
On the other hand, it’s surprising the things you don’t hear that one would expect. All of the typical beach sounds are absent: no crashing waves, no seagulls. If you listen close on a quiet part of the ship, it almost sounds like a lake. The tops of large waves will fold over and crash like they normally do, but because this is just the tops of the large waves, the actual amount of water making the sound is about the same amount that will ripple up to shore on a windy day at a local pond. There are some seabirds out with us, but they tend to stay quieter than the menace that are seagulls. While we’ve seen a few whales from a distance, they aren’t making the same loud barks that the sea lions across the harbor were when we were in port.
While it’s never quiet on the ship I like the different sounds. They remind me that things are happening all the time. That were out at sea researching the bottom of the ocean! As more experiments and tests get under way, I’m excited to find more sounds, some familiar, some new, at sea.