Oceanography is a Team Sport

Bill Chadwick

The ROV Jason samples vent fluids at 318°C at the Inferno black smoker chimney at the ASHES vent field at Axial Seamount. Credit: B. Chadwick-OSU/NSF/WHOI.

We’re steaming back into port, just a few hours out of Newport, Oregon.  Our final week at sea was a big success, thanks in part to friendly weather and the continued great performance of the ship and our two high-performing underwater vehicles, ROV Jason and AUV Sentry.  Our final few dives helped us accomplish our remaining science goals for the cruise, including collecting high-priority hydrothermal vent fluid and biological samples with ROV Jason, recovering the crustal compliance instruments that were collecting data from their second deployment for Dr. Spahr Webb with the help of Jason and the ship (it’s always a relief to get your instruments back!), and finishing our repeat bathymetric mapping with AUV Sentry to monitor the re-inflation of Axial Seamount since it’s last eruption in 2015.  One accomplishment that I think is particularly remarkable is that we were able to get the new Terrain Relative Navigation software up and successfully running on AUV Sentry with the remarkable ship-to-shore collaboration of the Sentry team with the MBARI team on shore, via enhanced satellite communication made possible by UW and the National Science Foundation.  This is a fantastic accomplishment that makes it possible to AUV Sentry to navigate itself while away from the ship, just by looking at the sonar data it is collecting in real time and comparing it to previously recorded data.  This new capability will make future repeat mapping by AUVs even more successful!

Another thought going through my mind is how unusual this year’s research cruise has been in so many ways and how much extra effort it took to make it happen.  Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, everyone on the ship, including the all the ship’s crew and the science party, had to go through a strict 2-week self-isolation with testing for the virus before getting on the ship. This involved a higher level of commitment and sacrifice than usual to make this cruise happen, especially by those traveling across the country to join the ship, and we appreciate the efforts of Thompson’s home institution, University of Washington, for helping with all the complicated logistics.

One of the strange red sunsets cause by smoke from the fires on shore during our expedition. Credit: Croy Carlin.

Then there is the long list of items in the category of “I’ve NEVER seen THAT before” from this expedition.  The middle of the cruise brought the smell of smoke and the thick fog-like haze from the terrible fires on shore that got blown all the way out to us at Axial Seamount by the strong easterly winds, even 260 miles from shore!  The red color of the setting sun through the smoke was very strange.  Another such item is the large number of poor land birds that arrived on the ship after being blown far out to sea by those same easterly winds – for example, I’ve never seen a Goldfinch out at Axial Seamount before!  Unfortunately, their chances of survival are poor out here.  But my favorite is the Short-Eared Owl who suddenly appeared on R/V Thompson and accompanied us for the entire last week of our expedition! 

The Short-Eared Owl who sailed with us on R/V Thompson during the last week of our research cruise. Credit: Croy Carlin.

At first, we were quite concerned about the owl, because it seemed so strange to see it out here, but then we read on the Cornel University “All About Birds” website that it is actually not that unusual for Short-Eared Owl to visit ships far offshore!  Who knew!  Apparently they commonly fly long distances over the ocean and can hunt seabirds, so apparently this one decided Thompson makes a nice mobile hunting platform!  We’re very anxious to see what it will do when we get back within sight of land.  Will it stay on the ship?  Or will it fly off to find its home on shore?

At this point in a research cruise I always think about how grateful I am for all the people that have made the cruise so successful.  Top among those are the crew of R/V Thompson and the teams of operating ROV Jason and AUV Sentry who worked tirelessly around the clock to keep these wonderful vehicles and platforms running and allow us to collect the data and samples that we needed to meet our science objectives.  Our relatively small science party of 10 took on extra tasks and responsibilities for colleagues on shore who could not join the cruise this year in addition to their own work.  And then there are the countless colleagues and friends on shore who also contributed, either as science participants following our goings-on at sea via email, Zoom, or Slack, or the ship and vehicle support staff from the home institutions of UW, OSU, and WHOI, or from our federal funding partners at the National Science Foundation.  We couldn’t have done it without you, so a big thanks to all of you.  As always, Axial Seamount has been a scientifically fascinating and rewarding place to return to, and we’ll be working in the coming months and years to use the data we’ve collected to better understand what is one of the most active and certainly the best monitored submarine volcano in the world.