Aakriti Vijay Blog Leg 4

Puzzle completed!! Credit: Aakriti Vijay; University of Washington, V23.
Picture I took for the crew. Credit: Aakriti Vijay; University of Washington, V23.

13 September 2023: A wholesome transit 

Today was supposed to be a leisurely day of transit from Axial to the Oregon Offshore site, and I had not planned on blogging. Little did I know, our 18-hour journey would turn out to be an unexpectedly delightful experience. It just goes to show that even in the most uneventful moments, you can find ways to keep yourself entertained.

At the beginning of our journey, we had started a 1000-piece titanic puzzle. Given the hustle and bustle on the boat, I did not think we would finish it so soon. Yet, after lunch, four of us gathered in the library, determined to complete the puzzle that had become the mission of our 18-hour journey. Amidst the camaraderie, Katie delivered her second talk about her PhD, and as she wrapped up, we put the last piece in place. It was quite comical how we initially had two pieces that seemed to have no home, only to realize we had misplaced a piece.

Spending a week together on a ship had a unique way of bringing us closer. I learned so much about my shipmates, a diverse group from different years and majors at UW. As the cloudy skies at the outset of our transit gave way to the sun, we ventured out onto the 02 deck to bask in its warmth. Vivi, Jolie, and I began sharing high school stories, and I couldn’t resist recommending some easy UW classes

The picture Amy took for us. Credit: Amy Larsen, University of Washington, V23.

The sun began to set, and the clouds aligned in a radial pattern, creating a scene reminiscent of a painting. Down on the main deck, APL engineers had set up beach chairs, savoring the serene beauty of the vast blue ocean. It was a wholesome sight, a perfect photo-op. Through sign language, I gestured to Amy, an APL engineer, to pose for a picture, but she misunderstood and thought we wanted a group photo instead.

Later that night, we decided to watch a movie, but choosing one proved to be an hour-long ordeal. Emmet, a ships’ Marine Technician, added to the confusion by mentioning additional films on the computer not available on DVD. Eventually, we settled on "The Little Mermaid" (2023) and collectively rated it a modest 5/10, deeming it not quite on par with Disney’s previous live-action films like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."

Starry night sky. Credit: Aakriti Vijay; University of Washington, V23.

The real magic of the evening, however, came when Ziggy and Rowan informed us about the astonishing display in the night sky.

Intrigued, we made our way to the main deck. I was genuinely starstruck, and not just by the celestial stars. The clarity of the night sky was unlike anything I’d ever seen. From the prominent constellations to the lesser-known ones, it felt like we were standing in an open-air observatory.

Adding to the spectacle, the boat’s propellers agitated the water in a way that allowed us to witness the bioluminescent plankton casting their light on the surface. It was a shame we lacked a professional camera to capture this moment. I stood under the midnight sky, taking it all in. The day could not have had a better ending.

Mola Mola sighting. Credit: J. Yearian, University of Washington, V23.

13 September 2023: Encountering a Mola Mola and landing on the seafloor

It was just another day at sea for us, a group of eager marine science enthusiasts. As we settled into our roles, little did we know that this day would hold a rare and remarkable encounter. My shift as a logger had just ended when the next team of students arrived, with exciting news. They whispered in hushed tones, sharing the news that a Mola Mola was swimming near our vessel. My heart raced as I leaped out of my chair. Mola Molas, also known as ocean sunfish, are elusive creatures, particularly in tropical waters where I usually scuba dive.

Being a certified scuba diver, I was accustomed to the vibrant marine life of the tropics. But the Mola Mola was an enigma I had only heard tales of. I bent over the main deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of this fish. It swam gracefully just beneath the surface, teasing us with its presence but refusing to break through. Minutes felt like hours as I patiently waited. Then, it happened – the Mola Mola emerged, and I was awestruck. It looked almost comical, like a child’s drawing of a fish come to life. This unexpected encounter became the highlight of my day.

Placing the new CTD stand on the seafloor. Credit: Aakriti Vijay; University of Washington, V23.

Katie, our Chief Scientist, gave a talk about her career after lunch. She has been an amazing mentor throughout this whole journey. She had been a VISIONS student herself, and her passion had driven her to expand her undergraduate project into a full-fledged PhD which she will be completing in New Zealand. Inspired by her dedication, I could not help but bombard her with questions about career paths in this field.

As an international student from India, I had often felt a twinge of uncertainty in the world of marine biology and oceanography. These fields were relatively unknown back home, and my journey had taken me far from my comfort zone. Katie’s wisdom helped ease my doubts. She emphasized the importance of networking in this field, something I aimed to establish during this journey. Meeting international students like myself had been a rarity in my classes, making my path feel somewhat uncharted. Katie’s reassurances, coupled with her genuine interest in my background and interests, left me feeling more hopeful about my future in marine science.

The day continued with hands-on experiences, as I helped Julie collect CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) fluid samples. Instead of physically collecting samples, I was entrusted with logging the data on Julie’s iPad. My roommate, Jolie, and I also joined Julie in performing titrations to measure oxygen concentrations in the ocean water. Back in high school, I had dabbled in chemistry titrations, but they had been manual, involving careful stirring and precise timing. This time, the process was modernized, with a magnetic stirrer doing the mixing, and a digital machine allowing us to release the titrant drop by drop. As someone who had grown to love chemistry in college, this experience was exhilarating. It reinforced my desire to pursue chemical oceanography, a fascinating field where chemistry meets the depths of the ocean.

As night descended upon us, we geared up for another dive, this time at the base of Axial Seamount. The goal was to replace some of the infrastructure that forms part of the Regional Cabled Array network.

Sea pigs on the seafloor. Credit: Aakriti Vijay; University of Washington, V23.

Our descent took us an astonishing 2600 meters deep, into a world seldom explored by humans. Inside the control van, a throwback playlist from 2016 played in the background, setting the mood for a whispered karaoke night among fellow students. However, the moment we reached the seafloor and began replacing the CTD stands, the atmosphere turned otherworldly.

Placing the new stand into the silt-covered seafloor felt like a scene from a NASA moon mission. The silt billowed up in a dramatic cloud as the stand dug deep into the ocean floor. But what truly blew my mind were the creatures I spotted down there. Starfish and sea pigs, resilient and adapted to survive at such crushing depths and intense pressure, dotted the seafloor. As the dive concluded, so did my shift, and I called it a day.

2022 Deep profiler vehicle that was replaced. Credit: Aakriti Vijay, University of Washington; V23.

11 September 2023: A fulfilling dusk to dawn

Today has been such an eye-opener and fun-filled day. The ROV Jason  was diving this morning the minute I came to the Main Lab. I rushed to the control van and took over the position of a sea-logger (person who notes down all the activities of Jason). I went over the extensive dive plan which estimated that this dive would be around 10 hours long.  Little did I know how dynamic and unpredictable this dive would become.

The engineers were replacing the Deep Profiler vehicle installed in 2022 with a new one and they told us that this was one of the most technical tasks they had to perform. As the dive progressed, they took a call to not clean the cable as it seemed to be in a good condition which reduced the dive time by approximately five hours. Having been behind the scenes of quite a few dives now, the sheer patience and ingenuity of these engineers has left me in awe. They encounter problems and collectively find solutions, showcasing the true essence of teamwork.

After lunch, Andrew talked about the project he did when he was VISIONS student and how he has expanded it since then. His research delved into the population structure and density of scale worms at Axial Seamount hydrothermal vents. This project, focused on genetics, piqued my interest and gave me a clear idea of what I might pursue in my future studies in Marine Biology, motivating me to consider a similar project of my own one day.

Julie running the CTD operation on the Thompson. Credit: Aakriti Vijay, University of Washington; V23.

While this expedition has seen numerous CTD deployments, I had yet to participate in one. After lunch, Julie, our Co-chief Scientist, generously let Jasmine, me, and our fellow students join her in deploying a CTD. We donned our rain boots, prepared to collect, and release all the seawater the device had collected. As the CTD emerged on deck, we were en route to the legendary Axial Seamount, a 15-hour journey ahead. We collected water samples for salinity, oxygen and chlorophyll in separately labelled Niskin bottles.

I made the decision to cut my dinner short, and I’m certainly glad I did, as we were treated to a spectacular dolphin sighting. Alongside Christine and Atticus, I rushed from the main deck to the bow, where we were graced with the presence of a pod of 5-6 dolphins swimming alongside our vessel for a delightful ten minutes.

DOLPHIN SPOTTED!! Credit: Aakriti Vijay, University of Washington; V23.

After this delightful encounter, we lent a hand to Julie in the wet lab, where we assisted in the process of filtering chlorophyll. To maintain the integrity of the samples, the room had to be kept dark, preventing any unwanted reactions. While this procedure was unfamiliar to me, I found it to be surprisingly simple and straightforward.

This day was full of learning and was a real eye-opener for me. I am eagerly looking forward to the dives that are going to happen at Axial. The people I’ve encountered on this journey have left me with a deep sense of admiration, and their shared stories have enriched my understanding in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

9 September 2023: A day of discovery and collaboration at sea

The morning sun bathed our research vessel in a warm, welcoming glow as we embarked on Leg 4 of our journey. The seas were calm and none of us fellow students felt seasick. Day 2 was a nice slow and easy day, mainly because a lot of deck operations were going on. I was scheduled to work from 8am/8pm – 12pm/12am. Unfortunately, at these times no dives or CTD deployments took place. I was hoping I would get to sit in the control room for the Jason soon enough.

In the afternoon, the workers on deck needed our help to clean anemones out of the mooring’s docking station and float so they could clean it. The task was a delightful mess, as we delicately wielded scalpels to release the liquid contents of the anemones, which oddly resembled raspberry jam. Breaking down the calcareous structures that housed worms revealed unexpected creatures- a crab clinging to the buoy and a tiny, delicate baby sea urchin.

We had a student meeting to check on how we were doing and what ideas we had for our project. This is when Atticus, another student and I became a group since our project topics were similar. My excitement grew, for I lacked a strong background in the technical intricacies of data analysis, and I knew I could learn a great deal from him.

During dinner, a beacon fell off  the boat which we had to recover from the site we were at, Oregon Offshore. I was excited when I heard that the dive coincided with my shift. To pass the time, I delved into editing Jason dives using Final Cut Pro, determined to learn more about the software. Andrew, an RCA ocean technician, generously guided me through the process.

 At 9:45 pm we were in the control room looking at all the screens that connected to a various cameras placed at different angles on the ROV Jason. Fatigue was replaced by anticipation as I assumed the role of the video logger. Though daunting at first, the task was invigorating. Andrew’s reassuring presence provided valuable support.

Within the first 20 meters of the dive, our excitement soared as we encountered two majestic blue sharks. We descended to approximately 600 meters in pursuit of the fallen beacon, but the fish stirred up sediment, reducing visibility. Amid the underwater chaos, one unfortunate fish swum into the thrusters, only to become a meal for a hagfish, a sad but captivating sight.

After an hour or so of waiting to discover the beacon, we finally saw a yellow handle on the red beacon. The control room filled with an atmosphere of relief and accomplishment. Eager to explore further, the engineers decided to inspect the cable that connected the junction box LVO1C (the Oregon Offshore array ) and LJ01C (a benthic experiment package). Their goal was twofold: ensuring that tomorrow’s dive anchor placement avoids the cable where it curves and hoping to get glimpses of marine life. As the clock ticked past midnight, tiredness settled in, and I reluctantly called it a night and handed over my position to the next student was taking over.

Our walk along the estuary. Credit: Aakriti Vijay, University of Washington, V23.

8 September 2023 Setting sail on leg 4 adventure!

The anticipation among us students was exhilarating as LEG 4 officially set sail tonight at 20:00. Waking up this morning on the boat, excitement coursed through me, and the day was off to an exciting start. 

Our morning kicked off with a safety meeting at 9:00, where we tried on our exposure suits. Wrestling with the zipper, I could not help but feel like an astronaut gearing up for a cosmic expedition. Next, we delved into emergency protocols, a reminder of the importance of preparedness required on a cruise like this.

The tour of the boat unveiled the heart of our expedition, the ROV Jason. Although some of the engineering nuances went over my head, its complexity left me awestruck. I knew that with time, I would gain a deeper understanding of this. The control room, a steel container, was where the real magic would happen, we would log the dives and witness the enigmatic marine life that dwells in the deep.

A fire alarm drill was conducted, after which we were free to explore in and around the NOAA facility. I took this opportunity to discuss my project idea with Katie, our Chief Scientist, which provided me with a clearer vision of my research journey.

As the day unfolded, the camaraderie among the fellow students and I grew. We went on a scenic walk along the estuary. A few of us were amateur bird watchers which made the walk more delightful as they tried to identify every bird we encountered.

I am enthralled about the incredible learning opportunities that await on this voyage.  Both the students and crew members seem like amazing people from whom I can learn a lot from. I am certain that this experience will be a unique one. Set sail, LEG 4; the journey has just begun.