Maleen Kidiwela Blog Leg 4

17 September 2023

It was midnight, when we started our last dive at Axial Seamount. J-1561. Recovering the 14 ft tall Hydrothermal Flow Imaging Sonar (COVIS) Unit. While it was quite uneventful, we were able to do a successful recovery within a 4-hour window.

We were informed of an anticipated storm heading our way on the last day of our cruise. 12 ft Swells are to be expected on our way into Newport. With such grim news, the crew had their own ways of preparing for what’s to come. At this point in time, we’ve done 14 Jason dives. Seeing a variety of marine life has been the norm thus far, but it never seizes to amaze me.

When the sun was up, a pod of dolphins performing acrobatics were a sight to see. While I have seen many dolphins dancing along with the breaking waters, this was the first time I’ve seen them aboard the Thompson. Calm waters stretched towards the horizon as if it was glass. The absence of white caps was a sight that I would never forget. Being in the presence of such calm waters was never a normalcy for me. I never thought that such calm seas are a possibility at such deep waters in the Pacific. A calm nature that could only be a prelude to the storm that is yet to come.

The life at sea thus far has been an opportunity to reflect the lifestyle choices. Every crew member aboard this vessel has a specific duty and planned shifts created a well-functioning ship that is never asleep. Despite downfalls and issues related to individual Jason dives, Chief Scientist Katie’s careful decision making had led to great results at Axial Seamount. While we could’ve easily given up the work on Axial seamount after the initial return to Oregon Offshore site, making our way back had given a second chance to many of the projects that wouldn’t have been successful otherwise.

Some of the students and the co-chief scientist finishing a 1000-piece puzzle of the HMS Titanic. Credit: J. Thirtyacre, University of Washington; V23.
Cabled FETCH unit at the Central Caldera site on Axial Seamount. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI/J2-1555, V23.

15 September 2023

Up until now, most of my days consist of maximum of 5 hours of sleep. While there were many things going on the ship, today was indeed a rest day. Nothing but sleep could drown out the sounds of water banging on the ship’s hull. Half the time we were levitating off the bed. Thanks to our sea sickness medication, we avoided the nausea from settling in.

During our transit to Axial Seamount, students had engaged in finishing up a 1000-piece titanic puzzle in the library. “Today is the day”, “It’s now or never”. It was our motivation that carried over and helped us finish this puzzle.

Spectacular marine organisms unveiled during Jason’s dives at Axial Seamount. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI/J2-1555, J2-1556, V23

13 September 2023

The magic of the ocean lies in its enigmatic vastness. As we embarked on our deep dive at the Axial Seamount, the anticipation was palpable. And it didn’t disappoint. Among the plethora of marine life we encountered, the highlight undoubtedly was the awe-inspiring sighting of the Phantom Jellyfish (D). These mysterious denizens of the deep, stretching an astonishing 10 meters in length, thrive in the challenging realms of the ocean, a thousand meters and beyond from the surface. Such sights are reserved for the rarest of expeditions, for these magnificent creatures inhabit zones largely untouched by human intrusion.

Yet, the Phantom Jellyfish wasn’t the sole marvel we encountered. From the salmon shark (A), the visually striking fried egg jelly (B), the rat tail fish (C), to the Humboldt Squid (E), our expedition was rewarded with a visual treat of the ocean’s myriad inhabitants.

Embarking on the Dive J2-1555 at the Axial Seamount, our primary mission was crystal clear: replace a CTD instrument (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) at the Central Caldera site at the summit of Axial Seamount, and inspect a Fetch Unit. The Fetch Unit is an integral part of the marine observation landscape. The one we set our sights on was uniquely tethered to the OOI Regional Cabled Array, with a Junction Box situated right at Central Caldera. Its function is not limited to its individual capacity; it plays a pivotal role in creating an acoustic bridge with three other stand-alone fetch units. These units are strategically positioned: each on an outward dipping fault and one right in the heart of the central caldera. Together, they measure the variability of distances between each instrument. These instruments play a pivotal role in determining the inflation and deflation cycles at Axial Seamount.

They were deployed just last year, entering the vast expanse with a promise of long-term functionality. But nature and technology often have a fickle relationship. The cabled Fetch unit, despite its initial robust performance, faced an untimely failure after just a week of active duty.

However, it wasn’t all grim news on the VISIONS’ cruise this year. The three independent fetch units stood resilient against the challenges of the deep sea, offering us valuable data.

During the Leg 3 of the VISIONS cruise, they successfully uploaded this precious data directly into the shipboard USBL computer, turning potential setbacks into opportunities for enhanced understanding.

Alas, every mission comes with its fair share of logistical hurdles. The initial plan, filled with promise, was to replace the malfunctioning cabled Fetch unit during this cruise. Yet, as often happens in the vast unpredictability of marine exploration, a delay in shipping schedules threw a spanner in the works. The replacement mission, much to our initial disappointment, had to be postponed. But, as with every challenge, we see an opportunity. The mission’s delay gives us another reason to return to the mesmerizing depths of the 2024 VISIONS cruise. The story of the Fetch Units, filled with anticipation, success, challenges, and promises, mirrors the very spirit of oceanic exploration: unpredictable yet endlessly rewarding.

Dive J2-1556 had a specialized mission: securing Diffuse Fluid Samples from the Tiny Towers vent. However, the unpredictable nature of fieldwork was evident when the dive faced challenges. The Universal Fluid Obtainer (UFO) experienced a ground fault, and an unusual burning aroma gave away more problems upon recovery. Further inspection revealed a damaged transformer—such setbacks, though disheartening, are part and parcel of exploration.

Miniature keepsakes taken down to 2600 m beneath the oceans’ surface at the base of Axial Seamount. Credit: M. Kidiwela, University of Washington, V23.

On a lighter note, during these inspections, a fun experiment unveiled the immense pressures at 2600 meters depth. Styrofoam cups sent to this depth returned as miniaturized tokens, a playful yet profound testament to the intense conditions of the deep sea.

As the sun set on our day of exploration, reflection, and minor setbacks, the decision was made. We would return to the Oregon  Offshore site, undertaking a 17-hour journey to revisit and rectify the mooring challenge from our earlier days.

In the heart of the ocean, where the sun’s rays don’t penetrate, life thrives against all odds. Each dive is a reminder of our planet’s wonders and the resilience of its inhabitants. As we journeyed onward, the lessons from Axial Seamount would stay with us, fueling our quest for understanding and discovery.

An ethereal jellyfish captured by Jason’s lens. Credit:UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI, V23.
Team members engaged in sampling oxygen from the CTD’s Niskin bottles. Credit: M. Elend, University of Washington, V23.

12 September 2023

As we wrapped up our endeavors at the Slope Base, an aura of excitement permeated the crew. Our next destination, Axial Seamount, beckoned. Not just another Jason dive awaited us, but also missions tied to the intriguing Fetch Units.

Journeying to the Slope Base site was an experience in itself, but reaching Axial Seamount demanded even more resilience. This journey dwarfed our previous voyage in length and challenges.

As our sturdy ship plowed its way through landward swells, its movements became increasingly reminiscent of a relentless roller-coaster. The constant battering made it an arduous journey, one that only found solace when the morning sun graced us at 10 AM. With the tumultuous seas behind us, Jason was primed and ready for its new mission: replacing the old deep profiler with a sparkling new unit.

By the time our team congregated in the Jason control van, the dive was in full swing. The quest? To locate the Deep Profiler mooring amidst the vast expanses of the Axial Seamount.

Our descent took us 2600 meters beneath the sea, a world where sunlight does not penetrate, but life thrived, nonetheless. Throughout our descent, our main camera captured an otherworldly ballet of jellyfish and shrimp, adding a touch of magic to our scientific endeavor. The dive, though bereft of any dramatic occurrences, was a definitive success.

By 4 PM, Jason was safely ensconced back on our ship, its mission accomplished. The subsequent CTD check confirmed our successes and paved the way for another sampling session.

A group of dedicated students meticulously cleaned the retrieved deep profiler. Credit: University of Washington, V23.

With our shift drawing to an end, a final task awaited us: cleaning the newly recovered deep profiler on deck. As we scrubbed and cleaned, the encroaching darkness served as a gentle reminder of the passage of time. Exhaustion began to set in.

As the curtain of night descended, most of us were drawn to our bunks, eagerly anticipating those precious few hours of restful sleep. After all, the ocean, with all its wonders and challenges, would be waiting for us again at dawn.

The midnight crew doing CTD operations. Credit: University of Washington, V23.

11 September 2023

The last night’s unsuccessful mission still weighed heavily on our minds as the new day dawned. Such setbacks, although disappointing, are an integral part of any scientific expedition. We needed to push forward, and with that spirit, the team transitioned into the next phase: starting CTD operations by firing the bottles and coordinating with the crew to bring the CTD to each depth.

The next step was to collect samples from the CTD Niskin bottles. Armed with meticulous instructions, we began the sample extraction process. Each sample had its significance, holding the potential to reveal insights about the marine environment. Oxygen, chlorophyll, and salinity—each vial we collected was a story waiting to be deciphered.

Atticus Carter emptying Niskin bottles after a successful CTD cast. University Washington; V23.

With samples safely stored, our attention shifted to our next task: heading out to the Slope Base site for another Jason dive.

As we charted the course, I felt a change, both inside and out. The previously calm weather was now turning turbulent. The ship rocked more violently, and the familiar symptoms of sea sickness began to emerge. My medication, which had been a reliable ally thus far, was losing its efficacy.

Nausea and dizziness aren’t just physical sensations; they take a toll on your spirit. Trying to find some solace, I sprawled across two lab chairs, using noise-canceling earphones to drown out the external world. As effective as these measures were, it was clear that another Scopolamine patch was the need of the hour.

By the time the patch began to exert its calming influence, it was evident that sleep was the best remedy. My cabin, located on the ship’s lowest platform and directly beneath its bow, became my sanctuary. The sounds of rain combined with the rhythmic splashing of water against the ship’s hull, crafting a lullaby of nature. That, combined with the soothing effect of the patch, allowed me to drift into a deep, rejuvenating slumber.

When I awoke, breakfast was a distant memory. But in its place, I found something infinitely more precious: a momentary respite from the waves’ relentless motion. And in that stillness, I was reminded that, on this journey, the challenges we face aren’t just external. Often, our most formidable battles are the ones we fight within.

Shark spotted near Jason at  ~100 m water depth, Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; J2-1543; V23.
As Jason approached the surface during its recovery phase, a seal appeared, gliding effortlessly. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; J2-1543; V23

10 September 2023

As the clock struck 12 AM, the familiar hum and the dim lights of the Jason Van welcomed us. It was a setting we had grown accustomed to, but tonight was special. Jason’s third mission on this cruise, coded J2-1550, awaited us. Our primary objective? Retrieving a lost beacon nestled within the Oregon Offshore site.

The anticipation in the air was palpable. While our primary focus was on the beacon’s recovery, the ocean always had a way of throwing in delightful surprises. And as if in tandem with our underwater ventures, we were blessed with exceptionally favorable weather above the surface.

The seas remained calm and serene, echoing the tranquility of the night sky above. Perhaps it was this calmness that played a part in keeping everyone in good spirits, for not a single soul aboard our vessel complained of seasickness—a real victory for those acquainted with the unpredictable temperament of the seas.

Our mission exceeded expectations. Not only did we successfully recover the elusive beacon, but the underwater cameras attached to Jason also provided a mesmerizing display of marine biodiversity. From cod fish to jellies to sharks and even a playful seal, the treasures of the deep never ceased to amaze.

Following the beacon’s recovery, our team embarked on an exploration spree. The instruments in this region served as waypoints, guiding us along the cable across the ocean floor. Jason tracked cables connecting various instruments, such as the BEP LJ01C (Benthic Experimental Package) and LV01C (low-voltage node), at a depth of roughly 580 meters.

Jason with the recovered beacon next to LV01C Low voltage node. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; J2-1543; V23

Once we had gathered all the insights we could, it was time for Jason to ascend. With the help of Jason crew, the  underwater companion was safely brought back onboard.

The next dive at the Oregon Offshore site  (J2-1551) started at 6 PM. This crucial dive aimed to plug in the Deep Profiler mooring extension cable. We were unable to plug in the cable to the Deep Profiler.

A verification CTD was taken afterward, wrapping up an eventful day despite the unfortunate incomplete Jason mission. Afterward, we started to head out to the slope base for our next dive

9 September 2023

The ROV Jason on Thompson’s fantail at the start of Leg 4. Credit: M. Kidiwela, University of Washington, V23.
The R/V Thompson leaving the port at the start of Leg 4. Credit: M. Kidiwela, University of Washington, V23.

8 September 2023

Even though we were securely anchored at the port, there was an undeniable buzz of excitement in the air. After spending our first night aboard the ship, we awoke to the familiar sounds of the harbor. Seagulls, distant horns, and the faint hum of activity created a unique soundscape. This wouldn’t be a typical day at the port, though. This was our last day before setting sail, scheduled for 8 PM.

Our morning began with a shared on-board breakfast, an experience that felt surreal given our stationary surroundings. The aroma of fresh coffee contrasted with the salty ocean air that wafted in from the open windows. Though the ship remained tethered to its berth, the camaraderie of the crew felt as if we were already far out at sea.

Our first agenda of the day was an information session on the Isobaric Gas-Tight Hydrothermal Fluid Sampler (IGT). Nestled within the confines of our ship, the complexity of this marvel of marine technology came to life. Designed to capture fluids from the depths of hydrothermal vents, the IGT was our passport to understanding the hidden ecosystems miles beneath the surface.

Before we could truly dive into the heart of oceanic exploration, safety was paramount. We were introduced to immersion safety suits. These bright orange safeguards seemed bulky at first glance, but as we learned about their importance, they became essential components of our voyage. Available in universal sizes, both small and large, every crew member had a chance to find their fit. The atmosphere was a blend of serious dedication to safety and light-hearted fun as everyone tried on their suits.

The crown jewel of our pre-departure tour was an introduction to the Jason remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Anchored within the ship, this vehicle promised to be our eyes in the deep once we embarked on our journey. The team explained the controls, logging procedures, and the way we would document videos and events captured by Jason during its dives. A peek into the deep while still at the port, the anticipation was palpable.

The juxtaposition of the bustling port and the promise of the vast ocean made our preparations even more exhilarating. As we neared our 8 PM departure, the realization set in: the next time we’d wake up on this ship, the port would be a distant memory, and the vastness of the ocean would be our only horizon. The adventures awaiting us were boundless, and this was just the beginning.