Rowan Newell Blog Leg 4

The space shuttle carrying Loral O’Hara, previous member of the Jason crew, during its launch on 15 September, 2023. Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington; V23.

15 September 2023

Arriving at the Oregon Offshore Site, the day started (not so) bright and early as we began with a dive to inspect the mooring cable of the Deep Profiler that was previously not functioning. The dive wasn’t terribly interesting, but it was promising—the mooring cable appeared to be working, even with the cable that had a few issues with its casing. This did look good, but also begged the question: what would we do if the mooring was working correctly with all the extra time we would now have? There wasn’t too much time to comprehend this question, though, as the ship had another event on its mind.

For the ship, Loral O’Hara, who was once a member of the Jason crew, was going to the I.S.S. as an astronaut, and we had the live-stream up on the screens in the Main Lab (fig.1). After watching the launch, I headed to sleep.

When I woke up, my berth-mate told me that we were in transit back to Axial Seamount! The mooring work had been so successful, that we now had enough extra time to go back to Axial and attempt of the work we thought we had to cut. Hurray! My fellow students and I were especially excited for this as it gave us the opportunity to see more hydrothermal vent sites and benthic environments, some of the most interesting gems the deep sea has to offer.

Later, at 1400, we had our daily science meeting where we got to hear from two Applied Physics Lab (APL) field engineers about their advice and insights regarding careers, what it was like to be an engineer with APL, and any other answers to questions we had, really. Funnily enough, the first advice was to look up what a Roth IRA was and to start our retirement funds early. Otherwise, it was interesting to hear the different paths they had taken to getting where the are today; while both began as Oceanography majors with the UW, one went into scuba diving while the other decided to not go to grad school and instead worked on a sailboat. The approach they took to their work inspired me to think further about what skills I have gained and how they can be applied in situations I wouldn’t normally think of.

An overhead view of the main engines in the engine room, as well as the many pipes that fill the area. Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington; V23.

Around 1600 we ventured down to the mysterious engine room, led by a tour guide engineer. First, we entered the machine shop, which was beautiful in its own sense. Something about being surrounding by machining tools like bench presses or lathes always fills me with a sense of joy. Since the engine room is incredibly loud, we were given earplugs to wear and the guide had a clipboard with a pen to write on and use as a sign. Following our guide, we were lead through the labyrinth of the engine room—of whirring engines and protruding pipes, going up and down narrow stairwells. We were walking through the inner workings of the Thompson massive feats of machinery. After following our guide through this maze, we piled into a mostly soundproof room inside of the engine rooms where the engineers usually take their watch. We were told about the different engines and machines we had seen, as well as the rooms we would go to next. We would go to a room that was an electrical control panel for the ship (with a lot of red buttons we absolutely should not touch), the winch room/machine shop storage, and the propeller room.

Engineer giving a tour of the engine room to Visions ‘23 students, holding up a clip board to communicate what the students are looking at. On the clipboard it reads, “Big Engines, A.C., Water Mater”. This photo was taken while next to the water cooler. Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington; V23.

While it was wonderful to see the machinery behind the Thompson, what I found most charming of all was the various knick-knacks that dotted around the watch-room and the machine shop. When we asked, we were told that the liked to collect souvenirs, and it was whimsical to see the variety of items—a miniature etch-a-sketch, a small collection of Hot Wheels from a person who assigned a everyone they met a specific Hot Wheels car, a couple of novelty bobbleheads. This felt like a physical reminder of what life on a ship is like—myriads of artifacts of lives lived, but a collection that is pliable in its nature. The members contributing to it are never always the same. There is a sense of tradition to life here. Another reminder of this is a wall of mugs in the galley. They come from everywhere, some holiday related, others souvenirs such as “I ♡ Japan”, some just plain old mugs, but no two that are quite the same. It leads me to wonder just where these different mugs came from, and how many people have drunk from them, felt warmth from them, or picked a favorite out of all of them. Socially, sailors notoriously carry artifacts in superstitions and secret rules, something I am reminded of as a student who is sometimes unaware of the specific etiquette of the Thompson.

 These artifacts, from souvenirs to mugs to superstitions, are both humbling and remind me of the strange world that is life at sea. For a short while, I have been able to make this place my home. Home in a place ever changing, with people never really staying, but always leaving something behind.

The manipulator of Jason reaches for the vent cap at the Tiny Towers site. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; V23.
Sunset from the Thompson, V23.

14 September 2023: Sleepy Day Aboard the Thompson

Today was an odd day. Firstly the tail end of yesterday came with many challenges for our cruise. When we attempted to deploy the Universal Fluid Obtainer (UFO) during dive J2-1556 at the hydrothermal vents “Tiny Towers”, there was a ground error that required us to stop the dive or risk damaging the ROV. Then, at 1900, when the Jason crew was preparing to redeploy with the UFO there was a suspicious smell from the power box that ended up being a charred and blown transformer. This lead difficult decisions to be made—do we continue to try and do science work at Axial Seamount, or do we ensure the Deep Profiler mooring that was previously faulty at the  Oregon Offshore site, a full 18 hours away, is working?

While I didn’t have any part in this conversation, of course, when I woke up for my 0400 shift, I was told by a student who was on the 0000-0400 shift that they were  giving Jason until 0630 to work, or at least that is what they heard. Given that the lab seemed nearly abandoned, I elected to finish up a blog upload it to the shared folder, and head to bed around 0500.

Since my particular berth does not have a window, it’s pitch black when I head to sleep—something that might make it easy to fall asleep, but hard to get up for me. Therefore, I was a bit disoriented when I woke up, and even more so when I checked my phone and the time of “14:55” looked back at me. I hadn’t expected to sleep this long—much less sleep through the science meeting that was from 1400 to 1500 entirely.

Luckily, when I apologized to our Chief Scientist later, she was understanding, and told me that they chose to let me continue to sleep.

A star-filled night from the Thompson during Leg 4. R. Newell, University of Washington, V23.

Additionally, when I got up, I noticed we were in transit again, this time to Oregon Offshore. It turned out that they decided to head over to check on the mooring, unfortunately having to decide to leave the hydrothermal vents behind. While the other students and I felt some disappointment at this, we understood that this is how things are at sea—our board that displays the plan for the day is called the “Board of Lies” for a reason, after all. Nevertheless, the day was restful and fun. I got to have a nice dinner, see the sunset, get some rest, and most awaited of all—finally got to see the stars at sea.

I’ve been waiting for a good night to see the night sky, and since the transit was so smooth while we were heading to EOO, I felt like it was a good night to go out. I ended up going out twice, once to the 02 deck bow with Ziggy, and then another time out to the stern with Aakriti, Jasmine, Jolee, and Ziggy again. Both time had their own merits. Firstly, the bow was pitch black. Even though Ziggy was right next to me, I couldn’t see him at all until my eyes got adjusted—it was odd to hear a voice and see no person talking. Since the horizon is so wide on the ocean, I remember Ziggy commented that it was as if we were “in a spaceship”, stars surrounding us. It was illuminating to see the glory of the milky way splashed across the sky, and I hope I get a chance to look at the stars again before we get into port. When we went out on the stern, it was a little bit brighter, but you could still see far, far more stars than possible on shore. What was fun about being at the back of the boat was the opportunity to see the bioluminescent creatures sparkling in the water being disturbed by the propeller.

Tomorrow, we will arrive at Oregon Offshore and check on the status of the mooring. Essentially, we need to check that the Deep Profiler mooring moves up and down the cable it is attached to. If it is, we will perform a CTD to check its data. As for tonight, though, I am watching a movie with some other students and simply just hanging out, enjoying our time away at sea.

A lava whirl at Axial Caldera. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; J2-1555, V23.

13 September 2023: Exciting and Early Dive at the Central Caldera!

When I woke up for my morning shift at the lovely hour of 3 am, I was surprised to see that there was a Jason dive scheduled for 0400 on the dot. We were diving down to the Central Caldera site —the center of the volcano known as Axial Seamount. I quickly got ready and sat in the Jason can alongside my two other shift members, Jolee and Kristine. It was our first dive at the volcano, and so we all were buzzing with excitement.

The goal of J2-1555 was this: replace the CTD instrument located at the Central Caldera and then check on the FETCH instrument that had stopped working last year (more on that later). However, we were treated to two much more interesting sights.

First, while we were over 1500 meters under the ocean, the van noticed a strange pattern on Jason’s sonar—a swirl. While we were doing our work, Jason moved over to investigate, and found a strange, swirling pattern in the basaltic lava. APL engineer, James Tilley, who was in the hotseat of the Jason van at the time, likened it to a “rose” pattern. I’m very curious as to what caused this interesting pattern in the seafloor.

The manipulator of Jason reaches for the vent cap at the Tiny Towers site. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; V23.

While we were at the sight—we also got a treat in a biological sense, as we saw a strange looking jellyfish floating near the bottom of the seafloor (fig. 2). While it is a little hard to see through the haze of the ocean, you can see its silhouette in the water. In a later conversation with Atticus, we believe this may be a giant phantom jellyfish (Stygiomedusa gigantea), a rare deep sea jellyfish. Whether it was or not I am not qualified to say, but it was just one of many of the very cool creatures I am lucky to see while doing Jason dives.

What made the dive even more interesting was Maleen Kidiwela, a fellow student who is pursuing a Ph.D, discussing his work involving the aforementioned FETCH instruments. Essentially, there are four FETCH instruments set up at different parts of the Caldera, as shown in the diagram. One of these, the lower one in the center, is cabled. The four FETCH send acoustic signals to determine their distance from one another. This distance can be used to determine the rising and falling of the caldera up to an eruption. Unfortunately, the cabled FETCH malfunctioned within one week of being installed, so part of this dive was ensuring that the FETCH was not flooded as well as gathering data from the three wireless FETCH devices.

An illustration presented during a discussion about FETCH. Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington, V23.

Regardless, I am excited to see what Maleen’s work will bring. It was valuable to hear his knowledge about geophysics, and I know a lot more about the geology behind Axial Seamount than I did previously.

The Deep Profiler retrieved at Axial Base. It will be swapped out with another Deep Profiler before being deployed again . Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington, V23.

11-12 September 2023

Yesterday, we transited to Slope Base. While this site is only a bit farther out than the Oregon Offshore site, it’s much deeper, boasting a depth of 2900 meters. It is near the base of the Cascadia Margin.

Both of my shifts ended up being pretty tame; we were transiting so there wasn’t much to do other than finish up my project proposal. However, RCA Technician Andrew Paley gave an exhilarating talk about worms for our science meeting. Andrew’s work has specifically focused on studying the genetics of scale worms around the hydrothermal vents and studying how they may reproduce. Because these worms haven’t been studied much, there is still a lot to look into. While I hadn’t considered the worms at the summit of Axial Seamount before, the worm talk definitely gave me a deeper appreciation of scale worms.

Over night, we transited to Axial Base—it was a long journey, taking about 21 hours, as we went from being a mere 58.5 nautical miles from the NOAA dock to a humble 253.7 nautical miles from shore. While located past the continental shelf and at Slope Base had already made the waters feel a bit rockier, it didn’t compare to being in transit. I was very grateful for the Dramamine I had taken during the science meeting yesterday because I managed to avoid getting seasick.

A styrofoam head that the Leg 4 VISIONS’ students decorated together. It was sent to the seafloor with the CTD Rosette on 9-12-23, shrinking it. Credit: R. Newell; University of Washington, V23.

Fortunately for me, my shift from 0400 to 0800 was cancelled. Unfortunately for me, sleeping was troublesome. My room was much nosier than usual, but after struggling to fall asleep and eventually deciding to step out for a while, eat some soup, and draw some sunsets, I was able to fall asleep around 4:30. I got one of the longest rests I had since we began our journey—a solid 8 hours. Hurray!

At 1400, we had a science meeting where we heard from Katie Bigham, the Chief Scientist. She discussed her work and experiences as a past VISIONS student. It was interesting to hear about how much the VISIONS program had shaped her career, as well as the research she has done outside of the Regional Cabled Array system.

Earlier in the day, fellow student Ziggy and I had talked with APL engineers Nick and Garrett, who were working on retrieving the Deep Profiler, and they had offered to show us it and let us service some parts of it when it came back from the water. It ended up coming out around 1600, and we were given a tour of the Deep Profiler, as well as allowed to get it ready to go into its crate.

It was very fun to hear about how the mooring was engineered, particularly the aspect of it having glass as its main buoyancy, which I would not initially expect from a deep-sea instrument.

Around 1700, I had dinner and helped with a verification CTD. While earlier in the day I was shown how to set up the CTD Rosette with Ziggy and Jolee (see Jolee’s blog for photo), I was now helping from the Computer Lab, telling the winch operator what depth to bring the CTD to and firing the bottles. This CTD was especially interesting, because the Styrofoam cups and heads we have been decorating were on it. Basically, it is a tradition to take a Styrofoam object down, so that the pressure will take all of the air out of it and shrink it.

Inside of the Jason van during dive J2-1554. Jason is descending to the seafloor and many different computer screens can be seen. Credit: R. Newell; University of Washington, V23.

Once the CTD came up, I was delighted to see that our objects shrunk successfully. I am particularly proud of the head that I and other Leg 4 VISIONS’s students decorated, which I added a shell headband to. Right after we retrieved the CTD and got to see our cups, Jason was diving for J2-1554. Since the dive started at 1930 and my shift ended at 2000, I was only on shift for the descent of Jason. However, I decided to stay a little longer afterwards to work on my project proposal and watch Jason get to the floor. It was  definitely worth it, as the Jason van is a fun place to hang out and it was nice to see some of the animals on the sea floor.

A stunning view of the sunrise from the R/V Thompson on the morning of 9/10/23. Credit: R. Newell; University of Washington, V23.

10 September 2023

My morning shift from 0400-0800 today was quiet—so quiet, in fact, that when I got down to the Main Lab, Andrew Paley, RCA Technician and former student ambassador for VISION’s, told me I could go back to bed since there would be nothing to do this shift. However, I decided that I wanted to stay up, since I had already gotten ready for the day and felt awake.

It was a nice and quiet time that I was able to use to get some work done, as I used it to finish typing up my blog for the day before. Though, honestly, it was eerily quiet. I had gotten used to the bustling nature of the Thompson that a quiet moment like this, where at one point I was the only person in the Main Lab, felt out of place. I didn’t regret staying up, though, as once my fellow student Jolee joined me, we went outside and got to see a stunning sunrise—the type you can only get at sea, where there is nothing to block your view. My favorite part of my shifts, which are from 0400-0800 and 1600-2000, is that they happen during sunrise and sunset, giving me a reason to be awake during these stunning times.

A view of the bridge from the R/V Thompson. Equipment used to control the ship can be seen. Credit: R. Newell; University of Washington, V23.

However, once I ate breakfast and it hit 0800, I realized just how tired staying up had made me, and I elected to take a nap to catch up on sleep. Once I finished napping, I decided to finally face the daunting challenge of taking a shower while at sea—it turns out it isn’t that hard, especially when you are essentially staying in the same spot for a while. Feeling refreshed, I headed down to the Main Lab, where we were preparing to get a tour of the bridge from the Second Mate, Victor. In all honesty, I actually had an unofficial tour of the bridge yesterday, since Kristine, Jasmine, and I were peering into the bridge when Victor opened the door and asked us if we wanted a tour. This time was still just as interesting, because in addition to hearing about all of the equipment that the bridge uses, we also got to hear about his stories at sea, most excitingly the time that he saw a wolf fight a bear while piloting a National Geographic ship, with photographic evidence (for the record, the wolf was protecting her cub, and won as it was so aggressive it made the bear decide the cub wasn’t worth the snack).

My shift from 1600-2000 made up for the lack of activity in the morning by starting off deceptively calm. At first, there wasn’t much to do, and I offered to help edit an engineering highlight video from a past Jason Dive—it was fun to see the different actions the ROV could do with its highly precise manipulator. Then, I had a delicious dinner made by our expert Steward that featured two types of lasagna, one vegetarian and one beef, broccoli, carrot cake, and more. Then, we had a Q&A with the Thompson’s Marine Technician, Emmet, at 1800. Here, we got to learn more about the Marine Tech role on Research Vessels—they have a wide range of responsibilities, from making sure things like the computers and wifi are working correctly to participating in deck work. As it was explained to me on my first day aboard, they “know everything”.

Jason using a toilet brush to clean off the connector of a cable during dive J2-1551. Credit: UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI; J2-1551; V23.

All of the sudden, though, the arduous mooring work was over, and Jason was about to dive to collect two beacons off of the moorings and clean and connect the plugin using a toilet brush. Since it was still my shift, I was in charge of being the video logger, getting to control the live stream, take snapshots, and make sure that the footage of the dive was recorded! While I had to swap out with the 2000-0000 crew midway through the dive, I still got the chance to take some fun photos.

It was especially fun to be in the Jason van as, because we were all coming from the Marine Tech tour, a lot of students sat in for the dive. At least seven of us were piled in, with 4 people sitting at the couch, 2 of us at the computers, and 1 of us standing by the table. It was a fun chance to talk to the Jason crew and each other as different types of sea creatures passed by and we played different types of music.

It’s amazing how much tension music can lift—while before music was being played, the Jason van, with its wall of screens and computers, felt tense and high-stakes, once the music was on, it was a party. Tonight we begin transiting to Slope Base, where we will get past the continental shelf. There, a CTD and Jason dive will take place.

9 September 2023

The R/V Thompson pulling away from the NOAA dock in Newport, Oregon. Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington; V23.
The ROV Jason sitting on the deck of R/V Thompson. Credit: R. Newell, University of Washington; V23.

8 September 2023

As of 20:00 on 9/8/2023, Leg four of the Thompson is finally underway! The prior 25 hours have been busy ones, so let’s start from the beginning. My journey started yesterday at 7 am, where I and other Visions students met up in Seattle to begin the 6 hour long road trip down to Newport Oregon, where the NOAA dock is located. Once we got here, I took a COVID test and then was shown a brief layout of the boat. I quickly learned that research vessels such as the Thompson can be quite labyrinths—narrow passageways and a fire door at the end of each room can make many areas look the same. Luckily, the two rooms I need to know the most—my berth, as well as the Main Lab, where the student workstations are located, are easy to find. My cabin is right next to where we got on the ship and the Main Lab has a stunning mural of an octopus painted on the outside of it (this has caused me to dub this room “The Octopus Room”).

After being shown around and getting to meet some of the crewmates and fellow students, some students and I decided to get some fish and chips from a local restaurant—The South Fish Market. For this being my last meal on land, I have no regrets; they were some of the best fish and chips I have had in a while. Once we headed back, the exhaustion from the recent travelling was really starting to set in, and after finding the location of the library and movie room, I decided to go to my cabin to rest. I chose to sleep on the top bunk, claiming that its for “adventure”. I don’t know yet if this was a good decision, per se, but I suppose I will find out when I try to sleep tonight.

Today was when things really started to kick into gear. We had a safety meeting at 0900, where we were shown the different alarms, escape routes, and got to test out the big, red emergency suits. Then, at 1100, we got to see a tour of the ROV Jason, which I had been looking forward to. As a member of the UWROV and a mechanical engineering major, I could not help but be excited to see how a real-life industrial grade ROV operated and was built, and I was not disappointed. Even though our tour was brief, it was stunning to see a machine that was bigger than I was tall, with its massive thrusters, many cameras, massive manipulators and more. The part I found the most interesting was Jason’s communication system—from what I understand, there is an acoustic device on the ROV, one on the tether, and one from the boat that gets lowered into the water. This way, the ROV can communicate its location, as well as the tether location, back to the boat. Communication through water is a lot more difficult than communication through air, as I learned the hard way this past year through UWROV, so I am excited to talk more with the Jason crew about their communication systems and more.

After getting a tour of Jason, we did a fire drill, and then we were free until all aboard at 1900 (though, really, we were advised to be on board by 1800). I decided to get outside and enjoy my time on land for a little longer, bringing my camera to take some photos of the pelicans, seagulls, cormorants, and other wildlife that lives nearby. Additionally, some fellow students and I decided to go on a nature walk to admire to local estuaries of Newport. Then, we got back on-board, had food, and before I knew it, it was almost 2000.

To my delight, the sun was setting right as we left. I and all the other visions students decided to gather on the 2nd floor of the boat to watch the sunset and the boat pulling away from the dock. It was an epic scene, with the large bow pulling away from the dock, the massive Yaquina Bay Bridge in the background, and the sky splashed with the dusty colors of the setting sun as if it were a soft-pastel illustration. Looking out from the bow, feeling the wind strong against me, I felt an excitement for what to come, even as the waves began to set in, and I started to understand just how rocky this vessel would be. I’m very excited for what’s to come, but first, even though I almost feel too excited to, I know I should try to get some sleep. After all, I’ve been assigned to the 0400 to 0800 and 1600-2000 shift, where I will be available to help science team members as well as help with logging if Jason is doing a dive.