Ziggy Avetisyan Blog Leg 4

The ROV Jason being lifted out of the water in an unusual manner by the crew so that the the multibeam sonar (COVIS) it recovered from the ASHES Hydrothermal Field could be safely secured. Credit: S. Avetisyan, University of Washington; V23.

16 September 2023

Today I woke to a peaceful and glassy transit punctuated by a 7:30 alarm. It played a little tune, its melody pronouncing harsh words of virtue, warning me against the gentle temptation of the waves. I generally take pride in my ability to wake up early when needed, but today I afforded myself the luxury of sleeping in since my 0800 shift was cancelled.

When the Thompson is in transit from one location to another, our student scientist crew is generally allowed to sleep in or show up to shifts in a relaxed manner (a nicer way of saying late/not at all). This is because there is not always something useful for us to do while the ship is moving. Today was just such a day, a day on which we could enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the destination.

What a nice feeling it was. So nice that I didn’t even mind when something peeled the curtains from my eyes and made me peel the curtains from my bedside to look out through the porthole, out through the waves. But where were the waves? And why wasn’t the water moving? Who shut off the CAT V-16 diesel which the Chief Engineer had shown off earlier?

Of course, there was no peaceful and glassy transit: we were standing still and I had a shift to show up for. I think I was more ashamed than I should have been, since I only entered the ROV control room 5 minutes late. But ashamed I was… I guess this is what it takes to make me heed my alarm next time.

My shift started at the tail end of the dive, though there was no shortage of excitement to be had in those 45 minutes. It was the dive that would finally see a crucial set of hydrothermal vent fluid samples collected for a researcher’s project.

Gorgeous rays of sun crawling down to Earth as I crawled out of bed. Credit: S. Avetisyan, University of Washington; V23.

The crew was beginning to refer to these samples superstitiously, talking about them like a Russian talks about a bear. In Russian, there is an old word for bear that sounds just like that, bear (in a Russian accent). I only learned this version of the animal’s name around age 18, long after learning the bear’s common name in kindergarten: “medved”, or “honey seeker”. Nobody calls the bear a bear in Russia, and while today it is certainly out of simple cultural habit, it’s easy to imagine a time when calling the bear by its true name was comparable to whistling at sea.

So on this day, the 16th of September, came the day that the Universal Fluid Obtainer – known both officially and affectionately as the UFO – finally collected ­its first samples. This day was meant to come long before Leg 4 of this year’s VISIONS cruise started, indeed it was originally planned for either Leg 1. Foul weather pushed it to the third leg, and then again from the third to the fourth. We took it all the way down to Axial  caldera only a day or so prior, and then right at the bottom of the ocean the ROV started warning us that a power cable running to the UFO’s pump was touching seawater somehow.

Fixing the UFO led the engineers to lift yet another stone on this beach of problems, now revealing that their main transformer providing power to the ROV among other things was broken because of a design flaw in its mounting, which buckled under the cyclic stress of maritime operations. I knew things were getting really rough when the crew asked me to scratch one of the Main Lab’s support posts with my fingernails and walk around it three times to cancel out the bad luck I’d brought about by whistling on deck. I can’t be absolutely sure they weren’t messing with me, but they all looked grave and exhausted enough to have been serious. Perhaps my ritual paid off: a respectable volume of hydrothermal vent fluids were obtained today for the first time this cruise, with only a few minor issues. Everyone still treats topics of dive success superstitiously, though. One too many bad run-ins with a bear will certainly see you keeping its name out of your mouth.

The day ends with a clashing of wind and waves which is forecasted to put our life at sea into motion. Some are predicting waves 12 feet high later on the 17th and 18th. I can’t say I’m not excited about the potential thrill, though I also can’t say I’m not worried about my sleep. Time will tell.

The ROV lab from the inside, featuring navigation screens and multiple streamed camera angles. Credit: S. Avetisyan, University of Washington; V23.

9 September 2023

It’s the morning of the tenth as I write this, but this is mostly because some of the most exciting moments so far took place last night. I’ll try to do justice to this ship through this description of my first few days at sea, but as blogs go, this one might not be great. Sometimes things happen to me that make my fingers dance across the keyboard, struggling to keep up with my thoughts. Other times, my fingers tremble restlessly at the starting line, a blank page ahead of them as my thoughts gaze absently at the starting pistol.

Screen shot of a a shark seen by one of the front-facing cameras on Jason. Credit: S. Avetisyan, University of Washington; V23

The seventh, a long day of driving, covid tests, and orientations, was rather tame in physical terms, but exhausting mentally. There’s only so much awesome and interesting knowledge I can absorb before taking a nap. Unfortunately, conditions that day were conducive neither to napping nor to blogging, so the starting pistol went unfired. I did, however, get to learn a ton about my peers and how interesting and knowledgeable they all are, on top of learning lots about the Thompson.

On the eighth I was able to spend some more time settling in and learning the layout of the ship. The seasickness medicine I had taken the night before, based on the common advice of everyone around me, kicked in around mid afternoon. Everyone found it pretty funny that my consciousness only kicked in four hours later after an intense and much-needed nap catalyzed by artificial drowsiness. A fire drill that day finally satisfied my longstanding curiosity as to how on earth people survive in the ocean after a ship is scuttled: a beefed-up dry suit called an immersion suit, coupled with a PFD, is intended to keep people alive in an emergency. They were also pretty fun to put on. Big nap out of the way, the starting pistol was loaded and set, but right when I was ready to sit down and write, the Thompson untied and set out for sea! I couldn’t miss our moment of departure, so that evening was spent enjoying the sunset and watching the land fade away in the distance.

A seal swimming next to Jason as it surfaces after a dive. Credit: S. Avetisyan, University of Washington; V23.

September ninth could be described as a roller coaster, but its ups and downs probably wouldn’t make for a very good amusement park ride: a general plateau of pensive rest interspersed with intriguing stories from the crew and a sudden peak of responsibilities and tension when ROV Jason made a dive to recover a lost beacon during my night shift. The highlights of the day’s first half included:

  • Me only realizing I had intruded on the Jason Engineer crew’s relaxation time with technical questions after our 30-minute long conversation wrapped up (keeping the embarrassment at bay afterwards was a feat)
  • Me finding out how squeamish I am after having to scrape anemones off of retrieved instrumentation (it might have to do with the emotional connections I built with them while taking care of them in a tank at Friday Harbor Labs)

Just before 2300, me and my shiftmates hustled over to the ROV van, a shipping container turned NASA-style control room, decked out in monitors, joysticks, and server racks. There we reviewed what we’d learned about helping the Jason team by logging important events during the dive with time stamps as well as monitoring the screen recording softwares and manually taking highlight clips of noteworthy moments. After 15 minutes of review, the pressure was on to perform as Jason plunged through the water column to 570 meters at the Oregon Offshore site in search of a beacon the crew had dropped down there earlier. The beacon did its best to signal its location to the team, but a cloud of suspended sediment on the sea floor made visual identification nearly impossible. The pilots came to the conclusion that the fish swimming towards Jason’s lights were kicking up all the sediment, so they turned off the ROV lights and waited. What was estimated to be a 5 minute search excluding dive times turned into a half hour one, but eventually the room was met with tired cheers as the beacon came into view and was gingerly placed in the retrieval basket. Today, the events of the past few days coupled with the excitement of last night have finally set off the charge in the pistol and sent my fingers racing across the keyboard. With another dive scheduled at 1800, I can only assume today holds more excitement and opportunity!