Third in a Series About Life on a Research Vessel
By Lori Saldaña
On board ship we operate on 2 time zones: Universal (Greenwich) time,8 hours ahead of local (Pacific) time, used when entering all research data for recording purposes, and California time for our work/sleep/eat schedule.
This can cause some confusion: the computers in the ship’s science lab show the universal time. This where all the incoming data from the CTD is received at 24 bits of Information per second once the device is lowered overboard, and we write down key data as the device is lowered and raised.
The computer clocks were changed to universal time, but after some late night confusion, I asked the technician to also set them to 24 hour clock. This was done to make it easier to convert local time to international time on the recording logs since we found, after 10+ hours of work, math skills tend to get a bit fuzzy. Plus, after 4 pm, we have to adjust our date as well as time as we record incoming information.
Adding to the timewarp is the sun: it is still warm and bright at 10pm, before descending to colorful sunsets on the far, blue edge of the sea. Stars are hard to see: the sun is only slightly below the curve of the earth, so while Polaris (North Star) makes an appearance, straight overhead (we are around 50 degrees north), the other stars remain obscured from view by the glow of sunlight only a few degrees below the horizon.
Even when I stay up til 1 am, the stars remain elusive. My shift is 11:30 am- 11:30 pm, and I don’t want to stay up too late and be tired next shift. The odd end/start time was done to accommodate the meal schedule: breakfast at 7, lunch 11:30, dinner at 5 (1700). With this schedule each shift will only miss one meal, or, if they choose, they can stay up “late” or wake up “early” (relative time) to eat with the rest of the crew.
Also, there are always leftovers in the cooler and helpful notes from the cook to tell the sleeping crew what’s available for them when they awaken. She will even label plates with names so everyone will have a good meal waiting for them- nice touch!
Once my team finishes work I enjoy taking photos, looking for whales (few and far away) and birds (many and near the ship), and talking with members of the crew or the young researchers who are collecting data for their thesis or classes. Most are students who are excited to be at sea, and we stay up late in the mess, enjoying the novel experience which will end in a few short days.
The crew is different. I approach conversations with them more cautiously since the captain, mates, engineers and cook are getting a little “crispy” around the edges (the cook’s description) after being at sea for several weeks. I’ve learned to give them their space, which is normally a premium on a boat this size, although this cruise is a bit different: fewer researchers than usual.
We have only 15 people aboard, which is considered a skeleton crew-often there would be more researchers, sleeping 2 to a cabin (each cabin has 2 bunks) and working on opposite shifts. This time, we have the luxury of “private” cabins, with a head (shower and toilet) shared between 2 cabins, and a sink in each cabin for hand washing, teeth brushing etc.
Sleeping quarters for students, technicians, engineers, cook and volunteers (only 2 this trip) are on the lower engine-level deck; I wear ear-plugs to bed to dampen the engine noise. The Chief Scientist, Captain and mates are above the mess, just below the bridge. Quieter, but more ship movement up higher.
On the “main” deck level, forward of midship, is the mess hall, library with books, magazines and DVDs. To the rear on the same level are the science areas: the “dry” computer lab for collecting the streaming data from the CTD, and adjacent to that is the “wet” lab for filtering, organizing, labeling and storing water and other specimens brought up by the equipment.
This cruise is working only with water samples, which are relatively easy and clean to collect and process. Another time I went out and collected deep-water mud- a messy and smelly process.
Unfortunately for us, one of the previous research teams, collecting coral samples or some other living critters, left, well, something that used to be alive behind. It is now decomposing and causing a stink in the wet lab. We have yet to find the source of this smell, so we avoid the wet lab unless we have specimens to label/store.
The working outdoor wet deck with the CTD is immediately outside the labs, making control of the remote device easier, and transfer of samples from CTD bottles to fridge/freezer pretty efficient, unless….whale!
(Short pause to grab binoculars, run to deck, climb to 2nd level and watch 2 or 3 sperm whales cruise past, off the port side. Beautiful!)
…unless they require absolutely “clean” handling, which entails two people holding collection equipment, one person wearing gloves and being careful not to touch anything that might contaminate the collected seawater. The samples are single or double sealed in plastic bags and placed in fridge/freezer (depending on what’s been collected), and stored until we reach shore.
The first 36 hours we had research stations every 60-90 minutes, creating a very rapid pace with little time for rest. Now stations are 2-3 hours apart, affording more time for whale watching, reading…and updating these posts.