Thursday, November 19, 2020

Cruising for Science!

 

Breaking through Arctic ice on the R/V Lance

We approached the city of Philadelphia at Station 7. The scientific crew on the R/V Cape Henlopen would burst into song:

 

“Shut up, you talk too much,”

the opening line from a popular song in 1985 by the hip-hop group Run DMC.

 

Station 7 in the calm inland waters of the Delaware River was an easy place for the team to have gotten all their sampling and analytical systems in place and before reaching the more open Delaware Bay. It was the start of an oceanographic cruise—a mixture of hard work, tumbling seas, and camaraderie.

 

Being on an oceanographic cruise is completely different than a pleasure cruise! The food is usually pretty good, if you have a decent cook, but the staterooms are primitive; you usually share with someone you don’t know too well, and showers are limited. In addition, the work of sampling the ocean, lake or river you are cruising on is usually a 24-hour activity with some time in the day for sleeping and eating, but little time for “rest.”

 

Once on the ship, the people who are on board set up their own social strata just like in the larger world. Those who don’t get seasick are in the higher class, while those throwing up over the rails, not so much. The Chief Scientist is the Big Dog with constant access to the ship’s Captain and crew. It’s a demanding, but rewarding, job that I enjoyed when I was given the chance. It’s not uncommon for shipboard relationships to develop after a few days of being away from shore.

 

Taken together, it’s a big intricate dance with people in their set roles, the rhythm of the sea, and the constant pace of activity. I thrived under these conditions.

 

My first cruise was a short, student cruise on the R/V (standing for Research Vessel) Longhorn, the University of Texas ship. In the mid 1970s, the Longhorn was pretty funky and had a pitch and roll to it that made many seasick (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2020/03/patrick-l-parker-got-lot-of-isotope.html). In the early 1980s, my dad took me out to the Delaware Bay on his small boat to collect plankton for hydrogen isotope analyses.

 

My dad's fishing boat

 

My first set of serious cruises was with Jon Sharp of the College of Marine Studies at the University of Delaware. Jon and I had a funded NSF project working with his three competitive students: Luis Cifuentes, Jon Pennock, and Rick Coffin. We carried out 24 cruises with 26 stations extending from Trenton, NJ to the mouth of the Delaware estuary over a period of two years. Jon liked to call our cruise track going along the “spine” of the estuary from freshwater near Trenton all the way to full saltwater at the mouth of the Bay.

 

As we proceeded from Station 7 with everyone singing, we passed Station 10 at the mouth of the polluted Schuylkill River and then reached the open bay at Station 15 where the Henlopen started to develop a motion guaranteed to induce queasiness in many of the science team. Luis Cifuentes turned a pale green, stopped singing, and passed his chores on to hearty postdoc David Velinsky. Professor Dave Kirchman just disappeared, turning his work over to his students. Those still working buckled down, secured anything that could move and carried on. These cruises on the Delaware estuary were only 2-3 days long, just long enough to get a good pair of sea legs and get used to the constant motion. But they were run in a highly precise manner with plenty of good will.

 


David Velinsky writes: I met Marilyn and Chris in late 1987 for my postdoc interview and we ended up in Lambda Rising [an LGBT bookstore in Dupont Circle] looking for birding books. Needless to say they did not have any birding books, but that was ok! I met her at the Upton Geophysical Laboratory eating peanuts and running the old Dupont IRMS. I have known Marilyn since that day! I feel that the freedom to explore some new areas while working at the lab with Marilyn was a key point in my career and it was a wonderful time; I appreciate her help and guidance. I remember leaving for a field trip and having to check Marilyn on the Eppendorf pipettes to make sure she was calibrated to deliver 1.0000000ml; not sure that went over too wellJ

 

My next set of cruises (1989-1990) took place in the Pacific Northwest on the R/V Clifford Barnes, a small ship holding only 6 scientists and two crew members. I was working on a project studying microbial manganese formation (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2020/02/egos-and-manganese-nodules.html) with Brad Tebo (then at Scripps Institution of Oceanography). Our research took us into Canadian waters off the coast of Vancouver Island. We departed from crowded Seattle harbor, steamed north to the eastern coast of the island to a place called Saanich Inlet, famous to geochemists who study ocean basins like the Black Sea that have deep water with no oxygen. Basins like this have different microbial processes in them than the majority of the ocean’s oxygenated waters.

 

We were excited to try to fit three science projects into one small lab, which was a real challenge. Furthermore, The Barnes had only one stateroom for scientists, so I spent a week living with 5 other big men. I was stuffed into one of the lower bunks in a small space littered with dirty clothes, smelly shoes, and more disarray than I was used to.

 

We took turns cooking the meals, since there was no room for a cook. Some of us were gourmet chefs, but postdoc David Velinsky was inexperienced in this regard. He made barbecued chicken grilled on the back deck, which wasn’t as done as it should have been. Also, the grill had been placed in the plume of radioactive bicarbonate that was being acidified on the deck. The next day, people’s stomachs grumbled and it was thought folks might have had a touch of food poisoning. (I did not eat any raw chicken and was fine.)

Fighting over radioactive chicken with David Velinsky

 

 

Also on the Barnes, we did not have a marine technician so we worked all of the sampling gear ourselves—putting out the “wire”—a metal cable attached to a winch that allowed us to collect samples hundreds of meters to the bottom of the inlet. Attached to the end of the cable was a special container (Niskin or GoFlo sampler) that was designed to collect water at specific depths. Fortunately for me, although he was not a chef, Velinsky was very experienced with all aspects of sampling and lab work, so things ran smoothly. It was tedious work, but satisfying to do our own sampling. I learned a lot.

 

Inevitably on the Barnes, the head (the toilet) stopped up. As the only woman on board, I was silently accused of creating the problem because we women use more toilet paper and we might flush sanitary products—both something I was careful not to do. So, we had to do our “business” in a bucket, parade it outside, and dump it away from our sampling location. Ugh. We were very glad to get back to port at the Univ. of Washington.

 

My next set of cruises (1993-1995) was on the R/V Cape Hatteras (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2020/11/carmen-aguilar-and-russell-cuhel-1994.html). Postdoc Mark Teece had these memories about Cruise 6 to the Sargasso Sea with Hurricane Marilyn and me as Chief Scientist.

 

Mark Teece writes:My first cruise and first scopolamine experience, so the first morning at sea was still an unhappy one. Coming into the galley I was greeted by the huge spread of breakfast and was only able to eat dry biscuits while everyone else tucked into pancakes and bacon. It took me 4 years to be able to eat a biscuit without getting itchy cheeks.

 

 I bunked with the best first dude – a towering man who was in charge of the CTD casts. On the first rough night out of port, I let go of the door and it slammed into the wall really loudly right next to his head. Needless to say, I was not popular with this crew member and then there were lots of snide remarks about young idiotic stunts for a few days!

 

This ribbing stopped when a few nights later we went through some really rough seas and I was unceremoniously tossed out of my top bunk and landed on the floor. Totally disorientated I made it out of the stateroom! and somehow ended up in the engine room in the middle of the night. The next day I was hurting badly from my fall and the first mate seemed satisfied that I had got my required punishment and was nice to me from then on.

Hollander, Teece, Van Mooy and Filley

 

 

 I helped with the sediment cores, and I remember sitting in the galley through the night listening to the winches bringing up the cores (and eating Saltines) for hours and then when it triumphantly arrived on deck it was empty! The sides of the corer were all scratched and the top looked like it had landed first. So the corer was sent down again, and then left to hang in the depths for a few hours hoping to right itself before the final drop to the sediment. Thankfully that was successful and then sectioning of the core started with Dave Hollander in charge so the intensity of collecting mud was at an all time high.

 I had just arrived from England and was told to bring some old clothes for the cruise – needless to say I had not brought many old clothes in my one suitcase from England. So I came equipped with lots of plain T shirts, which it turned out needed to have pockets or else they were undershirts. So many things for an Englishman to learn. Luckily some helpful people drew pictures on my shirts so they looked okay. Then when the wedding was happening, I had no “good” shirts and certainly none with a collar that Marilyn specifically told me that I had to wear. So I bought a golf shirt off Ben for two Sharpies (onboard currency not unlike a cigarettes in juvenile detention!).

 

The cruise was a great experience and it was fabulous to drive down with Ben and Tim as I knew no one in the country! Thankfully there are no pictures of my duct tape attempt at boxing up a corer for its journey home!”

Ben's first hydrocast, Sargasso Sea 1995

 

Ben Van Mooy writes: “What an awesome cruise!  I sorted through all of our old photos we keep in the basement last night, and I found the cruise photos!  Tiffany, my wife, and I toasted Dave Hollander (1959-2020) and had a few more tears. But what fond memories the photos brought back. It was my first cruise, and, therefore, was full of all of the other firsts.  Thanks so much Marilyn.  It was a true turning point in my life. And thanks to you Mark and Tim; you made it an absolute blast. I believe I took my first CTD cast--the first of what is now certainly many hundreds. Ah, yes, going past the Gulf Stream and into the Sargasso.  A respite from the waves for all, I'm sure.  Again, for me, this was the first of many cruises punching through to that glorious blue water and getting some relief from the sea-sickness. Hurricane Marilyn was near. My mind was blown and so was my hair (back when I had hair).  This is one of my fondest memories of Dave, when the energy of the world matched his”

Hurricane Marilyn arrives

Tim Filley writes: “This was my first and only cruise.  You made sure I got experience on most of the sampling tools (CDT, Cores, zooplankton tows), but I spent most of my time separating Trichodesium (those produced a pretty soluble cyano-pigment from those that did not).  I also separated zooplankton.  I remember keeping careful pencil renderings of all of my “important” discoveries in the tow cup. 

 

Surprisingly, I did not get seasick and I decided to not use the scapalomine. I seem to recall I looked forward to the chef’s meals - they were quite excellent.  I used his homemade fiery habenaro hot sauce liberally.

 

When we were getting ready to send down the corer I felt a bit embarrassed that I was unaware of the tradition of bringing a Styrofoam bust, that everyone signed, to send down to the watery depths to squeeze to a shrunken head.  I managed to scrounge up a block of Styrofoam, get it signed by my crewmates and send it down – I still have the squished block to this day.

 

Tim and Mark, Sargasso Sea 1995

I had the privilege of being charged with taking the video of the Carmen-Russell wedding ceremony.  I walked around the deck getting people to give their congratulations.  When it came time to ask the captain to offer his well wishes I trained the camera on him and he said, in what I thought at the time was a mildly scary voice, “Do not take my picture”.  I put the camera down and slowly backed away. 

 

I remember the excitement of working on deck while experiencing the storms of Hurricane Marilyn.  There was some, not much, comfort in being tethered to a safety line so we did not take the plunge. The call to go to our rooms because seas were too rough was a bit scary.  Being told we had to chain ourselves in our bunk while the boat was being tossed to and fro was downright terrifying (and a bit exhilarating).  

 

It was the first time I ever saw wave crests illuminated by phosphorescent algae. I would love to see that again. Working with that fantastic group of people convinced me I wanted to do my postdoc at only one place – The Geophysical lab. “

 

 

Experiments to test the effects of rainwater on plankton growth, 1995


 

I veered into Astrobiology for several years after this. It was not until 2004 that I set sail again, this time in Arctic waters off the coasts of Svalbard at 78-80 degrees North latitude. Although we were berthed on a ship, our sampling took place on shore. That shipboard feel was still there of course, but rarely did we have to work under the difficult conditions I'd encountered in the path of a hurricane.

 


M/V Polarsyssel lower deck where we got off the ship, 2004

The first ship of this project, the M/V Polarsyssel, was an outdated icebreaker used normally by the Governor of Svalbard on missions to view his territory, and was not designed as a scientific ship. Our labs were below decks in containers, but the staterooms were nice and it had a homey feel to it. Working alone in my mini-lab measuring ammonia concentrations with multiple repetitive steps, I now used earbuds attached to my computer to provide mindless music. My daughter, a rap lover, had loaded up my iTunes with her favorite songs. One day I found myself singing along with the rapper 50 Cent singing “I’m high all the time. I smoke that good shit.” Something about being on a ship doing science.

 

Verena Starke in small lab

Several contrasts to US ships—alcohol was allowed on board and the cook was awful. The first difference led to some fun and fine dining, but had its drawbacks when Norwegian scientists drank too much (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2020/01/a-life-of-sport-i-have-real-track-record.html). The second drawback in terms of food quality improved on subsequent voyages. At every meal we were served cold cuts, pickled herring, and bland cheeses, but the position of them on the buffet table moved from main course (breakfast) to sides (lunch) to appetizer (dinner). I learned what good Norwegian food was and adapted to it.

 

We transitioned to the R/V Lance (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2019/08/research-rhythm-svalbard.html) a couple years later and conditions for lab space improved, as well as the food and logistics. Most important was a specially constructed hot tub on the upper deck. The crew built it out of plywood and tarps, filled it was cold seawater, then warmed it with the hot exhaust from the engines. It was the scene of nightly relaxation and some mischief. What happens in Svalbard stays in Svalbard!

 

One of my last voyages was on the M/V Kakivak, a ship owned and operated by Inuit of upper Quebec and Nunavut (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2020/02/earths-earliest-signs-of-life-if-we.html). Again, a small ship with one stateroom held all eight scientists, while the crew slept on the shoreline. As we went to sleep each night, we told stories and jokes like we were kids in summer camp. We also prepared all meals in a little stove on the floor of the main cabin where the Captain steered the ship. 

The mighty Kakivak Hudson Bay

 

 

When we crossed Hudson Bay from the mainland to the Belcher Islands, there was a fierce storm rending many of our group sidelined by seasickness. What surprised me, however, was the lack of navigation equipment on the ship. The Inuit traveled using only topo maps and a compass! Fortunately, they were experienced seamen and we landed where we needed to go. 

Cooking on the Kakivak for 12 people

 

 

Being able to do your sampling on land made things much easier in many ways, but I missed that feel of togetherness as we steamed in places where land was far distant and the waters were deep. Today, from my desk in Mariposa, California, I am so glad I had the chance to sample the deep sea, breathe the fresh wind, and get my sea legs under me. If you ever have the chance to “sail”, take it!

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Dear Marilyn, your blog made me chuckle and refresh all my cruise memories. Indeed, research expeditions have been one of the most exciting aspects of my career (and life).

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