Sam Albertson's Blog

An albatross visit
On Watch in the ROPOS Control Room

Leg 1 University of Washington participants Skip Denny, Katie Bigham and Sam Albertson watch ROPOS' progress during dive R1716.  Each action viewed and recorded on HD video must be carefully logged and documented with still photographs. Photo credit: NSF-OOI/UW/CSSF; Dive R1716; V14.

Leg 1 Student Seagoers

Sam Albertson, Don Setiawan, and Katie Bigham look out to the west, awaiting the departure of the R/V Thompson from Seattle. Photo Credit: Mitch Elend, University of Washington V14.

11 August

It's been hard for me to think of things to write for the past few days. I keep trying to come up with interesting things to talk about, beyond just what we're doing day to day, but after a month on this ship, I think I've gotten too adjusted to it to really notice all the cool, weird things that happen every day. We sailed into Newport again this morning, and now that we're back on land, everything here looks so much more interesting to me than it did when I left Seattle. Even in a little town like this, the bridge stands out like a monument to me. The lights of the town are grabbing my attention through tonight's fog. Civilization seems so cool to me right now.

It's weird to look at a house with a feeling of awe, like it's some alien relic. I don't think it's weird because it's not awesome, we just get used to it. It becomes that place we come back to every day. There's food in the kitchen, the bed's a bit messy, you left your clothes in the washing machines overnight because you didn't want to stick them in the dryer. After a month at sea, though, it's a box you've built in the wilderness, a quiet bedroom all to yourself, and a cabinet full of nostalgic ramen. It means more. The difference isn't in the house, it's in the storytelling. If you don't have an appreciation for that storytelling, if you let the story lie flat and don't pay proper respect to dramatic tension, the amazing world we live in becomes boring.

I went out on a ship this summer and saw the galaxy. I've seen volcanoes under the ocean, watched car-sized robots shooting lasers at creatures of the deep sea, helped a massive, cutting-edge scientific mission. I saw Atlantis.

If I were to try and be technically correct, and not tell the true story, I might say instead that I saw the Atlantis.

The world is full of amazing things, and if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the places we live in don't do justice to them, we suffer as a society, intangibly.

That's why science is important. A scientist's job isn't to build experiments and look at their graphs and write papers with really big, scary-looking words in them. Their job is to take all of those details, to look, at a very deep level, at what the world is, and to weave for those facts a story of how they got to be the way they are. That's one of the reasons I'm so attracted to science, like I am to writing; it's the challenge of finding a way to tell a story properly. Processing data from a CTD or a seismometer isn't all that different from trying to find the right adjective or tweaking the beat of your sentence just so.

The RSN project is trying to write one of the largest stories ever told about our oceans. Being on this ship, we've really gotten to feel like we're a part of that story, or at least about the story behind the storytelling. Coming onto this ship, I never got the feeling that my relationship with the scientists or the engineers was that of a student with his teachers. We were coworkers, co-writers. Each watch was a contribution to the ROPOS operations, albeit a minor one. My projects were helping to spread the word about our project, and to help guide future explorers and scientists in the region. This was not the story of a class. I felt like I was a genuine part of the RSN project.

That's a cool feeling for an undergrad. That's a cool feeling for anyone, and it's a feeling that I think anyone can experience. One of the major goals of our project is, in the long term, to open all the data we gather to the public. We have told people the stories about science for decades, but as the popularity of science starts to wane in the eyes of America, we need to find a way to make people feel like they are as much a part of the process as these professors and engineers are. We can do that now. Maybe someone will play around with our data and find something new and important. Maybe someone will find a way to make what we're looking at accessible, and tell that story in a new way. Maybe someone will just have a conversation about the ocean. That's all we need to do help ocean science. That's all we have to do to help most of our world: to participate, to engage the people around us, and to tell the stories about the most ridiculous, coolest things we've ever seen. Anyone can do it. All you have to do is nerd out.

That's all I've been doing on this ship. But I've been on this ship for a month now. It's time to get off the boat.

9 August 2014

I've probably never been to a more normal barbeque than the one we had a couple of days ago. It was a stereotype of a barbeque; there were hot dogs, the smell of burning charcoal, those flimsy plastic chairs everyone seems to have, an undersized inflatable pool. It just happened to be in the middle of a fairly pacific ocean, shoved in between car-sized spools of cable, shipping containers, and scientific instruments. Weirdest barbeque I've ever been to.

Not that the relaxation could ever last that long. I was only on my dinner break, so after about half an hour I had to head back inside to finish my watch. Before I got off for dinner, we were diving to hook up a deep profiler to one of our fiber optic cables. That's the big operation this leg; these profilers are going to give us some really interesting data about the water column over time, which we've never been able to observe over longer periods. By plugging into the cabled network, we will be able to gather much more detailed data over much longer periods of time. Or we will, when we can plug our secondary network into the primary nodes, which carry power and information between the sea and the shore. Everyone's been pretty excited about deploying the deep profiler.

When we tried to plug the profiler in, though, we couldn't. The plug apparently got a bit smashed when it was lowered off the boat. What was supposed to be a half-hour operation ended up taking my entire four-hour watch, and a bit of the next, before the engineers decided that their baby wasn't going to be profiling anytime soon. We needed to pull it back out of the water and replace it.

Yesterday, we went to recover it. It only took an hour and half this time to drop down the few hundred meters to the float on the end of the mooring, hook it up to our line, and carry the other end of the spool to our winch on the surface. The engineers gave off the feeling it was like pulling up a dead body. Water does funny things to whatever's in it, though. It wasn't a body we were pulling up, it was a ghost. The phantom of the deep profiler faded into view, almost ethereally; the typically stoic ROPOS team ended up giving us a lot of room on our approach to try and capture that sense of awe through the digital still camera. You can't capture that feeling in a picture, though. Especially when the DSC stops working.

We did the job eventually. The mooring got hooked up to the winch, and we spent the next few hours dragging it up. Time dragged with it. There wasn't much to do while we waited for the cable to get pulled up. I went to get dinner once my shift was over. The galley was quiet.

When I came back downstairs, the main lab was loud with the cawing of a flock of students. Word had come down from God. We had gotten a call from the President. NASA had sent word, and we were go for the moon.

We have permission to plug in.

This whole trip, we've been immersed in the process of building this cabled network. Some of that was the science that inspired our project, some of it was the engineering challenges that come with building our network at the bottom of the ocean, some of it was our professors swearing about lawyers and ownership and liability, things invented to stand in the way of good science. All through the summer, the NSF has been negotiating with Ocean Leadership, UW, OOI, and other acronymized organizations over the legal details of the project, and until someone could decide that the network wasn't going to explode when they took ownership. Last night, the negotiations were finished, and we were told it was safe to plug into the primary nodes.

The mood on board is ecstatic now. John has never seemed happier. The attitude here is: screw replacing the profiler, we're plugging in. As soon as we're done bringing the broken one up, we're going straight to our network up at Axial Caldera to plug in. It's a race against time now; the weather is with us for the next few days, but we head back to Newport tomorrow. A decade of work is about to be complete.

This whole trip is fantastic.

8 August 2014

Apologies to Madison for defibrillating her computer.

5 August 2014

I've been working mainly on video projects since I got on the Thompson. We've been trying to take video of our work on the sea floor and turn it into something that can explain what's out here, what we're building, and why ocean science is cool and important. The only problem we've been having so far has been with recording the voiceovers. After a few weeks of living here, you don't really notice it anymore, but the Thompson is a loud ship.

It's not always deafening, but it's constant. My room is right next to the bow thrusters, so when I wake up in the morning, I'm greeted by the industrial clunking and moaning machine that keeps our ship from tipping over. Go upstairs to the main lab deck, and you can hear the engines whirring around below. Down the hallway towards the stairs, and you'll pass by the engine room door. The door stays closed there for a reason. Up to the galley for breakfast, and there's kitchen sounds, or dishwashing sounds, or eating or talking sounds.

You can't get away from it. We've searched everywhere in the ship, but even in the forward science hold or the library, you still have the ventilation whistling around. It's not even the quiet hum that you get at home or wherever else on land. This ship has asthma. It wheezes at you. Even when we were in port, without the bow thrusters or the waves sledgehammering away at the hull, I still had to wear earplugs to sleep.

It's not really a problem you think about before you get on board, but this ship is a machine. If it stops making noises, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. The Thompson is a good boat, though. As hard as you might try to find a completely silent spot, you can't get off the ship.

4 August 2014

We're transiting back to Axial Seamount, now that we're done with our brief stop on the continental shelf. We're not far now from our destination, but we are so far gone from where we were on the coast. I have my ocean back.

It's hard to get across what the ocean looks like when you're over such deep water. I didn't really understand it at first. Charles wouldn't stop talking about how ridiculously blue the ocean was this far out, but to me it just looked like the normal shade. Apparently I don't spend much time on the water, back in Seattle. I only noticed the color once it was gone, when we were on our way back to Newport. Once we got closer to shore, the ocean lost its hue; it grew greener, until it faded into brown in the harbor.

Now we're back into the real ocean, far from port and far from the bottom, and the world around us has turned back into its inarticulate shades of blue. Water is a flexible element; it has the capacity to change dramatically with time, or tide, or weather. On a clear day like today, it can be a clear, deep cerulean. A bit windier, at the right time of day, the sunlight sits at just the right angle to catch on the tips of all of the miniature waves that line the ocean's larger swells, and the water flares like a sea of cameras flashing at the ship. In rough weather, the clouds roll in and turn the waves black. Then the sun starts to go down, and as the clouds break towards dusk, our eyes grow more and more colorblind, and the sea turns to quicksilver, cel shaded patches of colorless light and dark warping apart and back together. The blue here isn't even a color anymore; it's almost more of a feeling or an emotion than anything visible.

I've always been a fan of how the impressionist painters have tried to portray water. They never tried to take their works literally. Instead of trying to show the water exactly as they saw it, they found ways to convey an impression of the reflections or the waves. What they painted was a more realistic representation of what they saw than anything their realist counterparts would come up with.

They asked us, at the beginning of this cruise, to blog, and describe our lives at sea. I don't think that talking about what I do everyday gets across the experience very well; the things we learn and experience on this ship can't be communicated. You have to see them for yourself to really understand what ship life is like. The best I can do, if I really want to describe what life is like out here, is to leave my impression, rather than take things too literally.

3 August 2014

The sea is amazing. What we're doing out here, on this ship, is amazing. The fact that I get to be a part of this project, at least for me, is incredible. It's easy, sometimes, to get lost in how foreign it can all be, but we're still normal people on this boat, and we need a break from the excitement from time to time.

The library is probably the closest thing to a normal spot on the Thompson. During the day there might be a meeting of the chief scientists, like an oceanographic meeting of the Justice League, or a lecture for the students about something as profound as the origin of life. If you walk in at the right time, though, there just as easily might be a couple of crew members playing Scrabble, or some students challenging the engineers to a game of darts. Sometimes someone might just be reading.

You can't get off the boat, though.

We'll have movie nights every once in a while, but maybe there will be a problem with a dive and all the engineers will have to run off. If you want to get on the internet for a few minutes, the office is the only place you can get wifi, so it's usually crammed with people. If too many people try to get online at once, the network will kick everyone off to conserve bandwidth. Want to see some new faces after living, working, and eating with the same sixty people for a few weeks? It's a 300 mile swim from Axial back to shore.

That's what we get for choosing to come out here; whether we like it or not, we're ordinary people putting ourselves into an extraordinary situation. The usual rhythms of life have to be melded together with the rhythms of the ship. It's hard at first to try and match the beat of the mealtimes with the timing of our watches; sometimes it's hard to just eat with the rhythm of a rocking boat in harsh seas. But we adapt. At some point our inner ears make their peace with the waves, we grow used to the regularity of frantic dinners before watching our robot meander across the sea floor, and the rocking of the boat becomes sedative instead of antagonist to our sleep. At least for the next week, the boat is our home now. This is our new normal.

2 August 2014

I'm getting an old, familiar feeling, going through our early-leg routines, watching people get lost, going through the safety briefings, not quite back to normalcy, since we're in transit to Slope Base. It is the feeling of seasickness. You can see it in the faces of all the new students, when you do see them.
That can be rare; people disappear to take naps, or hide in the odd corners of the ship that don't seem to rock quite so much. It's not as bad as it was yesterday. Madison is actually in sight more more than a few minutes now, and Ryan's face doesn't seem quite so camouflaged around the salad bar. I still haven't seen much of Matthew, though.

It's been a bit busier for me, on this leg. I've only got one project to work on this time, an outreach video that acts as a sort of sequel to the one we made last leg. The animal catalog is more or less done for now, although I'm going to see if we can keep updating it. On top of that project, and the two hour lectures that sit just before my four hour watches, I've been saddled with a bit more responsibility helping to transition the new students into ship life. Jesse and I have been meeting with all the new people to get them up to speed on what's expected of them with blogs and projects and such. I've been trying to be pretty clear about the blogs, because it's also part of my job, now that Leslie is off the ship, to make sure that part of the VISIONS website gets updated. This whole leg so far seems like a weird mix of old and new.

Not that any of that really happened for me later in the day, yesterday. I'd taken some dramamine as a precaution against a rocky transit, which worked, but I ended up so tired that I couldn't really function. I'm terrible at writing anything when I'm that drowzy. Nothing was going to get written. I am, however, fantastic at chess.

1 August 2014

It's the changing of the guard. The first leg is officially over for VISIONS '14, and now everyone who is going to leave has gone. Somehow the first few weeks of this cruise seems distant, like it's already an old memory. Without the same people around or the same work to do, the ship I'd grown used to has gone and left. A ship is more than just a hull and some propellers, it's the people on board, and the experience of living in it.

It's good that the first leg is over, though. Everything has a time to end; we need to move on from things in our lives to make room for new adventures. I'm sure the berthing would need a bit more room if we had let everyone stay on while the new people came on board. Considering the people coming on, though, I bet we'd make it hilarious.

All the students on this cruise have been great to live and work with. I've got a good feeling about the new group, too. Everyone seems friendly and interesting. It's a more diverse group than we had last time; I'm the only engineering-oriented student on this leg, but we've got a couple actual biology majors on board, on top of the oceanography and fisheries students. And Isaac's a Canadian Studies major.

The only thing I have to complain about is that we didn't get these guys on the ship sooner. More than biology majors for students, we have a couple of actual biologists on board, including one who studies benthic (sea-floor) life. He would have been really helpful to have on when Jesse, Katie, and I were working on our animal catalog.

I'm looking forward to this leg. It feels a bit like the end of something, with Charles, Katie, and Krista going home. In my head, though, it's more like a celebration that something awesome happened, and we were a part of it. Jesse and I are still killing time in Newport with the new students, but I don't think it will be too long before we're back in the open ocean, sharing an incredible experience with each other.

31 July 2014

I've only seen the Thompson in two ports, first in Seattle, then in Newport. I actually saw it twice in Seattle. The first time I saw it was about two days before I'd planned. All the students had gotten an email from Deb about how to prepare for the cruise, where to meet, when the ship would be at which dock, etc. That's how I found out that it was at Pier 90 in Magnolia, only a couple of miles from where I was staying at the time. My mom and I decided to go check it out.

I thought that just meant taking a look to see if it was there. To my mom, that meant trying to get right up next to it on the dock. I didn't realize that until we got up to the security gate and asked if we could take a look. I was weirded out a bit when they let us in. We were strangers, we didn't have any real business being there.

It felt even weirder when Damien offered us a tour of the ship. We'd walked up later in the evening, when the crew was done offloading the ship from their last expedition. He and Daniel had nothing to do, so they were just riding their bikes around on the pier. Daniel seemed pretty excited to show us the galley, the bridge, the staterooms, anywhere there was anything remotely interesting. Everyone was way friendlier than I'd expected; I'd thought I'd feel more like an outsider, but the whole time I felt welcome. The whole experience was a really cool surprise to me.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I had to wake up early on Wednesday; we were coming into Newport at 10 AM, and before that we had pictures to take, meetings to attend, and a few other end-of-leg tasks to carry out. It was all very busy until we were just in sight of Newport, when all our work stopped. Those of us who didn't need to pack were up on the bow; we listened to the horns blow in the distance, somewhere in the fog. They echoed something cold and ancient; I could close my eyes and see misty Viking fjords, or Scottish highlands of long ago.

When I opened my eyes, a great Rhodian colossus faded into view, the bridge that straddles the entrance to Newport's harbor. It was giant. It loomed. Its steel arced through the air; it felt like it cut a line between gray fog and the open sky of safe harbor. As we approached, it grew larger. As we passed under it, we could see our mast just dodge scraping the bottom of the roadway. Our ship was a colossus, too.

We arrived, and we docked. And then we didn't have anything to do, really. People were leaving; vans were coming the next day to take people back to Seattle, but Friedrich had a flight to catch. Gina had packing to do. Don didn't feel much like staying either, and John, I'd imagine, was very happy to see his wife again and head home. We said our goodbyes, we packed, and they drove off. Charles, Katie, Jesse, Krista, and I were left to make our own plans.

Most of the plans in Newport involve drinking. There isn't much to do here; there was a movie theater in town, a long walk across a windy bridge. And there's the Rogue, a brewery nearer to the docks that seems to be a favorite of those of us who had come here before. It was a storied and exotic land, though, and we wanted to walk around. We wanted to get off the ship, at least. We headed down to the Rogue, where we talked and ate, and those of us who could drink tried what they could drink. After two and a half weeks on a ship together, I was struck by how much more comfortable I felt around everyone. No awkward silences; when we were done, we were content enough to just walk down the trail with each other towards the beach. I kept wanting to call it the Burke-Gilman trail; it's gotten engrained in my mind that any long, winding path like that is somehow a distant extension of the one back home.

We never made it to the beach. It was pretty far out, so at some point we decided to just head back. Eventually, we got back to the dock, and the security gate in front of it. We didn't even have to show ID this time; the guard had seen us leave, so he would see us in again. It was comforting and disconcerting at the same time, to be able to just walk into some government facility without so much as a driver's license, but to be welcomed back at the same time, as if back home.

As if. Past the security gate, you have to walk past a few buildings to get to the dock, but once they stopped obscuring our vision, we saw an awesome sight. There were ships. I've been on a ship for three weeks, but I've only ever seen the Thompson from the outside a few times. You don't see it from that angle while you're out in the ocean. They were big, and the pier was long and wide; I felt undersized, and in the color and light of the late afternoon, it felt like I was walking into a movie scene. These could have been spaceships. They were huge, alien, and imaginative. They could have been the Enterprise, or the Battlestar Galactica. And just down the Thompson's gangplank, there could only be Damien, screwing around on his bike. Put him anywhere else, and it would have been perfectly normal.

It's easy to romanticize what we do out here, riding out on our sea-spaceships to active volcanoes under the sea, sailing into unknown ports with megalithic pieces of transportation infrastructure. For me, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. For Damien, for the ROPOS team, for the oceanographers on board, this is life. I first saw the Thompson at home; in the last few weeks, the Thompson has become a new kind of home for me, if only a temporary one. But when I'm gone, I'll go back to my old life, and everyone else will still be here. I'm just a visitor on this ship, and I am incredibly thankful that they have been willing to share their home with me, and I hope that I have just as much fun on the second leg out here as I had on the first.

UPDATE: The water fountain just spat in my face. I don't think the ship is as sentimental as I am.

30 July 2014

It's really hard to imagine how big the world is. On clear nights sometimes, I'll go out on deck to stargaze, and after spending twenty years living in cities and suburbs, I get the feeling that I've never really seen the sky before. We cover it up with our a haze of dim light, in the city, so all we see is black with a few pinpricks of starlight breaking through. We never see the true color of the night. It's a shade of dark that we don't see on land, something beyond black that sits between the stars.

And I do mean it when I say that the sky is between the stars, not the other way around. There are four hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy. Only a fraction of them are visible without telescopic help, even out at sea, but even ten thousand stars burst your imagination a bit. On shore, we see constellations, we draw lines and make shapes between all the stars we can see. At sea, hundreds of miles out, it becomes a huge, amorphous mass of blue and white particles, clustered and scattered around the sky. I've never seen it like that before. The sky we see at home is not the real sky; it's a ghost of its true self, invisible and shrouded in black.

The only time I've gotten a sense of the scale of the world was on our last night out from Newport. A few of us had gone out to stargaze one more time, late at night. I didn't get to the hammocks fast enough, so I stood out at the very tip of the ship, looking up at the galaxy above me. I'd never seen the Milky Way before. It doesn't look like much; it just looks like a faint, glowing cloud interspersed with some darker spots. If you know a bit about astronomy though, you can remember that the glowing clouds are the hot gases towards the center of the galaxy, the nebulae and the interstellar dust heated up by star births and black holes. They are the biggest objects you will ever be able to see with your own eyes. The dark spots aren't gaps, they are a tiny cloud of colder gas shielding our solar system from the galactic core. Those clouds are light-years away from us. Our fastest spaceships wouldn't reach them for thousands of years. They block out the galaxy though, like a thumb held up against the moon. I tried to wrap my head around them on that deck.

I was distracted though, by the wind. When you stick your head off the bow of a moving ship, you're sticking it out of the boundary layer of the air you travel through. What a boundary layer is can be complicated. It happens because a fluid likes continuity; it doesn't like sudden change. It can change quickly, but when a layer of air or water is in contact with the hull of a ship, it tries to stay at the same speed as the metal, to avoid a sudden jump in speed. There's an area around the ship (if it's well-designed, anyway) where the air has to accelerate to its maximum speed, the boundary layer; because the wind speed is lower, it feels very calm on deck. When you stick your head out past the bow, the wind is suddenly much stronger, and a little bit scarier, according to the laws of fluid mechanics.

And when you stick your head out from the bow of a ship, on a clear, starry night, and look down into the beginnings of your wake, you can sometimes see lights. Sometimes it's the faint light of Newport, just barely visible on the horizon. Sometimes it's the spark of bioluminescence, when plankton at the surface of the water light up momentarily. I'm not sure why they do it, or how; I'm sure someone on the ship knows. But when the top layers of the water column get tossed around by the ship, they get brought up to the surface, and you see these brief, green flashes of light flowing through the white turbulence. They seem uncoordinated, but when there are enough in the water they seem to pulse and writhe together, and it can feel like you're looking at waves of firing neurons in a brain.

I felt like I was somewhere special, on the bow of the boat. I couldn't quite appreciate it at the time, but I knew that I might never see things like these again. I took it all in and left the processing for later. It was only when I was back inside, lying in my bed, that I began to put it all together and get a sense of scale. The world doesn't just have size; it blows my mind at how inarticulately all the small fractions of a galaxy can be, but there's depth beyond breadth to the universe. Look at the night sky, and there are thousands of stars; pick a star, pick a planet, pick a spot of dirt on that planet, and you could probably find a hundred people who could go on for hours and hours about how interesting that spot of dirt would be. They could talk about the chemistry in the soil, they could talk about the geology of the bedrock, you might be able to talk about the biology of the alien worms writhing around underneath, or the soil mechanics, or the history of the dirt. I can stand on the bow of a ship and write an entire page of brief, brief summary of what happened to cross my mind at the time. That's on one ship, or one square piece of rock and soil. I don't know how many ships there are in the world, or how many cities there are, or how many planets float around in the night sky. The world is big. I can feel a bit out of my element sometimes on this ship, but sometimes I get reminded that nobody is an expert on everything that's going on around them, and that can be a perfectly comfortable, even amazing, place to be.

27 July 2014

There are many names for the people who study the oceans. They call themselves oceanographers. It makes them feel distinguished somehow; the length, the rhythm, the Greek roots. To others, they are dorks, dweebs, nerds, geeks. Scientists don't like that. It's just not accurate; they say they can't be all four, as the names all mean completely different things.

To some in intellectual classes, there are canyons of separation between the names. Geeks are the Trekkies and the Redditors, the casual members of the subculture that people normally think of as nerdy or geeky. They're the cool ones. The true nerds are the intellectual obsessives; the people who work each other up about astronomy or electrical engineering. They read textbooks for fun. Dorks are the weird kids who don't quite 'get' people, the painfully awkward ones who think everyone gets World of Warcraft references, the ones who wear cargo pants all the time. These aren't particularly good definitions; there's a lot of debate in certain circles over the subtleties of the nomenclature, the evolution of the subcultures and sub-subcultures, the best distinctions between them. Papers have been written. Venn diagrams have been made.

These dweebs aren't helping.

There's a certain energy that these so-called nerds have on this ship. I'll call them nerds, because to me that name is almost a term of endearment. It connotes a sense of admiration for their unbridled passion for something, which this world doesn't have enough of. These are ocean nerds on the Thompson; they love the water, the fish, the chemistry, the climate, the rocks beneath us. A lot of people have passions, and having a passion for the ocean can be uncomfortable, sometimes. Try being at a party and nerding out about all the different kinds of lava flows underwater. It's pretty unsatisfying when you can't get that same excitement out of your friends. Then, maybe, you find someone who you can get across to, and there's a sense that, somehow, your opinions are more valid. Being on this ship, and being able to nerd out about the ocean and the RSN project with people who understand that passion is a fantastic feeling.

Having a sense of community is important; feeling like you're alone in thinking something can drive you a little bit insane. Having people you can identify with helps you find some footing on how you define yourself. When that identity revolves around being passionate and caring about something, that's great. You're a good human being. But too often, your community can turn your identity into a stereotype; it can start focusing more on telling you who you are not, instead of revealing to you aspects of your personality that you never knew about. It's destructive, rather than constructive.

The stereotype of a science nerd, opposite our passions, our intelligence, and our stunning good looks, is that we are inarticulate, inaccessible, and poorly-adjusted. Too many people try to conform to this, subconsciously, and at a time when people are pushing for stronger science and technology education in our country, we need to make sure that we don't promote that image to our current and future generations.

I've been writing a lot since I got on this ship. I've written blogs, edited scripts, and described animals, so the topic of writing and applied literacy, beyond my work on the Thompson, has been on my mind. Writing isn't well-advertised in our culture, the way we advertise science, or exercise, or whatever other good habits. It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, personal or professional, people just need to practice, in a way that they enjoy, putting their ideas on paper and sharing them articulately with other people. Writing forces the vague notions in our heads to coalesce into coherent thoughts and ideas; just on a personal level, it's incredibly gratifying to find just the right way to phrase what I want to say, in a way that gets it across the way I intend it to get across.

I think sharing my work with people over these blogs has added to the experience. There's some anxiety at first, knowing that people will be reading them, that I might expose myself somehow, or that people will be critical. I don't try to talk myself down from those fears, because it's almost disrespectful to them to belittle the issues. I force myself to acknowledge these fears and face them, as best I can, because it's not healthy to run away from fears as small as stage fright. I think that's an experience that people should be encouraged to expose themselves to, at some point. Maybe not through writing; maybe through acting, or music, or competitive baking or something, whatever suits them best. But something that can become a medium for self-improvement, where we can expose some of our fears or our flaws to the world around us, and accept that we might be afraid of showing them off. Writing on this cruise has become, for me, an act of submission.

26 July 2014

I've never had a bad experience in the galley. I've only actually been in the kitchen once. It was on a day when the weather was too bad to let ROPOS dive; rather than having a ship full of bored scientists, we decided to put down what's called a CTD, which as far as I can tell stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (measure using pressure). I'm not sure, though. Sometimes it feels like this ship sails through a sea of acronyms. The probe, whatever it's called, gets dropped to the sea floor, fills its canisters with water, and gets hauled back up, spitting out data about temperature and salinity of the water along the way.

We lower the CTD from the back of the ship. Once the scientists have their deep-ocean water samples back on board, it is their job to tell their slave students to fill these big, plastic jugs with freezing cold water from the sample canisters, and then haul them to the opposite side of the boat to the chem lab where they can analyze it, sample it, or do some kind of science to it.

Once we'd taken all of the jugs into the chem lab fridge, I came back and saw a crew member was making a couple of other students bring her a sample of her own from the deep sea. In a pot. I got called over the help the other students. It didn't look very scientific, but why not. Life is weird here. You've got to do things a little differently than you're used to, sometimes.

Water has some amazing properties. It, of course, is vital to life, because it is a fantastic solvent: the molecular structure of water allows it to dissolve ridiculous amounts of a ludicrous number of chemicals. It's hard to appreciate what that means without having done a little bit of chemistry, but it's pretty amazing. Without water, the chemistry of life couldn't dissolve; without dissolving, these chemicals couldn't react; without those reactions, we would be static. Living things wouldn't change, and species couldn't evolve.

Water is also a fantastic absorber of radiation. There are divers in nuclear power plants who do maintenance in these huge pools of cooling water, and there is a story of one who, not knowing what it was, accidentally grabbed a rod of enriched, unshielded  uranium from the bottom of the tank. Hearing the alarms going off when he surfaced, he threw it back in the pool and ran to the decontamination showers. When they held a Geiger counter to him afterward, they couldn't find any sign of radiation past his wrist.

There's a reason that NASA hasn't sent their astronauts through iridescent space in giant aquariums, though. Water is dense. It has an incredible amount of mass for its volume, which makes it obscenely difficult to carry up with them. In the language of engineering, it can take a force of 2.5 metric students to carry just 5 deci-pots of water up a flight of stairs.

We had two of us to carry the pot, and one of us trying to help while making sure we didn't trip on any of the stairs, or over a flange on the doorway, or over some important professor of something or other. We worked our way, slowly, up the stairs. We were threatened not to let a drop get over the side. This pot of water had taken three-quarters of a billion dollars to get out.

Eventually we conquered the stairs. We were at the galley door. After some awkward maneuvering, our extra student got the door open, and there we found a couple of crew members on the floor, cutting a giant piece of fabric. It covered the room, except for this tiny sliver of floor to the far side. Don't step on this, they said, we're making a cover for the sail on our boat back home. We'd be very upset if it got water on it. So we had to inch our way across a balance beam, two of us, on a rolling ship, carrying a pot of water.

Eventually we got into the kitchen, and realized that we weren't in the chem lab. The crew member had us set the pot on the stove, and she turned up the heat. This wasn't a sample at all. We were helping them cook. Apparently, she likes to take water from the CTD when there's some extra, and boil it off to make sea salt. Sea salt from the bottom of the ocean, over an underwater volcano. And now that the story is over, I've got a bag of the coolest salt ever sitting in my room. I'm tempted to hold onto it after the cruise; stick it on a shelf somewhere, keep it as a souvenir, never touch it so I can hold onto its sentimental value for years to come.

I won't, though. I hear this is excellent sea salt. I don't know if I can cook anything worthy of it, but I think once I get back I'll use it as a chance to learn to make something new.

25 July 2014

I'm going to take a break for a moment from the more profound parts of our trip to talk about what's really on my mind.
We have some really good food here.

We have had Indian food, Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Thanksgiving dinners, pudding cakes, birthday cakes, upside down cakes, lemon squares, pumpkin squares, strawberry shortcake, yoghurt parfaits, actual pudding, hamburgers, wraps, sandwiches of god knows how many different kinds, salads, rolls, biscuits, croissants, pancakes, hashbrowns, sausages, bacon, eggs, chicken, steak, pork, lamb, duck, fish,  vegetarian, pescetarian, carnivorous, and a suspicious amount of fresh fruit. And we have a snack bar.

I had no idea before getting on board why people kept talking about the food more than anything else. For the first few days, it was a serious distraction from our scientific business. We're only out here for so long; we need to be observant, we need to ask questions, we need to try and explain the world around us. But a few days in, once I'd gotten over the food shock, I was able to start asking important questions. The first was actually more of a realization than a question.

Where was the food coming from? I never saw the cooks carrying things up and down the stairs, so it couldn't have been coming up that way from below. It couldn't have been kept in the kitchen. It was a big room, but there wasn't nearly enough space to hold 20 days of food for a ship full of people. And despite the disorientation of living in a new place for only a few days, I'd been able to map out the deck in my head. There wasn't any extra room for a freezer or another stairwell. The ocean, apparently, is a mysterious place.

Then one day, when I was walking through the galley, I saw one of the cooks hunching over by the wall. There was a little compartment in it, like what you'd expect to find behind a bookshelf in some German castle, and in that compartment was an elevator. They had been secretly (secret from me, anyway) bringing up food from fridges and freezers on the lower decks between meals, when everyone is off working or enjoying their food comas.

Somehow it felt awkward, like it was a violation to see them doing it. It was like catching your teacher buying their toilet paper at the grocery store. On the other hand, I've always been excited by the inconspicuous or insignificant things that people take for granted: that a wall is just a wall, or, to the cooks, that they have to get their food upstairs somehow. There's nothing more satisfying than closing the book on a mystery, except, maybe, getting to ride in the secret elevator. I haven't gotten to try that yet, though.

23 July 2014

Always be willing to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves: things will never work out the way you expect them to. That goes two ways; to the pessimist, plans will never work out the way they would want. They might not be the pessimist who lowers their expectations and moans about how hopeless life is, but there are other forms of pessimism. In daily life, the most common pessimist would probably be the type who gets agitated or frustrated when the unexpected rears its head. It's unfortunate, because the unexpected is an opportunity as often as it's a true problem. Some people just aren't willing to change their course so dramatically to benefit from the unexpected. These people would never survive ship life. But surprises don't always have to be unpleasant.

I have tried to be open to new possibilities where I can be. I involved myself with the oceanography department on a whim; Deb Kelley was teaching a two credit class on ocean vents, and, as an engineering student, I didn't think I'd get a chance to study them again. I fit it into my schedule, and I really enjoyed it. Then Deb mentioned that there was this cruise that she went on every year, and there was an application for students to go on it. I tried it, since it seemed weird and interesting, and I knew I wouldn't get another chance to go onto a ship like that. Now I'm writing this from the Thompson's main lab, getting a chance to do things I've never done before, with people I never expected to meet. Things like blogging.

I've taken the opportunity since I got on board to work on an animal cataloging project, making a field guide for scientists to use when trying to identify and distinguish between species around the hydrothermal vents at Axial. I had chances to work on more engineering-related projects, but I'm not going to get to study biology too often. I have no idea yet if it's a good decision, or even a significant one, but it doesn't matter much right now. Even if it doesn't work out well, for whatever reason, I'm seeing and learning about some incredible sea life.

So it goes. Opportunities must be taken while at sea. We can only launch ROPOS in good weather; if the waves are too rough, or the wind too strong, all we can do is wait with our submarine and our equipment on deck, wasting a dollar a second. This is an expensive expedition. While we may not have the chance to go through every dive we want, we can't afford to be pessimistic about the weather, even if we can't go in for a week. Nothing has ever seemed so dire, but pessimism is, again, more than just a loss of confidence. There's a closed-mindedness to it. Plans can always be changed, however; the Thompson is full of people cleverer than you, who think broadly about the world and their mission here. When a piece of equipment can't be used, they find another that can be. When there's a weather hold, we can always scan and map of the seafloor. When we fall behind schedule, someone can figure out how to completely reorganize and streamline the whole trip, and suddenly we can dive in weather we couldn't dream of before. The sea has a willpower to it; some days it won't let you work unless you earn it, and earning it isn't about just working hard, it's about out-thinking nature.

Sometimes it's not enough to just react to the weather, however. Sometimes we need to be prepared for an opportunity to present itself before we can accept its challenge. It's like chess; if you're just a move behind your opponent's defense, a brilliant endgame can be ruined, and the game drags on. That's what we're out here to do, in the broad view of things. The RSN network that we're deploying represents our preparedness to collect data that we would not be in a position to track otherwise. When Mount St. Helens erupted 30 years ago, we only managed to get pictures of it as it happened because someone happened to be taking pictures at the time. Had that one person made a decision to go another day, to sleep in, we would be left without a stunning visual record of the events.

In 2011, it was Axial Seamount, not St. Helens, that erupted. Three months later, the Thompson sailed out to investigate the aftermath, as a part of the pre-scheduled cruise to prepare the site for the RSN deployment. When the trip was planned, nobody expected the eruption to happen. There's a certain irony, or maybe appropriateness, that the team was able to investigate only because they were out there to prepare for, among other things, an eruption event. However, the network was not online, and only the usual data could be collected.  When the next eruption comes, we'll be prepared to collect an unprecedented amount of information on it, because the RSN team took the time to think it through.

There's something to be gained by taking new opportunities, even if they lead you off the path of where you really wanted to go. That's kind of the point; maybe you break out of your tunnel vision and see what you didn't know was there, maybe you find that the path you're trying to go down isn't going where you think it's going. Maybe there's an intangible element to the discovery that we gain in exploring our world, and in both science and life, there is a human benefit that we all too often ignore.

19 July 2014

The ROPOS remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is a really cool piece of technology. It's the workhorse of our mission here at Axial; all the exploration done on the sea floor, all of the equipment placed and assembled, even almost all of the photography is done by our little (gigantic) robotic partner. We operate it from the ship, remotely, from our NASA-esque mission control. Everyone in the room has stations: we students take four-hour watches on the digital still camera and the event-logging system to keep track of what is going on during the dive (menial labor). The pilot sits up in the front, right with the screens. To their right is the person who controls the robotic arms that make the sub so useful. And to their right, someone else who I really don't know what they do. I only ever see them looking at graphs and maps, and other technical things that I don't quite understand. It's really a lot like mission control for one of NASA's Mars rovers.

Much like the Mars rovers, what seems like (and really is) a really cool concept can turn out to be really tedious sometimes. A lot of our job is laying cable, and when that's happening we're really not looking at anything but the marine snow floating by in the water. We don't even see the cable on the main cameras, since it's rolling out the back. It's basically the same story as the two-hour ascents and descents to and from the sea floor. Occasionally something like a salp or an octopus might float by, but it's mostly just time to space out and play Hearts with the computer. I can only imagine what the interns at Houston did while the Curiosity rover was shut down for months on its way to the Red Planet.

Some of the dives can be really exciting, though. Even though the ROV basically moves in slow motion, the technical dives when we're deploying equipment can be really interesting to watch. Every move we make has to be planned in advance, thoroughly, because once we're down on the bottom, we don't want to go back up. I've talked to one or two people about dropping down the equipment instead of having ROPOS carry it down one piece at a time, but the most I've gotten out of anyone has been that they're “sure there's a reason” why we can't do that. Instead, we have to spend four hours between dives (on top of the three or four hours of transit time) tying exactly the right knots and putting exactly the right handles in the right places so that once we're down there, all the sub has to do is tug, and everything comes apart. If everyone's done their jobs right, those might even be the right things.

It's usually the right things.


18 July 2014

I saw a bird today.

It's amazing how our lives have adapted to our new circumstances on this ship. This is the first time this far out to sea for at least seven of us, and in as little a time as five days it has become the new normal for us to be able to look out into the distance and see nothing but horizon and waves. As far as our bodies are concerned, our physical world has changed: the fundamental fact that gravity pulls in one direction is gone, but after two days we were fine with that. Comforted, even, by the rocking of the ship while we fell asleep. We work all day now, more or less, and it doesn't stress me out or make me uncomfortable like it might have done a week ago. I'd taken it for granted that these things would become the facts of life, before I got on board, but in retrospect, living on this ship seems a bit alien. We live on a big metal island hundreds of miles off the coast of Oregon.

And I saw a bird. Everyone on board is saying it was an albatross, and I don't know enough about birds to disagree. I certainly didn't know that a bird would fly hundreds of miles offshore just to fly in circles above the water. Apparently, albatrosses will use a technique called dynamic soaring where they fly up into the wind, gain altitude, and then turn downwind to gain speed. Coupled with their ability to glide huge distances, they can make it more than a thousand kilometers offshore. Coming from an engineering perspective, the only thing I can respond with is a sense of appreciation for such a clever trick. They have found extreme adaptations to survive in extreme environments, and between us and the albatross, I think the albatross found the easier way to get out to Axial.

Of course, the albatross probably didn't know that it's above an active volcano, let alone bring along the equipment it would need to study one. Breathing isn't actually a big problem when you're going underwater. Pressure is. You can bring air down with you when you go diving, but the deeper you go, the more the weight of the water above you will crush your body. For every ten meters you travel below the surface of the ocean, you gain an atmosphere of water pressure: three meters down, your lungs don't have enough muscle power to breathe on their own. At forty meters, the pressure becomes great enough start to make your blood toxic.

The base of Axial Seamount is two-thousand six-hundred meters underwater.

Things are alive down there. I've spent the past few days, among other things, helping to catalog the animals that manage to live down there, in the hopes that future scientists and visitors to the area will have a better idea of what they're looking at when they plumb the depths in their own submarines. A lot of the reason we've become so fascinated on this ship with the hydrothermal vents around Axial is because of the life down there; the vent organisms have learned to live in an environment not only of extreme pressure, but of extreme heat, and extreme cold. Sunlight can't penetrate to the bottom of the ocean, and without the solar rays for warmth, the water there hovers at just above freezing. That's how cold the water is a foot away from a hydrothermal vent.

On the inside, however, seawater has seeped through solid rock towards Axial's molten magma chamber, and is jetted upwards through the vent at hundreds of degrees centigrade. In a world of darkness, these animals have managed to replace the energy of the sun with heat and energy-rich minerals from deep beneath the Earth. They are so successful that these vent systems are like oases in the Abyssal Plains at the bottom of the ocean. They're the whole reason I'm out here. I've traveled hundreds of miles on my moving metal island so I could get a glimpse of these albatrosses of the deep ocean. It's amazing how our lives have adapted to our new circumstances on this planet.


15 July 2014

There's this weird feedback loop that I've noticed these last few days of being at sea. Being on the Thompson feels like being on the Enterprise. Like the Enterprise, we're a scientific vessel, so the people on board tend to fall into one of three groups: we've got our officers, the Kirks and the Spocks who call all the shots and discuss difficult moral and philosophical problems for the audience. Deb Kelley, John Delaney, the captain, the first mate, and a few others fall into this category. If there were a Sea Trek TV show that followed our ship, these guys would be the main characters.

Then you have your ship's crew/engineers, the red shirts who take care of the warp drive on the Enterprise and keep the Thompson alive. I should probably clarify that the ship's crew on the Thompson are not the same as the actual engineers on board.  The crew sticks with the ship all year round, but they aren't responsible for building and deploying the experiments that we're here to set up. That job goes to the science party. Like the red shirts in Star Trek, the crew of the Thompson are our under-appreciated front line on our trip. They probably work the hardest out of anyone, unseen and off-screen, and never seem to get enough credit for the work that allows all of our research to get done in the first place. They don't just deserve more attention from us, they deserve our outright admiration for the work that they do.

The rest of us, and the ones I find myself most familiar with, are the science party. We're the collection of students, staff and faculty who find ourselves going out here to study the deep sea around Axial Seamount for the next few days. Eight of us on the first leg are students; most in oceanography, but a couple, including myself, are from the engineering sciences. We are but ocean virgins; this is the farthest out most of us have ever been from shore. A few more of us are grad students doing their work here, or recent graduates who snagged a job helping out their old professors for the summer. There are also a boatload of scientists and oceanic engineers from the University of Washington, among other places, all of them focused completely on their babies, their little science projects; one might have built a mass spectrometer to analyze ocean chemical content, a couple more might be getting their seismometers ready for deployment around the seamount. If the Thompson had come out here to build a jigsaw puzzle, we'd all be working on one piece each, trying to fit it into the much broader picture of scientific knowledge.

We are on a very active boat. The Enterprise analogy isn't just an analogy; wandering around the Thompson, watching people working around their instruments and their computers, gives me the feeling that I am, actually, on a spaceship like I would see in the movies. It's a magical feeling to be a part of that, and it makes it that much more jarring to see the things they don't show you on TV. My first day out I was immersed in that feeling. I got up early with all of the other students, ostensibly to shoot a time-lapse of the sunrise over Seattle, but I don't think any of us could have slept if we'd tried. We worked from 5 AM to 10 PM, in meetings, shooting time lapses, enjoying the ride as we steamed out toward the ocean. This was a great day.

The night was horrible. I didn't sleep more than a couple of hours, between the banging of the waves (sledgehammers would be a better word) against the hull, and the rocking of the ship in the rough seas. I was sick and sleep deprived all of the next day, and even when the Dramamine had kicked in, I was still in too much of a haze to get much done. I would have felt bad, but I wasn't alone; most of the students were having a bad day. We stumbled around as the boat rocked, we avoided the upper decks where the rocking was worst, and we cursed at mealtimes when we realized that the galley was a good two floors above our bunks. It was anticlimactic, and unromantic. This is the kind of stuff you don't see on the Enterprise.

Eventually you get used to the waves, though; my stomach doesn't lurch with the ship like it used to, and I've been able to get to work on what I'm really here to do. I've realized that the TV cameras don't just skip over the unappealing stuff like space sickness; they skip over about 90% of the stuff going on around the Enterprise. Everyone on board the Thompson is here to do something, so we're always busy. That extra on Star Trek, the one who handed Spock a clipboard so he could look important and in-charge? That wasn't really his job, it was just something he was taking care of while he took a break from his real project, studying an entirely new form of life, completely unknown to science, or describing the unique seismic activity down on the planet's surface. None of us here are just “helping out” the main characters; we're all the main characters of our own scientific stories. Of course, there could be dozens of those stories going on in the background of one episode of Star Trek, and they can't put most of them into the script, so what we end up seeing is only a bare, basic summary of what's really going on that day. We end up with a fairly warped perception of what space travel is like.

That perception is the feedback loop I was talking about at the beginning of this post. We get these really romanticized, simplified stories about space travel shown to us our whole lives by our popular culture. It's warped, but it's exciting, and magical, and it's crafted so that when I got on the Thompson two days ago, I had that feeling of almost-familiarity, where I could point to Star Trek and say, “Yes, that's a lot what this is like.” Maybe that's because our depictions of space travel are heavily based on our experiences in sea travel, so that when I compare my experiences at sea, it's a bit redundant, like I'm comparing those experiences, by way of Star Trek, back to themselves. But maybe that redundancy isn't a bad thing, because it adds a sense of magic by showing us that we're really a part of something that might otherwise look like a fantasy. And that sense of magic is exciting and cool. Maybe. But I can, definitively, say this:

These are the voyages of the R/V Thompson. Her continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life, and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one some people have gone before.