Our cruise did not being entirely propitiously, as we had to transfer to the Marcus G Langseth rather late in the game after our original ship had an unfortunate run-in with some debris in Puget Sound. First off, we had to get ourselves from Seattle – where everyone not based in the Pacific Northwest was flying into – to Astoria, where the Langseth was docked. Someone (fortunately, not me or my supervisor) also had to get all the gear that had been sent to Seattle from there to Astoria.
Once on board the Langseth, we had to optimise the space to our requirements. The Langseth, as I mentioned in the previous post, is not built for oceanographic sampling per se but seismic topography work; this means there is, basically, stuff everywhere and not a lot of space for wet-bench biology and chemistry. To start with, our ovens – where we incubate samples – were in a room half the ship aft and a deck up from the lab we were preparing the samples in. In the way was…stuff, most of it JASON and associated equipment; it is amazing how annoyed you can become at high-tech science awesomeness when it is high-tech science awesomeness forming a moving obstacle course between you and your destination. The only fume hood on the ship (for those who haven’t used one, this is basically a separately-vented, semi-enclosed cabinet in which you can work with bad-smelling or dangerously-fuming substances) was in one of the “vans”, or cargo containers. Some poor guys were working in the “dry” lab (“dry” meaning “not open to wash from the deck in bad weather”) and in a van three decks up. There was an exercise room on the ship, but you didn’t need it with that sort of hike!
That being said, the crew of the Langseth were extremely helpful and willing to do everything they could to fit us and our (to them) new and bizarre research onto their ship. We did a lot of improvising with ropes and totes and so forth to make up for the lack of drawers and cupboards, and learned quickly how to open water-tight doors without using our hands (gloves!) and while holding fragile glass bottles (eek) on the open ocean. The weather was the one thing on this voyage that went to plan – it was gorgeous.
I wasn’t expecting many problems with seasickness on the voyage, since I’d never been motion-sick before, and wasn’t keen to try anti-seasickness medicine unless I felt pretty bad. This would have been a sensible decision if I’d stuck to it – after a few hours of mild but bearable queasiness, I gave in and let someone give me a tablet. Then I threw up about three meals. Not trying that again.
Adjustments like that aside, we made it out to our field site in good time to find that we had a friend out there. The NSF is funding a very large, expensive, and pretty awesome project to lay permanent fibre-optic cable observatories at Axial Volcano and surrounding geological features of interest. However, someone had forgotten to tell the people laying the cable that we were going to be there and wanting to send down JASON at the same time as them. How this happened is a bit of a mystery, since the hydrothermal vent science community isn’t exactly enormous, but some quick re-negotiating had to happen before we could do our first dive, as the cable ship was initially asking for an exclusion zone that would have locked us out altogether. (It was suggested that this was because the ROV operators for JASON and the cable ship’s ROV couldn’t possibly resist having a robot battle. I couldn’t comment.)
We parked up at what had been our second planned dive site; JASON was scheduled to leave the deck at 10pm. I was on midnight-to-four and midday-to-four, so I napped for a few hours, got up about half an hour before my shift, downed a very large mug of hot chocolate laced with instant coffee, and took a look at the monitor in the mess showing the main deck. JASON was still on board.
Asking around informed me that after all the pre-flight checks (these were called “pre-flight” and “pre-dive” interchangeably, an interesting crossover of terminologies) the JASON people had gone to pick something up with one of the mechanical arms and found it wasn’t working. I settled in with my knitting and an eye on the monitor. By the time I gave up and went to bed, nothing had changed – and in the morning, it turned out that JASON’s entire hydraulics system was offline and required twenty-four hours of repairs.
I regarded my decision to go ahead and buy Georgette Heyer’s entire back-catalogue as e-books the day before we’d left port – there’d been a very good sale – as provident. Also the decision to bring enough wool for the entire piece I was knitting.
I knitted a lot.
The next night we were back in the water, finding old hydrothermal vent sites and checking for new ones. Those two days were short on sleep, but we got a lot of samples in, and the hydraulics problem was fully-fixed, so it looked like we were back on track.
Then, on the second dive – at our original first site – it took two hours to get to the seafloor, instead of the usual one; the massive winch that lowered JASON and Medea was playing up. Frantic phonecalls were made to shore; we were instructed under no uncertain terms to not do anything with the winch that wasn’t bringing JASON back to the surface. As the area we were exploring was basically flat – 1520m down – we didn’t; we just stayed down until every sample bag was full and we had no choice but to come up. Very, very slowly.
The winch, it turned out, was pretty well busted. We were going to have to sail back to Astoria to get parts for it.
The plan, though, was for us biological types to stay on the ship and incubate our samples for as long as possible – even if we had nothing to do but check up on them for the second part of the cruise, the incubation time was more important, and besides, our flights all left Seattle five days after our inglorious return to port – what were we going to do in Seattle for all that time? I inoculated, and slept sporadically, and did a lot more knitting.
Then, an hour and a half before we were due to pick up our pilot into Astoria – it’s up the Columbia River, a treacherous entry – the plan changed; we were going to pack up all our stuff and get off the ship, and re-incubate everything at the University of Washington in the labs of a couple of scientists on the cruise. Before the ship left again. At 6pm that night. It was 10.30am.
We had, did I mention, a lot of gear. And it wasn’t particularly well-organised, because we were in the middle of, did I mention, doing experiments.
By midnight that day – having woken up at sea – we were in Seattle, having packed, offloaded, onloaded onto the last UHaul truck in Astoria, and unloaded and re-incubated, all our gear and samples. The low point was probably the moment late at night when our van – following the truck – realised collectively the detour roadworks had sent us off on had not directed us back to Seattle and we were about to cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge towards the west, not the east (i.e. Seattle) side of Puget Sound. The people driving the van, who were already in Seattle, were Not Impressed by this detour or how incredibly funny everyone in the van found it. (It was late, we were all wired by sleeplessness and caffeine, and the most wired and sleepless people of all were the only ones legally allowed to drive the van because it was official NOAA property. Nearly crossing the Tacoma Narrows bridge seemed pretty damn hilarious.)
We would have stayed in Seattle through ’till our original flights, nursing our re-incubated cultures, but every hotel near the University was booked solid over the weekend – there was nothing for it but to come home early and resign ourselves to re-incubating our samples in Massachusetts. This necessitated another round of heavy lifting (all our gear redux, from one building to another), although, it has to be said, Seattle in August is lovely. The actual cruise, though, intended to be two weeks, had lasted six days; the land-based portion of it another three. The only saving graces had been a) the weather and b) the fact that we’d actually managed to get a fair number of samples, even if their incubation wasn’t precisely steady. I asked my PhD advisor if this was the worst research cruise he’d been on.
“No,” he replied judiciously, “but the highlight of the worst one was visiting Siberia.”
Personal future research goal: don’t visit Siberia.