Fair winds and following seas

In many ways the work of an oceanographer hasn’t changed since the early days of the discipline when a team of scientists sailed for several years across ocean basins making spot measurements of depth and salinity; hauling up strange creatures from the depths.

Sunset over the calm Atlantic – the frame in view is used for deploying our equipment down to the deepest part of the oceans.

We still ‘sail’ in rather larger science teams for much shorter periods of time. The rhythm of work on a ship and the lowering and hauling of wires is very familiar. We collect water samples in large bottles that can be closed remotely at depth and are arranged around an array of in situ sensors that give us real time data of ocean properties as we sit in the lab. The samples are recovered at awkward times of day and night – these samples need to be processed immediately to catch the helium atoms that escape out of the sample, the oxygen samples that are compromised as soon as the tap is opened, the microbial and chemical measurements of trace amounts of rare elements that we use to understand the scale and timing of ocean processes. We pump tonnes of water through cartridges to strip out radioactive isotopes that help determine the timescales in the deep ocean.

Maeve Lohan and her team of postgraduate students in the ‘clean van’. Here they filter hundreds of litres of seawater under ultraclean conditions so we can measure tiny amounts of elements such as iron on board and back in our labs.

All this happens in slick sequence time and time again as we progress South along the volcanic ridge towards the subtropics. After a couple of weeks we are a great team – called on deck at odd hours to process samples under ultra-clean conditions, careful not to contaminate that water from the deep. Make decisions, move on South.

The key to effective work on the ship is of course how well this team works. You would all recognise the dynamics – the Captain is in charge of the ship – the Chief Scientist is in charge of the programme and together they make decisions every day to curtail a bit of this, cut a bit of that, move on if this isn’t working. The rest of the team are here to get the most out of this fantastic opportunity to track all the known volcanic vents in this region.

Our Chief Scientist Al Tagliabue and international team of postgraduate students at sunrise after a long night shift.

Ocean expeditions are fabulous training grounds for the next generation of scientists. We have an undergraduate student from California, a POGO funded postgraduate student from Malaysia, a whole group of PhD students from Southampton and Liverpool and the graduate students from collaborating labs in the US and France aboard. They work relentlessly round the clock and still have the energy to have fun – friendships made at sea last a lifetime.

The ship is a melting pot for people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of experiences, all sorts of life stories and these are shared during the night shift over cups of Maeve’s espresso. The bridge calls down to point out those things that we can only really appreciate out here – dolphins on the starboard bow, alignment of Jupiter and Mars off the port deck.

Dorada or Mahi Mahi circle the ship at the end of the day.

The best part of being at sea is the freedom to focus on the task at hand and nothing more, nothing less. Time slows down, problems are solved, solutions are found, new data is stuck to the walls, new ideas forged as we each contribute to the picture emerging of plumes of metals wafted deep along the ridge. I love the rhythm of the days and nights – the sunsets and sunrises, the slow passing of time. We love the singularity of purpose.

The worst part is the severing of connections with home over the first few days and the vague feeling of institutionalisation and repetition that takes over after several weeks – all lifestyle decisions are out of your hand – what you eat, what you drink, when you sleep, when you do laundry, how you exercise, who you mix with.

The night shift sampling the rosette of bottles for helium, oxygen and a range of trace elements and isotopes.

The FRidge team is exceptional. I have made new friends, really cemented some work relationships and am looking forward to working with these great scientists over the next few years to get these samples measured and our new ideas out into the community and beyond.

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