Have you ever seen a documentary about a research cruise? Have you heard about what scientists do there? I am sure you have an idea about what happens: long hours of work, analysis, and collecting as much data as possible to produce a “piece of science”. But scientists are not machines. There is a unique non-science side of the research cruise that is normally not shown, that you can discover now in the following lines.
“What you will get from this cruise is the data for the next paper, if you fail there will be not a second chance, maybe I should bring more bottles to collect samples just in case…” all these thoughts bombard your head while you are setting up your equipment on your bench, worried about this piece of science that you have planned to produce and ignoring the non-science side that is coming. Then the experiences start! You meet with past cruise-colleagues that are now your friends, and with new people that are complete strangers for now but may be your best friend at the end of the cruise!
Living in a ship is an intense experience; crewmembers and scientists become your colleagues, friends, family, and even psychologists! It is like a Cuban “patio de vecinos” or “neighbour courtyard” where you share what you have because is not possible to go shopping (tools, chemicals, or sweets!). You share also knowledge. Many problems can arise at sea. When you are on land and you have a problem you will probably ask the person who you know has more experience, which is normally somebody who occupies a higher position than you. However, in a ship ranks lose their importance because the interdisciplinary environment brings up conversations in which an undergraduate student has a lot to show to a professor, and that is amazing.
The last cruise had a strong non-science side. Everything started when the chief engineer had to leave the ship unexpectedly a couple of nights before sailing. That obligated us to look for another chief engineer ready to be at sea in twenty-four hours and away for a month! Although this news was not immediately communicated through official channels, once again, the ship is a “patio de vecinos” and gossip navigates very fast. We were lucky and a new chief engineer (flying from another continent!) was found, which caused a delay of only a few hours from the planned sailing time.
It was only five days later when most of us were on the back deck sampling and the Captain appeared on the scene communicating to the principal scientist and crew that we had received a distress call! The news again started navigating between us, “we have received a distress call from a plane, looks like they have seen a capsized boat, but hopefully it is only the belly of whale,…”. After three hours sailing until we arrived to the indicated coordinates. When we were close we were able to see that a cargo ship attended the call as well and it had arrived before us. With no more news, we believed it was a false alarm and a group of us went to the bow to enjoy a dolphin spectacle. I came back to the lab, picked up my camera and went again to the front hopeful that the dolphins would still be there. Instead I found bad news! We got closer and definitely there was a capsized boat in between the cargo ship and us! I do remember how my blood ran cold, silence, a spotter aircraft overflew the area and as if we were ordered to do so, our fidgety eyes looked for survivors in the water. Our crew members are well trained and a research ship is better equipped than a cargo ship to perform rescue operations. Three of the crew motored out in the working boat to do a better check of the capsized craft. Thanks to the technology we were able to know in real time what they found.
The capsized boat had clearly been adrift for many months and the most plausible explanation is that it was washed out from the coast with no people on board. This was a big relief for everybody and we enjoyed watching them bring the boat aboard. So many feelings in a relatively short period of time, almost like watching a film, but it was not a film, it was true, the truth of being on a ship. Happy, but affected, I went to bed thinking how big the ocean is and how long it took before anybody spotted the boat. Back to work the day after, the boat was the new attraction; it is the topic during lunchtime, and the standing joke because of the forthcoming stench of rot.
Time flies, planned pieces of science happen and the discreet non-science side of the research cruise is also happening without a plan or script. Friendly conversations in the bar, jokes while sampling, and a great mix of work and social time happen in the lab, on deck… The sea shows its fauna, jellyfishes, birds, dolphins, whales and even sharks; it is very beautiful out there. But bad weather is coming, we experienced a force 8 (40 knots wind), all works on deck cancelled and all the equipment very well secured in the lab. Office chairs spin at the sound of the waves, the only thing that moves in an empty lab, glasses nimbly caught in the bar, and we, that can only wait for the weather to get better, drifting in a huge and strong research ship that looks like a nutshell from aircrafts. Whether you feel in a nutshell in the middle of the ocean or whether you feel confident in a new research vessel probably varies a lot between people. A big group of us were watching a film during the rougher time, and sometimes we were surprised by big waves that made the hull of the ship bump into the sea surface, some of us howl and pound the nails in the skay while others just looked at each other with a mischievous smile. But after all, here we are!
When the weather was calmer we restarted scientific activities slowly, the first CTD rosette (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/ctd.html) went in the water in the evening, this deployment took a few hours and only the principal scientist and crew followed the action. After midnight most of the people are sleeping, only those aforementioned and a handful of scientists still awake. I was personally surprised by the fact that one of them was still awake, so I asked him why. He sadly said, “there was an accident on deck, there are a lot of people around so I didn’t want to disturb and I am waiting here”. In that moment I thought that a minor accident happened, but when I looked at the screens we have on the lab I saw one of the crewmembers laying on the deck floor. If a distress call makes your blood run cold, a serious accident on board can inject adrenaline in to your veins. I go to the deck and find a beloved crewmember lying on the floor, a group of people are there with the second officer (who is the medical officer) on her knees tending to the casualty and asking for a blanket. After a few moments I realised that nobody was back with the blanket, so I go to the sick bay and I find people searching for a blanket inside every drawer, spotting one on the top of a bench, I grab it and take it back. Once on deck I found the second officer asking for a pillow this time, once again the same situation, we go from deck into the ship looking for a pillow. I took my white coat from the lab, I used it as a pillow, and like this is how I finished in the deck floor, holding onto a blanket and talking and joking for his good to one of the members of this family that we built at sea. “He was crushed between the rosette and the bulwark” others said to me because he couldn’t remember what happened properly. Needless to say that every person that was there gave the most of him or her to help. An accident is always something horrible, but when it happens at sea, you really realise how vulnerable you can feel far from land, no ambulances, no hospitals, nothing, just helplessness, the resources of the people and equipment on board and all the good intentions driven with adrenaline while it lasts. With a travel distance of around sixteen hours to the nearest hospital and the possibility of serious, non-obvious injuries, the best option was to call a helicopter out to perform a medevac. The second officer and the principal scientist were there all the time, close to him, taking care as best we could, while monitoring his vital sings and making conversation with him. A few went to bed in a shattered way, while more crewmen started waking up. Long night yes, but there is no fear in that floor, no feelings, no cold, only sangfroid convincing him that everything will be ok while waiting for the helicopter arrive. Only when he was evacuated in the helicopter and one of the scientists gave me a spontaneous hug I broke down.
Waking up suddenly after a few hours of sleep, enormous headache, and who did I find first in the corridor? The principal scientist. His eyes foresee good news, but I need to be sure, “he is ok, only bruises and a lot of pain, but he will be fine”. Nothing was the same after that, if you thought you are lucky living with a great new family, now you realised how beautiful people can be in difficult situations, how they took care and the family ties becomes stronger.
The non-scientific side can have two faces, to meet with such a big and interdisciplinary group of people in this intimate way is something very nice that can never happen spontaneously on land. And the other face is the one that I have found especially during the last cruise; being at sea can sometimes be difficult and hard, situations have a different taste out there, but can also bring out the best part of each of us as well. I have found parts of myself that I didn’t know and discovered very nice people. That is the non-science side of a research cruise, good and bad moments but feelings are always deeper, and luckily finishing with a good taste because right now, all the stories finished well. I can happily go to sleep now, knowing that good friendships will last forever.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ocean Explorer. United States Department of Commerce. http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/ctd.html