Room with a view

Photo: One Ocean Expeditions

Photo: One Ocean Expeditions

Working in polar regions, especially during summer, can be a challenge.  While life on a modern research ship is comfortable, the everlasting days and lack of night time can drain you.  With nearly constant daylight, the opportunity to search for whales and work with them never ends.  As well, the evening and early morning light are magical and one can’t help but be entranced in the pastels and vibrant colors beaming from the horizon while the sun scrapes just below it for a few minutes.

Our research vessel, the ARSV Laurence M Gould, hosts about 25 scientists and nearly that many more officers and crew.  The ship is active 24 hours a day and scientific teams generally are split into two shifts, each for 12 hours.  My team, however, is on call whenever it is light out, whenever there are whales around, and whenever we have the opportunity.  When the ship is in transit between oceanographic sampling stations, we maintain a watch on the bridge to log sightings: species, group size, location, behavior, etc.  If we come across an unusually large number of animals in a small area or have time before the next station is to occur, we take the opportunity to deploy our RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) to collect biopsy samples and deploy satellite tags.  Spending so much time on the bridge, we see all of the wonders of the Antarctic as they pas by; sea birds, seals, penguins, ice bergs, mountains, etc.  You begin to get a feel for the environment and where the whales are likely to be found.

Maintaining a schedule is important on the ship to create a sense of stability.  Meals are pretty early and the ships are well stocked with fresh foods that last for about three weeks.  After that…things become a bit more routine and less exciting.  But the galley crew do a wonderful job of keeping us well fed and healthy!  Our cabins are small but comfortable, all have bunk beds and a private bathroom with shower.  Two scientists to a cabin, a small desk and storage space for personal gear and clothes.  Most other things remain in our labs and working space.  A porthole lets us see the passing world.  It is critical to be able to shut it though and block out the constant light and sleep in darkness.  Routine is important, and on the ship we have a small gym and comfortable lounge where people can watch movies on a big TV.  There is also a satellite phone to call home and keep in touch, as well as email.  While all of the amenities help to maintain a sense of being in touch, the Antarctic is so unique that you find yourself failing to explain and express the place to friends and family in words or images.

As the whales we work with are not on a schedule or found at known locations, we work whenever they are around regardless of the time.  I average about 4 hours of sleep a day with an occasional nap.  It isn’t sustainable for more than a month or so, but well worth it!  Each evening we put together a science plan for the following day that includes, to the best of our ability, the times and locations of where we will be.  In all of my time in the Antarctic, rarely does a plan accurately forcast what we will do the next day.  The Antarctic has a way of making you change your plans constantly to adapt to the changing conditions and opportunities.

One third of the team arriving in Antarctica

During our research we are aboard research vessels. This year I was aboard the British ship the James Clark Ross. This is a world class research vessel that has berths for more than 20 scientists and laboratory spaces to conduct all manner of research. The heart of the research operations on this ship is the UIC. The underway instrumentation and control room. This is the nerve center of the science where all data streams are visualized so that decisions regarding the science program can be made. From this room, winches and deck gear can be operated allowing the sampling to be monitored. On the deck, scientists will deploy a variety of gear over the stern of the ship with the help of an excellent deck crew, all under the careful watch of the Bridge.

In general, aboard research vessels work is conducted 24 hrs a day so that people are always on shifts. Aboard the James Clark Ross this year I worked from 4 AM to 4 PM which took some adjustment! My work this cruise consisted of running acoustic data collection for krill, sampling the water properties using an instrument called the CTD, that measures temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll-s and the clarity of the water. Additionally water samples were collected for other collaborators that’ were conducting other studies in conjunction this cruise. My colleagues on the night watch also sampled krill, mesopelagic fish and conducted studies on krill swarms to better understand the acoustic properties of krill in swarms. The collection of samples was limited to night-time to minimize avoidance of animals to the net, and to capture animals that vertically migrate into the upper water column at night.

One of the best parts of being on a cruise is the food, especially when the cooks are great. I was fortunate on the James Clark Ross as all the meals were wonderful. And the one perk of getting up at 4 am is that I was able to eat all three meals, breakfast lunch and dinner. The mealtimes are also important times to exchange information with the officers and other scientists so are valuable from the scientific perspective.  On this cruise I was berthed in a small but comfortable to person room. And, because we didn’t have a large number of scientists, there was no other person in the bunk. This was helpful in providing a private space away from everyone, necessary when you are all on the same 100m boat!

Life at sea is regimented, and is very repetitive. The close proximity to others provides an opportunity to interact closely with people and see the world in a very unique and special way. The two best days at sea are often the day you leave port and begin the journey, and the day you return to port and can share the experiences with others.