Latest Expedition Journal
October 7: Day 5
We are here because?
Most of us were feeling pretty green with nausea. For a moment I wondered what the heck we were thinking, to set sail into the middle of nowhere to pick through plastic-studded sea slime. The bunks are too small to sit up in, the smell in the fo'c'sle is enough to cause seasickness all by itself, we wake up at all hours to work hard, deploy nets, handle heavy sails, crawl through cramped engine space, and endure waves of nausea as we hit some good swells a day out from California. Too late to turn back; yet—to a sailor—not one of us would take the offer to leave if it were given, even the greenest and most miserable of us. Why not?
The answer comes at night watch. Matt, finishing his turn at the bow, comes back to tell those of us in the lab that a dozen dolphins are playing in our bow wake. We pause in our work to join him, clip in with our safety harnesses, and hang our heads over the rail to gasp at the dolphin-shaped streaks outlined by bioluminescence and bubbles. We are under way, making, say, 6-7 knots, and the dolphins are skimming and playing faster than we are, leaping out of the water just under our bowsprit.
Back in the lab, our midnight neuston net tow yields a teeming mass of life, flashing with bioluminescent sparkles as we lift it out of the water and pour the animals from the cod end—a kind of Nalgene bottle screwed onto the net—into a bucket. My hands glitter with little marine animals as I rinse the net clean. After pouring the catch into a sieve, we pick through the squirming mass and I learn that what I call hard and soft jellies are siphonophores and ctenophores. We also find a little sea-worm, a couple of delicate fish, lots of little squirming polly-wog-looking things, a clear torpedo-shaped animal which I learn is a copepod, some brown goo, a mushy mass, and little scampering mini crabs less than an eighth-of-an-inch wide. This life is the merest sample of the vast quantities which nourish all other life in the sea. You must look up their names, and you'll find some awesome, alien-looking creatures. Soon I expect to find an equal amount of non-life in the nets—plastics.
The science is loaded with discovery, but there is more reward in the immediacy of our lives at sea: the sense and satisfaction of doing something real. On hourly boat checks, we know that the lives of 38 people are bobbing along in a steel hull in the midst of thousands of square miles of open sea, reliant upon our vigilance. We trust and depend upon one another. We have no qualms ducking past one more set of pipes and around another corner behind three water-tight steel doors in order to find the elusive gauge reading that might mean the difference between a safe trip and disaster. Yesterday Kellie, my watch-mate, climbed back through those three steel doors and up two decks to ask for help to find those last two gauges rather than fudge the reading. It is the greatest feeling, to be able to depend on your crewmates to do their part, and to know they have the same trust in you.
As a result, every crewmember is going the extra mile for the others. I turn around to find my watchmate Bart clearing the table for me as I reach for a sponge to clean for the next watch. No one is assigned to these duties, we just do it. Many of us were seasick, but as we got over it we offered water and saltine crackers to our mates to aid their recovery. Even sick, we respond quickly to a shout to handle lines, to raise sail, to assist as needed. It is our duty, but also our pleasure. Small details, like a fan anonymously installed in the fo'c'sle help relieve our "inner quease." Thank you, whoever you are! As the seasickness subsides, already we have forgotten—almost—what it felt like.
All told, I know that each one of my shipmates has my back. I'm proud to share this voyage with them.