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Latest Expedition Journal

October 14:  Day 12

Watch This!

The ship’s bell has just rung, but I still am not quite sure yet what the bells indicate and have to look at the clock to know that it is 8:15 am.  Those of us in A Watch have just finished dawn cleanup, which is the final chore of our watch that started at three in the morning (also known as 0300).  The Seamans, like many working vessels, is operated in shifts, or “watches,” that allow the ship to continue to sail and to conduct its research day and night. Our crew has been divided into three watches—A, B, and C—and each consists of seven crew led by one of the three mates and one of the three assistant scientists.  The watches rotate around both the clock and through the ship’s work stations.  Each watch migrates between activities on deck or in the lab so that during one 24-hour period, you may find yourself in the lab during afternoon watch which is 1 to 7pm (or 1300 to 1900) and then on deck from 3 to 7am (dawn watch).  This system means that at any one time there are people working, sleeping, and in a state someplace in between.

In addition to our deck and lab time, we also have periodic stints as dishwasher and assistant to the engineer.  We also get a chance to be an assistant steward for the day, helping out in the galley, giving our input on the day’s menu, and trying our hand at cooking for 38 people while the boat rolls and shimmies underfoot.  I have not yet had my turn, but I enjoyed hearing my watchmate Gary working with steward Shelby and assistant steward Heidi to make three kinds of chili, one for vegans, one for vegetarians, and one for us omnivores.  So far we have eaten very well, including recent treats of tuna and mahi mahi caught on our research fishing line.  If the fresh pineapples, citrus, and melon hanging from nets around the deck are any indication, we are well-stocked with fresh goodies for many miles to come.

Rotating around these various stations gives each of us an appreciation for the skill and expertise of our professional crew as well as our diverse volunteers.  The science work is really picking up as we enter the gyre, and by observing and participating, I am starting to get a better picture of the objectives and methods behind our projects.  I am also starting to remember some of the strange and wonderful creatures that we learned to identify when I was on my SEA Semester cruise as an undergraduate more than 20 years ago.

On a recent dawn watch in the lab, I did my first attempt at a “hundred count.”  A neuston tow is essentially a giant fine-mesh bag with a square metal mouth about four feet across that gets towed at the sea surface.  Plankton and plastics (in increasing amounts) are caught in the net and washed down into a bottle called a “cod end” at the tail of the net. The hundred-count is pretty much what it sounds like—you take some of the material collected from the tow, put it under a microscope, and identify the first 100 critters you see using identification keys.  This can be quite daunting at first, especially as some of them are still swimming about, and many look similar.  Luckily for me there is a helpful laminated guide in the lab with detailed pictures.  More importantly, A Watch’s extremely knowledgeable assistant scientist Tommy is there to help, not to mention other A-Watch members (Cina’s patience with me is spectacular).  Although I am familiar with the scientific names, I admit that I prefer to associate the real names with my own made-up names to help me remember them.  For example, the way to help me remember a euphausid was to call it the “big-eyed shrimp thing” and the copepod became the “spinning sesame seed.”  We had one amazing specimen that none of us could identify (“Michelin Man with glowing orange eyes”), which, with help from B-Watch assistant scientist Katy, turned out to be a polychaete.  My favorite find of the night looked like a tiny horseshoe crab—it turned out to be a parasitic copepod.  Sounds to me like a good idea to steer clear of that tough guy.
 
Actively participating in the hundred count, watching all the tows and data collection activities, as well as talking to the diverse group of scientists onboard reminds me how much effort and expertise goes into this pursuit of knowledge.  In my job, I review a lot of studies and reports, but primary data and analysis like that of this journey tends to be at least three steps removed from the report I read.  I am taking an active role on this expedition, I feel closer to the collection and processing, and I feel this will make me able to appreciate more fully the results.  

As for the sailing, some of that knowledge is starting to stumble out from sleepy brain cells.  I sailed on the R/V Westward as a student, quite a different ship from the Seamans.  I am also starting to adjust to being on a moving ship.  At sea, the complexities of even the most mundane activity are magnified—I forgot how hard it is to even change your clothes!  I was quickly reminded the other day when I had my sweatshirt pulled up over my head and the boat lurched to one side.  I went staggering across the room and was saved quickly by a solid bounce off the nearby bulkhead (wall).  Luckily no one was there to see.  Over time, though, we eventually get more accustomed to the motion, and are soon carrying equipment, hauling sails and even looking at samples under the microscope.  In the meantime, A Watch will be working this evening right after dinner, and before then, I hope to catch a quick nap so that I can be awake and ready to go when we start watch...