By Giuliana Viglione
After what seems like an endless pre-expedition quarantine, we have finally made it on board the R/V Roger Revelle, the ship that we will call home for the next 60+ days. While we aren’t setting sail until the day after Christmas, the work started almost immediately once we pulled up to the pier.
The first two days have been a flurry of activity as everyone rushes to get all of their equipment on board and in the right places. After two weeks of relative inactivity in my hotel room, it was quite a shock to my muscles to be lifting heavy things and going up and down stairs all day. We also spent some time today loading all of our food on board. It was pretty amazing to see it all stacked up in one place, including almost 4,000 eggs! Next comes preparing everything for sea: bolting machines to the tables, tying down crates, and making sure that all of our electronics have their own piece of “scoot-guard”, rubbery mats that make sure nothing will slide around when the ship starts rocking.
Traveling during COVID-times was pretty stressful. It could be very dangerous if someone on board were to fall sick, so we took no chances: we spent 14 days quarantining in hotel rooms (not even leaving to go for walks!), had five COVID-19 tests apiece (thankfully negative), and for the first two weeks after we leave port, we will be wearing masks as usual and trying to socially distance from each other (as much as is possible on a 277-foot ship). Luckily, most of the first two weeks of our journey are spent in transit, so we’ll only have a few days of science operations where we have to maintain our strict protocols.
Once science does start, we will be working around the clock to collect as much high-quality data and samples as we can. This means working 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week — no weekends and no holidays! But it’s very important for us to maximize our time on the ship since opportunities to go to sea are rare.
We have two main science objectives. The first is collecting data along a “transect”, which is a straight line across part of the ocean. This route follows the course of a previously completed transect — oceanographers try to collect the same key data, such as temperature, salinity, and nutrient amounts, along pre-defined lines every decade or so. This helps us understand how the ocean is changing over time. It also provides a big-picture view of the area we’ll be working in, which is important context for understanding our other results.
After the transect, we’ll be picking out cool features, such as eddies, which are like the ocean’s weather systems. At each of these features, we’ll be taking lots of measurements and samples at very high resolution (spaced closely together). We’re studying coccolithophores, microscopic shell-building plankton that play an important role in the ocean’s carbon cycle. We want to understand how those plankton change the chemistry of water at the surface before it is subducted, or transported down into the deep ocean. We’re also trying to figure out how different nutrients, like nitrate and iron, affect the plankton’s growth. Combining all this information with the bigger-picture context will help us better understand how the water in this region sucks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and affects the conditions elsewhere in the ocean.
The next 60 days will take us across the International Date Line, the equator, and then back across the date line once more. We’ll go from our current location in Honolulu, Hawaii (around 21 °N) all the way down to 60 °S. I hope you’ll follow along with our adventures! If you have questions about our science, or about life aboard a ship, please send them to me at email@example.com, and I’ll do my best to answer them all. Fair winds and following seas!
Giuliana Viglione is a journalist and science communicator who has joined Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch’s research cruise to study the impact of coccolithophores in the Southern Ocean. On board the ship, she’ll be helping the team carry out experiments, document the research cruise, and conduct educational outreach with students across the country.