Ten days into our voyage and we’ve still got a few left before we can begin our science operations. Because the pandemic derailed our expedition’s original plans, we’ve ended up having a much longer transit than we would typically have before any science can start. One advantage of this is that it gives us all a chance to get our sea-legs — although the first night was a bit stormy heading out of Honolulu, we’ve reached calmer waters and no one seems to be suffering from seasickness anymore. The other main advantage is that we’ve got lots of time to test and troubleshoot all of our equipment before we really hit crunch time.
One machine that we’ve been testing out is called the Video Plankton Recorder, or VPR. This behemoth gets towed behind the ship, where it moves through the water in a “V” shape from near the surface down to 100 meters. In addition to collecting basic data like temperature and salinity, it has a bunch of optical sensors that can help describe just how much matter is in the water — like coccolithophores and other phytoplankton. The VPR, as its name suggests, can also take pictures of some of these plankton directly. Although it can’t capture coccolithophores, it can image larger plankton like diatoms, which compete for nutrients with coccolithophores in the Antarctic waters. Understanding the concentration of diatoms in the region can help us back out the amount of coccolithophores that live here, too.
Another thing we’ve been practicing is collecting “trace-metal-clean” water samples. For most of our work on board, we collect water using bottles strapped to a metal frame and lowered over the side of the ship using a metal cable. These bottles can be closed remotely so we can sample water at different depths. But we’re also interested in how tiny amounts of metals such as iron affect the plankton growing in the water. To study this, they need water that’s been minimally contaminated by all of the metal we have on board — and by the ship itself. So all of the water for these analyses and experiments is collected using plastic tubing and special, non-metal cables. Quite an ordeal compared to the “normal” water samples!
We’ve also been deploying other groups’ equipment. The pandemic virtually halted sea-going oceanography in March, especially projects that were planned to go as far from land as ours is going. So many other research groups, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project, have sent equipment along that we are sticking in the ocean along the way. One of the great parts of oceanography is how collaborative the community is — people are always happy to lend a hand.
Most of the equipment other groups have sent along is in the form of profiling floats. These autonomous floats drift along at 1000 meters below the ocean surface. Every 10 days, they sink down to 2000 meters and then rise up to the surface, taking information like temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels along the way. At the surface, they transmit the data to a satellite before sinking back down into the depths. There’s a global network of these floats, called the Argo network, that has vastly expanded our knowledge of the world’s oceans over the past 20 years. You can actually track the data that these floats are collecting in real time!
The long transit also gives us plenty of time to relax, of course. Some of my favorite pastimes include practicing the ukulele and watching for the flying fish leaping in and out of the waves. Others have taken to the ship’s vast collection of board games and movies to pass the time. Some fierce rounds of Mario Kart were played out a few nights ago and I’m sure that a ping-pong tournament can’t be far behind (although that’s most fun to watch once the ship really starts rolling!).
Through a fun quirk of the international date line, we actually skipped most of New Year’s Eve and found ourselves on January 1st a day ahead of our family and friends back home. Although the date line was originally established along the 180° meridian, it gets wonky in the tropical Pacific in order to keep island nations like Kiribati all operating on the same day. The ship has continued on keeping Hawaiian Standard Time, however, so everything is carrying on as normal here.
Late on New Year’s Eve, we also crossed the equator — meaning we spent the end of 2020 in the wintertime and started off 2021 off in the summer. COVID-19 has also temporarily postponed the traditional line-crossing ceremony, in which we would ask Neptune for safe passage across the equator, but we’re looking forward to celebrating properly once we are all assured to be safe.
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. She can be reached at email@example.com.