Ask-a-Scientist, Part II: Ship life and shipmates

Thanks to Mr. Wynar’s sixth-grade science class at St. Elizabeth’s School in Denver, Colorado for sending us some questions! Mr. Wynar’s class adopted the SOCCOM float “Hawk-eye”, which we deployed on Tuesday morning. (Hawk-eye is named for the pair of nesting hawks at St. Elizabeth’s.)

What is daily life on the ship like?

Even though it’s a lot of fun to be out at sea, we’re working hard every day. Scientists are on 12-hour watches, which means we work for 12 hours and then have 12 hours off. We do this every day unless the weather conditions are too dangerous for us to put instruments in the water or we are transiting from one location to another. (Of course, the crew don’t get any of those days off — they are always working to make sure the ship is running smoothly and safely!)

A man with a goatee and glasses is bent over, holding a tube connected to a gray plastic bottle. He is wearing a white hardhat, orange life vest, and blue nitrile gloves in addition to a plaid shirt and jeans. Behind him are two women, also wearing hardhats.
Hard at work in the middle of his 12-hour watch, Bigelow Lab’s Bruce Bowler samples water from the CTD rosette.

During a normal watch, peoples’ time is usually divided up into three activities: getting ready for the next batch of samples to come in, sampling water, and running samples through various machines or filters. In the Balch group, for the water sample we collect, we run water through six different filters — most of these will be chemically analyzed back on land, but some of the analysis is done while we’re at sea.

Six people are gathered around a table playing a board game. The board is in the middle and each person has an array of plastic pieces and cards in front of them.
All aboard! The board game Ticket to Ride is a popular form of post-dinner entertainment.

When we’re not on watch, people find various ways to pass the time. There’s a huge library of books and movies on board, so there’s almost always someone watching something in the lounge — the trick is to time it so you appear at the lounge at the right moment to catch the beginning of the movie. After dinner, there are usually board games or card games in the galley, and when we have downtime in the lab, we often play ping-pong. When the weather is nice and the seas are calm, people spend a lot of time outside looking for wildlife or even just watching the waves!

What kind of food do you eat on board?

Our cooks, Ruth and Richard, work hard to make sure that everyone is eating well while we’re at sea. They cook a pretty wide variety of foods, from stir-fry to chicken and waffles, and they always make sure there’s a vegetarian option for those of us who don’t eat meat. They also go all-out on desserts, so I’ve been eating a lot more sweets than I do back on land!

Because we can’t get any more supplies until we land in Tahiti, they’re very careful about staggering the fruits and vegetables based on how quickly they go bad. Near the beginning of the cruise, we had lots of avocados and bananas; now we’re eating much more carrots, pears, and apples.

A many with medium-length hair and a goatee is staring intently at a grill. He's wearing a gray t-shirt with a mantis shrimp design on it and green shorts. He's holding a pair of tongs; in front of him is a grill full of steaks.
Grillmaster Pete Morton serves up steaks for Sunday night dinner.

There are also a few meal rituals on board, which help us (or at least me!) mark the passage of time. Sundays are surf-and-turf, so there’s always some kind of steak and shrimp or other seafood. We often recognize Taco Tuesday with tacos or burritos at dinner, and holidays such as Christmas are marked with a fancier meal than usual.

Why did you choose your career? What inspired you?

I asked a bunch of our scientists this question. Everyone had a different answer and a different path that brought them here, but there were some common themes that popped up a few times.

Many of our scientists grew up near the ocean, or wanted to study oceanography for a long time, but others were more generally interested in science, the environment, or even mathematics — and then found a way to apply those skills and passions to the ocean. Several people were inspired by introductions to scientists or scientific equipment when they were in elementary or middle school (exactly why we care so much about making connections with young students, like through this blog!). Dave Drapeau, a Bigelow Laboratory senior research associate, cited Jacques Cousteau as one of his oceanographic inspirations.

One other thing that came up about sea-going oceanography in particular was the kinds of people you meet on cruises. “You always make the best friends on trips,” said Hilde, a postdoc at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Even though you only spend about 6 weeks (or 9 weeks, in our case) with your shipmates, the close quarters and constant contact mean they often become life-long friends.

What other kinds of personnel are on the ship with you?

Two men are crouched down in front of a yellow metal frame strapped with large gray plastic bottles. The man on the left is wearing a gray t-shirt and khaki shorts, the man on the right is wearing an olive green t-shirt and khaki shorts. Both men have on masks and are wearing sunglasses pushed up on their heads.
Scripps research technician Charlie Brooks and electronics technician Clay Thompson survey the CTD back in port in Honolulu.

In addition to the 19 scientists we have on board, there are 21 members of the crew and 3 technicians. All of them are vital for us to be able to do our science safely! The crew members include the captain and three mates, who drive the ship, and the chief engineer and three assistant engineers, who make sure the engines are functioning.

We also have two cooks on board, who cook us three full meals per day, and a whole host of other sailors who make sure that the ship is tidy and safe, fix things when they break, and operate the winches when we need to deploy gear. Our technicians make sure that the scientific equipment is working correctly and collecting and storing the data that we need.

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

Ask-a-Scientist, Part II: Ship life and shipmates
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