Ask-a-Scientist, Part IV: Stormy Seas & Surprising Creatures

Thanks to Mr. Perry’s seventh-grade science classes at Rippowam Cisqua School in Bedford, New York for sending us some questions. Mr. Perry was my science teacher in seventh grade and it was great to be able to connect with some students at my old school!

Do you ever wonder about what the strong, high winds could do to you, the others on the ship, and all of your experimental stuff? What do you do to prevent damage to the ship and equipment while in the Roaring Forties?

We definitely worry about what can happen when seas get rough and the winds pick up. First, we focus on prevention — making sure that everything is tied down and well-secured when the ship is calm goes a long way towards keeping everyone (and everything) safe when the waves pick up. As the cruise went on and the seas remained calm, people got a little lax about securing their belongings — something that became very apparent when things started flying around the ship when we hit a rough patch!

If things do get stormy, we take extra precautions. The captain will usually declare the decks “secured,” meaning no walking or hanging out outside except for critical science operations. Instead of collecting our water samples from the CTD while it’s sitting on the deck, we’ll bring it into a hangar for safety — and if the waves are really big, there are boards we put up to try to stop the water from coming in to the hangar. And if the weather ever gets really bad, science operations will be canceled for the safety of everyone involved. I’ve been on cruises before where we had storms that were so bad that the ship actually ran away from them and hid in the shelter of an island, but on this one, we only ever had to wait a few hours for the bad weather to pass.

The CTD, a yellow metal frame with large gray plastic bottles attached, is in the middle of a big room. Two men (one mostly obscured by the other) are in rain gear, standing close to the frame. A person in red is to the right of the frame and is getting doused by a big wave.
Giuliana ducks for cover (right) as a big wave crashes into the CTD hangar while Ben and Matt sample.

What is the worst storm you have been in and what was going through your mind?

We were incredibly lucky on this cruise, weather-wise. Although the fog certainly got monotonous when we were down south, we never got hit by any of the big storms that the Southern Ocean is known for. However, many of us on board — myself included — have experienced our fair share of severe storms on ships. The last time Mel, one of the Scripps chemists, and I sailed together, we were hammered by a different storm every week, including one that had 50+ feet waves! During storms like that, the main thought you have is for the safety and well-being of the ship and your shipmates — and being thankful for the crew that is keeping us all safe. Science operations have to stop if the weather gets too bad, so scientists end up watching a lot of movies or just staying horizontal in their bunks trying not to get too seasick!

What’s the weirdest ocean creature you have ever seen?

All the scientists on board had different answers for this, from the slightly snarky (one unnamed student just said “Ben”) to the very cool. Here’s a selection of my favorites:

  • Barney & Charlie: Mid-water fish like anglerfish (famously featured in Finding Nemo, anglerfish have a bioluminescent spines on their heads that they use to lure prey in the deep)
  • Hannah: “that worm that Phil had” (see picture below)
  • Giuliana: Icefish (the only known vertebrates with no hemoglobin in their blood, icefish survive at sub-freezing temperatures thanks to antifreeze proteins coursing through their veins. Their blood is white!)
  • Mel: An argonaut (sometimes called a paper nautilus, argonauts are octopuses with complex, paper-thin casings that they use to carry around their eggs)
  • Dave: Sperm whale (made famous by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, sperm whales can dive up to 2,000 meters below the ocean’s surface and primarily feast on giant squid)

I think Bruce put it best, though: “They’re all pretty weird.”

An overhead view of a large petri dish sitting on a countertop. Inside the petri dish is a strange, worm-like aquatic creature with lots of legs sticking straight out.
One of the many wacky creatures that WHOI’s Phil Alatalo pulled up in his plankton net on this cruise. (Photo credit: H. Primiano)

What’s the most surprising thing that you guys have discovered?

We came down here to study a region we call the “Great Calcite Belt” — a part of the ocean that has such high reflectance that you can see it from space. For years, Barney Balch and his team have been looking at this region and hypothesizing that it’s due to a high concentration of calcium carbonate from coccolithophores. But once we actually got down here, we found very few of them. Now, we suspect that the high reflectance is being caused by a high abundance of diatoms instead. This is especially interesting because it takes way more silicon to produce the same amount of reflectance that the calcium carbonate would cause! Some of these high-reflectance areas were pretty far south — outside the typical region where coccolithophores are found — so Barney suspected that it could be diatoms instead. But, as he said, “You have to go there and get your hands wet” to find out!

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 IV: Stormy Seas & Surprising Creatures
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