Saturday, 2 June 2012

A Day in the Life... On a Research Cruise

There’s nothing quite like the combination of fog, rain and a big swell at sea to really limit your options for photography! The weather yesterday and today has been too poor to put the ROV in the water and too foggy to get any decent photographs so we’ve had a quiet couple of days to catch up on some writing and data processing in the labs. But, all work and no play makes scientists at sea go crazy, so I thought today I’d write a little bit about a typical day on a research cruise and what we get up to out here to maintain some semblance of sanity!

Bet you can't spot me!
I’m writing this during my third offshore cruise, and during each one the scientists have been put on (usually 12-hour) shifts so we can keep working around the clock. The RRS James Cook costs about £50,000 per day to hire (including fuel, consumables and crew wages etc.) so it’s important to try and make the most of every hour we can get on board, especially since the chance to participate in a research cruise often represents a one-off opportunity to get your data. Unlike other fields, with deep-sea research it’s not like you can just pop 300 miles back offshore if you forget something or lose a sample! With that in mind, even working for 12 hours or more through a night shift doesn’t seem quite so bad.

So regardless of what time you actually wake up, a typical day will start, as it does anywhere, with breakfast and a coffee in the ship’s galley before checking in with the shift leader to see what the programme of work will be for the day. The shift leaders are responsible for keeping things running through their shift and will liase directly with the expedition’s Principle Scientist and to make sure that everyone gets the samples they need from the trip. They are also the ones who will be at the forefront when plans need to change to allow repairs to be done on a piece of kit or if bad weather comes in and forces us to rethink what we’re going to do for the day.

Nothing like a giant bucket of mud to keep everyone happy!
Since every research cruise is designed with a particular purpose in mind, the type of work being done will depend very much on what the aims are. The cruises I’ve participated in have mostly focused on ecological surveying using ROVs, towed cameras or trawling for example, but we’ve also done plenty of mud sampling, box coring, water collections and acoustic mapping as well. Regardless of what type of cruise it is though, one of the things I really enjoy about working on these ships is the real sense of camaraderie that develops from joining in with the deck work in particular, whether it’s carting buckets of water around for the on-board aquaria or being up to your elbows in abyssal mud at 2am on a pitching ship!

But like I said, you can’t work for 14 hours a day for 4 weeks straight without needing some downtime, and fortunately the cruise ships I’ve been on have been well-supplied in terms of entertainment. The James Cook for example has a video room for watching films in, a small library full of novels, a good-sized social area for watching TV and even a Wii with a few games! For me as well there’s also the photography to keep me busy, whether it’s shooting the wildlife or shooting photos of the work that we’re all doing.

Wii tournaments can get pretty intense
So that’s more or less it really for a typical day at sea! The weather has just kept on getting worse and the captain’s ordered the decks secured now while we head to our next station through a 3-4m swell (about 10-12 feet I think), but the birds seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves so I’m off to try and get some shots of the stormy seas!

Thanks to Karl Attard and Millie Sharkey for providing today's photos :)