by Nick Mathews, KU Watchstander
“Bungee that down! The Commander predicts 12–15 footers for the next two days! That means no Sentry and it looks like we’ll just be doing bathymetry for now.” “Why was nobody at dinner, you missed Justin’s chair sliding across the whole room?” “This bathymetry really sucks!” All these can be heard from the passengers on the R/V Thomas G. Thompson as bad weather puts our meticulously pre-planned operation on hold. A good scientific expedition requires mostly drama-free operations, which are practically impossible to achieve during a spot of dodgy seas. That is why chief scientists must keep a watchful eye on the sea conditions and always have a plan B, and usually plans C, D, and E ready to go.
One problem about being in the open ocean is that, even in this day and age, it is rather difficult to get an accurate local weather prediction. You can’t just plug our latitude and longitude into weather.com. That was hard for me to believe at first, but it made sense when I thought about the size and remoteness of our study area. There is no practical reason why there would be a huge Doppler radar system giving us the “Local on the 8s” for our next day’s location, when we could very well be the only intelligent life in the Jurassic Quiet Zone. So, a few weeks ago, I was dumbfounded when Maurice Tivey told me that a storm was going to hit us the next day. I walked outside to see if there were dark clouds on the horizon that maybe gave it away, but there were none, it was bright and sunny. Of course, if I could already see the storm, it wouldn’t wait until the next day to get to us. The thought crossed my mind that Maurice was playing a prank on me. However, when I pressed him further, Maurice presented me a map of the Pacific Ocean labeled with some current wind directions and sea states. This surprised me, where did it come from?
The Thompson requires a lot of shore-side support for weather information. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) interprets wind direction, wind speed, and even wave height from satellite data. In addition they collect information about current weather conditions from ships, which they cross-reference with satellite data for accuracy. This means that the R/V Thompson also serves as a floating weather station. Every hour, mates on the bridge will report to NOAA on our local weather conditions: barometric pressure, temperature, average wave height, wind speed and direction. A few of times per day, they will print out a weather map from NOAA with a satellite image of our area, the locations of any nearby ships, and what kind of weather those ships are reporting. On top of that, the science team pays for the “Commanders’ Weather” report.Commanders’ Weather is a commercial company that dishes out personalized weather reports for racing and cruising yachts, along with the occasional research vessel. Twice per day we receive an email that gives us a detailed five-day weather forecast. With these weather prediction techniques, we are able to prepare for storms in advance. They are a lifesaver when our ability to put all of our expensive equipment to use and collect data depends inexorably on the weather.
Even though we know several days in advance that the seas may get angry at us, ‘The Commander’ or NOAA do not tell us how to “keep the science flowing”, as the crew commonly puts it. Luckily we haven’t been burdened too much by bad weather, but there were two significant storm events near the beginning of the cruise that impacted the total area of Jurassic Crust that we were able to survey. While everyone was either struggling to keep their lunch down or in a sea-sickness-medication-induced coma, the chief scientists, techs, and the captain had to come up with a plan that would maximize the amount of deep-ocean surveying that could be done given the conditions. They had to take into account the fact that each science operation has unique constraints to consider. For example, it is difficult and dangerous to recover Sentry in a choppy or confused sea-state. Because the AUV can dive for over 24 hours, we can deploy under sunny skies and flat seas but when it comes time to retrieve it, conditions may have changed for the worse. We also can’t deploy TowCam in heavy seas because the bouncing of the ship can put too much tension on the cable and block attaching it to the sled. The seismic gear can be put out under most conditions; however, quality of the seismic data decreases with increased sea-state. The surface-towed Maggie is the only instrument we use that is relatively weather resistant.
Though the chief scientists refine our survey plan based on the weather forecast, ultimately it is the captain that makes the final call on what can be done. He must decide where to draw the line between a situation in which rough seas are just a minor inconvenience and one in which they can become dangerous for science operations. The captain has the power to steer the ship off course to avoid a storm that could threaten our safety. If it’s not necessary to leave the area, he can still ban us from going outside on deck, where waves could crash over the railings and sweep you away.
Thankfully, something that I’ve noticed about the weather here in the tropics is that bouts of high wind and heavy precipitation are short-lived, making them relatively easy to deal with. The sea-state and swells seem to linger, but we’ve been able to adapt to these conditions. When all is said and done, we have gathered gobs of precise data even while pitching,rolling, and yawing on a dynamic surface — the ocean. In addition, we’ve had relatively “boring” weather for the second half of this cruise. As a tall and wise R/V Thompson engineer once told me in reference to how smoothly this trip has gone, “boring is beautiful”. ♦
by Dani Moyer, KU Watchstander
We humans have a habit of repeating what we see seen others do, a learning tool that many of us do not realize we use on a regular basis. Think back to a time when you watched your parents working in the kitchen and picked up on how they made a certain dish, or when you got into trouble at home for repeating a not-so-appropriate word you heard from someone else. We learn best from others’ examples, and because of this job shadowing has become an effective way of learning new skills. I remember following my dad around the garage when I was younger, learning about the numerous tools on the wall and how he used them to fix various things. Busy hands and a short attention span prevented me from being the best dad-shadow, since I had a habit of misplacing his tools as well as getting grease all over my clothes. But I believe that over the years I have honed my shadowing skills, and I tried using them to learn from the able seamen (ABs) on board.
The first challenge I encountered during my shadowing experience was finding an AB that I could follow without getting in their way during a time when I wasn’t on watch at my station. The task was even more difficult because ABs rarely stay in one place for long periods of time, moving from one task to another all over the ship. Luckily, I had a habit of running into a few of the ABs in the morning during my cereal bowl run and before I knew it I had two willing participants, India Grammatica and Brian Clampitt.
For the longest time I had thought that India was the painter on the ship as I always came across her with a paint brush and bucket in hand, but it turns out that painting is a task that all of the ABs work on in their respective areas. India had planned on taking me outside to paint the deck, but the rough seas caused a large amount of salt to cover the decks, so she took me down to see the winch room where she was working on another paint job. I was in charge of applying a fresh coat of red paint to a fire axe that is normally stored outside. The job only took a few minutes, but it allowed me the chance to get to know India while working. I learned that she has been an AB for four years and served as the second cook on some cruises. Like many of the crew on board she has been all over the world during her time on ships, both research vessels like the R/V Thompson and fishing boats. When asked which she liked better, research or fishing, she said that the research vessels provided more opportunities to travel to different places, whereas fishing boats usually stuck to the same areas.
After I finished painting, India took me out onto the deck to learn how to tie some knots. I had learned some knots during my time at the volunteer fire company in my hometown, but the bowline was still a mystery to me. India quickly remedied my cluelessness and showed me an easy way to remember the knot. Most people learn a story of a rabbit going out of a hole and around a tree, but India is more of a visual person like me. She said that the knot should look as though you were putting a life vest on the rope, and with that hint I was able to tie the knot — with a little help. As I perfected my knot-tying skills I continued to ask about her job as an AB. Throughout the year, India normally works for two months on the ship and then has two months off. The type of shift she works, dayworker (8 a.m. – 4 p.m.) or watchstander (4 hours on, 8 hours off), varies by cruise. When I asked her about her fondest memory during her career, India immediately thought of spending a Christmas in port in Hawaii. The crew had Christmas dinner on board and spent the rest of their time enjoying the beach as well as a barbeque for lunch. Everyone had a good time and enjoyed Christmas even though they were far from home.
India couldn’t help but laugh at my enthusiasm when I finally successfully tied the numerous knots shown to me and said that Brian was the knot master who could probably show me a few more. It was perfect timing since Brian had just come around the corner, string in hand, and he was tying a series of knots related to the story of a sailor who won the hand of his love with his rope skills. When story ended, India left me in Brian’s hands as he had a job with my name on it.
Well, it wasn’t my name. The R/V Thomas G. Thompson name plaque needed another layer of varnish to protect it from the elements and make it look nice. Brian gave me the brush and bucket, laughing at the parallels to Tom Sawyer painting the white fence. I didn’t mind the work since the sea state had calmed and there wasn’t as much salt water coating the decks. Varnishing the sign only took about 10 minutes, but I had another job waiting, thanks to Will. His prize for winning the TowCam Battery-Life Estimation Pool, a coiled TowCam cable lei, needed to be broken down into smaller pieces so he could fit a piece into his luggage. Brian at first brought out a cable cutter, but it didn’t have enough power to cut through the heavy metal cables. We resorted to using an air-powered grinding tool, which I was a little nervous about when Brian put it into my hands. I was decked out in PPE (personal protective equipment) to prevent any accidents while I worked, but I ended up successfully cutting numerous sections of cable as more and more people wanted a piece of of the cable and JQZ history, including me.
Once everyone was satisfied with their cable pieces, Brian and I began to clean up our mess, giving me the perfect opportunity to ask a few questions. Brian has been an AB since 1986 and had to think hard about his fondest memory. He has experienced so much during his career that it was hard to pick just one. This wasn’t the first time I had listened to one of Brian’s stories as everyone loves to crowd around when he starts in on a story during meal time or over a game of cards. He told me about a time on the R/V Thompson, working in this area, when a mother and baby whale breached the surface near the ship. He had been working on deck at the time when they breached and it was clear that they had just been feeding. It was a quite a sight, and Brian was one of the few who had gotten to see it.
While I didn’t get to spend time with all of the ABs, I have seen the group consisting of Brian, India, Pam, Carlos, Zeke and Rob working around the ship during my time on the R/V Thompson. The job of an AB consists of a lot more than just tying knots, painting, and doing odd jobs. They are responsible for much of the preventative maintenance that makes the R/V Thompson run smoothly. ABs can be found working on the outside of the shipneedlegunning to remove rust and painting to help protect the decks and make sure they aren’t slippery. They work indoors as well, making the inside of the ship a safe and clean environment for everyone. During their shifts they can also be found up in the bridge working with mates and making rounds of the ship to keep an eye on things. They are always on deck when deploying and retrieving our scientific equipment, running the winches and cranes, holding lines, and making sure the people and equipment are safe. The ABs are also trained as firefighters in case of emergencies on board. Their schedules keep them quite busy but, like the watchstanders in the lab, they all have ways to relax after a day of work by playing card games, watching movies in the lounge, reading, or enjoying the good weather outside. This group helps keep the ship in running order along with the rest of the crew of the Thompson, and for their hard work I, along with the rest of the science team, am grateful. ♦
by Matt Sabetta, KU Watchstander
As a watchstander, my duty is to monitor the acquisition of the geophysical data collected during the cruise. This entails watching computer screens as the data comes in: black lines are seismic data, yellow wiggles represent magnetics measurements, rainbow-colored lines are multibeam bathymetry, and the thick black outline of the seafloor comes from CHIRP. However, this first look is raw data output directly from the instruments, which can include noise and various errors. While on board, scientists and watchstanders take a first shot at processing some of this data to remove those errors and make it easier to visualize and interpret.
CHIRP gives us a shallow cross section of the seafloor directly below the boat. It is a great way to see in real-time the profile of the seafloor. CHIRP does not need on-board processing, but it does need constant monitoring. We only save the data that is on the screen during watch, which means we need to constantly supervise it to keep the seafloor on the screen. This is not usually a problem, except when we cross over a seamount. In that case, the outline of the seafloor quickly turns upward, and if we’re not careful it can go off the monitor causing a loss of data.
Multi-channel seismic data also creates a profile of the seafloor, but it images deeper than CHIRP. Sam Zhang processes the >500 kilometers of seismic data gathered during the duration of our cruise. For the past few nights, Sam has been teaching me how to take the raw seismic data and produce a cross sectional profile of the area surveyed using ProMAX. Part of this process is filtering out noise. Increased ship speed and bad weather cause the seismic streamer and air guns to bounce in the water, which adds noise that is picked up by the hydrophones, diminishing the actual signal. The channels near the birds (floats) are always a bit noisy since the birds constantly move to keep the streamer at a constant depth. In choppy waves, the buoy at the end of the streamer can also slap the water, causing noise in the last few channels. Hydrophones may get filled with water (e.g., if the streamer is bitten by a shark) and short out causing the loss of a channel. Once Sam has removed the noisy channels and filtered the data, he can begin the involved process of turning it into an image that can be interpreted.
Maurice Tivey and Masako Tominaga process the raw magnetic data. They filter the wiggles of data so that they are understandable and show the magnetic anomalies clearly. For example, in the case of TowCam, they need to correct for the heading, depth, and location of the sled as well as its pitch and roll. Because it is being dragged through the water on the end of a cable, TowCam acts like a fishing lure, wobbling and changing depth with ship speed and ocean currents as we move down the line. They also need to consider the bathymetry, because seafloor topography can cause spikes in the data. Maurice and Masako also have to remove the effect of the current global magnetic field of the Earth to make the magnetic anomalies visible. These steps are only a small portion of what goes into processing the magnetic data, and they have to take similar steps to process the surface-towed Maggie and the three magnetometers on Sentry.
Multibeam bathymetry gives us an image of the surface of the seafloor, but it requires a lot of manual editing. It is the only data set that we watchstanders process independently from the other science team members. Bad points in the multibeam data have many sources. The first and biggest source is due to the movement of the ship, which is a combination of the ship’s speed and the outside weather conditions. When waves are high, or if we are moving faster, the boat has a tendency to pitch, roll, and yaw, which can create gaps and spikes in the data. Another source of error comes from assuming that the seafloor is relatively flat. Sometimes a ping may bounce off seamounts that are just to the side of the multibeam footprint and return before pings traveling to the seafloor beneath the boat. Pings can even bounce off objects or animals in the water below the boat (e.g. schools of fish or whales).
Obviously bad points in the multibeam data, which show up as spikes above or below the average depth, are removed manually by watchstanders using a program called MB-System. This is a command-line based program with a graphical editing screen. You can think of it as an old Atari game where all you see are horizontal lines of dots. Now imagine that the object of the game is to rid the lines of any imperfections so that they are continuous and straight. If you can picture that, then you understand how we edit multibeam data. In reality, the dots represent individual pings returned to the multibeam’s receiver, and each line is an ~6-kilometer swath of the seafloor. A file is created every half hour that contains about 200 swaths, and our job is to edit each file after its production. Once the files are edited, we grid the data and import the gird files into another program called Fledermaus. This program creates a three-dimensional map of the seafloor that we’ve covered on the cruise.
On the ship I witness collection, processing, and the interpretation of marine geophysical data. In some cases, it is relatively easy to process, whereas in others, data processing is complicated and time consuming. After we return, scientists may further process or even reprocess the data depending on the questions they are trying to answer. By learning and partaking in the processing of the data, I have gained a greater respect for the simple dots, lines, and wiggles that I monitor during my watch. ♦
by Tom Bond, KU Watchstander
Being a part of the engine department of a ship involves quite a bit more than just knowing which way to turn a wrench. After being greatly intrigued by Brian during our discussion of a few of the engineering aspects of the R/V Thompson, my curiosity took me to meet with the Chief Engineer, Terry Anderson, hoping I could get to know who and what makes the ship run. Because of needlegunning going on near Terry’s office (which is also his stateroom), we met in the main control room. It was here, a mere five feet away from the loudest area of the ship, that I learned a great deal more about what makes the Thompson tick.
Terry explained to me what it means to be a part of the engine department. The Thompson has eight such personnel who are either licensed engineers or Qualified Members of the Engine Department (QMEDs, also known as oilers). They are responsible for just about everything mechanical or machine-related on the ship including waste management, propulsion, electricity, and fresh water production. From here we explored the finer points of each area.
We discussed how waste is dealt with, starting with what happens when we flush the toilet. Our toilets are vacuum-powered, similar to those you find on airplanes. Waste is collected in the Marine Sanitation Device where it is macerated. The device’s chopper pump reduces sewage to a fine puree that is treated with chlorine and emptied from the sewage holding tanks daily. Trash such as metals and some plastics are compacted and stored for recycling or disposal on land, while other waste, such as paper and plastic wrappers, is hauled off to the onboard incinerator that turns what would be mounds of trash into piles of ash.
Moving our way to “cleaner” topics, we discussed the all-important presence of power generation systems for both propulsion and electricity. The Thompson is currently set up with six diesel engines, each paired with its own generator. We have three 1500kW generators that operate mainly for propulsion and three 750kW generators that provide supplemental power. This setup allows the engine department to cycle through the engine-generators to run them evenly as well as vary the combinations to meet the demands of the mission at hand. For example, when we run TowCam and Sentry operations we travel at 1.5 knots, require one large and one small engine, and consume ~1500 gallons of fuel per day. While transiting we travel at 12–14 knots, require two large and two small engines, and burn ~2500 gallons per day.
The Thompson is not outfitted with conventional drives, which are designed with a straight drive shaft connecting the motor to the propeller. Instead, this vessel has two Z-drives, named for a general Z shape in their drive shafts: the Z-drive shaft extends aft from the motor, makes a 90º bend down through the hull, and another 90º bend to the propeller. This design allows each propeller to pivot 360º independent from one another. When used in conjunction with the 360º turning bow thruster (which uses a centrifugal water jet), the Z-drives grant the Thompson precision maneuverability. For instance, they allows us to use dynamic positioning so the ship can stay in a fixed position without anchoring. The Thompson can also change direction faster than other ships and even drive sideways or backwards if necessary. This is especially useful during scientific operations. For example, current and wave conditions often force us to drive backwards to maintain a safe angle on the TowCam cable, which is suspended from the starboard side boom.
The electricity generated from the engine-generators is also used to provide us with a great many “creature comforts” during our stay aboard the Thompson. A couple of these, specifically air-conditioning and hot water, are run off the supplemental power grid. The majority of the ship’s rooms and passageways are kept cool via air-water heat exchange. Air handlers located at various spots throughout the ship intake ambient room-temperature air and pass it over pipes that have 45º F water running through them. This lowers the temperature of the air, which is then expelled through blowers to make some residents resort to wearing layers of warm clothes in the lab.
A more vital use of the supplemental power is to produce our fresh water from seawater. First, seawater is passed through a strain basket filter to remove any large particulates like seaweed. From there it goes through a reverse gradient filter, which removes smaller particulates such as plankton. During this process, the water enters the top of a reinforced fiberglass filter tank and passes down through several layers of gravel that get smaller in grain size until it reaches a sand layer at the bottom. At the end of the reverse gradient, it is pushed through a paper cartridge filter to remove contaminants as small as five microns. At this point, the fluid is very clean saltwater. The saltwater is then pressurized up to ~775psi and forced through a reverse osmosis membrane, which removes salt from a portion of the water and concentrates it in a brine. The brine is discarded and the pure water is then ready to be pumped up to any water fountain or sink that is calling for its presence.
With all of these engineering wonders making our work at sea possible, it comes as no surprise that the members of the engine department are constantly performing preventive maintenance checks and services. The other reason to keep up the maintenance is to keep the Thompson, one of the three global class vessels in the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet, from being stuck in the shipyard for more time than necessary. Every five years, the ship is inspected by the American Bureau of Shipping, and as the ship gets older the inspections become more in depth to ensure its structural and mechanical integrity is intact. When the Thompson turned 20, it underwent an inspection where a hole was cut in the hull in order to remove the generators for their first refit since installation. Once the refit was complete and all other inspections passed, the hull piece was welded back into place, stress tested, coated with paint, and sealed so the Thompson could return to work.
The most important message I learned from Terry, however, came not from factual information in regards to what makes the ship run, but instead about who makes it run. He told me it was the great men and women of the crew that keep the ship going. I must say that I have to agree with Terry on that, for we truly are in good hands. ♦