My day at sea starts like any day at home, with an alarm clock buzzing in my ear. But it’s late morning, not dawn, and my bunk is gently rolling back and forth. I’m not at home, but in the chief scientist’s cabin on the research vessel Knorr. I’m the leader of a scientific expedition to study warm currents of water in the cold ocean off the coast of Greenland —and it’s time for my watch.
All of the people on the ship—researchers and crewmembers—are divided up into “watches”, which are the times they have to be on duty. During my assigned watch — from 12 noon to 12 midnight— I must be awake and in the ship’s laboratory to monitor all the activities of the scientific mission. Then another scientist will come “on watch” to do the same thing from midnight to noon. While they are working, I can sleep or read or exercise or watch a movie.
I take a quick shower then head for the ship’s galley (the kitchen) for breakfast. I’m visually impaired, so I take my white cane to make sure I don’t bump into anything by mistake. Because it’s the middle of the day, it’s not breakfast that is being served, but lunch. So I get a ham and cheese sandwich and French fries for breakfast—hmmm, not like home!
11:45 AM (1145 hours):
I head into the lab 15 minutes before my watch to get an update on what has been going on for the last 12 hours. Work on a research vessel goes on around the clock. We are far out in the North Atlantic—there is no harbor and no water shallow enough to anchor. And the ship costs so much to operate (about $25,000 per day), we want to make good use of every minute.
The off-going watch (the person on duty before me) is eager to get to lunch and then to bed. I quickly check my e-mail (yes, there is e-mail at sea, sent back and forth via satellite). Since I can’t easily see the words on the screen, I use Jaws for Windows (a screen reader that speaks the text out loud) to read my e-mail. There is a message from my husband. He says our daughter Sara is having a good time at kindergarten. Now, I’m ready for my watch.
Today is the big day we have been waiting for! After steaming (traveling) for seven days from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, we have finally arrived at the position where we will launch our scientific gear. This position is labeled with a latitude (north-south position) and longitude (east-west position). We are in the northern North Atlantic, specifically the Labrador Sea between Labrador (a part of Canada) and Greenland.
We are here to put a mooring in the ocean: a long wire with an anchor on the ‘down’ end and a float on the ‘up’ end, that will extend from the sea floor almost to the water’s surface. The mooring carries instruments that will help us learn about this part of the ocean.
1:00 PM (1300 hours):
I go out on the back deck of the ship to see what is going on. I walk carefully with my cane because there are lots of things to trip on. The “deck boss,” Will Ostrom, is busy directing technicians and crewmembers to assemble the scientific gear before the launching. He tells me everything is going well. I would like to help, but my vision is not good enough to do this, so I just watch. I know Will will do a good job.
2:00 PM (1400 hours):
I climb up four flights of stairs—or ladders, as they are called on a ship—to check in with Captain Sheasley. He is standing by (that means “waiting” in ship talk) for the scientists and technicians to get ready to launch our gear. But he tells me some bad news. A storm is brewing and the waves are getting too high to safely launch the gear. You can’t put gear over the side with high waves constantly rocking the ship back and forth! Since I woke up, I could feel that the ship was rolling more and more by the hour. Captain Sheasley says we will have to wait until the storm weakens to put our instruments into the water.
4:00 PM (1600 hours):
For the rest of the day, we all wait anxiously for the storm to subside. The wind is howling now, and the captain has asked that no one go out on the deck unless they need to. My stomach feels a little queasy because of the ship’s motion, but it’s not too bad. The ship keeps motoring slowly ahead to keep the bow into the waves. Luckily the storm is not too bad and the captain thinks we can just wait it out. I try to distract myself by working on my computer and studying some data from my last project. I use my video magnifier to examine pictures of the data.
5:30 PM (1730 hours):
It’s dinner time, and it’s still too rough outside to deploy (or launch) our gear. Those who feel like it eat dinner—the rest read, watch movies or try to sleep. Now that darkness is coming, we will have to wait until the next day to safely launch the gear.
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The next day:
8:00 AM (0800 hours):
I wake up long before my watch. I can tell immediately that the waves have subsided and that we will probably be able to put our instruments into the water now. After getting dressed, I go first to the bridge to check in with Captain Sheasley. He agrees that the weather has improved and we can now go ahead with our plans. I make sure the science team members are awake and have had breakfast.
9:00 AM (0900 hours):
Everyone is now assembled and we are ready to go. But a quick look at the output from the Global Positioning System (GPS) that we use for navigation tells us that we have drifted away from the place where we intended to put the mooring. Will comes by my work station to talk it over. Do we take the time to go back to the original site, or do we change the location of the instruments. This is the kind of decision that I, as the chief scientist in charge of the whole project, need to make. I think it over for half an hour, then give Will the go-ahead to launch the equipment at this new position.
10:00 AM (1000 hours):
Will and the deck team start to lower the gear into the water, starting with the float, followed by the long mooring wire.
This is what oceanographers call a deep-sea mooring. It is similar to a mooring that keeps a boat anchored in a harbor—it has a heavy weight to keep it in one place, some rope or wire that stretches up from the weight to a buoy that acts like a balloon and keeps the rope upright. In our case, the mooring is very tall because the ocean is more than 3000 meters (about 9000 feet) deep in this location. On the mooring wire we attach sensors that will measure ocean currents, temperature and salinity (saltiness of the water).
There are also small floats attached to the mooring that will get released into the ocean each time a swirling blob of warm water—called an eddy—comes past the mooring. It’s a little like dandelion seeds that blow off the stalk in the wind - in this case the floats are the seeds, and the twisting eddy is the wind that carries them along.
Our mooring will stay in place for two years, after which we will go and retrieve it and all the sensors attached to it. Only then will we have a chance to see what the sensors have measured.
12:00 PM (1200 hours):
The launch of the mooring is going well. The deck crew members take a break, one at a time, to grab a quick lunch. We started two hours ago, but it will be another 6 hours before we are finished. Most of the time is spent slowly letting out the wire rope that will hold the sensors—almost two miles worth!
6:00 PM (1800 hours):
Finally the last weight goes overboard and the mooring is in place. Our work is finished here. Will and the others put the launching gear away, and Captain Sheasley points Knorr toward the port of Nuuk, Greenland. We will be there tomorrow. We will then say good-bye to Captain Sheasley and the crew and fly back home to Cape Cod. The Knorr and her crew will take on the next science team and steam off to work on another project. As I fly home, I have my fingers crossed that all the sensors that we have just placed deep in the North Atlantic Ocean are sitting there quietly measuring the currents that come sweeping by.