Notes from the Nautilus Blog: The 12 to 4 Watch

IEEE Earthzine’s Jenny Woodman is blogging from the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus. Read more about her journey here.

The aft deck of the E/V Nautilus just before a midnight watch begins

The aft deck of the E/V Nautilus just before a midnight watch begins. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Little can prepare you for the rigors of this work. The adrenaline and collective excitement alleviate any misery that might sink in when my alarm clock rouses me only moments after I’ve finally drifted off to sleep. But, I find myself happy to be pinging down the long hallways and up the stairs to the mess hall, shaking off the haze of a nap that left me, perhaps, more sleepy than if I’d simply pushed through and stayed awake.

The discomfort of a midnight to 4 a.m. watch shift has built camaraderie; one by one, we gradually caffeinate and begin to joke around, replaying hilarious moments from previous watches. Our navigator Albert Palomer Vila is a Ph.D. student in technology at University of Girona from Catalonia. Viewers have written in that he sounds like the cartoon character, Puss in Boots, voiced by Antonio Banderas and this has provided a near-constant source of amusement. Getting our Canadian Argus pilot Trevor Shepherd to say “about” is worth a few laughs too.

I wonder what we’ll see tonight. This trip as been one of firsts for me — first whale, first octopus, first time talking to people all over the world who’ve tuned in to visit the bottom of the ocean with us.

It’s the first time I’ve gotten the chance to be a part of a scientific expedition. I’ve written stories about the work of others, but never come so close to it.

The control van at the top of the ship is filled with computer monitors and stations for each of the team members serving on the watch. The only light comes from the screens, giving the space the feeling that we might be, as our viewers frequently believe, in a submarine. I sit in the communications seat, next to the video engineer, the ROV pilots, and the navigator. The science team sits in the back row. While we’re all in a room together, we’re isolated by our screens and connected by the headsets we wear.

I filter the questions coming in from viewers during the lulls between operational chatter. The science team selects our locations and confers with scientists on land about species identification and sample collection. The video engineer gives the ROV pilots eyes to see where they are going. We float over the bottom of the ocean and up steep canyon walls, stopping to zoom in on any and all items of interest.

Last night we saw sponges, anemones, deep sea corals, a dumbo octopus, a catshark, hundreds of glittering comb jellies, sandpaper skate, eelpouts, thornyhead rockfish, and deep sea sole.

Our watch ended at 4 a.m. and I fell into my berth exhilarated, but exhausted — rocked to sleep by the Pacific Ocean. I dreamt of blue water and marine snow, which occupy most of the screens in the control van until we reach bottom. Most days, I sleep through breakfast, comfortable with the knowledge that there is always an abundance of things to eat at any time of the day.

By 10 a.m. I’m doing back-to-back televised interactions with schools and museums. No matter how I prep for each day, I’m stumped by (at least) several questions. Kids always ask about sharks and other ocean creatures we may or may not have encountered, so I bone up on some fun facts for the group of fourth and fifth graders at 11 a.m., but they don’t ask me one single question I’m ready to answer. Instead, they earnestly inquire about how the engineers designed the ROVs and how the ROVs are able to withstand the immense pressure at the bottom of the ocean. Nothing about narwhals or the Graneledone boreopacifica octopus who’ve been known to brood eggs for more than four years.

At 11:40 a.m., I inhale a plate of food and make my way up for my noon to 4 p.m. watch where we are in the middle of exploring shallower canyons near Cordell Bank. Since Sunday, our dives have lasted for 20 to 24 hours, so the days are starting to run together. We’ve been on the boat since Saturday; today is only Thursday, but it feels as if we’ve been at it for weeks.

Black-footed albatross off the aft deck

Black-footed albatross off the aft deck. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Emerging from the van at the end of our watch, I’m greeted by a pair of Dall’s porpoises gracefully arching over the surface of the water – almost gone before I can register their presence. Hundreds of black-footed albatross circle the boat and congregate near the aft deck.

I should be tired and cranky, but I am awestruck and eager to get some food and rest so I can do it all over again tomorrow. My time here is so limited it almost seems a shame to sleep – there’s so much to see and do. There are so many brilliant people to talk to and there’s a whole lot of ocean left to explore.

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