April 15, 2006

Brilliant Sunsets

It is around midnight and my watch is now ending. It was another beautiful sunset to a pleasant day. We have arrived at our next sample site approximately 250 miles due south of our first location. We traveled at just under 15 knots through the night and arrived around 6:00 pm local time. Much of my early day was spent preparing sample jars, making copies of record sheets, changing out alcohol from collection jars, and getting plankton nets ready to dive. Many of the others in CMarZ spent their day staring through binocular scopes for the finest of details that may help them determine species x from y. For most of the day it was slow, yet relaxing. It is much less demanding at sea than the day-to-day stresses and interactions of teaching. I do however miss my students and family while working these long hours. It seemed during the slow periods that all there was to do was eat, and then wait to eat again. Eating has become a little daily treat to break the routine of the day. We eat on a tight schedule: breakfast at 7 am, lunch at 11am, and dinner at 4:30 pm. Dinner was 9 hours ago. Luckily there always seems to be a snack around for late evening hungers. I did manage to find some time to run on the treadmill. Running aboard a ship is like trail running in the dark; a bit treacherous at times. There is a sign in the exercise room cautioning individuals to avoid running with weights in hand. It would be wise to heed the advice.

Life aboard a ship is less crowded feeling than I expected. It seems the crew does a good job of finding their solitude away from the researchers. I still feel lost at times as I maneuver my way around. I expect in the next day or two to visit the bridge and ask for the grand tour. Not only do I get disoriented around the ship still but also it seems a little mystical. The crew seems to appear when needed and then disappear. There are a few people aboard I have not seen all day. The ship is like a labyrinth. Some stairs only lead down, while others only lead up. Some doors are passageways while others are dead ends. It is a bit like Hogwarts Castle.

Maybe a little Harry Potter magic is at play, as it seems someone has put a hex on the equipment. The plan was to launch the 1/4m MOCNESS this evening, but unexpected electronic problems occurred. There is chance that two of the command modules may be damaged. Then the winds picked up. A decision was made to postpone the open water diving. Collecting specimens in heavy waves is not manageable. Next we prepared the MOC 1 for collecting. All was ready to go, but during hoisting a cable got caught and broke. Peter Wiebe, the chief scientist aboard from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, just announced it was repaired and the second shift scrambled to the lower aft deck to put the mechanism overboard. We are keeping our fingers crossed that it goes out with success and returns with bounty. It seems that the MOC 1 has been our most reliable net to this point. Much of the deck work involves lifting nets with cranes, attaching and moving cables, steadying equipment, and fixing and setting plankton nets for the next run. The NOAA crew is very safety-oriented. We must wear hardhats, life jackets, and special shoes while working on the deck. The crew has been a little uneasy about having too many people on the fantail unless they are necessary for the operation at hand.

Being around many of the researchers is stimulating. Collectively they carry volumes of knowledge about the organisms in the ocean and are often eager to share some fascinating stories that abound in nature. For example, Tracy Sutton, Ph.D. from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, has been teaching me about bioluminescence in fish and the role pigments and light play in the dim underworld of the oceans. Tracy is an ichthyologist, a person who studies fish. His specialty is deep-water dragonfish. These small bearded fish have never been seen live in the wild. I had a chance to examine a deepwater hatchetfish we collected from a tow. These fish have the general shape of a kitchen cleaver. The fish had purple colored photophores, light producing organs, on its ventral side. These emit light matching the color the light would appear if you were looking up towards the surface. The leading idea is that the light produced by these fish camouflage them from predators. The fish would appear to blend into the background from the perspective of a predator lurking below. In addition these fish have silvery lined stomachs and transparent tails and fins. Bioluminescent is common practice in marine organisms. Many of the food items these fish eat are bioluminescent themselves. Many of the light producing cells on this hatchetfish were located under the portion of the body containing the organs, including the stomach. This was just one of many bizarre natural histories I have learned on this trip. I look forward to learning more, a passion I enjoy and try to instill in students.

Daily question: Why do you think hatchetfish have stomachs lined with an opaque shiny tissue that reflects light but does not allow light to penetrate, like aluminum foil?


Picture 1: Another sunset.

Picture 2: Portal view.

Picture 3: Starboard boom and winch at sunset.

Picture 4: The Survey Tech from NOAA and myself launching MOC 1/4

Picture 5: The Survey Tech from the Ron H. Brown crew attaching cable.

Picture 6: I am still smiling, good sign.

Picture 7: Aft deck with crane and the blue water.

Picture 8: Fish and shrimp samples, not for dinner.

Picture 9: Sara Panampuunnayil, Ph.D. from Kochi, India identifying zooplankton.

Picture 10: Goodnight!