30 August 2014

Celebrating land

After three weeks at sea I was glad to step on land again. There's rock there, and trees! So after three more weeks at sea, I felt a desire to get close to these rocks and trees. And I figured that after six weeks of working 12 hours a day, every day (yes, except the port call and transit back to Southampton) I had earned a half day off. And what's the most iconic clump of rock around here? Indeed! Snowdon (or yr Wyddfa). With its 1085 m a nice landmark. So I decided to get up early and scale it. Just to celebrate land!

The getting out early only partly worked. I had buggered up the alarm, so I was only up at 6; then, when I got into the car, I noticed it hardly had any fuel left; and once I had crossed the bridge, it dawned on me I had forgot my wallet. Oh dear. All in all it was 7.30 by the time I parked up at Llanberis pass. But that was early enough; there was plenty of space on the parking lot, and I seemed to have the path to myself. I took the Pyg trail. It looked nice! And it was.

 The start of the Pyg Trail

It was a beautiful day, with sunshine and menacing skies. I enjoyed myself immensely! The views were amazing. When I got close to the top I ended up in clouds, but that was what I had expected. It was still nice! And just below the top I met two Germans on holiday. They were nice! But I was faster, so I reached the top alone. I didn't linger; I pretty much had to hold on to the triangulation bollard (of whatever it's called) to not get blown off. In the valleys the weather was mild, but here it was bloody polar. Made you feel you had covered some (vertical) distance.

 Upon reaching the clouds I also reached an old mine!

 The top as I caught sight of it

 On the top!

I accepted the way back pretty soon. And re-emerged from the cloud. I decided to take the Miner's track back. And that was quite busy, but that was alright. The views were still lovely! And when I got back to the car the parking lot was so full it had been closed off with a chain. New entries only when others left! That's Snowdonia for you. But I felt quite replenished and ready again for some office-and-lab drudgery after a hike like this. I should do this more often; getting up early and do a nice walk. It's well worth it!

28 August 2014

End of cruise JC106

For six weeks you work your 12 hour shifts in the middle of the night. And then, one day, suddenly it’s over.

We did our last shift up to Saturday noon. We cored up the very, very last core! Number 223. It unfortunately wasn’t a good one; the bottom of the core looked decidedly Holocene. But one tries! And then we started our last splitting spree. Not all the work was done by noon, so we handed over to the day shift to finish it off. I did take the opportunity to thank the night coring shift for being so spiffing, but as the work wasn’t done yet, I didn’t feel there was a lot of space for more. The day shift had to get cracking! And it wasn’t closure yet.

Me cutting the cap of an otherwise split core. Pic by Kasper Weilbach

The sun comes up behind the last core of the cruise

 We all went to bed early. Normally I would get up at 11PM, but this night there would be a party to celebrate the end of work, starting at 8PM. So we had to get up early for it! That’s a bit weird.And what was also weird was that while I slept, science on board had come to an end. And so much science! All these cores, and 5200 miles of geophysics! This had been a very successful cruise. We had been blessed!

The booty: 223 cores, in 627 core sections, amounting to some 6 tonnes of material

I bumped into Colm, the chief scientist, on the stairs. He was on his way to start the party, so I joined him. That way I became the first to open a beer on this amazing cruise! But certainly not the last. It was good to finally get to drink with the day shift, even though I knew it was risky, as I had been pretty close to teetotal for six weeks. And I don’t like hangovers! 

There was beer. And when it ran out, and the crowd thinned, I brought out a bottle of good whisky I had saved for a special occasion. It didn’t last long! But it was good to celebrate in style. Later the dancing started with the die-hards. And with fresh people; crew who came off shift tended to join. There was much rejoicing! But I was quite aware of what partying to dawn can do to some alcohol lightweight whose biorhythm is rather unfortunate, so when my colleague Katrien suggested going out to watch the sunrise I went for it. And lost her immediately.  And found some people from NMFSS and BGS already huddled on forecastle deck. But I was in a sweaty T-shirt (and had seen countless many sunrises the past six weeks) so I quickly left for my bed, which I reached after a last hug from a crewman (thanks Steve!). And when I woke up I had a resounding headache.

 Some fun the crew had with my on-board Welsh learning

When I woke up it was about 10.30, and I remembered the guy who had complained I never came to the bridge, and that I should come and make a dent in his boredom during his 8-12 shift. I still could! So I did. Feeling rather miserable. But he showed me around, and I got to see Dartmoor and the Eddystone Lighthouse through binoculars. Hello Southwest! So it was worth it. But at noon we both went down for lunch-posing-as-breakfast, and after that I decided to go back to bed. When I re-emerged I just wandered around aimlessly. There was no structure anymore! No shift. And pretty much no people. Nobody was required anywhere! The day shift had managed to pack up and clean the lab on their last shift, so there was nothing to do. And I was too hungover to learn Welsh or prepare lectures. I felt strange! A bit empty. After dinner I just went back to bed.  

I woke up on Monday, at 4:45. You can get the girl out of the night shift… but I decided I might as well wake myself up with a last gym session. 5AM had become quite a standard time for me to hit the running machine! And it made me feel better.

Coming back into Southampton Harbour

By 10AM we were docked. And then the big hugging started! I had become rather attached to the night coring team. We had spent pretty much every waking minute together! And now we would separate. But we will meet again. The scientific community is small.
Then there was only the matter of getting our hands on the rental car that awaited us, load it up, and get home. This wasn’t as easy as it should have been; I had thought we’d be only three driving back, but our student came along! No way that would fit. We solved the situation by having our bulky work kit shipped to Durham, with James being willing to pick it up from there on his impending visit. That helped! So after some more hugs (I like hugs) we were off. Leaving the RRS James cook, our home for 40 days, behind. Hopefully, we’ll see her again next year, for the second cruise, this time on the North Sea! Watch this space!

Picture from the early days of the cruise; a very rare Nightshift afternoon pint on the forecastle deck. Cheers dears! Pic by Kasper Weilbach

19 August 2014

The end in sight

The first leg of the cruise, which ended on August the 4th, seems ages ago. Being on land before the cruise is a memory so faded it’s recalled with difficulty. And within a week, we will dock in Southampton, where we’d been docked before departure. Back on solid ground! The thought is hard to grasp. Home, that’s the ship now. 

 Night over the Atlantic

The cruise reached a new equilibrium soon, with the new roles and patterns established. Although some of our patterns had to be adapted to end-of-cruise material shortage; normally we bag loose sediment in a ziplock, measure a core with a measuring tape, later stick tape with centimetre indications to the core sections, and when wrapping up a core, use electrical tape to keep all together. But we ran out of ziplocks so we now use whatever we can get our hands on; the measuring tapes have rusted through so we now use one meter measuring rods; we only stick cm tape to one half of the split cores, and we use parcel tape for wrapping cores. One has to make do! 

 Two of the BGS men making new core catchers re-using the mangled corpses of those we'de used and destroyed

It’s not just the supplies that run out; some people are following the same route. What we do on board is very repetitive (we’ve already retrieved 198 cores) and some people are struggling with the same routine day in, day out, for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for six weeks. Some people have difficulty sleeping; these are recognized by their eyes getting smaller and smaller. 

I sleep like a log, and I am a micropalaeontologist so I am almost immune to the dulling effect of monotonous work, so I’m fine. I like it here! I like the getting the cores on deck. It’s in the fresh air, it involves physical effort and mud, and it’s nice to see a container fill up with my scientific future of the next 2.5 years. And the splitting and describing is OK too. Describing cores can be rather serene, and the splitting is satisfying. And as the night shift we get nice sunrises. Just standing on deck, looking at the first light with the Atlantic wind in my hair is enough to keep me happy. 

 Sunrise over Connemara

We don’t get much social life; we all feel we need more sleep than normal. I’m normally in bed by 1:30, getting up at 11PM. We often see the day shift be merry in the bar during our shift, but we creatures of the night don’t have the energy to go boozing after work. I’ve had two post-lunch beers in the full 5 past weeks! But there is social interaction within the night shift, and we keep on bumping into crew members in various stages of their shift. They’re all very nice! So in that respect too, I have little to complain. 

In many ways, life on board is plain easy as well. You don’t have to go shopping, you don’t cook or do the dishes, and once every week you find clean bedding and towels on your doorstep. You get changing views without getting further than some tens of metres way from your bed. If something is broken you tell the crew, and they fix it. 

And the science? That’s going well! We knew there was a chance we would have to go and hide in a bay for days once we hit the Atlantic sector, but that only happened twice, and both times only for a short while. We’re coring away! And quite many of the cores have good stuff in them. I won’t be working in what we core up here, but it’s good for the project that we still get nice material. And I’m learning lots! This cruise relies heavily on geophysics, and that never has been my speciality, so I’ve significantly increased my knowledge. My three previous cruises had all been aimed at retrieving recent sediments, and you don’t need geophysics to get these. And if you plonk enough people with sedimentological skills onto one ship they’ll all learn from each other. 

 Kasper and Rich try to get a core catcher out without disturbing the sediment, with the prostrate vibrocorer in the background

 Lots and lots of sediment!

So there are now some 4.5 shifts to go before we start heading back to Southampton. I’ll try to make the most of all of them! And then, after six weeks, I’m sure I’ll be glad to see rock and trees and suchlike again!

 A poor wading bird, that we called Sally, who must have come on board in or near Killybegs... it cosily scampered around on deck for a few days, until it vanished. Her favourite spot did happen to be pretty much the first place where waves will wash over the deck if the swell picks up...

10 August 2014

New leg, clean slate

As I write this the second leg has been underway for four days. It seems like weeks! Doesn’t one get used to new routines quickly. So leg two; how is it different from leg one? We still get up, bring some cores in, do whatever pleases us between cores, and then do the splitting and describing in the morning. And then we hand over, eat, and go to bed. So lots that has stayed the same! But who looks closer sees a lot of difference anyway. 

 A typical nighttime view in between cores coming on deck: Riccardo (notice the vanished beard) working and Kasper sleeping in some unlikely place

For the night shift the change is profound; we have a new shift leader. Which is me! And it would be immodest to herald that as such a fundamental change, but when I explain that the previous shift leader strongly believed in micromanagement one might start to appreciate the relevance. I know we are a well-oiled war machine, and one should not fix what’s not broken. And instead of Sara, who’d left in Killybegs, we now have Jenny in our team; she did the first leg in the BGS team, and this leg in the science team; that’s what you can do if you’re the BGS scientist. She needed a few shifts to catch up with the war machine, as one would expect, and now she’s fully blended in. 

 Jenny and one of the Grahams trying not to lose any of the sediment

Changes, or absence thereof, in the geophysics team have been a bit more improvised; at the start of the cruise the plan was that our Bangor MSc student would oversee the surveying at night, but during the cruise the chief scientist thought it would be too much responsibility for a student, and changed the shifts around so we would get a Sheffield lecturer, who initially would be in the day shift, instead. But then everything was changed again; Rich Chiverrell, who was only nominally in the coring team on the first leg, and spent his time on geophysics and outreach instead, decided to stay on for the second leg. I assume he used port call to buy some extra toothpaste. Otherwise I suppose he was all ready! And that was bonus. This man knows this cruise like few do. So the corers were well-directed!
The rest of the changes in personnel took place in the day shift; that only differed, for us, in the short periods just before midnight and noon. If we were up early we could socialise a bit with the day team before we had to get to work, and they sometimes did the same with us. Which was nice! And it would be nice to still have Daniel and James around, but now we have Stephen and Kevin, and that’s nice too. Even though Stephen only increases the name confusion: pretty much half the people on board are called Graham, John, Steve or Andy. I think we have three of each! 

 The geophys screens

We also got a fresh BGS engineers team. The first bunch was a pleasure to work with, and the second turned out the same way. The crew pretty much stayed the same. But we have a new function on board: we acquired a photographer annex film maker. We now do our thing with a big camera pointing in our face! I think that’s good; it’s sometimes hard to document stuff while you have work to do. And when you don’t work, you have some sleeping to get done. But he’s on it!

 The technicians preparing the piston core, seen from above

And in between cores I now have switched from my Welsh to preparing some lectures about shelf seas. I had slightly overdosed on Welsh, and it’s good to get some teaching prep out of the way!
Anything else? The weather largely stayed lovely. We had some rainstorms passing, one even with thunder, but generally, these flew over so fast they came and went between core sites, and often we were busy indoors then, splitting and describing, that by the time we got out again it was all gone. 

 Kasper drawing the lines along which the core will be split later

The waves here, on the Atlantic side and often in deeper water, are higher. Nothing excessive; nobody has turned green, the coring hasn’t been hampered, but you feel it. It needs concentration to walk to your seat with a plate of hot food in one hand and a cup of hot tea in the other without making a complete mess. And I sometimes have to grab a hold of the handlebars of the treadmill when the ship is trying to play rodeo. 

 Me with sub-horizontal hair: must be the Atlantic

We also noticed that the supply of fruit is losing some of its diversity. It is still very good, but we clearly ran out of grapes, peaches and nectarines. We’ll see if anything else runs out! On the science front it might; we are now worried about ziplocks, tape of all kinds, and boxes. We’ve been coring a lot more than was intended. Next year we’ll multiply any estimate Colm comes up by three. But we’ll manage! 

 A reassuring sight: Colm, the chief scientist, keeping an eye on things

And one night turned out especially eventful; the only thunderstorm so far passed overhead, which was spectacular enough as it was, but it also inspired the crew to try to stop the rain from falling between the two containers (one for core logging and one for storage) and the wet lab, where we do our core labelling and describing. And it inspired other crew to try and fix a drainage problem, which had lead to a drain gargling water into our lab. They used a phenomenal amount of dye to find out where the problem was. Their testing lead to all that dye gargling up another drain in the same lab. So picture rain, thunder, crew members dropping big pieces of wood into the lab, others perilously balancing on whatever was available, liberally applying foam to the seams of the lab, while a green fluorescent alien tried to gargle its way into the lab, with a solid crew member standing on its head but it managing to stretch its ominously coloured tentacles over the entire lab anyway, and another crew man swearing and mopping it all up, and all the while us keeping measuring, photographing,  describing and wrapping cores as if none of that was happening. Work doesn't stop!

 The green alien spreading out its tentacles into our lab

And anything else? We’ve been getting wistful emails from the men who left us in Killybegs. We’re lucky to still be here! We’re still coring up good stuff (and the occasional dud) and all is well. And it’s strange to think in just over 2.5 weeks, we’ll be back!

07 August 2014

Port call

The chief scientist wanted to keep coring. And if that was too dangerous, then perhaps do a geophysical survey. But the captain was having none of it. So it didn’t happen. We fled into Donegal Bay. After a while we tried going back out to see if things had improved, but they hadn’t, so we went back. Time to get to the harbour! And Colm, the chief scientist, said all science would stop at 4.30 AM. And that he advised us to go and relax!

Through the calm sheltered water, under an amazingly rising sun, we approached Killybegs. Pretty much none of us had heard of this place beforehand, but now it suddenly mattered a lot to all of us. We approached the harbour, and soon saw one of our new cruise participants waiting on the dock. He was a good friend of Kasper and Riccardo, so that sight was greeted with enthusiasm. We also saw a fork lift truck scurrying around with core barrels and liners; a good sight! We’d be needing those…

 Approaching Killybegs in the early morning

A lighthouse on Rotten Island (it really seems to be called that) at the inlet leading to Killybegs

When we were docked some of us got ready to feel solid ground under our feet again. We wandered into town, surprised by how pretty it was; we all had imagined a bleak harbour town, but what we saw was a cute fishing village that seemed to have successfully incorporated tourism into its economy. We went to the shop (they sold Guardians!) and then went for a pint. It might have been 11AM, but for me that was 2.5 hours before bedtime, so comparable to, say, 8PM. A good time for a pint! It was nice!

The village seen from the harbour

 Raising a glass to the second leg, with a new participant: Kevin on the left

We had lunch on the ship, and said goodbye to James. Then most of the night shift went to bed, to catch some sleep before we would return to town, after dinner. We found a few dayshifters there. And then more people appeared. And pretty much all the crew. At around 9PM we pretty much had the entire ship on the pub terrace. That pub must have had a better night, financially, than they normally get on a Monday! 

It was nice to talk to the day shift, and to the new people that had come on board. And the Guinness tasted good. But at a certain moment I realised that the beer was kicking in. That pint had to be the last! And I was just talking to our Marine Mammal Observer, who had more or less the same thought, so I hugged Daniel Praeg goodbye; he was leaving us there too. And then we sneaked away before anyone could persuade us to have another beverage. 

Looking out of the inlet (notice the same lighthouse) at dusk

The next morning I awoke at ~5.30. I decided to get up. If I did I would be tired at noon, and back in my normal night shift routine that very day. And I hoped I could still get on land for some last view on green stuff! I thought of a walk; I had a bit of a headache. But after a coffee I felt a bit better, and considered a run instead. The security officer who signed everyone who came and went off had no problems with me going on an early morning run. I left at 6, and we wouldn’t sail until 9. And after so much Guinness and so little sleep I wasn’t very fast, but I enjoyed my one hour run, which took me past a holy well, a ruined church, some more churches, and just generally hills and trees and buildings and all that stuff you just don’t get at sea. It was nice!

Back on the ship I did a little bit of weights (I was sweaty now anyway) and then had breakfast. After that we soon sailed. It had been good to get to land for a bit! And nobody could say they were actually very refreshed; the Guinness had left its mark in the shape of some baggy, blurry eyes, but we were revitalised anyway. We were ready for the second leg!

Go west

We had had very smooth weather for almost three weeks. Elegantly we slid through the water, the vibrocorer was lifted into and out of the water without swinging at all, we walked without staggering along the length and width of the ship; all was easy. We cored so much we worried ourselves. Would we have enough core liners, end caps, cling film, tape, boxes? And almost all cores were a success. Sometimes we didn’t quite core what we hoped for, but generally, we cored up at least 2m of something. 

The cores of the eastern part of the cruise

But then we had done the last core in the east, and we headed along the north coast of Northern Ireland to the western parts of the cruise. And things changed. First the sediments. The first core we tried on the western side yielded only a few pebbles. So did the second one. The third one they let vibrate for a fair while, and then we got 60cm of stiff, unforgiving material. This clearly wasn’t the muddy east anymore!
 Not what we came for, but pretty: Holocene mud with lots of snails in it. I think it's Turitella.

Some of the 14C samples we collected on the first leg

Then the weather caught up with the geology. We got waves! We rocked in our beds so much I struggled to sleep! I ran the treadmill like a drunk, and then when it got worse had to forget about the whole thing! The day shift tried one core, and then abandoned the mission; it was too dangerous to have a 5000kg metal contraption swinging out of control. There would be no more coring until the weather cleared up. Which it didn’t; so there was no more coring until port call.

A still from a small video I made of the waves. The actual video is so big I'll have to upload it from land.

The second lag hadn’t even begun, and we had been reminded of that science cruises aren’t always as smooth as we had been tempted to believe on the first leg. It was clear that things would be different! The coring will be hard, and we expect to have to run away and seek shelter from a storm within days. We’ll see! But we’ll be a fresh and rejuvenated team, and we’re as ready as we could be!