Thursday, May 25, 2017

True Selves

I haven't written anything in this blog yet.  It's not for lack of content; our trip has been a fantastic opportunity with much to write home about, and some things I don't think should ever leave the knowledge of the 21 students. I guess I wasn't really inspired to write anything.  Today, after we left Rarotonga last night and I was able to reconnect with the outside world, I think I found something to ponder and put to paper.

Robbie speaks at ship's meeting
Before we left Hopkins Marine Station, our Maritime Studies professor, Dr. Mary Malloy, gave us a piece of advice.  She said that ship life is its own entity; the rest of  the world functions without you, and that's just a fact you have to accept.  In her previous voyages, she spent time wallowing on outside issues, but everything resolved without her presence.  In the end, she said, you just have to let it all go, and dive fully into ship life.

Although Dr. Malloy isn't here with us on our voyage, I can still hear her voice as clear as day when I go back to those words.  Every word she said is true.  Out here in the ocean, it's just us and the sea.  The blue ocean is our whole world, with nothing in it but our ship's company of 39, the SSV Robert C. Seamans itself, and the mysterious blue liquid upon which we sail. Everything else is out of reach in our peaceful paradise, and in most things, that's the way it needs to be.  Our group has solidified, even more so than we had during the land portion of this program. Strange watch times have become commonplace, sleep has become out of cycle almost permanently (which kind of makes it into a cycle),  and the crew has become our dear friends.  The Robert C. Seamans is now the "Bobby C", home more than in writing on our immigration papers as we land in new places, home more than many things in our lives. 

Happy at the helm (Natasha)
And yet, on some level, it's a really difficult fact to accept.  We're missing some of our beloved shipmates right now for other obligations (huge shout out to Barb and Big Robby - we miss both of you dearly!), responsibilities for which they can't be on this ship.  The outside world moves on without us, without a second glance.  I know for me personally I don't totally like this fact.  Today was perhaps the biggest game of my younger brother's sports career, and the first major event for which I can't be there in any capacity, virtual or in person.  It's killing me to be sitting on this ship, as amazing an experience the past 10 or so days have been, and not know what's going on at home.  I couldn't focus on my watch duties at all as I thought about what advice I could have given him, what I would think in his shoes, what I couldn't help with from halfway across the world.  As my mom can attest, I don't ever get homesick; I guess that's why I went to school 3,000 miles away from home.  But this worrisome person, this was definitely a different me.  Same complexion, slightly less clean and more salty, same knowledge and thinking, but not me.  At least, it wasn't the me I was used to.

When I was in high school, an English teacher told me that you don't find your true self until much later in life.  To this point, I had believed him 100%, and used that as a sort of justification for indecisiveness.  I didn't decide to come to Stanford until three hours before the deadline.  I haven't declared my major yet.  I have no long term vision for my career.

Nick and friend (Natasha)
Stanford@SEA is making me go back to those words and question him - what is stopping us from knowing who we are right now? This trip has given me the tremendous opportunity to reexamine who I am, look myself in the mirror and see if I recognize the person looking back.  Just standing at the bow (or anywhere on the boat), closing my eyes and taking in the world around me for a few minutes has flipped my perspective on many things.  Try it - wherever you are, just close your eyes and observe. It may just change how you look at the world.

Captain Pamela told us at the start that people meet their true selves on these voyages.  I guess I'm just another salty sailor who's finding himself on the high seas.

-Robbie Haag

Happy as a...

Alternatively, thoughts from bow watch that have had some time to tumble around. Despite its bad reputation among the student crew, dawn watch has provided me with some of my best memories on board. Most of these memories have come after I learned that a cup of coffee makes the 0100-0700 block significantly easier. 

Sierra contemplating a clam shell
During my second dawn watch en route to Ile Maria, my mind had some time to wander while I was scanning the horizon at the bow. The ship swaying beneath my feet, I realized, is not unlike horses or fire. All three are integral to certain human activities and require a kind of unspoken communication with nonverbal entities. With horses, it takes time and practice to display the confidence that the animals will respect and respond to. The art of fire-building requires a similar attention to details, like the flame's response to added fuel. I am just beginning to understand the Bobby C. and her peculiarities, but watching the professional crew has convinced me that the ship, too, sometimes requires a well-timed, nonverbal nudge to set everything in order.

More broadly, humans also have this kind of nearly one-sided relationship with the ocean. The swells that move me up and down ten to fifteen feet at a time at the bow, for instance, are barely changed after they move from one side of the ship to the other. At the end of the day, the ocean is supremely unconcerned with the actions of any one individual or even a ship full of people. The bruises on my shins from being thrown off-balance by rogue waves are definitely testament to that. Despite the ocean's indifference, humans are bound to the big blue through commerce, transportation, and our dependence of extracted resources.

Horses and fire are a fine comparison to make to the ship and the ocean, but my initial thoughts at the bow and later reactions to what I saw on Ile Maria, I think, are rather lacking. Why do I immediately compare everything I see at sea to something it vaguely resembles on land? To a certain extent, my tendency to think of exhibits at the zoo when I smell guano from tropical birds or to think of cornmeal when I roll the beach sediment between my fingers makes sense based on my life experiences. Still, it seems inadequate to rely on the land to understand the geographic majority of the world.

On the other hand, the marine environment does inform much of how I interpret the world. Phrases like "like a fish out of water," "crabby," "plenty of other fish in the sea," and "happy as a clam" come to mind only a little less frequently than do terrestrial comparisons. I learned perhaps my favorite ocean-related expression, "not much to speak of at high tide," from my housemate last summer when she was talking about small islands. I haven't used it as a creative veiled insult, but it seems to beg to be used that way. Hopefully, I will bring some salty language back to land to remind myself that the ocean is out there, working much as it always has, regardless of what we think or say about it.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Waiting in Rarotonga

We remain in port today, docked in a small and surprisingly unprotected harbor in Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands, and delayed by the (late) arrival of one of our observers.

The dock in Rarotonga (Natasha)
A google image search of the island shows Rarotonga to be what many would imagine, a tropical paradise full of sun, sand, and surf, but our experience has been somewhat different. Skies have been overcast, with frequent mist and occasional rain. The wind has been howling, and as a consequence, the water, turbid.

"Oh, what a s*** show," in the words of one of our esteemed TAs, as he comes out on deck.

Today will be a down day. Laundry will be done, hopefully, a necessity for some more than others. Papers will be written, and books read. Nothing more exciting to write, yet, and given the weather, hopefully nothing more exciting to write for the rest of the day.

No news is good news today. It means the ship is intact and its lines are holding.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Arriving at Rarotonga

This morning on dawn watch, I left the lab to help set a sail and noticed a glowing light rise gently above the horizon, just off the starboard bow of the ship, in the northwest. I glanced at my watch, which read 04:15. The light was in the wrong direction and a bit early for sunrise, especially as we move into Southern Hemisphere autumn. It was land.

As the morning progressed, the lights and then silhouette of Rarotonga, Cook Islands, came into view. As we turned and sailed north to our port, Jonathan and Nick found a Lucifer squid in a net tow. We arrived in port, cleared customs, and were greeted with some new arrivals. Brian, straight off a red-eye from LAX is joining us (with his DNA lab-in-a-box) for the next few legs came aboard for introductions and a tour this morning. Soon after, we met Alice from Cook Islands Marine Services and Stella Marsters, our Cook Islands observer.

Each nation we pass through has the right to send an observer on board while we are in their waters and we are super excited to have Stella as our newest shipmate! She'll be joining us until we arrive at our next island stop, Palmerston, and we can't wait to sail with her! After our two nights in Rarotonga, it'll be back to sea with the lot of us.

Highlights from walking around shore today have included visits to grocery stores for postcards, chocolate, and ice cream, walks along the beach outside of town, pizza pit stops, and signs for Hinano beer, a throwback to our time in Tahiti. The Seamans is cleaned and polished and ready to welcome the public for an open house ship tomorrow afternoon. It's been a bit over a week since we last interacted with people off the ship and we're already throwing around "what if the aliens come while we're at sea" hypotheticals.

Plans for tomorrow are for a day packed with in-water data collection on the reefs! As our first inhabited island stop, it will make for a fascinating comparison with Maria, a relatively unvisited atoll. We've got snorkel gear ready to go, piles of temperature sensors, waterproof datasheets printed, and a small army of student-scientists ready to hit the waves and gaze intently at small areas for long periods of time.

The ship doesn't roll while in port and the lack of motion is just as disorienting as the introduction of it was when we first took to the seas. I constantly come close to falling over as I brace myself for the next swell. With watch schedules a bit lighter for the port call, we've found time for music and inter-watch mingling. It's clear from the high volume of postcards and letters being written that we miss our family and friends dearly. However, we have the opportunity and obligation to be part of the Bobby C. community for these five weeks and I know for my part it has been such a privilege so far to get to spend this time with everyone here.

The day before I left for sea, my mom (hi parents! I'm good, just have less hair!) wrote and asked me to greet the Southern Cross for her the first time I saw it. My first night out, with the glow of Tahiti constant on the horizon, I had to have it pointed out to me. Now that I know more stars, I follow Gacrux to Acrux (along the long axis of the Cross) to watch Corvus fly across the celestial sphere each night. In the antsy times between swim calls, I see a Manta ray in Scorpio.

The sun is sweet but the wind is sweeter,


Somewhere in the Big Blue

Ahoy! This morning I woke up after a full(er) night of sleep and could feel a slight ache in every muscle in my body. Every action we do on the ship has our bodies working, whether it's walking across the deck or even sitting to read. After a week though our bodies feel stronger and our balance is better. No wonder we are so ravenous all the time. But, as Captain Pamela says, the sweetest nectar a sailor can get is sleep. Between the swaying of the ship and anchor drops, I think I can now sleep through anything!

With the 18-hour watch schedule, our sleeping patterns are always in flux, but it's allowed us to appreciate all times of day. Being on watch during the morning and afternoon when you can clearly see Robby C, the ocean, and the sunset is fantastic. We are completely surrounded by water, with nothing but the puffy clouds and occasional tropic bird over our heads, the sun baking our skin to nice golden browns (or some tomato reds), a few sea creatures jumping out of the ocean, and the entire crew busy at work aboard the Robby C. In my opinion however, the evening and dawn watch hours bring about the true magic: the stars. Clear skies sprinkled with brilliant stars is a truly spectacular site. The Milky Way will stretch over our heads, Scorpio flies through the sky, the Southern Cross helps us with navigation, Jupiter shines bright behind us, and once in a while a shooting star or satellite will dance through the celestial realm. Our TA Ben pointed out that every time the ship rolls upward it feels like we are going to launch into space. Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan about to jump into another adventure-"Second star on the right and straight off to Neverland!" Even better is when we see speckles of green-blue bioluminescence in the wake of the ship; it's as though the stars are both high above us and in the watery realm below.

That's not to say the evening watches can't be a little rough. We spent a couple days in a squall before reaching Isle Maria, which really keeps you on your toes at night. I've never felt more like a salty sailor than when I was at the helm at 0400, steering through rainy Beaufort 6, gusting 7, winds and 10 foot waves. It's nerve racking because you can't see well but also exhilarating getting a taste of both the wind and ocean's great strength. And with Watch C diligently handling the ship and our mate Rocky calmly and carefully guiding us, it's hard to have any fear of the weather. As Andrea would say, we all still have salty sweet smiles.  

In the meantime, we're steadily approaching Rarotonga, our second island stop and the first one where we will meet new people. We will be staying in the harbor for 3 days, and the ship is open to officials who will come on board to do inspection for any biohazards, as well as the general public to see what our ship life looks like. In preparation for our guests, we had our first field day, which is the once-a-week full clean up of the ship. You could hear several "Swab the deck, Mate-ys!" floating around as we brought our sea fairing home into ship-shape.

After the 1.5 hour frenzy of everyone cleaning and wiping and scrubbing every nook and cranny on board, we were met with a special treat: ice cream and a fire hose shower. The ice cream was the perfect sweet treat to offset the heat and the showers were appreciably timed to clean off our sweaty selves. The mates hosed us with seawater on the science deck as the sun began to dip close to the horizon-talk about great water pressure. Deck showers are by the far the superior showers, and what makes cleaning even easier is having less hair (look mom, no hair!)

At this moment, Chris, Mike, Marianne, Sierra, and myself are the brave few that decided leave traces of our eDNA in the sea via, well, all our hair. We are sporting exciting 1-inch cuts (in my case, 1/8th of an inch, I'm basically bald), and everyone looks fabulous. Everyone keeps going around petting each other's heads to appreciate its new soft, stubbly feel. These hairstyles also require no maintenance, which allows us to now say 'I woke up like this.' The feeling of the sun, wind, and rain on your scalp is truly amazing, as though that skin is experiencing the sense of touch for the first time. Having almost no hair is also very liberating in its own sense and it seems like you can really see people's faces because all of their beautiful features are shining through, unmasked. I'm looking forward to seeing whose hair walks the plank next!

-Natasha Batista

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Three Sheets to the Wind!

Stanford at Sea 2017 is on the move once again. At 2213 Friday evening, after 38 hours at anchor to the lee of Isle Maria, the ship's company hoisted the Bobby C.'s anchor and got underway for our next stop - Rarotonga!

The weather is cooperating. We are finally being pushed by the west-blowing trade winds predicted for this voyage, and our estimated time of arrival to Rarotonga is 0900 Monday morning.

38 hours may seem like a short time to accomplish a great deal of work on Isle Maria, and it was. Yet we were able to accomplish an impressive ten missions to and from the uninhabited atoll, its reef, and inner lagoon.  In large part, this was all possible because of stable weather and a good anchorage. The stars were also incredible, and with so many of the stars comprising the Milky Way visible, it was easy to imagine several thousand of them aligning in our favor.

Student-sailor scientists were stood down from their shipboard duties to focus on the tasks and exploration for which they came. A plethora of roosting seabirds was observed on the island. Instruments documenting 24-hour-temperature cycles were set out and retrieved from the surrounding waters, and students, several of whom had never before snorkeled on a tropical reef, were welcomed to the wonderful world of coral-appreciating people.

Many of us have no idea how lucky we are. Data is still being downloaded and processed, but even with significant coral bleaching and evidence of commercial fishing, the reef supporting Ile Maria still ranks among the most impressive many of us have ever seen.

Stealing a last victory before we departed, Robbie S. sighted the first school of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) seen this trip and hooked and landed a beautiful specimen. Not only did the fish make for a wonderful sushi lunch today, but its heart and other viscera are going towards several of students' projects. Or, as we so often say, they are going FOR SCIENCE!!

Spoiler alert: several of the students are now sporting much sportier haircuts, but I'll leave them to share that themselves in a future update.

-Adam Behrendt

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Routine and Disruption

Just as we started settling into the swing of things on board - seasickness dissipating, and our circadian clocks finally syncing with the 18-hour watch cycles - today disrupted normalcy once more. Today was the day we reached Ile Maria - our first island stop, and an uninhabited one at that.

We finished our first full cycle of watch rotations this morning. All three watch groups have stood all 4 of the watch shifts. 24-hour days only exist externally; we report position and weather observations to the outside world. Internally, though days truly are 18 hours long. Hours become time either standing watch or sleeping, preparing to stand watch, and days become building blocks of full watch cycles - when a single watch group completes all 4 cycles before starting once again. 

Dawn watch this morning was quite special. Approaching Ile Maria, fighting exhaustion and delirium, watch group A (pronounced watch A-yy) learned to identify navigational stars, but that quickly spiraled into a disco star-lit dance party. The hours passed seamlessly with intermittent torrential downpours and striking/setting sails to control our arrival time at the island. The highlight, though, was standing lookout, alone on the front of the ship, trying to make out the outline of Ile Maria on the horizon before the sun brought first light to the sky.

Anticipating a day full of reef activities, A watch only thought of our pillows after finishing breakfast. The chaos, though, began as we were jolted awake as the anchor descended down 100m to the seafloor. Quite alarming when exhausted and fast asleep, it was as if someone had misjudged the location of the reef and crashed us into rock bottom. (Those were my thoughts before my brain starting firing. The anchor. Right, it's stored right above your head.) These are the things you hope your brain hasn't stashed too far from short-term memory.

The first of many surprises, it was as if dropping the anchor not only freed us from our finally normal routine of watch duties, but also released the tension and stress that understandably had built during our first few days at sea. We stepped off the ship for the first time in 5 days and it was as if a sense of confinement lifted. Afternoon and evening on the quarter-deck was quite literally a joy. It was as if the stars were aligned for us, the skies parted in dramatic fashion, and people started bringing out the guitars and ukuleles for some wonderful improv singing and interpretative dance.

The highlight of the day was snorkeling on the reef of Ile Maria. We saw eels, octopi, too many fish to name, and even an occasional shark (don't worry, mom, we all came back with 100% of our limbs intact).

Returning to the ship after only a few hours of snorkeling, it was as if leaving allowed us to call her home for the first time. Coming back to snacks, singing, and a new sense of life on the ship, the night continued as a carefree moment of appreciation for what we are witnessing. While leaving the ship may have disrupted the routine we finally adopted, it also made us realize that this ship truly is home.