Life on a Moving Surface
Before I embarked on this journey, I was very curious about what life would be like aboard a research vessel, especially one traversing the world’s most tempestuous ocean. Two weeks after casting off, all my questions are answered. So, today, I decided to ask what you’re most interested to know. I’ve received a lot of great questions!
But consider this an ongoing thread. If you’re curious about anything that hasn’t been asked here, please let me know, and I’ll answer in a later post.
How big are the cabins? They’re big enough for bunks, small closets, a storage space for our bulky lifejacket and immersion suit, a desk/TV monitor, and bathroom. They’re cozy but don’t feel cramped (if you keep them tidy).
I assume the cabins are somewhat heated, but are you toasty? In truth, my first night on the ship, I was cold despite the thermal underwear. Then I realized each cabin has its own heating unit. Since then, my cabin has been very toasty. In fact, I’ve woken up a few nights far too hot and had to turn it down.
Is it cold? How do they keep the cold out? The ship’s hull/walls are very thick, but it’s pretty comfortable throughout the ship. I feel the cold, so I wear thermal underwear under my clothes every day, but some people walk around in T-shirts. It can be chilly in the galley, perhaps because it’s right in the ship’s bow under the deck. It’s quite cold outside though, usually around freezing with windchills of around -18C/0F.
How loud is the ship in general and, specifically, in your room? It depends where you are on the ship. It’s a constant rumbling no matter where you are. There’s also a pinger that constantly sends out a signal to determine the depth of the seafloor, which sounds like a cricket or bird cheeping. But you don’t really notice either after a while. My cabin is toward the rear and relatively close to the engine room, which is great because it also means it’s the lowest and most central, and therefore experiences the least rocking, but most of the ship’s noises are of the kind that lull me to sleep.
Is snoring allowed?
It’s not outlawed… I brought a bad of earplugs in case, but I’m not sharing a cabin, so....
Are you double bunking? Each cabin has bunk beds, but on this trip, the science team is small enough that most of us have our own cabins.
Do you have your own bathroom? Yes. I had wondered that, too! Each cabin has its own small bathroom with a basin and mirror, loo, and shower.
What are the showers like? The showers do their job, but it’s not a place you want to hang out for any length of time—the floor is not much fun to stand on, as it’s a kind of plastic grate. They’re super-hot, which I learned the hard way. The toilets and showers have vacuum pumps, so sometimes the showers roar unexpectedly. (Also, don’t leave your bathroom cabinet open, or you’ll come back to find all your stuff smashed in the basin.)
How are the heads? Serviceable. They make a delightful vacuum sound when you flush.
Are there time limits for showers? You would think so, but no, we have no time limits for showers. Interestingly, we make our own fresh water aboard the ship. Since we’re surrounded by it, water isn’t an issue per se, but the process does take energy, so we don’t abuse it. I’d say that most aboard are very environmentally conscious anyway.
Food & Dining
Can you go to the galley (is it called a galley?) if you want a snack, or do you have to wait for meals? Yes, you’re right, it’s called the galley. Because people works shifts 24 hours a day, the galley is always open. We have four meals: breakfast (7:30-8:30), lunch (11:30-12:30), dinner (17:30-8:30) and some cruises also have midrats (midnight rations, 12:30-00:30. As you can see, we operate on a 24-hour clock, military style). In between, there are lots of snacks to choose from. We can make ourselves a sandwich or toast, pop some popcorn, pour a bowl of cereal, help ourselves to chips, nuts, fruit, and ice cream. Since the chef bakes daily, there’s always a container of fresh muffins, cookies, etc., too.
What do you eat? Food is important. Did someone already ask that? Yes, most people wonder about food. I did, too, and I didn’t expect much. So far, it’s been great! At breakfast, we have a fresh fruit bar, oatmeal, various hot breakfast options, and fresh baked goods. Lunch and dinner always have a fresh fruit and salad bar as well as one or more main dishes and sides. They cater to vegetarians and those who have food intolerances, too—in fact, our chef goes out of his way to look after everyone. See previous question re between-meal snacks. So far, there has been cuisine from all around the world, but many of us really look forward to Taco Tuesday most of all. (And in case anyone is wondering, no alcohol is allowed aboard the ship.)
How do you spend your time? I need to divide that into work and play. During the day and often during the night, depending on what’s going on, we work. When we are on sampling station, it’s not unusual for some of the scientists to be up all night or work at odd hours. Of course, the crew and various technicians (IT, marine, and electrical) also work in shifts around the clock.
Are there comfy common areas? We have a lounge with big cushy couches and armchairs, a TV (DVDs only), a dartboard, musical instruments, and lots of books, but most of us don’t really hang out there. There’s also a conference room. Last night, I was invited to watch a movie up in the 04-deck lounge, which is nicer—I’m guessing this is the one for the captain and senior crew, but I know where I’ll be from now on.
What do you do to amuse yourselves when you're not working? All sorts of things! We have gym and sauna. Someone has set up the Ping-Pong table in the helicopter hangar, we’re having a foosball tournament this week, and a few of us will be playing cards tonight. It’s fun to just go hang out on the bridge, too. You’re allowed in there at any time (unless the red light is on, which it isn’t often), and the captain and crew are always very happy to see you and have a chat. Sometimes I like to just sit up there for a while and enjoy the view. It’s nice to get outside a few times a day too and enjoy the fresh air, the view, and the wildlife. Everyone tends to appreciate their quiet time, too—after all, we are just one big floating family living in a relatively small space, so it’s healthy to spend some time with yourself now and then.
Do you play deck hockey? It’s too cold outside for deck hockey, but we have a fierce foosball tournament going. Ping-Pong and darts tournaments will follow.
Who is Onboard?
Aboard the ship, we have people from USA, New Zealand, Canada, Russia, France, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and Australia (originally—most live in the USA now).
How many men vs. women on the ship? The ship’s crew are all male, but numerous support staff, such as the marine technicians and internet technicians, are women. Our science team is predominantly female with only five men on our team of fourteen. You can learn about most of our team here. (We also have three scientists from other institutions.) The ratio of men to women onboard is about 50-50.
Who are the youngest and oldest crew members? How many crew have previously done the trip? The ship’s crew like their privacy, and so I’ll answer in very general terms. They have all done the trip numerous times, as well as others voyages, and they have all worked on other ships, many of them on the RVIB Lawrence M. Gould, the other research vessel/ice breaker used by USAP/NSF. They’re all very experienced, which you must be to work on such a specialized ship in the roughest seas on the planet. One of the most specialized jobs is that of the ice pilot/ice navigator, who find safe passage through the sea ice and when icebergs are nearby. We also have a team of technicians: lab, Internet, marine, and electrical. They’ve also worked on multiple cruises. As far as the science team goes, you can learn more about us here.
Where have you been? We started at the USAP base in Christchurch New Zealand, then flew by military cargo plane to McMurdo Station, where we stayed for a few days. Then we boarded the RVIB Nathanial B. Palmer and broke ice through the Ross Sea until we reached open water. Since then, we’ve been more or less heading up 170 degrees west through the Southern Ocean.
Can you walk on the ice? No, we have not had that opportunity, but I imagine it would be quite the experience!
Is there a doctor on board? We have two EMTs (emergency medical technicians) onboard. They also perform other roles (one is the MPC—Marine Projects Coordinator, for example).
What happens when someone isn't feeling well? It depends on the problem. If it’s seasickness, then it’s a matter of staying hydrated, eating, lying down, resting, and—usually—taking medication, which they have on hand if you haven’t brought enough. In case of injury or illness, we have a small hospital onboard. That said, safety is taken very seriously; we had various safety training sessions when we first boarded the ship. After all, we have been hundreds of miles from land for much of the journey. In case of a serious emergency requiring a medivac, we have a helipad. However, everyone here had to pass stringent medical and dental tests, which limits the likelihood of serious illness occurring in our remote location.
What is the landscape like? Breathtaking. From the view as we flew over Antarctica of jagged snow-covered mountains, massive sweeping glaciers, and a mosaic of sea ice, to soaring Mt. Erebus, the frozen Ross Sea, icebergs in the Southern Ocean, stormy or benevolent skies, the vastness of the ocean, and wild seas, it would be hard to pick a favorite landscape or view.
Have you seen any whales? Yes, I’m happy to say! As we were exiting the sea ice of the Ross Sea, we saw what we think was a minke whale. Yesterday, I got a call from the bridge—who are under strict instruction to call me any time of day or night if they see whales. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the phone in time, but a few minutes later the first mate arrived breathless to tell me to get up the bridge, which I thought was very sweet! A whole pod of humpbacks was off the port bow. By the time I made it up the five decks up, we were past them, but I sat up there all morning and we saw lots of spouting and some flukes waving.
What we’ve seen so far (in order of sighting):
Skuas (keep any food covered, or you’ll lose it)
Lots and lots Adélie penguins (cutest thing you’ll ever see)
Minke whale (most likely)
A speedy pod of unidentified cetaceans
Some species of dolphin
Various other unidentified seabirds
What has been the most surprising? I was surprised that there’s a “morale phone.” We can make up to 15 min calls to anywhere in the world for free. I was also surprised at how quickly I got used to 15-foot seas. How incredibly sleepy everyone gets when they’re adjusting to the ship’s motion. It’s the main sign of seasickness. You can’t lie down without falling asleep very quickly, and everyone seems to nap a lot at first. I’m also surprised that I like shipboard life so much!
Most difficult? Most obviously, it would be being apart from family. Getting used to not having reliable Internet has been challenging, especially for me in my Communications/Outreach position. It’s been frustrating at times, but I’m very grateful when we do have a signal. But that’s also been nice—I’m no longer checking my phone for notifications every few minutes. The first few days of rough seas were challenging, and I had a fairly miserable day where I had to lie down and nap for most of the day, despite the motion sickness medication I had taken.
Most amazing? It’s hard to say… There have been so many amazing things. The flight in the Hercules cargo plane over the continent, landing on the ice shelf, hiking around McMurdo, busting through sea ice, seeing penguins in the wild (they’re even cuter than you think)… they’ve all been incredible. I was particularly thrilled to see my first albatross. It’s fun and very rewarding being involved in the science, too. What we’re doing is super interesting, and since what our very hard-working scientists are studying relates to global climate, you really feel like you’re working on something important. Standing by the Ross Sea ice in full brilliant sunlight at 1AM is something I’ll never forget, either.