Someone who’s become one of my closest buddies aboard, a man who’s sailed many cruises in many places over many years, confided last night that, as cruises go, this one is not so (visually) interesting. While I feel it’s always interesting and the view ever-changing, on some days, I can quite understand why some would think that. A few minutes ago, I stood on the bow, having my afternoon mug of tea, gazing out at what might look like “Nothing to see here.” Grey, featureless cloud cover. Steely, calm sea with only the occasional distant whitecap to muddy the monotony. No petrel, no albatross, no flume from a spouting whale. The line toward which we are ever travelling, where sea and sky meet, obscured by a creeping fog until the flame-red bulk of our ship soon seemed like the entire universe.
It’s a bit like that, being out here. If one steps outside, their view has never been more expansive (at least, when it’s not foggy). But inside, we’re in a floating microcosm, our world reduced to the steel walls around us, our work, and the roughly 45 people with whom we share this space. They become our coworkers, our housemates. We dine with them each meal, share a smile on our daily commute from one deck to another, and play together in our downtime. They’re our entire community, our lovely floating family.
And yet there’s usually a line for the “morale phone” with people calling home. The shipboard computers that provide our USAP webmail, our weather report, and scant news in the form of The New York Times Digest are always busy. So, too, everyone has their laptop, tablet, or smartphone, keeping in touch via email, messaging apps, social media, and even browsing when they need to… and are feeling very patient. Though it might be slow, at times unreliable, we rely on the Internet to keep us in touch, informed, and able to accomplish things.
On land, we take our Internet for granted and grumble when the connection is weak. We succumb to cable and phone company promises of more power, more data, more speed. But out here, we’re inside a floating hunk of steel in the middle of a vast ocean, completely isolated, physically. There’s no mail delivery, not even an occasional plane flying overhead. No wires strung between us and land. No cell phone towers. No underground cables. Yet, when I am done writing this post, I will upload it to the ether and you will be able to read it. We’re about as far from civilization as it’s possible to be on Planet Earth, and yet we remain connected to you.
Imagine the complexities of providing Internet to a ship in the middle of the remote Southern Ocean. In fact, you can read this post, “like” my pictures of penguins and icebergs, and share our journey only because of the hard work and expertise of our two IT whizzes, Valerie and Matt.
They work long shifts, battling satellite coverage that’s often somewhere between testy and near nonexistent, finessing wires, magicking a multiplicity of servers. They quell the anxieties of the Internet-starved and electronically illiterate and always with a joke and a smile, no matter the hour. Two more immediately willing and kind people it would be hard to find, no matter how secretly busy they are and how basic the answer to your connectivity/computer/where’s-the-printer-paper-and-how-do-I-load-it questions.
Surrounded by multiple glowing screens, masses of neatly-tied cables, 3D-printed objects, Ping-Pong bats, penguin stickers, cups of tea, and Valerie’s extensive hot sauce and Marmite stash, Valerie and Matt work in the narrow LAN section of the electronics lab without even a window to break their laser-like focus. (If I could give them anything to show my gratitude, perhaps it would be a porthole.) At any given moment, they might be monitoring satellite coverage, ensuring individuals’ connectivity, and answering emails.
On the first day or two aboard, some of us burned through our daily data allowance at a shocking rate. (Valerie tells me that when she worked her first cruise, the allowance was an astonishing 15% of what it is now…) The first thing Matt did for me was reconfigure my laptop and phone. You don’t realize how much your devices are chatting with the Internet until your various automatic updates and clouds are deactivated. Since then, I’ve found that, if used prudently, my data allowance seems bountiful and boundless. I’m as grateful for every megabyte as I am to be burning less time browsing. (And how incredibly freeing it is to not have those seductive little red notifiers popping up on your phone all day long, demanding to be noticed!)
The job of keeping the Internet functioning out here is not for the faint of heart. There are all sorts of factors that affect our connectivity: the weather—or rather the sea state caused by it—is one. When the ship is rolling, pitching, and heaving (“Much like the people,” jokes Matt) the satellite dish on top of the ice tower (one of the highest points on the ship) cannot secure a steady connection.
The position of the ship is important, too. Sometimes the stack might block the signal or, if they are using the backup satellite, the bridge can be in the way. The farther south one goes, the more the connection is affected by the angle of the satellite signal relative to the ship. “It’s crazy. Even land a thousand miles away might block our signal,” says Valerie. The number of users at any given time can slow down the connection, so we can only be logged into one device at any given time, ensuring fair usage for all.
Google Earth image showing our starting point, McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and the positions of our sampling sites along 170˚ W. Each green ellipse shows the typical extent of satellite coverage. (It seems like magic to me that we have Internet at all.)
But keeping a steady Internet connection is just one of the many things Matt and Valerie quietly do. They’re also responsible for managing the ship’s data collection and ensuring quality control—making sure instruments are not malfunctioning. They keep the multi-beam (which constantly scans the seafloor and has provided a constant source of essential info for our science teams) working correctly. They make sure the various phones aboard ship—such as our “morale” phone and those of the hospital and Marine Projects Coordinator—are functioning. They keep all the computers, servers, and printers on board—up to 60 of them—working. They also provide IT support to the Laurence M. Gould—the other research vessel charted by the NSF—when needed. (Matt shows me some cat jokes he’s been sending the Gould; “Morale is very important out here,” he says, grinning.) They’re even in charge of the office supplies.
Like others on the ship I’ve asked, they agree that the hardest thing about their job is being away from home for extended periods. But…
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” says Valerie. “Everywhere you go is beautiful.”
“Breathtaking,” agrees Matt, conveying that some of the challenges he’s faced are more than worth it.
Her eyes alight, Valerie describes being in a zodiac, shooting across glasslike water, dolphins before the boat and an orca breaking the surface, peering at them with curiosity.
Matt says that one of the most important aspects of his job is “…being a part of something much bigger than me, something with a good purpose, something for humanity.”
“I agree with that,” says Valerie without hesitation.
Then they speak with feeling about the amazing people they’ve met on cruises. Valerie says the bonds become incredibly strong very fast.
“You cut through the superficial stuff quickly and make connections that are real—emotional,” says Matt.
That has been my experience, too, and one week from this adventure ending, I already feel the approaching goodbyes will be the hardest. But then, of course, there’ll be the Internet in all its speed and security, allowing connections to continue.
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