As you, dear reader, may have guessed already from previous posts, being an ArcTrain PhD student does not mean that you are only spending time in front of your computer or in the lab but it also means leaving your cozy and comfortable office and desk behind to enter the real world which you have been studying in theory for quite some time.
Since I am working in the field of oceanography, going out into the real world means in my case spending a couple of weeks far away from everything else on a research vessel crossing the Atlantic Ocean. And as if being out there in the middle of nowhere on the Atlantic is not enough, my new home and office for these weeks is moving quite a lot (writing this I am trying to fix my chair with my legs somehow in front of the computer to avoid sliding back and forth through the entire room).
Although I definitely don’t like high waves (and I suppose after a couple of hours or even days of storm, high waves and strong ship movements even those of us who secretly wished for ‘a little bit of storm and big waves’ really had enough) it is very impressive to see how strongly dependent we are on the elements. And this is something you cannot experience by sitting in front of your desk in your office. Every single data point I have been working with suddenly becomes much more valuable after having seen how much trouble it is to retrieve it.
However, even though the weather conditions play an essential role for the cruise, it is of course not all about the weather. The reason why we are here is our research and the reason I am here is mainly PIES which stands for Pressure sensor equipped Inverted Echo Sounder.
PIES usually are nice little fellows that stand at the seafloor for a couple of years, measuring, as the name already hints at, bottom pressure fluctuations and the acoustic round trip travel time of an acoustic signal they send out and which travels to the sea surface and back. Since the acoustic round trip travel time depends on the speed of sound in water which in turn depends on temperature and salt, this measurement gives us information about the saltiness and temperature of the water above the instrument.
During our cruises, we read out the data from the PIES which can be transmitted acoustically so that we don’t need to get them out of the water every year, or we recover PIES which have already been in the water for quite some time to change batteries and take care of all their other needs and then re-deploy them again.
Of course, there are many more things that need to be done during our cruises but they all have something in common which makes them very different from the work back home: First of all, you can only use the tools and spare parts you have taken with you – if something is missing you have to be creative to find another solution. Moreover, all the things you practiced at home suddenly are much more difficult when you are on a moving ship. Filling a small tube with oil using a syringe was maybe a little bit tricky at home already but may turn out to be close to impossible when you need not only to hold the syringe but also to fix yourself or your chair.
Apart from the scientific and technical side, being for several weeks with a bunch of people on a ship is also a very special experience. You have time to get to know your colleagues very well, do things you would never have the time for at home such as playing a real-time werewolf game or seeing icebergs or the amazing coast of Greenland during sunset…