Replacing Leisure with Research: My First Cruise

The second in a series illustrating researchers’ experiences at sea

By Katie Keil

A view of Mount Rainier from the R/V Clifford A Barnes at sunset

When hearing the word “cruise”, most people picture themselves lounging with a martini in hand on the deck of a monstrous white boat painted with the words “Carnival”. Most marine scientists, however, envision something starkly different: tight quarters, 12-hour workdays, stressful, high-stake research operations, and exciting discoveries. Each cruise has a different set of goals, schedule, and overall experience, but there is one constant: hard work. My first experience on a research vessel was no exception, but it also surpassed all my expectations, and deepened my love for the ocean.

As a graduate student at SMEA, I am conducting research to define how pelagic organisms respond to ocean acidification.  Since my master’s thesis requires a series of plankton samples, I joined two nine-day research cruises on the University of Washington’s R/V Clifford A Barnes to collect water chemistry parameters, various plankton samples, and the principal investigator’s research interest: krill.

I first encountered the vessel in Hood Canal, where our voyage commenced. We would be sampling at six research stations throughout Puget Sound, from south Hood Canal to Carr Inlet, and ultimately docking at the University of Washington. The 65-foot ship includes a bunkroom with six beds, a head (or “toilet” in terrestrial terms), kitchen, captain’s quarters, engine room, a back deck equipped with a crane to lift heavy equipment, and a laboratory that barely fit the entire science crew. After some spatial strategizing below deck, I shoved my belongings into a locker and started to make my bed, hitting my head several times on the bunk overhead. They weren’t kidding when they warned me of the cramped conditions. I tried to settle my anxiety as I realized that these dark quarters would be my home for the next nine days.

The science crew (from left to right): Amanda Winans, Morgan Beste, Katie Keil (me), Anna McLaskey, and Anna Boyar

As a female scientist, I was excited to join a science crew composed of four other women, something unheard-of in not-so-distant history. Considering women were traditionally thought to be “bad luck” at sea, and oceanographers can recall women being banned from research ships due to a lack of facilities in the early-to mid-1900s, this opportunity felt significant. As soon as the ship departed, our science crew of graduate students, staff, and undergraduate volunteers began to work as one cohesive unit.

Each day of ship time can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so it is vital to use time efficiently and effectively. Minor hindrances may compound into catastrophic effects on the research agenda, so when our crane broke at the first research station, tensions were high. Thankfully, the crew was able to alleviate the setback with some technical knowhow and quick hands, and we were able to make up the three hours by the end of the workday.

Deploying a CTD off the back deck of the R/V Clifford A Barnes

Since krill migrate vertically at night, we started our operations at dusk to maximize our success in catching them for our experiments—guaranteeing long, exhaustive workdays from sundown to sunrise. Each workday began with throwing on our lifejackets and hardhats and deploying the CTD, an integral instrument that collects conductivity, temperature, and depth measurements as well as large bottles of seawater at specified depths. Due to our interest in studying water chemistry to understand the impacts of climate change, we meticulously sampled water from the bottles to be analyzed for carbon.

After collecting everything from the CTD, we transitioned to the net I used for my personal samples, a 20cm ring-net, towed vertically through the water column. Once on deck, the net required extensive rinsing to flush the organisms from the sides into the bottom, or cod end, of the net. Then, the organisms were sifted into small sample jars to be analyzed at a later date.

Working together to process the 20cm ring net

We would then prep and deploy a multi-net zooplankton sampler, a large box-like instrument utilized to understand community composition with five tapering nets programmed to open at desired depths. Once back on board, it took us a minimum of an hour to process the nets. This included holding the heavy nets stable while getting soaked during the rinsing process, undoubtedly the crew’s least-favorite task.

Thankfully, my favorite sampling method took place next – the bongo net. This drum-like instrument consists of two large ringed nets used to collect krill for on-board experiments or freezing. After towing the bongo for several minutes, we emptied the cod ends into large tubs, and separated the krill from the variety of amphipods, jellyfish, shrimp, and other bycatch. The krill would then be taxonomically identified under a microscope for use in either on-board respiration or growth rate experiments, or to be frozen for later analysis.

Sampling at night, although exhausting, provided once-in-a-lifetime glimpses of marine life. At several of our research stations, bioluminescent organisms glowed an eerie vibrant blue as our “ghost ship” disturbed the water. We even halted our operations one night to gaze over the bow as fish swimming through the water donned a striking blue halo around them, streaking through the water. We watched as a harbor seal caught its morning salmon breakfast below us, marveled at oversized moon jellies littering the water, and counted dozens of harbor porpoises breaching alongside our vessel. We collected so many intriguing marine organisms during our tows that we maintained a “fun jar” collection in the lab of squid, fish larvae, worms, jellyfish, and pteropods. I have studied marine invertebrates extensively, but now I understand that textbooks could never do them justice.

Various members of our laboratory “fun jar” (from top left to bottom right): Bell medusa jellyfish, acorn worm, cephalopod, and flatfish larvae

We were able to get off the boat daily to stretch our legs during the crew’s off time, which was necessary for combatting cabin fever. However, for the last two days of the cruise, we anchored instead of docking, and were confined to the ship’s quarters. This prompted us to get creative for our daily exercise: the science crew engaged in a workout on the deck, complete with scattered jumping jacks around the science instruments, music, and a hint of seasickness.

Although my time on the R/V Barnes was full of sore muscles from manipulating heavy equipment, steep learning curves, and an unhealthy amount of coffee, I would choose a research cruise over a Carnival cruise any day. Why? Because going out to sea feels like coming home, and working to protect these resources is an infinitely rewarding, invaluable experience.

…and, to quote Bill Nye, simply “science rules”.

Photographs courtesy of research crew members, published with permission.