A day aboard Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego Research Vessel Roger Revelle is never typical. I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with 21 other scientists and 21 crew members. We’ve been at sea for nearly two months and have almost reached our final destination, Honolulu. Down in the Southern Hemisphere, we had science operations 24 hours a day while tracking eddies and plankton blooms.
R/V Roger Revelle is fresh out of a midlife refit. Last December, I reported on the ship returning to service after being in dry dock. You can read that here, but the short version is that R/V Roger Revelle spent a year and a half getting upgraded to extend its service life by another few decades. But I knew that it would take living and working onboard to get the full story. In all aspects, there’s nothing quite like being aboard a research vessel.
Scientists generally work 12 hour shifts every day they’re at sea – no weekends or holidays. That’s usually enough to set us apart from our friends and family back home, but during the pandemic there’s even more that makes life at sea unique. We have been living in a COVID-free bubble since the day after Christmas. What is usually a very abnormal lifestyle now feels like the most normal thing I’ve done in over a year. We get to eat at crowded tables and enjoy game nights of poker, Dungeons and Dragons, and a truly wild iteration of Uno.
This is what I will remember most about this cruise, and we may be some of the only people able to safely live this way. By the last week of a research cruise, I’m usually eager to get home to my normal life but right now, there is no normal back home. I actually felt hesitant to leave. We worked hard for this bubble; every scientist and crew member aboard first had to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine and pass four COVID tests. We then stayed socially distanced and masked for two weeks. Though we all knew it was to ensure everyone’s health and safety, it was hard work.
We had a few days of loading and setting up the ship for science before departing Honolulu. We realized too late that we should have been preparing for this transition. We went from two weeks of barely moving while in our hotel rooms to three days of lifting and working in the tropical heat. I hadn’t worn shoes for two weeks and all of a sudden, I was on my feet for hours on end on a steel deck.
Once we got underway, I finally had a chance to explore the ship. Having seen pictures from the shipyard period, I expected a drastic change from the previous time I had spent on Revelle, which constitutes a few cruises of about six weeks each, the most recent in fall of 2018. What I found instead was that the ship seemed surprisingly familiar which actually makes sense – many of the big changes and upgrades were below the surface, literally.
All six of the old engines were removed, as well as the bow thruster that allows the ship to hold station when we stop, and replaced with state of the art equipment. Much of the crew has spent years aboard Roger Revelle and they know the ship well. Or used to. From their point of view, a lot has changed. During a tour of the engine room, we were shown all four new engines as well as a ballast water system and equipment that uses heat from the ship’s engines to turn seawater into potable water. All those systems are new and it’s critical to everyone onboard that the engineers know how to operate them. We’re very lucky to have such a dedicated crew.
Crew members have been eager to tell me about the upgrades and were interested to see what I thought of the ship in person. First among the new items was the bow thruster, which allows the ship to maneuver sideways, and was close to my assigned stateroom. While it is certainly quieter than the old one, it is by no means silent. After a few days, though, I got used to the noise and was able to sleep through it.
Charlie Brooks, one of the research technicians on this expedition, started working for Scripps a few months before the ship went into midlife. His first cruises were the last science cruises before Revelle went into the shipyard. He then spent months in Portland working onboard the stripped down ship six days a week during the midlife process.
“It was cool to sail right before,” he said. “I’m glad I got to know the ship before shipyard. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be part of midlife and see the scale of things. It was cool to think about the final product, that eventually this will be a ship again. I haven’t gotten over it, walking around the ship now. Seeing it back in its working form is very gratifying.”
Charlie worked midnight to noon on this cruise, and every shift was a grand tour of the upgraded science systems onboard Revelle. There were the usual CTD deployments (conductivity, temperature, and depth sensors mounted to a frame with bottles that collect seawater from different depths) using the arm over the starboard side; a system that was not updated with the refit. All the other samples and data, however, were collected with brand new or refurbished equipment. For example, bottles to collect trace metal-free water samples require use of the refurbished squirt boom, a metal beam that extends over the starboard side of the ship. The VPR (video plankton recorder) is deployed over the back deck using the refurbished A-frame.
The new system ocean acidification tracking system in the main lab got its first workout on this cruise, collecting data from the atmosphere and sea surface along almost our entire cruise track (we have to turn off any systems that collect data in certain zones that belong to other countries). The goal is to have this system running on every cruise, whether those onboard are studying climate change and ocean acidification or not. The data will be available for use by scientists around the world to help understand and protect the planet.
There are other acoustic systems we have running most of the time, including the multibeam and sub-bottom profiler, which map and characterize the seafloor. We use these to record bottom depth when we stop on station, but scientists who study the ocean floor can use the data to further their research without ever coming aboard.
One of my favorite things is to open Google Earth and scroll around the world’s oceans to see the features on the seafloor. If you zoom in far enough, you’ll start to see swaths with much more detailed information. Those come from multibeam systems on ships like Revelle. Within a few months of this cruise, our track will show up on Google Earth and all the volcanoes, ridges, and other bathymetry we passed over will be mapped, with a credit to Scripps.
R/V Roger Revelle now has two multibeam systems, both mounted onto a gondola that was added during midlife. It sits a few feet below the ship, rather than having the instruments right on the hull. This separates them from the bubbles that are swept under the ship as we move, which can distort those signals.
Another instrument mounted to the new gondola is the ADCP (acoustic doppler current profiler), which measures currents throughout the water column. On this cruise, the currents in the top 100 meters were used to determine the center of the eddies we were chasing. The high quality, real time data meant that we were exactly where we wanted to be, rather than having to rely on days-old satellite data.
The upgrades weren’t all business though. Thankfully some were also made that improved life onboard during the times that the crew and scientists aren’t working. There’s new gym equipment, which is a huge plus. The internet has been upgraded and it shows; we’ve had much faster speeds throughout most of these months away. The carpets and bedding are all new.
And perhaps most importantly, the ping pong table was preserved and is still set up in the main lab. The tabletop now fits on the nesting table bases that make up the endlessly customizable lab furniture. Now that the table is not surrounded by filtering stations and other experiments, the ping pong tournament is underway. I counted 28 of the 43 total people onboard crowded into the main lab to watch the quarterfinal matches.
These upgrades are a morale boost, and much needed during the long trips that may be more prevalent due to the pandemic. For now, the ships have to leave from U.S. ports. Despite working entirely between 30-60 degrees South latitude, we began and ended in Hawaii. This required transits, sailing at top speed for 10 to 12 days on either end. So this ends up being 60 days at sea for 38 days of science. The crew work in their respective departments – deck, bridge, engine room, galley – every day, whether us scientists are working or not.
There’s still plenty to learn about the new and improved R/V Roger Revelle and work to be done to get every system optimized. But the crew is working hard to make that happen and we scientists did our part on this long expedition. Working through the pandemic and the learning process after the midlife refit has taken a lot of dedication and hard work, but it is worth it.
Melissa Miller is a Media Communications Specialist with UC San Diego Health, who wrote this while a staff member at the Oceanographic Data Facility at Scripps Oceanography, working as a sea-going chemist as well as a science writer and outreach coordinator.