By Stewart Fairbairn
What is it like on an ocean-going expedition? Having never been before, I was thinking this myself. I watched land slowly diminish from sight as we left Las Palmas harbour, experiencing a mixture of excitement for the expedition ahead, trepidation at its many unknowns, and a little drop of fear as I realised my month aboard a research vessel had begun. I wouldn’t see land for another four days as we steamed to Cape Verde.
I felt quite a bit of pressure coming on this expedition, as it’s my first opportunity to do “the other half” of my role as an AUV Operations Engineer and my chance to see if I really measure up to the demands of the role. I had questions of course, most of them trivial. Would I get seasick? What would the food be like? Would I get on with the rest of the expedition team? I can happily report I was worried about nothing on all counts.
Before departing, I was excited about what I might see while away and since first sighting Cape Verde I’ve not been disappointed. I’ve seen the ship’s wake sparkling with bioluminescence under the glow of the Milky Way above; huge pods of dolphins dancing in the waves; shoals of flying fish exploding out of the water; squid fishing in the ship’s lights after dark, and some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing and nature watching though, as we have had technical issues with the Autosub that have prevented us from completing some missions, which hit morale hard. Recent days have been start-to-finish troubleshooting, testing, fixing, and head-scratching as we chase down gremlins in the sub. It has been a steep learning curve for me but we’ve managed to keep our chins up, get the sub fighting fit again, and as I write she is on a mission at 3500m.
Despite the issues we’ve had, the rest of the expedition have been nothing but supportive, which has helped us through those tough days where progress is slow. There’s a real team spirit on board. Spending so much time with the same small group of people means you get to know everyone quite well. A few weeks ago, everyone was a stranger but now it feels like one big group of friends. We’ve all ended up on a slightly different schedule, however, and there is always somebody up and working. It’s impossible to know what time of day it is for them. It might be dinner for me, but breakfast for somebody else. I’ve given up trying to guess if it’s “Good morning or “Goodnight” at this point!
Downtime is important as well. There’s a gym on board (which I haven’t used nearly as much as I should!), a dartboard, games consoles, and tables for card games. I’ve spent a lot of time, however, on deck looking out over the sea. Sometimes it’s a volcanic island, other times an endless expanse of empty water. Whatever the view, they are always the sort to make you think. I find it quite peaceful.
Those quiet moments are valuable because the ship is constantly noisy, pretty much wherever you go. In my bunk at night, I can hear the rumble of the engine, the whine of the buoyancy compensators, and all the other sounds of the ship. During the day the cranes and winches will be working, and the crew might be carrying out some maintenance, which usually involves power tools. There are very few “quiet” places on board, but by this point I’ve grown accustomed to it. In a way it’s reassuring because it means everything on board is working!
The expedition has been fantastic so far, but I do miss home. There are about 2 weeks left to go, and it has been 5 weeks since I flew out but sometimes it feels like it has been longer than that. Communications home have mainly been through messages and voice recordings since the internet isn’t fast enough to really do live voice or video calls, although there is one satellite phone in the computer lab that we can use to make international calls. I’ve managed to keep in touch with loved ones well enough but I’m excited to actually have a live, face-to-face conversation with my partner Lauren when I get home!
For now, there are more missions to run, more data to process, undoubtedly more issues to fix, and certainly more successes to share. We pick up Autosub after her 24 hour mission this evening to see how she did. Then we’ll do it all over again, crossing our fingers as we watch her dive down and down to the depths of the ocean. I don’t know what we’ll see, but I do know it’s worth looking.