Blog entry by Rebecca Mensing
6 February 2021
I don’t think one can actually describe what it feels like to be on board and what you think before the expedition even starts. I would say I didn’t have any expectations beforehand, trying to go with an open mind and just enjoy this whole experience, which I most definitely did. Nonetheless, I remember that when I first saw the SONNE ship out of the window of our bus – I thought it looked smaller than what I would have thought or possibly even hoped. Once I was actually on board and looked up to the windows of the bridge my impression definitely changed into one of awe, and just this overwhelming feeling that I could never possibly know my way around such a large vessel. I would say that the second impression is more accurate: even after 4 weeks on board I am still finding new ways around the ship and I only really know my way within the areas of my everyday use.
Speaking of everyday… life on board is also different than what you normally experience on land, although nowadays shiptime might be more normal than the new normal of social distancing. Once on board, after the at-home self-isolation, hotel quarantine with 2 negative tests, and additional 10 days on board of being cautious and wearing masks in larger crowds, we were finally able to just sit next to one another, chat without a care in the world or even share the same water bottle, which seems unthinkable on land. It was surprising how easy it was to go back to not always thinking if you are currently transmitting a disease, since you knew everyone around you didn’t, and couldn’t, have it.
Besides that, there are two different everyday cycles on board, depending if you are currently on station or on transit. Once on station there is a strict schedule of when and which gear is being deployed by which winch. Everything is planned down to half an hour, so that everyone knows when they need to be with their equipment or otherwise try and catch some sleep. Once a station is completed, we move on to the next. Over that time the samples need to be looked at in more detail, sorted, or other first results processed. For most people this is the time to try and get back to a normal sleep schedule and refresh a bit. For the hydroacustics team it is almost flipped around. They are gathering data during transit times and map the next research area once the ship arrives, but being on station is often not as busy for them as it is for the rest of the team, although they also help out wherever it is needed, e.g. sieving the samples of the box corer. Every day provides new exciting tasks and projects. Even though the gear and schedule between stations might be the same, you never know what kind of samples you will get this time. Is the wind too strong for the plankton gear? Or did one of the nets rip? With the benthic gear one is always praying that the equipment had good contact with the ocean floor and that everything worked. Even if that is the case, the sample might still get disrupted while being heaved to the surface. It is never boring.
Now the big question is always: What did I learn on the cruise? What experiences am I taking home that I will never forget?
One thing I learned early on was that I am not as immune to the waves and the ship-movement as I thought I would be. The body always needs time to adjust to a change in ship movement. For me that meant, while being on station we had lesser and increasingly even movements, meaning I felt fine. Once we started moving again, the movement changed, and my body needed to adjust all over again. Another thing I learned is to rely on your team. If you are exhausted or sea-sick and need an hour or two of sleep, go lay down. Your team will call you when you are absolutely needed. In general, I learned a lot about the workflow with the different gears, and between scientists and ship crew, which is just hard to summarise in short.
Now things I am taking home with me, in a figurative way, might also be summarised as a list of firsts. For the first time ever, I touched sediment from the seafloor. I still can barely wrap my mind around the fact that the clay in my hands came from a depth of more than 5000 m. To continue along that line, I was also able to see and touch animals that live in that depth. In those depths they have no light, less oxygen, and less nutrition, than in closer surface proximity, but still some animals manage to live and thrive down there. Even more fascinating is that there are still so many species that are yet to be discovered. One other larger species that we encountered during our expedition were dolphins. Early on in the English Channel, between Britain and mainland Europe, lots of dolphins were riding the waves produced by our vessel and it just warmed my heart to be able to see these animals in their natural habitat and, just living life to the fullest.
To end this list of firsts for me, it was the first time that I went weeks on end without seeing any land at all. I thought about this beforehand a lot and always imagined it to be an amazing feeling, but to experience it in real life was more than I could have imagined. Standing on the ‘Achterdeck’ (Poop deck), feeling the wind in your hair, and seeing the waves surrounding the ship, knowing that below you, there is about 5000 m of just water, it gave me the feeling of serenity and just calmness, realising how small, and possibly insignificant, you as a human actually are. Always being cooped up in cities between tall buildings provides a very narrow view of the world, while being out here is almost like freedom, even though you are confined to a ship. Feeling these forces of nature is something I always wanted to experience and will forever keep as a memory in my mind.