Right now it 5:45pm. We are underway to a new mooring because our last one was too rough. The swell was considerable, I’d say 3 meters, and relentless. We were getting beaten up and stuff on the boat was falling and breaking all over the place. Yet with the transit I have some free time to write this blog.
One question I had been asking myself (and so maybe have you) since I found out I’d be on this ship was what an average day would be like. So here’s my first week’s impression of life on Tara. Overall it’s remarkably busy but oddly relaxed. I never feel too rushed like I often do in the field. I do often feel like I am in people’s way, but I guess that comes with living on a boat with 16 people. Hallways and stairwells can really only hold one person, and I am constantly say “Pardon” or “Excuse moi” to get past people when I am on my tenth trip to the stern to get something I ran out of or forgot. Despite this everyone is generally agreeable and pleasant despite my running around and always being in the way.
A day in the life of a Taranaut
An average day consists of 1) eating, 2) cleaning, 3) diving, 4) sample processing, 5) cleaning, 6) eating, 7) dry lab working, 8) more eating, 9) more cleaning, and 10) sleeping. This is a French boat so the eating part is very important, and amazing. Meals are not to be rushed and they are surprisingly formal given the very relaxed nature of the crew. In fact, I got some tut-tuts and stink eye from the crew for trying to finish putting away the samples during lunchtime. Breakfasts are self-serve (lunch and dinner are served) and usually consist of coffee and tea with bread, jam, butter, fruit, and cereal. The French use bowls for their coffee and dunk their bread, butter, and jam into it. A BOWL OF COFFEE! Yes! It’s like my favorite thing ever, and I don’t understand why we American’s have never picked up this tradition. I mean a BOWL of coffee, people! Also Marion, our chef, makes her own jam and butter. Wowzer. I can’t get enough of her passionfruit spread and feel guilty every time I eat more of it cause I know there is not much. In fact she also brought homemade cheese and honey from France along with many other French products.
Dive time; and yes its winter in Easter Island
After breakfast we clean up the kitchen and then prepare for the dive and coral- and water-sampling. This entails packing our sampling bags of five main things: camera, quadrat, sampling bags, hammer/chisel, and slate with underwater paper for sampling notes. We also get our dive gear ready and don our wetsuits. The water here is unusually cold for Polynesia, so we are wearing a 3mm long john suit under a 3mm hooded top. That’s six mm chest and 3 everywhere else. Despite this everyone is cold. After 1 hour underwater in 20°C water you are pretty darn cold. Then we put out the “dinghy” or zeppelin boats and load them up. On day one, I called the dinghy a “zodiac” but was quickly chastised. Apparently this company who makes these inflatable boats is “zeppelin” not “zodiac” and I was warned not to make the mistake again. Um. Okay?
Fun fact… rapamycin, the commonly used antibiotic, is named after the place where it was discovered, Rapa Nui! This drug comes from a strain of Streptomyces bacteria previously isolated in the soils of Easter Island where we are sampling now.
The dinghy boats are quite nice and feel really sturdy in the water even though they only have 70 horsepower outboard engines. Once the dinghies are launched and the dive gear loaded by crane, we can climb down the ladder into them. This is an interesting experience every time as Tara’s deck sits about 15 feet above the water. Today the swell was about the same height so it took quite a couple of tries for the captain of the zodiac, I mean zeppelin, to get everyone on board unscathed. Getting out was actually more interesting today.
Captain Sam on the dinghy
These dive boats have one captain and can fit another 7 people on them. We work in teams of three underwater so that’s two teams and one “watcher”: a person (our dive safety officer actually) who floats in the water and looks for the divers. The captain follows the watcher as we cannot anchor these boats, and in these seas we would never even try. Once we are onboard, we head out on our heading to the GPS point. Today that consisted of a rock motu (island) off the west side of the main harbor of Easter Island. So it was … BIG … out, today. I think that is probably the biggest seas I have ever dove in, although I was never worried about my safety in the least. This crew is not phased by 12 foot seas, and they exude so much confidence and are so relaxed that they make you relaxed and confident too. Plus, I knew that once we were under the water we’d be fine. One issue with these boats, however, is space! It’s hard to put on your gear next to the other divers in such a small boat, so we go one-by-one. This is kind of annoying in big seas, cause if we could all go in at the same time that would reduce seasickness and air use, which seems to be my problem this trip. But it’s all good.
On the dives, we hunt for two very different species of corals, Pocillopora and Porites. These two corals are very different. Pocillopora is small (~20cm across) bushy, bumpy, and hard as diamonds. The other, Porites, is massive (we saw one that was 2 meters across and 3 meters tall), pillared, and soft. They also have different reproductive strategies and grow at different rates. Basically they represent very different spectrums of corals, which is why we chose them. At each site we need to collect small samples of 10 colonies of each of these species for the variety of analyses we aim to do (which will be another blog post). This is not a problem at all here because those are the ONLY two species we could find anyways. But in other places, it will be difficult to find them among all the coral diversity. Easter Island, like many remote places, has very few species and 25% of its species are endemic (meaning they exist here). Since this research cruise is to evaluate corals across the Pacific we had to pick two species that are pan-Pacific. Thus another reason we chose those two species for this study.
Diver job: find coral, take sample, photograph coral, fin.
To be as efficient as possible, underwater, each diver has a specific task. One person finds the proper specimen, confirms its taxonomy (easier said than done) and then takes some data about the specimen including taking a photograph of two. A second person cuts small fragments of the coral and puts it into some bags that the third diver is holding along with all the materials divers number one and two might need. This sounds really easy huh? Well today my job was the camera person and I sucked at it, literally and figurative. Personally, I blame the swell.
Now 12 foot seas are fine if you are diving deep but this site wasn’t deep (12-15 meters), and we were close enough to the shore that it was like being in a washing machine underwater. One second you were above your coral and the next you were 30 feet away on the other side of the reef. Wheeeee! I actually think this is kind of fun, like an underwater rollercoaster… but not when you are trying to photograph something or sample it. So we ended up holding onto the substrate as hard as we could and sometimes getting slammed into the rocks around us. Some places were better as the surge was less, but for the most part it was a bit ridiculous and most importantly frustratingly slow for sampling.
Again I want to reiterate that I was never scared or worried that we were in a dangerous situation. It was very safe, just hard sampling conditions. My biggest issue ended up being air. I use a little tank. I’m a shorty and these are steel tanks and super heavy and anything bigger and I’d be unable to swim. These tanks generally only have 200 bar in my tank (or about 2000 psi) when everyone else has 300 to 350. So after fighting the swell for 40 minutes, I was at my limited 50 bar and needed to go do a safety stop and get in the boat. Emilie and Gullaume, my buddies, swam back to the boat with me but still had air so they managed to go back down and finish up without me. So I sucked my air. When we got back to the boat and checked out the photos…. we also realized that somehow I manage to take videos and not photos of the individual corals. So I sucked at taking pictures too. Nice. I am so “that” person right now; the person who runs out of air first and didn’t even do a good job at their job which was pretty darn simple. At least I didn’t get seasick on the boat too which can’t be said for all the divers. And luckily I have a few more dives ahead of me to redeem myself. Lastly, I asked Monche (our dive safety guy) for a bigger tank, so I can suck more air and not worry about it.
Once back on the boat we have to weigh and count all the pieces of coral to confirm we followed our permit and then process all the samples. Here in Easter Island the authorities actually watched us do this every day. While normally we’d do this the moment we get aboard we have added an additional step to this pipeline here in Easter Island… shower and warm up. With the wetsuits and exertion from fighting the swell no one was really cold at the end of the dive. But add a 40-minute boat ride to that and everyone was cold, really cold. So most of us stripped off of our gear and headed to the showers. After warming up in a three-minute shower (our allotted fresh water for the day) we tackled the samples which takes about 1 hour with six people. Sadly, we won’t have six people at our next two stops so it will take longer.
4 hour lunch
After sample processing and cleaning up we head to lunch, which is usually consists of very large portions of food including a salad, a grain or pasta, and some vegetable and/or cheese dish like a stuffed pie or stew or curry. There is always a French dessert of cake or pots de cream or fruit and yogurt at the end too. Yum. Oh and more coffee of course. As I said everyone takes time with their lunch which often goes more than an hour. People generally do their daily chores then too, like vacuuming the floor, washing the showers, or the worst job, cleaning the toilets.
After the boat is cleaned we start working on the next aspect of science, LABELING. Labels, labels, labels. Even more labels: Making labels. Sticking labels on tubes. Sticking labels on bags. Sticking labels to sheets. Sticking labels to labels. Lots and lots of labels. Think… four people and 1.5 hours of non-stop labeling. But labeling is somewhat meditative actually, and it’s a skill every scientist should have. That and making stuff out of PVC, duck-tape, and zip ties.
So after all that, it’s around 3 or 4pm and many of us take a nap. I napped on the first day of the dive and it screwed my night sleep up bad I’ve been skipping the nap since. But as you’ll see on the dinner section, napping is important for not falling asleep in one’s European dinner. While people nap, I’ve been reading emails or writing comments on papers or writing a blog, ha. I’ve also been trying to make sure all the science stuff is cleaned up. It’s easy to leave stuff around and sailors don’t like things lying around. Also the dive gear needs to be cleaned and put away. Our dive safety office often does this while we process the samples, but there is always more to do.
European dinner… late.
While we were processing samples and labeling, the other dive team was out collecting plankton and doing the benthic transect videos. Given the lateness of these dives that team often isn’t done with stuff and back on the boat until around 5. Then people are basically finishing cleaning up and the crew get everything ready for the evening around 7. Since they are French, dinner often doesn’t start until 9pm. Plus, while the food is served no one touches it till everyone is sitting down which can sometimes take quite a while because the crew is in charge of a lot of things. Dinner is again three courses and people chat often until 10:30. If you are on dishes that means you are washing and drying till 11pm. The night watch starts at 11pm but most of the crew stay up for another hour or so. So it’s a long day but a good day.
Rock me mama, like a wagon wheel – or like an 83-foot schooner.
Even though she can rock pretty hard, sleeping is not hard here, at least not for me. In fact, I rather like the swaying; it feels like being rocked to sleep, and it’s even sometimes hard to not get sleepy from the constant rocking when you are just sitting around. Also my bunk bed is quite large and comfortable. I did, however, get the short end of the cabin stick. My room is the one closest to the galley so it’s a tad loud. But that’s not too bad. The main issue is that it’s also unfortunately above the gas and bilge. Think stinky. Super stinky. Stinky enough that I have to cover my face and even gag sometimes. Each night I turn on my fan, open my hatch, and open my door to get the fumes to dissipate enough that I don’t get brain damage from sniffing gas. If we’re moving I can’t have the hatch open and therefore I try to stay out of the room. I’ve spoken with the crew and they are aware that it’s the stinky room but someone has to sleep in it ‘cause there is not enough room on the boat otherwise, every bunk is taken. Hopefully I can convince the captain that this is a minor form of torture and that I should get to switch to a new room after a week or so. For now, I will keep my complaints to myself and suffer the stank in silence.