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Seafloor Research Vessel Gets Underway

Welcome aboard the JOIDES Resolution! Photo by Amy West
Welcome aboard the JOIDES Resolution! Photo by Amy West

Rocking lazily in the gentle swell as our floating country of 113 people steams out to the first drill site offers me time to recollect what it takes to finally pull out of port.

Stepping aboard this 471-foot ocean drill ship, which flies a Cyprus flag, are 30 scientists hailing from countries such as France, Japan, U.S, Germany, Russia, Australia, Austria, China, and Canada. Separate companies represent the other groups: 20 technicians, 15 catering staff, and the vessel crew. Amazingly, the 17 women on board are only among the scientists and technicians. The international collaboration keeps the boat and drill operations functioning, people comfortable and fed, and science successful.

Moving stands of drill pipe to load onto the ship. Photo By Amy West
Moving drill pipe to load onto the ship. Photo By Amy West

Loading items for our two-month adventure took five days. Garbage and long tubes of core from the previous cruise had to be removed, multiple gas bottles exchanged, while four miles of drill pipe had to be stored on board along with long wooden boxes of a couple of miles of plastic liners that collect the core.

It took a day and half to fill the gas tank, with a capacity of a million gallons. Though our transits are pretty short in comparison to other trips, this ship uses roughly 40 gallons to go one mile.

Meals are an important component for a harmonious existence. Here’s a peek into the $120,000 food bill that feeds our ship-bound group:

2,200 pounds of potatoes

Some of the women scientists and technicians on board for our expedition. Photo by Mark Reagan
Some of the women scientists and technicians on board for our expedition. Photo by Mark Reagan/IODP

25 boxes of apples

660 pounds of carrots

2,640 pounds of flour

half ton of steak

400 pounds of farmed salmon

1,320 pounds of whole chicken

 

All the food is shipped from the U.S. and ordered nine weeks in advance, though it can take a month and a half to arrive. Fresh produce comes from the country where the boat docks, where some items can be cost-prohibitive. For instance, grapes cost about U.S. $40/pound.

While freshwater must be used conservatively on most boats, the ship’s ability to convert saltwater into freshwater means water usage is essentially unlimited. That’s ideal, since the ship uses about 10,000 gallons every day, which is equivalent to each person consuming nearly 4 gallons each hour. Cleaning our clothes takes about a hundred pounds of laundry soap every week.

The bane for most is the ship’s Internet connection. Though it costs about $1,000/day, it’s virtually back to the days of a dial-up modem, where everyone shares a 512 KB connection. “Googling it” is not really an option; it’s likely quicker to ask someone on the ship for the answer. Aside from researching facts, dowloading papers, or communicating with work back on land, we now keep in touch with friends and family through websites like Facebook. As a bandwidth hog, social media takes on a truer meaning of time suck, so Internet usage is limited, especially during shift changes. Shedding cyberspace distractions may be welcomed, but nevertheless challenging when we’re habituated to instantaneous knowledge and downloads.

Sedimentologists Alastair Robertson and Steffen Kutterolf taste the sediment from deep ocean cores to determine its graininess. Photo by Amy West
Sedimentologists Alastair Robertson and Steffen Kutterolf taste the sediment from deep ocean cores to determine its graininess. Photo by Amy West

More notable, though, is the collaborative melding of the scientists on board, who are mostly meeting for the first time. Normally, researchers are focused on their own projects. On this expedition, scientists may have their own research interests, but it’s more of a team effort to work together to collect and process samples communally.

Rather than collecting samples for each person, everyone shares what is collected, and the diverse expertise helps piece together the actual story of the cores. When you have nowhere to go, few distractions, and work as your only purpose, it makes for a very productive and intellectually stimulating setting.

Though some scientists wear different hats here at sea, petrologists, geochemists, structural geologists, paleontologists, and paleomagnetists are some of their titles. It’s primarily a hard rock cruise, but a few sedimentologists are also present to comb through the first section of the seafloor for layers of ash from land-based volcanoes, which can inform us about the planet’s eruptive history.

The excitement of this group is palpable, especially when anticipating the first core of deep-ocean sea floor to arrive on deck from 10,000 feet below. It’s a time when theories will be put to the test as to how the sub seafloor is actually layered. It’s a small, international group drawn together by deep-sea discovery, and united by rock, right down to the last grain of boninite.

Boninite- named after the Bonin Islands nearby- is a rock that can form at the start of subduction. Unlike most rocks it's high in magnesium AND silica. Photo by Amy West
Boninite, named after the Bonin Islands nearby, is a rock that can form in the early stages of subduction. Unlike most rocks boninite is high in magnesium and silica. Photo by Amy West