Seagoing Science Revisited

Kim Kastens
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published Aug 3, 2010

I'm writing from the Coast Guard research icebreaker Healy, offshore from the Aleutians, where I am at sea with my husband Dale and daughter Dana. Dale spends four to five months a year aboard this ship, making the complex suite of science instrumentation work for science cruises in the Arctic. But I've never been on this ship, and Dana has never been on any research vessel. The Coast Guard sometimes allows family members to ride the ship during transit legs, and so Dana and I are aboard for the three day run from Seward, Alaska, to Dutch Harbor.

I feel a bit like Rip van Winkle, having gone to sleep and awoken 17 years later to find that some things have changed in seagoing science and others have stayed the same. I last sailed in 1993, as Chief Scientist aboard the R/V Ewing at the Vema Fracture Zone. What hasn't changed:

  • The smell of the ocean
  • The smell of diesel
  • The rolling motion
  • The distinctive beige color scheme of ship interiors
  • The easy camaraderie of shipboard people
  • The thrill of watching a map and profile unfurl, showing a piece of the seafloor that no one has ever seen before.
Interestingly, the thrill of watching the seafloor emerge from the mapping system is there even for a piece of the seafloor in which I had no prior involvement and no vested interest. We are crossing continental shelf, a feature which my previous seagoing persona had viewed as merely something to get across. Nonetheless, the emerging maps are fascinating me. I think it has to do with the sense of revealing the unknown, the previously unseen. I have no question I am trying to answer, no hypothesis I am trying to test, but seeing a previously unmapped part of the planet seems rewarding in and of itself. Scientists are driven by wanting to know the answers to questions, it's true, but I think there is also a deeper-seated, more visceral, less intellectual, human urge to explore.

What's different:

  • There are women among the officers and crew, lots of women. On my previous 26 cruises, there were a total of one female officer and zero female crew members.
Three women of the icebreaker HealyHealy women in the engineering spaces, on deck and on the bridge

  • There are no paper data records at all: no smelly EPC recorders, no fading-prone thermal printers, no noisy pen plotters, no paper data at all. Everything is displayed on a computer screen in beautiful crisp color. Nothing is written down with a pen on a clipboard; everything is logged digitally.
  • Dale Chayes in Healy computer labDale with some data displays
    A corollary to the previous point: there are computers everywhere. One of the tech guys and I counted thirty computers in just one lab, and there are dozens or maybe hundreds elsewhere on the ship, in both science and ship's operations. The first ship I was on had zero computers (as far as I know), and the second ship had one computer, a behemoth mainframe housed in the only air-conditioned space on the ship. Computers have multiplied like rabbits.
  • The data quality is vastly better. The navigation quality from dynamic GPS is to die for, from the point of view of someone who spent months editing labor-intensive navigation data. I tell my students that field-based science is one long series of tradeoffs between scope or breadth of coverage and detail or resolution within the covered area. But modern seafloor mapping sonars achieve both breath and resolution.
  • The effort to insight ratio is higher. I see that not on the transit leg, but in the planning for the upcoming legs. It is harder than ever to wrest new insights from the sea.

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