Dispatch from the Deep: First Day at Sea and Exploration Vessels

Part of the Deep Sea Vents Curriculum Collection.

Pat Peterson
Biology teacher and REVEL participant Pat Peterson. Photo © University of Washington, American Museum of Natural History, and Pennsylvania State University.

Hello there! My name is Pat Peterson, and I’m writing to you from on board the RV Atlantis, a marine research ship that’s currently sailing the ocean blue—the northern Pacific Ocean blue, to be exact. The RV Atlantis is the base of operation for a huge expedition to study the deep sea vents at the Juan de Fuca Ridge! I’ll be sending dispatches to you from the ship so that you can share in the discoveries we make here, and so that you can learn something about field research in the deep ocean.

I’m a high school science teacher most of the time, but I’m out here on the ocean as one of a team of REVEL (Research and Education: Volcanoes, Exploration, and Life) teachers. We were selected to join the team of scientists studying the mid-ocean ridges at the Juan de Fuca “ocean floor spreading center.” This submarine environment has deep sea volcanoes and experiences constant earthquakes—and, most incredible of all, supports an ecosystem that lives around sulfide chimney structures called “black smokers.” These black smokers support life under incredibly extreme conditions—and 40 years ago, we didn’t even know they existed!

I’ll tell you all about the deep sea vents as I find out more, but first I’ll keep you up-to-date on the day-to-day operations aboard the research vessel Atlantis. At about 2 a.m., after flying across the country from my home in Pennsylvania, I arrived at the port city of Astoria, Oregon, dead tired. I made my way to the docks—and to the RV Atlantis. Even though it was 2 a.m., the brightly lit ship was abuzz with activity; the crew was working hard to complete preparations for our voyage. The scientists were also arriving with all the special research equipment they’d use in the onboard laboratories. The RV Atlantis is used by many different scientific teams during the year to study the oceans, and each group of researchers must bring its own equipment and set up laboratories designed for the specific fieldwork they will be conducting during their voyage.  

Research vessel Atlantis
Research vessel Atlantis. Photo © University of Washington, American Museum of Natural History, and Pennsylvania State University.

Two a.m. this morning is apparently no different from 2 a.m. any other night of the voyage—I’ve been told that work continues around the clock as long as we’re at sea. Hopefully I’ll get more sleep than I did last night; after the crew stowed my belongings and led me to my stateroom, I turned in, anxious to sleep a few hours before the ship’s departure. Before I knew it, it was 6 a.m., and time to get up and get dressed. Oh well, I’m here to work and learn, not sleep! I put on several layers of clothes to ward off the morning chill and went up on deck to see the ship as dawn began to light up the sky.  WOW… what a sight. The colors of the morning were tremendous, with the pink tones of the rising Sun washing over the pale blue decks and hull of the Atlantis. It was a wonderful way to begin my expedition.

Most of the crew didn’t have time to take in the glorious sunrise; wherever I went, up on deck and below deck, researchers and assistants were busily checking out and testing the equipment they had placed on board. I wandered around, trying to find my way to the main stern deck so I could get my first look at the deep sea submarine that the Atlantis carries. I found the ALVIN in its hanger at the stern of the ship. Technicians were busy running tests to make sure that, inside and out, the ALVIN was ready to go. I know the ALVIN is a highly sophisticated submersible, but it’s also beautiful! Its outer skin is white, with the hatch area painted bright orange so it can be seen when it surfaces after a dive. It’s much smaller than I had imagined, and the crew compartment holds only three people inside its 14-inch-thick walls. A specially trained submarine pilot drives the ALVIN, and there’s room for only two other researchers during each trip to the bottom. Sometime during this expedition, we’ll be drawing straws to select one REVEL teacher. That lucky person will get to be one of the three people aboard during a dive. Keep your fingers crossed for me—I would LOVE to go!

The ALVIN is designed to carry a human crew (including me, hopefully!), but it’s not the only submersible used to explore the deep oceans. The RVAtlantishas a twin sister, the SS Thompson. The Thompson houses ROPOS, a remote-controlled submersible that prowls the ocean bottom at the end of a long cable tether, unlike the ALVIN, which is piloted by a person inside the submersible itself. The ALVIN is a manned submarine, fully self-contained, and no cables tie her to the Atlantis once she’s launched. When researchers want to explore places too small or too dangerous to take ALVIN, the ROPOS is a submersible of choice.

ALVIN on the deck of teh Atlantis Photo © University of Washington, American Museum of Natural History, and Pennsylvania State University.

During breakfast, I met the other teachers who are here with the REVEL program. Everyone was really excited about this expedition to conduct the latest deep sea vent research; and most of us were excited about the chance to go down to the sea floor aboard ALVIN. We also got to meet more of the ship’s crew and scientists at breakfast. A ship’s cook prepares meals for everyone on the ship, and everyone eats together in the galley. I’ve heard that all the meals are as hearty as the breakfast, and that you can get just about anything you want to eat. There is also an area where you can go and help yourself to leftovers if your watch has taken you away from mealtime.  

Soon after breakfast, I found myself looking back at the port, watching it disappear as we headed out to sea. I stood there thinking, “I can’t believe I’ve finally set off!” But as the Atlantis plowed through the swells, my excitement soon turned into something else—seasickness! It takes several days for your system of balance to get used to the movement of the ship, and my inner ear was trying to adjust to the movement of the ship under me. But I didn’t care why I felt awful—I just knew I felt awful! At the infirmary, I got a little sticky patch, like a Band-Aide, to put behind my ear. It will slowly dispense anti-nausea medication over the next few days until my body adjusts to the moving ship.  

Until then, I can’t slow down to think about adjusting! We were hardly to sea when the ship’s crew began conducting emergency drills. Safety always comes first in a research mission, and we had to learn exactly what to do in the event of an emergency that would require us to evacuate the ship. We were shown how to get into the survival suits, and where to go to get into life rafts. It was pretty exciting, even if I was still seasick!

My legs are adjusting to life at sea, too! The ship is constantly lifting, falling, pitching, and rolling as it moves through the ocean swells. When the ocean is calm, the movements are hardly noticeable, but when the seas get high, it’s harder to move about. As I began to move around the ship, I came to understand what it means to “get your sea legs.” I found that as I tried to go up the stairs to different decks when the ship was “lifting,” my steps got very close together. I was responding to the change as the ship climbed up an ocean swell. A few seconds later, my steps became very long as the ship fell away as it plowed down the back side of the swell. I never thought I would have trouble going up steps!

Adjustments are part of any field research, and it’s certainly no trouble to adjust to the exhilarating wind in my face and to the smell of the open ocean. I’m already getting the hang of life aboard—and I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get to work!  

‘Til later,