Waiting for Godot-BS

godotA deeply buried memory clawed into my consciousness earlier this week – a recollection of confusion and frustration, a younger me struggling to grasp meaning from Beckett’s absurd play Waiting for Godot, thrust upon me by a (sadistic?) high-school English teacher.  The prompt for the burst of memory was laughably simple.  The image of a recovery team waiting for the surfacing of an OBS in the surrounding expanse of the night-time ocean and banter in the main lab on witty names for the science-party watch teams (e.g. “Team No-BS”) led to my own comic tagline for our primary activity: Waiting for Godot-BS (hint: “Godot” is French).   Pretty good, huh? I even saw a thematic connection: Beckett’s play (as I recall) centers on uncertainty and yearning by two characters (and the audience) as they await the ever-impending arrival of Godot.  Waiting for the emergence of an OBS from a full year on the seafloor beneath nearly 3 miles of ocean recalled, for me, the characters’ angst-filled wait. Unlike Godot, however, our OBS do arrive – all 30 of them, very good indeed. Furthermore, my wittiness was lost on the rest of the science party, as apparently Godot was not part of a millennial’s high-school curriculum. With the arrival of the OBS, my Godot analogy fizzled, and we moved on to the next site, my tagline forgotten.

After we wrapped up our science activities and turned onto our long (7.5 day) transit back to port, however, the analogy continued to nag at me.  True, we have all of our OBS, but now I have new questions and new uncertainties.  What data do the OBS hold? Will our analyses support the ideas on small-scale convection that motivated the experiment? Would they lead us down new paths of discovery and highlight the need for new observations?  The OBS are not Godot, but maybe the answers to those questions are?  I can’t wait to get the data back to shore and start finding out!

— Jim Gaherty, in this case NOT representing the Young Orca recovery team




Our Splendid Houses

exit_or_notAn unofficial poll amongst the scientific party on expedition KM1908 has indicated that many are not ready to go home. I have good news: if this month at sea has changed you, you will not be going home. A place, e.g., “home”, is defined to us by our experiences there; experiences that are filtered and interpreted by who we are at the time. The lat/lon’s of our various residencies remain, but some of us have changed. For those people, “home” will be a different place.

We walked from the shore,

Our lights prismed by the sea,

Same homes, different streets.

And here, again, repeated from my first post, is the ~1,300 year-old, anonymously-penned Japanese poem: Poem #461 from the Man’yoshu, translated by Arthur Waley:

Because Fate cannot be stayed

Going forth from my splendid house

I have hidden among the clouds.



Inochi ni shi areba,

Shikitaye no

Iye yu wa idete


Get home safe,

— Theresa Sawi

We’ve got rock (and roll)!

Mohan enjoys sunset from the rolling deck.

By May 27th, the OBS recovery mission ended successfully. In the past 20 days, I have learned a lot about western culture and vocabulary. For instance, I’ve learned terms to describe ways to cook eggs, names of different types of bread, names of different sauces and how to match them with dishes… um, and the terms describing the ship movement: roll, pitch, heave. While many suffered from seasickness, I was woken up several times at night by the winch noise (since there are only 9 of us in the science team, we each have our own cabin on the ship). However, I was not upset, because that indicated we were sampling the ocean floor!

In the previous OBS deployment cruise, scientists found three special areas to look into based on  the backscatter and bathymetry data: the first was a suspected young lava flow, the second a seamount, and the third a strangely shaped volcanic feature. This time we decided to look into them by dredging (please refer to William’s blog for further information).

Extracting rocks from sediment

On the first dredging site, we found a mass of manganese nodules mixed up in mud. It took Theresa and Veselina nearly two hours to sort them out—and they became mud girls in the process. Still, it turned out to be quite frustrating since we are looking forward to finding basalt. (It felt a little silly, since manganese nodules are valuable natural resources and basalt forms the ocean floor.) Merely because I was the first to identify the manganese nodules, the other team members asked me lots of detailed questions about the nodules—I wish I remembered more! When cleaning out the nodules, we found a small hard piece of higher density. Ashley tried to break the piece in half but failed. Thus, that might be something we were looking for. The whole team cheered up. We searched more carefully, finding the second, the third pieces… For the third dredging, we found volcanic rocks from a relatively shallow area (but still 4100m deep!). There was little mud but big rocks, which was very different from the first one. We even used “Thor’s hammer” to break them into pieces in order to lift and move them. Ultimately, all the samples will be taken to the petrologists and chemists for further analysis.


The ocean is vast and deep, and we have to put in a lot of effort to figure out a drop in the bucket. I am glad that I have these friends in the same camp, and we like to rock and roll!

-Mohan Pan


Rocks from dredge site 3


第一次采样,我们在淤泥里找到了很多锰结核,Theresa 、 Veselina等人花了近两个小时,近乎变成泥人,才将它们从淤泥里分离开。但这令我们沮丧,因为我们期待的是玄武岩(这大概就是所谓的买椟还珠吧。。毕竟锰结核是各国都非常重视的资源矿产呢!而玄武岩,整个海底都是。。)大概因为我是第一个识别锰结核的人,其他学生都问我相关问题,但是很惭愧我相关的知识全部还给老师了!

Breaking rocks with “Thor’s hammer” (aka sledgehammer)


大海广袤幽深,我们穷尽浑身解数,期待能够窥一其斑。前路漫漫,但幸好有这么志同道合的人携手,且有rock and roll相伴!

Cooperative Science

ARGO float

At heart, science is a cooperative community endeavor – invariably, great discoveries build upon unheralded contributions of scientists who collecting new data, and propose and test hypotheses that ultimately lead to a slow build-up of understanding.  This is particularly true for those of us in Earth and Ocean sciences, who depend on community operation of crucial facilities to collect data on a truly global scale – satellites, ships, networks of instruments such as seismometers, for example.  Our experiment critically depends on at least three such efforts: the operation of the ship that we are sailing on (www.unols.org), the support for OBS instrumentation (obsic.whoi.edu), and the archival and distribution of the data that we collect (iris.edu and marine-geo.org).


Spotter float

Our expedition to a remote locale in the south Pacific provides an opportunity to contribute back to the greater oceanography community.  Along our journey, we are deploying 17 free-floating sensors that will provide new observational data for the coming months to years.  These sensors are of two types.  Twelve of them are ARGO floats (www.argo.net), deployed on behalf of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at NOAA, and a research group at the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington.  ARGO are ~4 ft-long torpedo-shaped tubes, each containing sensors to measure temperature, pressure, and electrical conductivity (which can be used to estimate salinity), a buoyancy system that allows it to control its depth, and satellite communications.  After deploying, the floats dive to 1000-m depth, where they sit undisturbed, carried by the currents.  Every 10 days, the dive to 2000-m, and then rise to the surface, measuring temperature and salinity profiles along the way.  They transmit their data home, and then return to 1000-m to wait for their next cycle.  Modern ones last for ~6 years, producing hundreds of observations of in their lifetime.  The data are available nearly instantly after deployment and the first satellite transition, and are helping oceanographers world-wide better understand critical research questions on ocean dynamics and the climate system.  The second type of floats are Spotter Buoys (sofarocean.com), which are a bit bigger than a basketball and contain inertial sensors to measure wave height and periodicity, solar panels for power, and satellite communications.  They float freely in the ocean, providing high-precision measurements of wave behavior for oceanographers studying weather and climate systems.


Science Tech Jeff and Theresa deploy an ARGO

The floater deployments offer a fun diversion during our long transits to and from the study site, and between stations.  With varying degree of finesse, we carry the units to the aft rail, and lower or drop them into the ocean as we transit along at full speed.  They are now bobbing along, delivering data to the oceanography community.

– Jim Gaherty, for the Pacific ORCA recovery cruise.


The Dark Art of Dredging

OBS at rest.  Spongebob?  Stormtroopers?

The first part of our cruise is now over. All thirty instruments were successfully recovered from the ocean floor, and sit securely on the deck. Their compact rectangular design and the bright yellow float are attractive, even playful—we’ve been comparing them to SpongeBob SquarePants. It’s a little hard to believe when I look at them that these cute little characters have spent the last year in complete darkness, under the immense pressure of almost three miles of water, in temperatures that are only marginally above freezing, silently and precisely recording nearly imperceptible movement of the seafloor. These instruments are able to record the shaking caused by a magnitude 6 earthquake anywhere in the world. Their benign demeanor belies the intensity of the science they have performed for us since May 2018.

Vesi and Eivind assist Science Tech Trevor with lining the chainmail dredge with burlap.

We have now moved on to the second part of our mission: dredging. Dredging is the way in which we bring rocks up from the seafloor to the surface. We cannot simply go down and pick them up. Instead, we use something called a “dredge basket.” Imagine a butterfly net made entirely of steel, about eight feet long and two feet across with three-inch long steel teeth around the rim, and clocking in at about 400 pounds. We lower this into the water at the stern of the ship using a thick steel cable, and lower it all the way to the seafloor, 4.5 kilometers (almost three miles) down. We can track where it is from a screen in the computer lab that shows how much cable we’ve let out, and what the tension is on the cable. When we let out the same amount of cable as the water depth, there is a lot of tension on the wire: not only is there the weight of the dredge basket, but the cable we use also weighs 1.4 pounds per meter—all told, we’re registering more than 5800 pounds of tension when it reaches the seafloor. Once we know it’s been set down, we then drive the ship over the seafloor a couple of miles while still dropping cable, so that hopefully the dredge basket doesn’t move yet. When the ship gets far enough away, we stop the ship and begin to winch in the cable slowly, dragging the basket across the seafloor. It gets stuck occasionally, and the tension will rise above 10,000 pounds, but will suddenly drop—we call this a “bite,” and we hope it’s a good sign! We hope that whatever rock was causing it to hang up is now inside our basket.

Rocks! Science Tech Jeff on the sledgehammer.

The whole process takes about 8 hours. Once the basket comes to the surface, we carefully take it out of the water, a process that requires four winches and seven people. We dump out all the rocks on the deck, and once the basket is safely secured, the scientists all rush in to see what rocks we got! We’re looking for basalt. Basalt is the frozen lava that comes out of volcanos, and the entire seafloor is made of it. If the basalt that we pull up is just regular seafloor, it will be about 40 million years old. If, however, we find basalt that’s much younger than that, it would be a puzzle—why would a volcano erupt on the old ocean floor? We cannot tell just by looking at these rocks how old they are. Instead we let them dry, wrap them up, and put them in boxes. When we get back to land, we will run precise chemical tests that will give us a good idea of how old they are. Until then, we’ve more rocks to collect: off to the next dredge site!

— William Hawley

Painting a Picture of the Deep

Veselina and Eivind catch some sun on the top deck before starting their shift.

One would think that I have all the time in the world in the middle of the ocean, away from most distractions of regular life on land. And yet, I’ve been feeling like time isn’t enough to do everything I want during the day and evening. Perhaps waking up earlier would help, but sleep on the ship is so sweet. Maybe it’s the rolling motion of the ship, rocking me asleep like a mother does her baby. After I finally get up, I have breakfast, make a cup of tea and head up to the top deck for a dose of sunshine. The warmth of the sun is something I have been severely deprived of for the past winter months in Alaska. Up on the top deck is also where the bridge is. The bridge is the ship equivalent of a cockpit. There a loyal mate always stays on watch, making sure we don’t get lost. While we cruise between sites, the mates welcome our company and plentiful questions on how the ship works or what inspired them to become sailors. I personally love hearing people’s stories on finding, or for some, still looking for their calling.

Just about when the sun is highest in the sky, I go back inside and try to sneak in a quick workout before lunch. The Kilo Moana has a well-equipped gym room, which makes it easy to burn off a few of the extra calories I’ve gained from the delicious meals. Good food surely helps keep morale high. As soon as I finish lunch, I have a little over an hour to get some more sun, stare at the ocean and the occasional flying fish, read a book, listen to some music, learn some knots from the more experienced sailors, or do a chigong class that one of the crew members teaches every other day. There are so many things I can do, and yet not enough time for them all before my watch starts at 2pm. Once on watch, unless we are helping with a recovery, we spend most of the time editing multibeam bathymetry data. As we sail, our multibeam creates a continuous 18km-wide high-resolution image of the seafloor. Just a line of that width might seem insignificant compared to the size of the Pacific Ocean, but it is a great improvement of the low-resolution images we get from satellites. Also, if you put together all ship tracks with this mapping capability, we are slowly beginning to reveal the abyss.

students2_mohan2During the transit down, the whole science group gathered on the deck to watch the sunset and the stars coming out one by one as it gets darker. I learned a few constellations and how to tell the cardinal directions based on them. Since our watch schedule started, I haven’t done quite as much stargazing. For the past few days, however, the moon has been rising later, making for completely dark sky and very bright stars – so many of them that picking out constellations can get challenging. Staring at the Milky Way is a good excuse to get away from the lab for a little bit. As I watch the night sky, I can’t help but think of the early explorers and how they used those same stars to find their way. As we sail, GPS has mostly alleviated this necessity and we know exactly where we are and where we are going. Nevertheless, we are still explorers! We might not be exploring new worlds, but we are exploring new depths of the ocean bottom and are just starting to paint a picture of what is underneath it. People have been sailing and mapping the continents for thousands of years, but something fundamental like our model for plate tectonics was formulated only 50 years ago. Another crazy fact is that we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the bottom of ocean. So, to all of us sailing on the Kilo Moana, the sense of contribution to the human knowledge is undeniable.

— Veselina Yakimova

From the City to the Sea

Now that we are more than halfway through our journey, I have taken some time to reflect on my experiences here on the Kilo Moana. Of course, I have learned so much about the research behind the OBS recoveries in these past few weeks, but I have also come to realize just how many other things I have done for the first time on this trip.

Small pleasure boat sails past somewhere just south of the equator.  Destination unknown.  This is the only other vessel we’ve seen since leaving Hawaiian waters.

Not only is this the first time that I am on a boat for more than a couple of hours, this is also the first time that I have crossed the equator. As much as we would like it, there is no indication that we are about to cross; no glowing line rising and falling with the waves and no witty signs saying, “Southern Hemisphere ahead”. I did however get a pretty sweet video of the latitude reaching zero degrees North and then switching to South. Talk about exciting!

I’m constantly amazed by the wildlife I see on the boat. Until this trip, I hadn’t even heard of flying fish and now I see them daily! These fish propel themselves out of the water in an attempt to escape predators (or our boat) and can stay airborne for several seconds and dozens of meters before returning to the water. Occasionally schools of them move away from the boat in a truly spectacular demonstration. During a recovery just a few days ago we were able to see some pilot whales as well. I have to admit at first glance I thought they were dolphins, but luckily there are people on board who knew better and were eager to share their knowledge. Apparently, they have the nickname of “false killer whales” due to the resemblance they share with orcas. I’m still holding out hope to see some playful dolphins very soon!

Now, seeing a sunset is not exactly a first for me, but out here they are like nothing I have ever seen before. The last sunset I remember watching was from my car while sitting in Los Angeles traffic with a thick layer of smog and the ambiance of car horns. Here on the Kilo Moana we experience the most gorgeous sunsets without the city life, and I can honestly say it has become the highlight of my day. Seeing the sunset on the horizon is so beautiful you just can’t help but take photos day after day. It’s truly stunning.

Ashley (right) mans a tag line to help Ernie (center) and Mark (left) bring another OBS on board. Tag lines keep the 1000-lb instrument from swinging wildly while aloft.

After waiting a little while longer, the stars appear. On the open ocean we do not experience light pollution, so we get some pretty spectacular starry nights. Thanks to William and his fancy laser pointer, each night becomes a mini astronomy lesson as we learn to identify stars and constellations. My two favorite things I have seen is the Southern Cross, mainly because I have heard about it but never seen it before, and the Milky Way! We have also been able to see planets like Mars and Jupiter, plus a few satellites. Much like my newfound infatuation with sunsets, I have never seen the sky look so beautiful and full of stars. Now the true test will be if I can still identify some constellations when I get home!

With all the excitement the last couple of weeks have brought, I am very much looking forward to new “firsts” as we finish our journey and begin the bittersweet return towards civilization.

— Ashley Rivera