Out of the doldrums! The storms of the previous evening were the first clue. Gone are the glassy waters and still, heavy air. We have entered the region of the trade winds and towering marshmallow clouds (“cumulo-nimbus” if we’re going to get technical about it), known as the intertropical convergence zone. Back in the day the sailors would be thanking their lucky stars around now. As are we! Each day brings us closer to the equator and the fabled baptism by Neptune that supposedly accompanies it.
Today we heard from fellow student Anna Cresswell from Australia. She presented her PhD work on disturbance impacts in Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.
Couche de soleil au passage de l’équateur. © V.Sentilhes
Day 17 – 4 December – Equator crossing at 12°22’W
Today we had the day off to partake in a hallowed maritime tradition – atoning for our sins so King Neptune would grant us safe passage across the equator! Tradition also dictates that we are sworn to secrecy regarding the details of this centuries-old ceremony, so I shall say no more. Suffice to say that all newcomers to the equator participated – scientists, students, and Russian crew – and we all crossed relatively unscathed. To celebrate, we ate rich Napoleon cake for Anna Kozachek (Russia) and Tanja Hanekom (South Africa)’s birthdays. Then we all danced the night away under the light of the stars and the helicopter landing pad. Every once in a while I stopped to take it all in: our tiny speck of laugher and dancing on a Russian icebreaker surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of dark Atlantic Ocean.
Day 18 – 5 December – Guinea abyssal plain
Everyone moved slowly today, recovering from the previous day’s festivities. We students spent most of our time enwrapped in a fascinating discussion on climate change. Each group led a discussion on one of 8 topics: the COP21 international agreement to limit warming to 2°C, the role of media, the relationship between science and politics, the role of interdisciplinary work in science, should scientists set an example, communicating with science skeptics, the role of science education, and the relationship between science and economics. We took careful notes of everyone’s comments and hope to turn it into a more formal document, so stay posted! It was both encouraging hearing climate change-related solutions from other countries, and discouraging to recognize the familiar tones of hopelessness and pessimism that peppered our discussion. A major theme that emerged was our need as scientists to improve our communication skills, especially to the public. We all acknowledged that climate change is a global issue and opportunities to discuss with our peers across the world, such as we have now, are rare yet much needed.
Day 19 – 6 December – Angola
The Southern Hemisphere is treating us well so far! We happened to stop the vessel for a CTD cast right next to a large pod of rough toothed dolphins (Steno bredanensis). All 20 to 30 of them languished by the port bow for over an hour, lazily drifting on the surface and occasionally diving down into the astoundingly clear water. Seeing them alongside us in the middle of the nowhere gave me some perspective into how absolutely massive the ocean is.
Appropriately, our lectures and assignments today highlighted the huge scales of ocean processes and their global impacts. We focused on the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO for short. As a graduate student in California, I finally felt back on familiar ground. ENSO is a major oceanographic and atmospheric phenomenon that occurs in the Pacific Ocean basin around every 3-7 years and its effects are felt in weather patterns and fish catches around the world. We are currently at the tail end of a major ENSO year that was linked to devastating droughts in South Africa, extreme rainfall in the American Northwest, and the highest average global ocean temperatures ever recorded. The basic principle of ENSO is fairly straightforward – in a “normal” year, the trade winds that blow from east to west along the equator cause a pile-up of warm ocean water around Indonesia and Australia. In an ENSO year, such as we just had, those trade winds weaken and all that warm water sloshes back across the equator, like water in a bathtub. It brings unusually warm seas to the coasts of the Americas that inspires mass movements of ocean animals to cooler waters and sends global weather patterns into disarray. Every ENSO year is different and involves a complex interaction between atmosphere, ocean, and land, so accurately predicting the impacts of an ENSO event are extremely difficult.
Ajitha Cyriac, hailing from India but studying in Tasmania, presented her PhD work on internal waves in the Indian Ocean and the role they play in mixing and energy dispersion. Varvara Vazilova of Russia told us about her undergraduate research on sediment movement into a glacier fed lake in Siberia. The breadth of research represented in this group of people becomes more impressive by the day! Throughout all of this, Babatunde Adelake was glowing in his traditional Nigerian formal wear in celebration of both his birthday and his wedding anniversary. Congrats, Babs!
To cap off this wonderful day, we were treated to a perfect sunset from the helicopter pad – the massive orange orb of the sun setting over calm seas and ending with a rare sighting of the green flash, all as Kyle Neumann peacefully strummed his guitar.
Day 20/21 – 7/8 December – Angola Basin
Less than a week until Cape Town! It’s amazing how this Russian icebreaker has come to feel like home. As we all become more comfortable with one another, everyone’s talents really start to shine. Evenings on the helicopter pad are now invariably filled with people teaching yoga, Zumba, swing dancing, slack-lining, and guitar and banjo playing, while the mess hall is full of chess tournaments and card games. I love the enthusiasm and humility with which everyone shares both their academic and extracurricular passions.
To follow up on our many discussions on the importance of science communication, the resident media coordinator, Victorine Sentilhes gave us some tips on how to make documentaries, how to tailor messages to specific audiences, and how to self-advertise and really get your message out to your target audience. It was extremely helpful and I hope to use her suggestions moving forward in my career. We’ve now also heard from Asher Riaz (Pakistan) on the nature of eddies in the Southern Ocean; from myself (U.S.) on the ecology of upwelling zones and my PhD work on kelp forest resiliency and habitat use; from Sherrie Chambers (Australia) on magnetic navigation in sharks; and from Kine Oren and Ole Hagestad (Norway) about life and field work in Svalbard in the Arctic circle. I know I’ve said this many times by now, but the scope of research interests and backgrounds on this floating hunk of metal in the middle of the ocean is staggering.
2nd yr PhD in marine ecology, University of California, USA.