Imagine a world without internet …

Sunday 17 July 2016

By Connor Ryan (observer on Skoven)

One of the enjoyable things about life on a ship for me is the comforting routine: early start, strict times for meals and obligatory coffee time. Our current routine is structured around the marine mammal watch rota which cycles as the days go by to ensure a fair share of “lie-ins” (i.e. a luxurious 07:00 start) and post-meal breaks. This structure might sound mundane but, in fact, it helps us get into a familiar routine and so the idea of 42 days at sea is no longer daunting. Indeed, the days are flying by. Our watch rota comprises 3 hours on station (either on the roof of the ship or on the bow), followed by 1 hour of free-time to rest our eyes, warm-up, load up on caffeine, do some laundry or just have a nap.

Contrary to romantic notions about marine mammal surveys being whale-watching trips, they are actually searching-for-whales expeditions requiring a very high threshold for tolerating boredom. Most of the time we don’t see the animals we are looking for because they are widely dispersed, few and far between and often quite inconspicuous. Scanning a bumpy sea for little bumps or a splashy sea for little splashes (the subtle tell-tale signs of marine mammal presence) is quite demanding. The prospect of seeing something special or rare or new keeps us going, as do thoughts of our next meal which is the most popular topic of conversation.

Because the trackers (folks surveying from the roof) can hear the primaries (those on the bow) via microphone and speakers, someone is always listening out ready to enter data into the computer. Primary observers have been known to list over 40 different food items in a single one-hour watch, which along with the fresh sea air helps build a good hearty appetite. We are very fortunate that the food on board is fantastic and our steward Marianne is doing a Trojan job of feeding all 10 observers and 4 crew, sometimes in rough seas which make for challenging conditions in the galley. For example, I recently learned that over the Rockall Trough, a bowl of potato salad is capable of flying up to 3 metres.

After wind, the bane of our lives is rain. Our sighting buttons, binocular-mounted cameras, microphones and angle-board cameras are all wired in to a computer on the roof. The intricate network of equipment and cables are not rain-proof, so with each shower we must cover and secure everything, including our data recording box (essentially a tree-house without the tree). The box is covered with a blue tarpaulin transforming our data recording area into a cosy Smurf-cave making for rather entertaining blue faces and hands.

Conor in the “smurf cave”, discussing lunch options with the primary observers
Conor in the “smurf cave”, discussing lunch options with the primary observers

My favourite moments each day are those gems prior to (05:45 am) and after (20:30 pm) deploying or retrieving the hyrdrophone. These are the first and last moments of observing the sea for the day, but from a more intimate vantage point: close to sea level from the aft deck. The big inky blue swells roll past and views of the fiery sunrises and sunsets are uninterrupted by masts and radar domes. Fulmars, gannets and shearwaters sometime race in for a closer look. I feel privileged to be surveying such a remote place and observing mammals and seabirds that most people might never see. I noticed that during three days in area about 200 miles northwest of the Hebrides, we did not see a single trace of other humans: no jet trails, no other vessels, no litter.

My day starts and ends with 350m of red cable which links our hydrophone to another blue box, which we call the Sound Lounge. This is a small shipping container on the aft deck which is home to our acoustics computer, buffer box and sound card (collectively referred to as PAM or Pamela for short). Hauling and coiling the hydrophone by hand provides some amount of physical exertion which is welcome when living in a confined space. Tending to monopods while keeping a steady horizon on a camera while the ship pitches and rolls requires some nifty ship-yoga. Despite these decent workouts, most of us try to do some additional routine exercise.

We do have some gym equipment in the bowels of the ship; however the ocean motion has been too much for the treadmill and cycling machine. Instead, many of us opt for cabin exercise or the occasional pull-ups on convenient parts of the ship’s superstructure. When approached diagonally, most cabins have sufficient space for push-ups and sit-ups. Depending on pitching and rolling, these can be quite demanding as you fight some extra gravity. The bunks are very comfy but, being from the Baltic Sea, the ship lacks lee-cloths (to prevent one from falling out of one’s bunk), so I usually adopt the recovery position. It never fails and I always get a good night’s sleep.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of life at sea is living within our means given our finite resources: the provisions that we took on board in Aberdeen. It forces us to be creative. Becci Jewel recently celebrated her birthday on-board, some 240 miles northwest of Erris Head. Balloons adorned the mess-room, strung together with dental floss and secured using electrical tape (multi-coloured for extra festiveness). We gave her gifts of chocolate, which is very valuable currency out here, lovingly wrapped in data sheets and more festive electrical tape.

After a very good start, we have had a few weather-induced spells of ‘down time’ lately. These are used to catch up on data-validation, reading and philosophising about cheese, toast, biscuits and marmite. These rough weather periods also provide opportunities to tackle some frustrating sources of noise. There is nothing more irritating than the sound of a battery or a deodorant can at large in an otherwise empty drawer; a bolt loose in a bulkhead; a light fixture that resonates with the engine vibration; a loose door latch. The kind of sounds that won’t fade into the background… they are irregular and you find yourself trying to predict the next roll-clunk-roll when really you should be sleeping. The other morning, some weather down-time allowed Susie to identify one such annoying source of noise: a loose socket in a socket-set box in a drawer in a workshop … a victory!

The most routine tasks can be challenging on a rolly-Baltic-ice-breaker. Showering requires a fairly solid foot-bracing stance while having a cup of tea is a serious commitment requiring your full attention. But seriously, what is it like being a SCANS-III observer counting cetaceans on a dry ship over the abyssal plain with a bunch of mad scientists with no internet access, big seas, rain showers, hours and hours with no sightings, long days, occasionally soldering wires while being buffeted by waves? Well, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Every once in a while an incredible encounter with a sperm whale or a beaked whale makes it all worthwhile, as does the knowledge that we are collecting data that will be extremely valuable to inform cetacean conservation measures over the coming decades.