AMT24 – Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on an UK research vessel

By Moritz Machelett

A write-up of my last-years research cruise onboard the British Antarctic Survey vessel RRS James Clark Ross from the UK to Chile.

To begin with, I am a protein crystallographer by training spending most of my time in biochemical labs and at synchrotrons. That’s why a research vessel out on the ocean is usually not a crystallographer’s natural habitat. Luckily, my PhD is shared with microbial biogeochemistry at the National Oceanography Centre looking at bacterial nutrient uptake. This gave me the opportunity to not only look at the structure of bacterial transporter in the lab, but also collect environmental data directly from the Ocean. Furthermore, I am looking at the very center of the oceans which fortunately involves taking part in extended research cruises. The combination of structural biology and field work-based oceanography was the main reason coming to Southampton.

Every longer undertaking involves planning. This comes in handy especially when you are on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic and run out of pipette tips…. Since we wanted to run two fully equipped container-labs and a radioactivity lab onboard the ship as well as keeping 7 people busy for 6 weeks we had to plan thoroughly and way in advance.

Fortunately, I was able to rely on the expertise of my colleagues in the biogeochemistry group and we started packing and piling up boxes in our two containers a couple of month before the vessel was scheduled to depart. End of August, two weeks before our departure the scientific equipment was all sorted and I began thinking about my personal gear. I had no idea how to gear up for being on a boat for 6 weeks crossing a couple of quite different climate zones working in a container. I started packing carefully, the usefulness of every item checked as I was used from hiking…. It all ended up in having every piece of kit I own spread on the living room floor and me trying to fit everything in one backpack and two IKEA bags. It didn’t fit (of course…), but since we would arrive in the hiking mekka Patagonia I invariably picked in favor of hiking gear. At the last evening before departure I again checked the route we would take, thought about boat-life and made plans for my time down in Chile – My expectations were on a height.

The James Clark Ross was scheduled to depart from Immingham, a rather grim industrial port in the North East of Lincolnshire. We took a minibus, collected a couple of incubators and some fellow researchers from Warwick and reached Immingham a couple of days before departure. Setting up, sorting out and securing machines for being on a rocky boat was quickly done. This gave me as a newbie some time to get used to life on a boat. Since we were still in port and the boat was not moving at all this felt like being in a hostel with full board. Spending one or two nights in the ships own bar, I got to know most of the scientists and sailors I would spend the next weeks with. We also had the chance to hit a local supermarket for the last chance to buy anything essential people have forgotten (toothbrush or shampoo…seriously guys??) or to get some goodies like chocolate. All of which the ship would supply as should find out later…

We set sail from Immingham in the evening of the 22nd of September and went down the coast around the white cliffs of Dover to Portsmouth naval base. After staying several hours loading aviation fuel, the JCR set course for our next destination: the Azores. On the way to the Azores we mostly crossed waters (nutrient rich), which are not interesting for my experiments. I therefore had enough time to get used to live on a constantly moving boat and deal with the weird feeling that comes with it. Once acclimated, I was exploring the boat and saw what kind of experiments my colleagues had set up. People were interested in all kind of biological (phytoplankton/zooplankton abundance, genetics, microbial dynamics), chemical (temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, pH, nutrients…) and physical (optical instruments on deck and in the water) oceanography. The first CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth profiler to acquire water column profiles) was cast in the English Channel off the Plymouth coast. To accurately sample the Atlantic from North to South, CTD casts were scheduled twice a day: every morning before sunrise and every noon. Sampling both of these casts were essential for most of the experiments and meant getting up early and finishing late – every day. Luckily my experiments would start after leaving the Azores behind us…

After leaving the Azores behind my experiments slowly gained speed and I began to feel home in my laboratory container. There were day and nightshifts working with radioactive samples while the boat was rocking and rolling below – a whole new level of labwork experience. Luckily the weather was fantastic and improved the farther south we went heading to the Equator. Being onboard the JCR slowly felt like living and sleeping in the lab with a gym at lvl 1, your bed at lvl 2 and your local pub at lvl 3. Apart from hundreds of water samples each day we saw a lot of…water. Before joining the ship I had the romantic idea of being able to

see loads of whales and other wildlife, but there is literally nothing in these waters. Only a couple of times we were lucky and spotted some wale-fountains in the distance or hunting squids during the morning CTDs. One night we crossed waters containing bioluminescent microorganisms, which was simply awesome to behold – bright blue-green patches of light all around the ship, especially at the bow wave. A sight not easily forgotten and undeniably ‘brightening’ up your daily routine. Next stop: Equator!!

As tradition dictates, a sailor crossing the Equator for the first time (aka pollywog) must ask HRH King Neptune for permission and becomes introduced in the mysteries of the deep ocean.

Pollywogs are expected to endure ‘physical hardship’ during this initiation rite and will be interrogated by the Court of Neptune while being influenced by truth serum (chili-vinegar-something…mix).

 The rite described above was played out in full once we arrived at the famous ‘line’. We had some hours of pre-warning that the King is about to enter the ship which gave us some time to hide somewhere on the boat or organize any kind of defense. There would be no work today!! After Neptune officially entered the ship and his court was assembled, Neptune’s police (some of the already initiated sailors and scientists) began searching the ship for Pollywogs in order to drag them in front of the King’s throne. Being 100% certain that I found an awesome hiding place, the police discovered it after 5 minutes. They then, however used 15 minutes to actually carry me in front of the throne. I got baptized using the cook’s special baptismal water and interrogated (the truth serum was a rather unpleasant surprise). Among other things, I was charged with being German… I was released after kissing the ‘kipper’, hosed down and enjoyed the interrogation of my colleagues. The day ended with loads of food and drink – a thoroughly enjoyable day.

The next two and a half weeks was spend on sampling the Southern Atlantic Ocean, performing nutrient uptake experiments and experiencing the ocean getting rougher and winds colder. Two days before we would reach our next stop, the Falkland Islands, we began packing our equipment and stowing away samples. A first quick glance at the results was promising and we all began to relax after weeks of hard work on sea.

At the morning of the 2nd November we finally saw land – that barren landscape must be the Falkland Islands – welcome home to the UK. Here we had three days exploring the Island before most of the scientists would leave the JCR and fly back to England. We visited Stanley (the
capital) and the huge penguin colonies near the awesome beaches of Volunteer Point. While most of my colleagues flew back, I hitched a ride on the JCR to Punta Arenas, Chile. I stayed almost 3 weeks in Patagonia, went for hikes and visited the South Patagonian Ice Field. But that’s a different story – I’ll just leave some pictures here….

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