Sunday, August 14, 2011

Life on the Night Watch

Hello all! This is Amy reporting in on what it is like to work the night watch on a research vessel. Animals in the ocean often move around between the day and the night. During the daytime many swim down to depths where the ocean is dark and cool, where they stay hidden from predators. At night these animals undergo a huge vertical migration up to surface where they feast on phytoplankton – the plants of the ocean ecosystem. Since things are so very different during the daytime and the nighttime, oceanographers need to make measurements during all hours of the watch. To do this, and still give everyone a chance to get enough sleep, we have split up into two watches. Half of us work from 8am to 8pm (day watch) and the other half work from 8pm to 8am (night watch).
Night time work on the Oceanus. Our A/B (able-bodied seaman also called deckhand) Mark is running the winch and discussing the CTD cast with Leo. Photo: A. Maas
This cruise I am on the night watch. Switching over from a normal schedule to the night watch can be a bit physically confusing, but we had five days of transit from Woods Hole to our first real station which let us all ease into the rhythm. In that time, all the night watch people started staying up later and later every evening and waking up later and later in the day. Now that we are on station I wake up every day some time before 5 in the afternoon and go to bed at 9 in the morning. I actually find it much easier to switch my sleeping schedule than to switch my eating schedule. When I get up it is almost time for dinner and when I go to bed everyone else has just finished breakfast! I can handle breakfast for dinner, but I usually refrain from filet mignon or baked scallops right after I wake up. There is oatmeal, cereal and fresh fruit always available for those of us who are (very) late risers. In the middle of the night the galley (kitchen) is quiet because our steward (cook) Steve has to get a good night’s sleep. He saves us food from the other meals of the day and puts aside lots of goodies for us to feast on during our evening meal, which is called mid-rats (midnight rations). Thanks to him there are always tons of good food options for our shift.
A variety of food set aside for our midnight meal. We can request that the steward put aside things for us to eat and he will put them in the fridge with our name on them (the blue labels). From the top going clockwise is a vegetarian wrap, scallop ravioli, a lava cake (so very yum), and a tuna sandwich with black bean soup. Photo: A. Maas
Being on the night watch has some definite perks. I get to see both the sunrise and the sunset every day (even when it comes at 4:55 in the morning like it did on the day before we crossed time zones). Out here, in the calm Sargasso Sea with hardly a cloud in the sky, we have seen a number of green flashes. A green flash happens right as the sun rises or sets below the waves and the refraction of the light through the atmosphere causes the green wavelengths of light to shine brightly while the lower frequency (red/orange) sunlight stays hidden below the horizon. It is pretty spectacular.
Sunset from the back deck looking through the A-frame. Photo: A. Bergan
The past few days, when we are not deploying equipment, we have been watching the Perseid Meteor shower which is at its peak this week. Even with an almost full moon the meteors are bright enough to make a wish on. The ocean itself also has its own spectacular light show. In certain places, especially when we were crossing the Gulf Stream, we hit patches of bioluminescence where the animals disturbed by the passage of the boat light up with a chemical reaction similar to that of fireflies. At times like that if you flush the head (toilet) in the dark, the seawater which supplies the waste system of the ship glows with tiny specks of light. If you are not expecting it, it can be a bit startling.
Moonrise on the R/V Oceanus. One of our engineers, Paul, is installing a new light to brighten up the work on the aft deck. Photo: A. Bergan
My favorite thing about the night shift is definitely the fact that it is the best time of day to catch animals. Every evening we throw in a Reeve net which always comes back full of strange and beautiful ocean life. For a biologist the night watch is the place to be!

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