Monday, May 13, 2019

Alan the krill in the Agulhas - by Melissa M.

SOCCOM stands for Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling, so it makes sense that most of the seven floats deployed for the program on this cruise were towards the southern end. Two, however, were dropped off in the Agulhas Current just below South Africa. The Agulhas comes down along the east coast of Africa and forms the western boundary of the Indian Ocean. It was obvious from sea surface temperatures and lots of our other measurements onboard that we had crossed into a different water mass.

At the first of these relatively northern stations, float #0888 was launched. It was adopted by Sydney Distance Education High School in Australia and given the name 'Alan.' Here's the explanation for the name, and some neat science trivia!
"This is the name of the world's oldest ever krill, who was kept for a total of nine years by the leading (krill) scientist Tom Ikeda from the Australian Antarctic Division before he (Alan) somehow escaped during a cleaning of his tank and slipped down a nearby drain. Being an adult when he was captured, Alan was probably at least eleven years old at the end, making him more than five times older than any krill previously recorded."

The deployment took place in the evening. As usual, we launched the float after the CTD water samples were back onboard, just as the ship was pulling away from station to head to the next one. Within a day, Alan the float had already reported back with its first profile and the sensors are providing good data. Every ten days, the team on shore should receive another transmission of data from Alan's most recent trip to 2,000 meters deep (and back).

Croy, Joseph and me deploying Alan

Standing with Alan

Within minutes of the float's deployment, the box it had been stored in was repurposed. The stack of crates in the main lab has been a gathering place all cruise, with many card games, guitar sing-alongs, and naps taking place on them. This instance was a bit different, as I came upon SIO grad student and CTD watch-stander Mike actually inside the box, wedged in the foam that had recently held the SOCCOM float in place.

Napping spots are at a premium onboard any research cruise and within the first few days of this trip, it was clear that the float boxes would be prime real estate. Generally scientists share a room with someone on the opposite work shift, so each stays out of the room for 12 hours of the day. But any combination of down-time, seasickness medication, or not getting enough sleep can lead to a need to nap. It's bad form to sleep in the lounge or other spaces shared with the crew, so the float boxes in the main lab became the place to be. Usually just a few people at a time, but some point eight scientists snuggled together.

Science party on the floats' boxes
 Napping time for Wiley and Giuliana..

Now that all the floats have been deployed and we're heading back to port, the crates have been relocated to the back deck, where they continue to attract a crowd. The naps have continued out in the warm weather, and they're the perfect place to stargaze from at night.

..and for Mike

Crossing the Antarctic Circle in gumby suits... and ketchup! - by Melissa M.

You are hereby commanded to appear before the


because it has been brought to the attention of


through their trusty Red Noses, that the good ship Thompson is about to enter those waters manned by a crew who has not acknowledged the sovereignty of the Rulers of the Deep, has transgressed on his domain and thereby incurred his Royal displeasure.

King Neptune.. or Manuel

King Neptune and Queen Neptunia (isa) explain the rules

Crossing ceremonies are one tradition that have survived over centuries of maritime travel. We aboard the R/V Thompson crossed the Antarctic Circle (66 degrees South latitude) and celebrated passing into so-called Realm of the Penguin. As someone who participates in scientific expeditions, it's easy to pretend to be an explorer from the old days, sailing the seas in pursuit of knowledge. Thankfully rules like no women allowed and flogging aren't around anymore, though I wouldn't mind the grog.

Not every ship or science party celebrates crossing these invisible lines, but it's always fun when you do. Everyone is eligible for a certificate proclaiming them a Red Nose, though participating in the ceremony itself was optional. Much of the science party and a few crew members partook. As someone who has already been south of 66 (twice, in fact), I helped welcome our newest members.

Those who had never ventured into the Antarctic Circle were declared 'icy wogs' and told to prepare an animal costume and short skit. Co-Chief Scientist Isa and pH analyst Manuel were the ring-leaders, portraying Queen Neptunia and King Neptune during the events.
Limbo in gumby suits for Loicka

Since we crossed during the transit south to our first science station, we were able to set aside time for a good show. First, the wogs had to don their survival suits and complete a series of tasks. Commonly referred to as Gumby suits due to their shape, it's hard to be dexterous inside of one - your fingers are forced into 2 or 3 pockets so using a screwdriver or tying a knot is difficult. We then put on some music and the wogs played limbo, which was a very amusing sight and led to a lot of laughs.

Then everyone had to change into their costumes, after properly stowing their survivial suits of course. Given that they only had 24 hours notice, I was impressed with the quality of everyone's presentations. Second mate Ben dressed as a narwhal, complete with wooden horn that he machined into the right shape. A group of crew and scientists dressed as penguins and leopard seals for their skit, and the rest of the wogs re-wrote the lyrics to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (sample verses below). It's right up there with my greatest memories at sea, the sight of a line of young scientists singing while dressed as animals from a turtle to a lobster to a sea cow.
Mark bows at the King

Is this the real life?

Is this just fanta-sea?

Caught in a maelstrom

No escape from these heaving seas

Open your eyes

Look out to the skies and sea

I'm just a student, I watch the CTD

Because I'm easy come, easy go

Little high, little low

Any way the waves go, doesn't really matter to me

To me…

Easy come, easy go will you let me go

Al-e-jan-dro, you will not let you go (let him go!)

Is-bell-a, we will not let you go (let me go!)

Po-sei-don, we will not let you go (let me go!)

Will not let you go (let me go!)

Will not let you go

Let me gooooooooooo no no no no no no no

Oh mamma mia, mamma mia, mamma mia let me go

Davy Jones has a devil put aside for me, for me, FOR MEEEEEEEEEEEE

And my favorite line :

(Max only) (whale noises)

Giuliana bows at the Queen to receive her red nose

Each wog then had to present themselves to the king and queen, some bowed more formally than others (see photo of CFC analyst Mark, who really got into it). They then dipped their noses into a bowl of ketchup and were declared a Red Nose. We applauded the new members, tidied up the lab, and got ready to start science!

Mark as a new Red Nose

CHS Ne-mer in the warm and strong Agulhas - by isa R.

Last stations, in the very warm waters of the Agulhas Current, the poleward western boundary current on the southwest side of the Indian Ocean. It's a wild current! The speed is so strong (about 2 m/s!) that I'm impressed by how the mates are able to keep the ship in position during the casts!

Me and Melissa ready to deploy CHS Ne-mer (sooo warm!!). Ph. by K. Jackson
The SOCCOM Navis float #0889 marked the end of all the deployments along this adventurous I06S line. The float, called CHS Ne-mer from the Cienega High School in Arizona, was named after the school and the Principal (Nemer), who is a great supporter of the science department. Yay Science!!! On May 10, at 11:15 (UTC) and 35S-30E, CHS Ne-mer started its journey in these waaaaaarm waters (a bit of envy from all of us.. as we dream about swimming in the ocean). From the excitement for the last deployment, and the desire to be part of this great adventure, we took the liberty to sign the back of the float (I hope the the CHS will appreciate it..).

Kayleen, me, Ben, CHS Ne-mer, Melissa, Mike and Jess (ph. by K. Jackson)

The weather is great, we can finally spend some time outside at night, looking at the mesmerizing sky, wandering through the stars of the milky way, while searching for some shooting stars. The sunrises and sunsets have been spectacular, gifting us with some intense shades of gold and pink, over cotton clouds.

Yesterday morning, Max rescued me from my almost 10 hours working on the computer. I really needed to go outside and get some fresh air, as my eyes were burning and my head was spinning. As we were laying on the hammocks chatting and enjoying some sun, 3rd mate Todd called us from the bridge: whales! Forward! Starboard! And there we went, up on top of the bow. …First we saw the nose, then the unequivocal shape of the dorsal fin: I had dreamed about seeing them for so long, and I could not contain the happiness inside me. So I screamed. "You'll scare them away!" he says. But my heart was so full of joy I didn't listen. So I screamed again. 2 orcas were in front of our eyes! Beautifully shaped, as black as night. Proud and intelligent creatures of the infinite seas..

For lunch, some of us gathered at the bow, to enjoy the beautiful and warm sun, a chat, laughs, some playful games, some music played by the incredibly skilled Zac and Max, and photos, many, to freeze that moment of happiness, of those companions of who shared this adventure with me, conscious that soon it will be over. Sadness wraps around my heart, as I think about how soon we will give each other a farewell. But I know it won't be for long or forever, as special bonds never fade…

Splash by the bow

Wild waves and Wildcats - by isa R.

It's been a while since I last wrote.

Life on the TGT hasn't stopped and it's been remarkably.. interesting. The storms continued, one after another. We had waves of more than 20 m (about 66 ft!) and winds gusts of 70 knots (!).. can you imagine the rolls?? Oh, how easy it is to slide on a chair.. or fall. Tony, one of our most experienced sailors I've ever met (and one of the most beautiful people onboard) told me that in all his long experience at sea, he had never ever seen anything like the sea state we had in this trip. Every time I'm privileged enough to be part of a cruise in the Southern Ocean, it's a reminder of how punishing this environment is. Storms are more frequent and stronger in the cold seasons, and we can expect to get even worse with our crazy changing climate. I always write and read on papers how the harsh conditions in the Southern Ocean make it pretty much impossible to work for a long time of the year. And I can say that, once more, I witnessed the violent truth of those words. And I'm grateful that I experienced its indomitable power.

Just.. wild.

We've been able to put some CTD stations, but on the 4th of May we stopped the operations in order to reach South Africa quickly, as we had to evacuate one of the scientists who was sick :-( These things happen (actually, this is the 4th time in a row that happens on my cruises.. I'm starting to feel that there's some curse that I bring with me.. O.o), and being so far away from any medical assistance is pretty scary. We all bonded so much, and seeing our friend getting sick and then leaving the ship (a rescue boat came from Port Elizabeth to take the patient to port) was very tough and sad. Thank goodness our friend is feeling better, and we are all so relieved!

Rescue boat approaching the TGT from Port Elizabeth, in rough weather

SD Wildcats ready to go!

On the way to Port Elizabeth, we've been able to deploy many more drifters and a SOCCOM float, SD Wildcats, named after the Wangenheim Middle School's mascot of San Diego. The float has an identification number of #12882: go check the awesome profiles at the website !! The float was deployed on May 6, at 00:28 UTC, at 45S 29E, after crossing the Subantarctic Front, one of the strongest fronts in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current of the Southern Ocean.

Croy and Jenny, our 2 marine technicians, ready to deploy SD Wildcats in the darkness of the night

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Gliding into the Southern Ocean - by Max K.

The peak of my participation in the cruise arrived on the 30th of April, when Giuliana and I finally deployed the two sea gliders which we had lovingly lugged across the Southern Ocean. This brace of sleek, yellow, autonomous machines is planned to track one of the many "SOCCOM" floats that bob through the world's oceans. They will dive in a cross-shaped pattern centred on float #12888, taking regular measurements of temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen and fluorescence, at a high spatial resolution. Comparing this data to the coarser float data will help in the wider interpretation of the SOCCOM data sets, specifically to develop our understanding of the submesoscale (i.e. about 10 km length scale) contribution to carbon transport out of the surface ocean.

Sea gliders 659 and 660 taste their first fresh air in front of Table Mountain.
Oomph. Enough jargon. (See key-words at the bottom). Here's a picture of our gliders, SG 659 and SG 660 basking in the sun on the back-deck of the ship while in Cape Town, with Table Mountain watching over them from across the harbour.

During our days steaming across the Southern Ocean, the gliders could often be found like this: strapped against the railing of the deck, their antenna pointed up to the clear southern skies, awaiting satellite instructions with the patient loyalty of a hunting dog awaiting its masters whistle. Unfortunately, like even the best hunting dogs, our gliders were occasionally poorly behaved. This manifested itself in their sporadic reluctance to be turned on; an odd procedure which involves being rubbed in concentric circles with a magnetic (magic) wand. In the midst of freezing winds and a rolling ship, Giuliana or I would often have to crouch next to the glider, stroking their yellow bellies for what seemed an eternity. What divas!

Max celebrates a particularly stubborn glider finally turning on.

When finally deploying the gliders at 51.5 degrees south I was thrilled to be sent out in a small inflatable boat, the safest way to deploy our yellow friends. After 4 weeks without leaving the ship, the rest of the science crew were understandably envious of this chance at an escape. Third mate Todd, A.B. Bernadette and my pal Isa were aboard to drive the boat and help to deploy. We were lowered over the side of the ship at a precarious angle as the science crew looked on and waved goodbye to the first glider, SG 660. With a sudden splash and roar of the boats engines we were off. Todd raced away and soon the R.V. Thomas G. Thompson was just a grey blur in the soft sea mist. When 500 m away from the ship Isa and I lowered the glider into the ocean and held it still until it filled with water (quite a chilly affair…). Giuliana gave it the command to dive from the ship and we bid it farewell as it sunk on the first of many dives. We cheered and congratulated one another, the relief and excitement bubbling over!

Giuliana and Max prepare SG 660 for deployment.

Isa and Max are lowered over the edge of the ship by 3rd mate Todd and AB Bernadette, with SG 660 strapped into the boat (ph by Andrew C.).
We returned to the ship to collect the second glider, but unfortunately our engine overheated while leaving and we had to return slowly to the ship without having deployed. The silver-lining to this set-back was the opportunity for observation from close to the seas surface as we slowly made our way back. Beautiful sea birds swooped close to our heads and the proud stern of the Thompson cutting through the swelling seas was an impressive sight.

SG 659 had to be deployed from the crane of the ship instead and we quickly learnt why deploying by hand from a small boat is preferable… The glider swung dangerously close to the ship as it was lowered over the side. Thankfully, the pin was pulled and the glider dove gracefully into the water before this could happen. 10/10 from the onlooking judges! After a somewhat stressful deployment we were relieved and overjoyed to see them send back their data, as the files popped up on our laptops. 

All that was left was to deploy SOCCOM float #12888, which Melissa did at the end of the CTD cast. The float, also called Silva, was named the beloved principal of the East Middle School Eagles. Since then we have seen data profiles come back from the float (access them here: and the gliders have been piloted from Caltech. For the next four months they will continue to float and glide together through the beautiful Southern Ocean!

Unfortunately for us, we are now making our way back to Cape Town, leaving the wilderness of these seas behind.

"SOCCOM" - Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling.
"Float" - 1.5 metre long conglomerate of sensors that float (what?!) freely in the ocean, sinking to 2000 m depth and bobbing back up again once every 5 days.
"Fluorescence" - light of a particular wavelength that is emitted by phytoplankton, gives a good indication chlorophyll content.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Feeding the Masses - by Max K.

Although there are many scientific and logistic challenges involved in sailing to Antarctica, the most pressing questions from my friends and family before my departure were about what I would eat during my 6 weeks at sea. 

Luckily, their concerns over astronaut-style powdered food were quickly dispelled upon my arrival aboard the R.V. Thomas G. Thompson. Head cook Liz, and mess attendants Laurie and Nikki have conjured an impressive variety of fresh dishes over the past three weeks, despite the demands of feeding fifty hungry crew members, who descend on our canteen with the persistence of a pack of gulls at the first scent of food. 

Feeding time at the zoo: Nikki, Liz and Laurie are ready!

The day begins with fresh fruit, yogurt and nuts for the health-conscious ship-mate, or bacon, eggs and pancakes for those in need of a more comforting breakfast. For lunch and dinner we can choose to make our own salad to accompany one of the three or four main dishes. These have ranged from traditionally South African "Bronsai" sandwiches to curried Daahls, enchiladas and spring rolls. Personally, I've been most impressed by the desserts that parade out of the kitchen: peaches baked with ricotta, banana breads, and even a birthday cake! 

Regular visits to the canteen are an important way for us to break up the working days and nights; snacking on Nikki's home-made cashew butter (with a pear if you have a sophisticated palate) gives us the perfect excuse for a quick chat. 

A typical lunch, salad and wrap.
Giuliana, a member of the science party eyes up her prize

But before you begrudge us this bounty of food, remember its necessity to fuel the tireless work that goes on aboard the ship. Through night and day, scientists and crew work together in freezing temperatures and rough seas to conduct research both accurately and safely. The fruit of our labours are sometimes hard to grasp, but helping to deploy a float at such close proximity to the seas, reminds me of the chaotic and beautiful processes to whose understanding we are (hopefully) contributing. 

SOCCOM foat #12885 "The Whale Clams" (a mix of the acronyms of Waterford High School and Clark Lane Middle School, WHS and CLMS) was deployed on April 25, at 4:15 AM, at 56S, 30E. With the help of marine tech Jenny, we lowered the float over the back deck into the dark waters, churned up and illuminated by the boat. Check the SOCCOM website to follow what the float measures:

Jenny and I during the deployment of The Whale Clams (design of the float by Giuliana)
These scientific successes belong just as much to Liz, Laurie and Nikki who have kept us going over these 4 weeks, and who I'm sure will do so over the weeks to come. Indeed, the kitchen is the beating heart of this boat that never sleeps.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A bit about.. F.L.O.A.T.s - by Melissa M.

Braving cold weather and harsh conditions in the pursuit of science is something all of us onboard know something about. We sacrifice time with family and friends to live on the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, so we make sure to collect as much data as possible during that time.

The SOCCOM program doesn't operate its own cruises, rather it piggybacks on research expeditions already planned in areas where they want floats deployed. What makes GO-SHIP cruises particularly good targets is that most of the required parameters - nutrients, oxygen, salinity, pH, and alkalinity - are already being taken at every station as part of the overall science plan.

F.L.O.A.T. before its deployment (isa took the freedom to draw a "Fairly Large Operational Aquatic Technology" standing on Antarctica)

SOCCOM floats can be tracked online at using their serial numbers. But they're also given a nickname, and the second float we deployed has a great one. Float #12892 will now be known as F.L.O.A.T., for Fairly Large Operational Aquatic Technology. It was adopted by students from the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut. You gotta love a good back-ronym, an acronym that was clearly decided upon before the full name.

 Captain Eric, marine tech Jenny, Mike and Isa, just before deploying F.L.O.A.T. (ph. by Patrick M.)

Deployment of F.L.O.A.T. (ph. by Andrew C.)
F.L.O.A.T. was launched on April 20 at 08:50 GMT (10:50am local) at 63 degrees South latitude, 30 degrees East longitude. We also used the CTD to collect water samples from 36 different depths at the same location. The water will be analyzed and those values will be used to calibrate the sensors onboard F.L.O.A.T., which will drift with ocean currents for years to come.

There's a few extra samples taken from the CTD when a SOCCOM float gets deployed - HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) and POC (particulate organic carbon). Both are needed to validate the fluorescence and backscatter sensor on the float, which provides information about chlorophyll and plankton.

We collect seawater from the bottles closed at the surface (which is actually between 3-7 meters deep) and at the depth of the maximum chlorophyll signal (63 meters in this instance, as measured by a sensor on the CTD). The water is then filtered and only the filter is saved, frozen for analysis in a lab back on shore.

 Sampling around the rosette (ph. by Mike K.)

Every data point we determine from this expedition is available to other scientists and the public. GO-SHIP cruises repeat measurements every ten years to better understand the ocean's cycles. SOCCOM floats report back every ten days to learn about some of those same parameters on a finer scale. Working together to understand these changes is what oceanography is all about, and the diverse science party onboard is dedicated to the cause.

Alan the krill in the Agulhas - by Melissa M.

SOCCOM stands for Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling, so it makes sense that most of the seven floats deployed ...