Wednesday, January 8, 2020

R/V Mirai Expedition (Dec. 30, 2019 - Feb. 10, 2020)

 [recent posts on top, earlier posts below]

February 6th, 2020

Every time I get to the low latitudes (roughly within 20 degrees of the equator) I am reminded how much I love the tropics. I love the warm water, I love the breezy evenings, and I love the smell of rain. R/V Mirai crept up on the equator slowly and steadily from all the way at 64 degrees South so it’s been a slow transition. But the last few days have brought the familiar thunder and lightning, turquoise water, and smell of the land that reminds me why I love this part of the planet. Though we’re transiting through a part of the world I’ve never been to, it has much in common with other tropical places I know and love.
Storm clouds at sunset.

The ship transited through a narrow straight with shoals and islands on either side. The vague skyline of Jakarta was visible to starboard, with ferries criss-crossing all around us. The ship’s Japanese flag is waving proudly at the stern. I assume that the bridge crew is much busier than they had been the past few weeks when we saw no other signs of human life.
Passing through a narrow strait near Jakarta.
This area does have some pirate activity and precautions have been taken. All the water tight doors to the outer decks are closed and locked after dark, and the outer stairwells have been boarded over. Hoses meant for fire-fighting have been set up as water canons along the railings. Since we’re closed in at night, I spend as much time outside during the day as possible.

On one such trip, I witnessed a funnel cloud, the beginnings of a tornado or water spout. It never touched down, but we were close enough that I could see the furious rotation of the cloud as it lengthened and retracted based on the invisible forces controlling it.
Funnel cloud forming overhead.

Today we crossed the equator. In all my trips, this is something I’ve never done at sea. There was no official ceremony, though the ship did provide certificates. 
Equator crossing certificate, my name in English and Japanese.

My friends onboard, a German scientist and the Canadian ice navigator, saved ice from Antarctica for just this occasion. We made sure to be on deck to cross the invisible line, and then had rum on the (glacial) rocks to celebrate.

We dock in Singapore in the morning. It has been a memorable cruise! I am so grateful for the welcome I received from the crew and scientists of R/V Mirai and hope to sail with them again someday.


February 4th, 2020

R/V Mirai is now only a few days from port. It’s been two weeks since we left the Antarctic ice and we’re nearly to the equator! With all the SOCCOM floats deployed and the gear packed up, I have been trying to keep myself busy with side projects. There are plenty of people still hard at work onboard though. The kitchen staff, of course, and also the ship’s crew. Argo floats were deployed occasionally on the trip north and a magnetometer was towed for 24 hours as we crossed over an interesting feature on the seafloor. Since even those scientific projects ended, the deck department has been busy with ship maintenance - removing rust with a needle gun, painting, and lots of other tasks all around the ship.
Another group that has kept busy are the technicians that make up about half of the science party. Like on the US cruises I’m used to, on top of the professors and head scientists aboard, there’s also a lot of graduate students and technicians. The difference here is that a private company called Marine Works Japan provides many of the latter, who are key to the science mission. Full time employees are trained to do specialized analysis in the chemistry labs - determining concentrations of nutrients, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, and other elements of the seawater we collected. Part time employees, mostly graduate students getting their first experience out at sea, were hired just for this cruise to help with sampling the CTD and preparing it in between casts.
The graduate students, most of whom are studying ocean-related fields (though one’s a forestry student!), are taking time away from their required classes and research in order to gain this valuable experience. Similar assignments take place on every research cruise I’ve ever been on, but the bureaucratic setup is different in Japan. There are new government rules in place that limit employees to working no more than an 8 hour shift. So the usual 12 hours on, 12 hours off has now been adjusted to three shifts covering each day. However, there’s no more bunk space than there was before, so it leaves each shift a bit short-handed. That’s where having non-Japanese scientists like myself onboard comes in handy. I had my own work to do on float stations, but I was also working a shift and helping the sampling team.
The excitement of both first-time and experienced sea-goers 
was clear when we came across our first iceberg.

Something that struck me immediately about the group of students and technicians from Marine Works Japan was that it’s close to 50% women, a balance that is not shared with any other group on this particular cruise. While I’ve learned that the Japanese maritime industry is increasing its diversity, it seems behind the US in that regard. Though I’ve sailed with all-male crews and science parties on US ships, it’s not the norm.
R/V Mirai is an older ship and it’s clear that having both genders aboard was not anticipated in the original plans. Separate bathrooms and showers have been partitioned from the original facilities on almost every floor - the one where I sleep not included, unfortunately. I have to go either up or down a floor to use the bathroom, which is annoying in the middle of the night. I was given a key to the shower room on my floor so that I could lock myself inside when I use it, and there’s a sign on the door telling the men who also use it that it is currently occupied. I try to take quick showers so as not to disrupt their schedules too much.
Women in the science party have been present for decades and there have been a few on the ship’s crew in the last few years. With the language barrier, I’ve only had a few conversations, but it’s encouraging to see the strong female contingent of technicians and students who seem to love the work and being at sea.    

The science party and some of the crew celebrate a successful voyage
- Melissa Miller

January 30, 2020

The cruise is coming to an end and I’ve packed up the lab aboard R/V Mirai. It’s been a steady trip north through the latitudes towards Singapore, getting warmer each day. Pretty soon it will be hot and humid as we near the equator. A big change from just a week ago when we worked amongst the ice and could see the mountain peaks of Antarctica.
In thinking about what I will remember most about this trip, what anecdotes will be told the most often to friends and family and colleagues, I know it will be the food. I was nervous before coming onboard but have enjoyed it thoroughly and may go home with the habit of slurping my noodles. Which is expected at Japanese meals though I can’t imagine my husband will approve.
Melissa Miller listening to the sounds
made by glaciar ice in whiskey
The kitchen staff themselves are the hardest working people on the ship. Even when the scientists don’t have much to do because of weather or during the transit, the cooks and stewards have to put in a full day. They work on R/V Mirai for 6-9 months of the year, with no days off while the ship is at sea or in a foreign port. Most of the team then take the rest of the year off, having made enough at sea to cover them for the year.
I mentioned in an earlier post that we had a special all-day meal on New Year’s Day that also included beer and sake. The ship provided a special dinner as well on the day that we finished science. After sight-seeing near the ice, we were treated to a steak dinner that also came with whiskey served with glacial ice the ship had collected. No one is able to explain to me exactly why, but this ice makes noise as it melts. All around the room, people were listening to their glasses of whiskey. One of the other scientists and I decided to keep some of the Antarctic ice in our shared freezer, with plans to enjoy it at the equator.

My favorite meals continue to be the ones where we are instructed to go into the galley to collect a freshly assembled bowl of goodness. Usually ramen, the noodles are boiled in individual portions in a basket that is lowered into huge pots of boiling water. The chef then swoops the basket in a long arc when he removes it, draining the water, and then places the noodles in a bowl. The next station is the addition of a ladle-full of broth. Then there’s the goodies that go on top - a pink and white fish cake, a hard-boiled egg, green onions, and usually some seaweed or tempura flakes too. Each of these is added by a separate person, assembly line fashion, and handed off the customer as we wait patiently in line.
     The noodle pots. Note the baskets hanging on the side - 
    each has one portion and is lowered into the pot and then
       the chef drains off the water by swinging the basket after 
removing it from the pot.

Others days all our food is waiting at our seat for us, with rice and soup at a separate station. White rice has been a part of every meal, apparently 1 ton was loaded in the ship’s home port of Hachinohe, Japan. I did the math - this equals 26 pounds of rice for each of the 75 people onboard over the course of the 100 days that the ship will be away.
A very good day: freshly assembled ramen, bao, eel, and 
the famous chicken wings stuffed with potsticker filling.

All the plates, bowls, and various sauce-mixing dishes have the JAMSTEC logo on them, a blue wave that I find very charming. Even the tea set that’s on every table has the logo. At the beginning of the trip there was iced tea instead of hot and I’m curious to see, as we head north, when it will change back. We’re at about 30 degrees South right now, and 19 degrees Celsius (~68 degrees Fahrenheit), so it may be soon.
Meal times begin with the playing of a short and cheerful song over the PA system, 7:30am breakfast, 12pm lunch, and 5pm dinner. While we were doing station work, it seemed that every day I heard that music right when the 2 hour sampling began. Being on the day shift, my teammates and I were often late to meals. Especially me, because I had to go back to my room and change in a collared shirt that is required in the dining room. I only brought one so I wore it to every meal, and only to meals. The Japanese crew and scientists have a collared shirt as part of the uniform they wear during their shifts.
The dining saloon as it is called aboard the RV Mirai

Thankfully the ship accommodates meals outside of the normal hours and your meal is saved for a few hours after as long as you note this on the roster. This is another difference from the US ships that I’m used to, but I can understand that it makes it easier for the kitchen crew. Each person signs up for the meals they plan to attend at the beginning of the week so they know exactly how much food to make. While we were working, I skipped breakfast and signed up for every lunch and dinner to be extended in case I had to work. I also signed up the occasional night snack when I knew I would have a long day. These were often cup of noodles or similar, but every once in awhile it was a pastry or triangular savory rice treats.
I did sign up for one breakfast however, as the chief scientist told me that “Western breakfast” was on the schedule. I was very glad to have woken up early to enjoy thick french toast, scrambled eggs, and juice.
Western breakfast!

While I look forward to the market stalls of Singapore, and then my beloved Mexican food when I get home to San Diego, I know that I will miss Japanese food. I am very glad that I stuck to my decision to try at least a nibble of everything put in front of me and will likely be looking for places back in the States where I can find some of my favorites. Especially sweet beans - we had these served in a bowl, in a beautiful flower-shaped bun, in ice cream sandwiches, and between pancake-like pastries, and I loved them all!

- Melissa Miller

January 26th, 2020

See the line where the sky meets the sea, it calls me…” - Moana

I can tell that I’m in the right profession by the fact that I never get tired of my ocean view.
The view from my porthole!
Here at sea, even if I go 40 days or more without another option, it always bring me peace. It’s most comforting in nice weather, whether that brings glorious sunset colors and the green flash or just the most beautiful shades of blue at midday. But even in gray, cold, stormy weather I still enjoy gazing at the ocean, watching the swell and the whitecaps. Though on those days I prefer the bridge or other indoor location with large windows, rather than being on deck.
As we reached the southernmost point of this trip, I experienced some of the most awe-inspiring ocean views of my life. It never truly gets dark below 60 degrees South in the summer. But even knowing that I didn’t expect what turned out to be six hours of sheer beauty.
The sunset began around 9pm and, due to the time of year, proceeded slowly. An hour later, the pink and orange were still glowing so brightly that every surface of the ship reflected the color. Crew and scientists lined the decks to take pictures, which may be beautiful but don’t do justice to the experience. I made sure people working in their labs knew to come out on deck so as not to miss the spectacle.
Sunset as the CTD enters the water

The clouds were still colorful an hour after that the sun had dipped away, though the intensity had started to fade. And then came the midpoint - 180 degrees of the horizon showed as a gorgeous pink stripe. The other 180 degrees was a soft grey blue - all one color with no separation between the clouds above and ocean below. I realized that this was both the remnants of the sunset and also the beginning of the sunrise. Sure enough, the pink intensified over the next hour and then the orange sun blared back across the horizon. The ship’s heading was due south; the sunrise occurred just to starboard and rose an equal distance on the port side.
It was the only time on this trip that I had to stay up late in order to deploy the SOCCOM float and finish my related tasks. But what a night it was, I am so grateful for the work that brought me here and kept me up to witness the spectacle. I just as easily could have slept through it, only to hear about it from the other shift the next day. And imagine if R/V Mirai hadn’t been there at all, no human would have witnessed the moment. How many other moments of sheer natural beauty go unseen? To me, it’s almost a comforting thought.
Me with yet another sun setting behind me. 

Bring me that horizon.” - Captain Jack Sparrow

- Melissa Miller

January 20th, 2020

The final two SOCCOM floats have been deployed from R/V Mirai and have already checked in and sent data. The ship has reached its southern-most point, at 65.5 degrees South, where open ocean ends and the Antarctic pack ice begins. We were able to complete all but one of the intended science stations; the final one is covered by ice.
SaberScience (New Community School in Richmond, VA) being deployed
Float #18864, named SaberScience, was deployed in windy, gray weather around 58 degrees South. Float #18994, aka Winston’s Journey, was launched into flat calm seas at 63.5 degrees South. Both of these floats may end up under the ice at some point during the Antarctic winter and are up to the challenge. The software for these SOCCOM floats will direct them to stay under any ice rather than try to surface after their profiles. Ice is detected using its temperature sensor, a low enough value means there is likely ice and the sensors or float could be damaged if it tries to surface.
Winston's Journey (Winston Campus Elementary School in Palatine, IL being deployed)
The researchers will go months without hearing from floats that are under the ice. Then, as the temperatures warm and the ice recedes, they begin getting signals and all the backlogged data from the floats as they are finally able to surface.
Mirai is not an icebreaker, though the ship spends time in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. To make sure operations are safe, an ice navigator is hired for cruises that will take the ship into or near the ice. On this cruise, Captain Duke Snider of Martech Polar Consulting is the ice navigator. He has spent the last few weeks monitoring satellite images of the ice edge and working with the ship’s captain and the chief scientist to balance safety with the science mission.
Red represents 90-100% ice coverage and yellow 40-60%. What we found when we arrived was less than 10% through station 153 and then 100% south of that. There was little transition, as recent winds packed the loose ice together rather than spreading it out.

Pancake ice near the edge of the pack ice. 
No matter how many times I’ve done it, being around the ice is always exciting. I was pleased to find similar sentiments amongst the crew and scientists aboard Mirai. People crowding the decks, some in their pajamas, to look for penguins and whales.
Our first iceberg, seen near station 150.

A pause in work as we pass icebergs, which always seem small on the horizon and impossibly big up close. After we finished the science, crew members brought some ice onboard to be used in drinks; a few pieces of the right size were also tossed around like baseballs.

We are now headed north and have a long transit to port in Singapore. My work is done for now, but the SOCCOM floats are hard at work. There are more cruises coming up this season, so follow along for updates from those ships. I will continue to post about life onboard R/V Mirai too!

- Melissa Miller


January 18th, 2020

I have never been as excited to see a data plot in my entire scientific career as I was when I received this one via email a few days ago. You don’t have to be able to make sense of it - the fact that it exists at all is what’s important. A bit of bad luck, a coin flip, and the data wouldn’t exist at all.

Processed plot from Float #18013 - It is working!!

The deployment of float #18013, named Lobo de Mar by students of Monterey Peninsula College, began on a slightly stressful note as the timing was moved up an hour due to worsening weather conditions. As a rule, the floats are deployed just after the CTD rosette is recovered. Due to the weather, niskin bottles were being tripped “on the fly” (as the rosette was moving) rather than after the usual 30 second pause.
A phone call got me out of bed to let me know it was already time to get everything ready, and I hurried to make sure that I was waiting for the crew when they finished recovering the CTD and were ready for the float deployment.
We carried the float to the back deck, I cleaned the sensor windows, and we got the go-ahead from the bridge. The team of crew members worked seamlessly to gently lower Lobo de Mar over the side and down towards the water. I had time to stand on the back deck for about ten minutes, watching the waves and wind and swell without any real concern. I’ve deployed in worse conditions and the crew and I already had five successful, smooth deployments under our belts on this trip - not to mention the dozens both they and I have done in the past. We know to go through the steps carefully on every deployment, even those done in perfectly calm seas.
Deployment of Lobo de Mar - everything looks good!

The entry was perfect and the cables were released. At that exact moment, the ship rode a huge swell that seemed to come out of nowhere, lifting the back deck high off the water. The float vanished as it was sucked underneath the ship. This is the worse case scenario, the ship’s propellers or hull could seriously damage the sensors or even the integrity of float itself. On the video I was taking, you can hear my audible gasp of “Oh no” and the hurried voice of the chief officer reporting to the bridge. On replay, the float is only out of sight for 3 seconds, but I can tell you it felt like an eternity.
The crew and I were helpless, left hoping for a miracle. A wave came rushing out from under the ship and with it, the bright yellow of Lobo de Mar could be seen rocketing by, riding the crest quickly away behind us.
Swell just after deployment! where did that come from?

I watched it and was comforted by the fact that the float followed the usual steps, drifting on its side at the surface for a little while and then tipping into position vertically in the water, with its sensors and communications pointing up. And then it disappeared from sight as the ship continued gaining speed to move on to the next station.
I emailed the team to let them know of the float’s harrowing start and potential to be damaged. It was hard to write, as the usual email is one line “Deployment went smooth” but this time had to include a whole paragraph I wrote while rewatching the video over and over to get the details right.
If those 3 seconds while the float was lost under the ship had seemed long, imagine how the following 24 hours dragged on while I waited for a reply. That is the usual time it takes for the float to go through all its start up procedures, execute its first profile, and send the data plot.
The chief scientist was also very concerned, having heard over the radio about the rough deployment. The captain came down from the bridge to confer about what had happened. The chief officer asked me in the hallway every time I saw him if I’d heard from the float yet. The scientists and crew take their responsibilities here very seriously, and I am grateful to them for that.
I refreshed my email more than usual. I noted that the 24 hour window was right in the middle of the night for the US, so it would likely be even longer before I got any news forwarded to me. I tried to tell myself that I hadn’t heard any noise of the float and ship impacting each other, so that maybe all was fine. But there was no way to know until we got a data plot - or didn’t; the lack of any data would be an answer in and of itself.
25 hours later, I received an email. At 1am his time, one of the engineers sent a message:
“Float 18013 has executed its first profile; engineering and hydrographic data look normal/good. The sensors appear to be unharmed and the internal humidity sensor confirm hull integrity. All is well.” 
After breathing a huge sigh of relief, I forwarded the email to the chief scientist. He let the captain know. And at dinner a few hours later I heard, mixed in with Japanese words, the words “Melissa-san” and “SOCCOM float” and knew he was updating the chief officer, who gave a huge smile of relief and the universal “whew, that was close” hand gesture.

So…not only does the data plot above exist, but it’s also only the first of many that this float will collect over its years of service. While Lobo de Mar may have had an exciting start to its scientific career, here’s hoping it’s calm and uneventful from here on out.

- Melissa Miller


Two more SOCCOM floats were successfully deployed from R/V Mirai in the past few days.
“The Grouse” was named by students from Portsmouth Christian Academy in New Hampshire and “Lautan,” which means ocean in Indonesian, was adopted by Oakham Primary School in the UK.
Lautan - Indonesian for Ocean
I am glad that the floats get names rather than just serial numbers. And it’s also nice to know that not just scientists are following their progress, but classrooms around the world too. And though I’m no artist, I enjoy drawing on each float before it sets off on its mission. Most times, the teacher sends in ideas for a design and I do my best. For “The Grouse,” my first attempt was closer to a cave painting than a faithful reproduction. I took a few days, practiced, and came back to the float the day before its schedule deployment to try again. My second attempt was decidedly better and hopefully the students are happy with their float’s appearance. If nothing else, at least the data look good.
Can you guess which was the first attempt at drawing a Grouse? 
The culinary and cultural adventure continues onboard this Japanese research vessel. I have been chastised for wearing shoes in the recreation room (I missed the small sign saying “No Street Shoes” that is in many places, including the gym) and for putting my index finger on the inside of my soup bowl. I am still trying very hard to blend in when possible, lest I give a bad or entitled impression of all American scientists.
I continue to try everything given to me at meals, and generally find it all delicious. One dessert this week was sweet beans in between vanilla ice cream and waffle layers - yum. We also had pizza, which the chief scientist said was a first for him on this ship. A soft, thin crust with mayonnaise, cheese, and corn may not be my usual idea of pizza, but it was the first instance of bread and cheese I’ve come across since aboard. And, like any good slice, it made for good leftovers when I ate it cold the next morning.
I am still given a fork, knife, and spoon with every meal but am trying not to use them. Every once in awhile, everyone gets a piece or two of cutlery and I take the hint and know that I’m “allowed” to eat with them. For example, there was a fork when we had pasta and a fork and knife when we had steak.
Similarly, when there are packets of hand wipes on the table, I know there’s a finger food among the dishes. I generally watch someone at my table eat for a bit before I start on anything complicated, just so I get things right. Imagine my surprise when the guy next to me put a whole chicken wing in his mouth and chewed without pulling out any bones. I poked at mine - it was squishy, no bones. So I took a tentative bite. The bones had been removed and replaced with the same filling you find in potstickers. I consider myself something of a chicken wing connoisseur, but these were the very best that I’ve ever had. Hopefully we’ll get them again soon.

There are three more floats to be deployed as we continue heading south. We’re currently on a weather delay as the wind and waves rage outside. Portholes have had their metal doors closed and we are not allowed out on deck. Hopefully it will pass quickly so we can get back to our science!

-- Melissa Miller

Greetings from the Southern Hemisphere! So far, we’ve deployed three floats from R/V Mirai, a Japanese research vessel. The ship left Mauritius (a small island in the Indian Ocean) and is headed south all the way to the ice edge of Antarctica.
Shipboard shrine to Konpira
As we got underway, there was a ceremony on the bridge - a prayer to Konpira, which I’ve been told is similar to Neptune, god of the sea. The captain and chief scientist each gave a small speech and everyone faced the small shrine and then toasted with small glasses of sake.
Needless to say, it’s a very different experience onboard a Japanese ship. For me, the biggest difference is that the predominant language onboard is not English. The only foreign ships I’ve been on before were Australian and South African so, while accented, I could converse easily with the scientists and crew. Onboard Mirai there is only one other native English speaker, a Canadian ice navigator. Another member of the science party is German and she speaks English very well. The other 75 people onboard are Japanese. Many speak English and I’ve felt very welcome, but it’s hard to hurdle the language barrier and get to know people.
I have been practicing numbers and now can call out my sample bottles around the CTD in Japanese. I’m not sure if it’s helpful or just as much work for the sampling chief, but I wanted to at least try and blend in.
The food onboard is another big difference from what I’m used to, but has been very good so far. The meals are served to us at our assigned seat, not buffet-style like on most American ships. There are usually five or more small plates with all sorts of fish, sashimi, chicken, pickled veggies and salads, plus soups and rice. I at least try everything, though there are a few dishes I have not taken more than just a nibble of. Many that may look odd to me end up being the most delicious. Every few days, there’s a sign on the door to the galley (kitchen) as we walk in, indicating that we should go there for our main dish. It’s always intricately crafted, with an assembly line of kitchen staff adding ingredients just before they pass it to you. These, along with the days when there’s a colorful sign on the door saying “ice cream in the refrigerator,” are the best days.
New Year's Day breakfast and lunch

New Year’s Day was celebrated with an elaborate meal that was meant to last all morning and into the afternoon. It was, of course, right when the first float was ready to be deployed. After that brief interruption, I returned to the mess (dining room) to keep eating. There was also sake and beer provided. A good celebration to begin 2020.
I’ve got five more floats to deploy as the ship continues south. Stay tuned for more updates!

-- Melissa Miller

1 comment:

  1. It is always amazing to read your blogs Melissa! And apparently the ship hardly rolls at all - look at that beautifully presented meal with chopsticks balanced on bowls and sake bottles just sitting there looking elegant. We so appreciate your careful work and that of the ship's scientists and especially crew during that heart-stopping deployment.