Ship happens! Fieldwork and friendship on the high seas

Nicole Pereira, a Canadian student of Indian ethnicity, is a PhD student in Ocean Sciences.

April 27, 2014

By Nicole Pereira, Department of Ocean Sciences 

Nicole's research examines marine microbiology.
“I wish I could go on cruises for work," my family and friends often tell me.  If they only knew what I actually do onboard!

The moment I understood what it meant to be an oceanographer was during my first research cruise. It was day two of a ten-day voyage in the Pacific and land was nowhere in sight. Surrounded by an ocean of endless indigo blue, someone spotted a slick of red. Suddenly, other scientists began rushing on deck, like ants surging out of the woodwork. Cameras clicked and buckets were thrown over the side to spontaneously collect samples. The crew thought we were nutty, but the excitement shared among us scientists was palpable. The cause of this commotion was a bloom of cyanobacteria – tiny plants that help support life in the ocean. To most people, the bloom would have looked like pond scum on the sea surface. To the community of oceanographers onboard, it was like a flower in the desert.

At times I find it difficult to explain life aboard a research vessel. When my friends and family hear that I’m headed off to Hawaii for another expedition, they usually roll their eyes and say, “I wish I could go on cruises for work.” But it’s far from glamorous – the demands of conducting research at sea are rigorous. We deploy instruments into the ocean around the clock and collect water for shipboard experiments that last over the duration of the cruise. There’s also a certain monotony when we transit from one point of the ocean to sample at another. In my case, this is often combined with seasickness. Once, when I thought I’d found a quiet place to heave over the ship’s side (if need be), I heard a shout: someone was inviting me to join the group that had gathered to whale watch mere feet away! In my queasy state I found the lack of privacy galling.

Life on a ship can be unforgiving, but the rewards are far greater than the cost. Being at sea allows scientists a unique perspective; we are able to observe things in nature that we’ve only seen in the lab before. Even apart from conducting research, life onboard is extraordinary. I’ve spotted flying fish, watched pods of dolphins race the ship and gazed at meteors streaking across a dark sky. I’ve learned that people find creative ways to celebrate occasions, including making handprint turkeys for Thanksgiving or pipette-tip crowns where the wearer must perform a birthday dance. As scientists, we share a collective enthusiasm over the anticipation of discovery. As humans, we bond over the beauty and community spirit at sea.

Living in close quarters with the same people everyday helps form fast friendships. This was especially true for me during a month-long voyage from Chile to Easter Island. After the first week at sea, I found myself visiting the ship’s library during breaks. A few others had the same idea and we soon formed a card-playing group. One of the girls introduced a complicated trick-taking game called Schafkopf (pronounced shops-cough), a game that the rest of us would never have played in any other circumstance (ie. one where we weren’t trapped aboard a research vessel). Later, when someone from the group needed help with an arduous task requiring hours of manual labor, the rest of us readily volunteered. I’ve come to expect such displays of camaraderie on a ship. Although each scientist has his or her own agenda, I enjoy the times when everyone comes together to advance a common goal.

At a recent academic conference, there was an unplanned meeting of the Schafkopf crew, some of which I hadn’t seen since that cruise. None of us knew the others would be there, so an impromptu reunion was organized. Sipping mai tais after a long day, we reminisced about our time at sea. It didn’t matter that we’d really only been connected for a month and that years had passed since then. Our solidarity remained – not just because of our shared experience on a boat, but because of our shared passion for the marine environment.