Life on board a research vessel

Former IMarEST Senior Technical Adviser, Dr Philomène Verlaan, FIMarEST, FSUT, is an oceanographer researching deep sea mineral formation and a lawyer specialising in law of the sea. In celebration of the Day of the Seafarer, she comments on some experiences on board research vessels.

“I’ve just always had salt in my veins, in my blood,” says Verlaan, who has worked in some of the most remote places at sea. “One of my research areas is in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean… the paramedic on [one of these cruises] said, ‘Do you realise that it will take us longer to get back to Port than it does astronauts to get back from the moon?’ That’s how far from land that site is.”

Verlaan’s scientific research is on manganese nodules. “I’m interested in their trace metal variability and in their formation. Based on what we think we know about them and what we think we know about ocean processes generally, they shouldn’t really be there. There’s far too much sedimentation, even in those oligotrophic waters. Given how slowly we think the nodules form, they should have been overwhelmed long ago. They’re one of the great mysteries of the sea.”

Hard but rewarding

A scientific research cruise is “incredibly hard work. For one thing, sea time is very expensive, so from the moment you leave port you’re on watch,” says Verlaan, noting that with a 12-hour on, 12-hour off shift, “at least you can get a decent night’s sleep.” 

Another challenge is multiple researchers working on different projects. “The planning for these cruises is very complex. Every day begins with what I call morning prayers, where you meet with the captain and all the Principal Investigators and everybody that has a special job to do, and you plan the day, what’s going to happen, and who gets to do what when.”

Many things can alter the plan – weather, equipment issues, unexpected findings. “There’s constant adjustment and readjustment. It’s very demanding… but it’s also huge fun and endlessly fascinating.”

That fun and fascination come from multiple quarters – unusual sightings at sea, the scientist’s own research, and the work of others. “If something intriguing is going on when you’re going off shift, you’re not going to go off shift. You’re going to stay and watch and help if you can.”

Sharing science

While the scientists are busy researching, the ship’s crew keeps things moving so the science can happen. With dedicated research vessels, “it’s usually quite easy because the crew have worked with researchers. They know the drill.” 

Although some adjustment is needed for commercial vessels contracted for a research cruise, the experience has always been positive for Verlaan. “For [commercial crew], it’s completely new, and they love it.” She has the scientists on board giving lectures to explain their research twice daily so both crew shifts can attend. “It’s always standing room only. Everybody, from the humblest oiler to the galley people to the officers, comes to the lectures, and they ask great questions.”

Changes at sea

Verlaan has been going on research cruises for some forty years. Over that time, the saddest change is seeing far less marine life. One of the most significant lifestyle changes is that “we now have 24/7 internet available at sea.” 

“Being able to upload data into the cloud and have it analysed on land and do live streaming for students and educational institutions, that’s great.” The downside is a reduction in human interaction. “Everybody is constantly on their phones, whereas before, there used to be a lot more exchange of sea stories, conversations at mealtimes, getting to know each other as people. But I don’t like sharing a stateroom.”

A major change Verlaan wants concerns improving the welfare of “your average Seafarer, particularly below the officer class,” across the maritime industry. “Some 90% of trade in goods goes by sea. No Seafarers, no trade.” 

“Nevertheless, Seafarers are some of the most underrepresented, underappreciated and badly treated people on the planet. National law perpetuates this human injustice for the sake of cheap stuff. A ship’s flag should represent honour, not convenience.” 

Register for our webinar, timed to coincide with the Day of the Seafarer

Sam Andrews 2 20200224 173419

Dr Sam Andrews is a marine ecologist and science writer