Leaving the ocean

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Neuston nets are used to catch small fish and other sea life within a few inches of the ocean surface

Samuel Johnson once remarked, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” There is practically no risk of the latter nowadays; there are far too many safety precautions and back-ups. But a sense of confinement can be quite real on the largest of research vessels. Seasoned mariners find ways to cope, or at least put off this reckoning.

Today is our last day, however, and everyone senses that this temporary detention is nearly over. Everyone is eagerly awaiting arrival into Pascagoula around 3 this afternoon. Words like “pizza” and “beer” are spoken with special reverence. After all, most of the crew and science team have been at sea for almost three weeks.

During the night, as the Nancy Foster passed over the edge of the continental shelf, the ocean became progressively shallow. This means that today’s sampling stations will be of shorter duration: it takes much less time to collect water and larval fish in water 100 feet deep that it does in depths of 1,000 feet . These shorter stopping times mean, in turn, that the ship will be mostly underway, so I ought to get myself up to the bridge to search for seabirds. I am particularly motivated to not repeat a second day having been completely skunked by an utter lack of birds.


Royal tern, courtesy of USGS

These near shore waters do not disappoint. Within 40 miles of the primary coastline, closer to the Chandeleur Islands just to our west, I find two old avian friends. A royal tern followed immediately by a laughing gull put in an appearance across the ship’s bow.

Over the next six hours, I add black tern, brown pelican and several pods of bow-riding Atlantic bottlenose and Atlantic spotted dolphins. I let out a sigh of relief. Despite oil platforms that dot the horizon in every direction, yesterday’s hydrocarbon desolation is replaced here by bits of hope. Even the color of the ocean, a plankton-rich greenish-brown, offers assurance of [more] normality.

Ahead, dark clouds and a thunderstorm temporarily obscure the Mississippi shoreline. But the sun returns, and gradually the brilliant white sands of barrier islands Petit Bois and Horn come into view. Within a few miles of the sea buoy and shipping channel, our tasks switch from sampling to packing up. The Foster’s labs are so chock full of equipment that it will take a huge U-Haul truck and two vans to transport all this gear back to Miami.

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Scientists aboard the Nancy Foster wrap up almost three weeks of research on the Gulf oil spill

Tomorrow, I will try to catch a flight back home from Gulfport. I am eager to discuss findings with colleagues, and swap tales with family. I am not eager to leave the ocean. Until the next expedition, I’ll just have to fall back on reminiscences of color arrangements impossible to find anywhere on dry land.