Back in the Gulf: Living On-board

NOAA ship Gordon Gunter

Aboard the Gordon Gunter

The research vessel Gordon Gunter is the pride of the NOAA fleet. It routinely and deservedly receives a “Ship of the Year” award from the Department of Commerce. At more than 200 feet long, it rides comfortably in rough seas, and provides me with a wealth of different decks and vantage points from which to gaze out across the Gulf, searching for the next seabird. And for a working ship, I find my berthing accommodations here almost luxurious.

Not only do I get the small room to myself (it sleeps 2); there is a small desk at the foot of the bed on which I can set up two computers, a scanner, adapters, and power strip. There is a small shelving unit to store books, binoculars, a GPS unit, and other paraphernalia. I share a shower/restroom with the berth next door.

Our science complement works around the clock on at least three shifts, with a fourth schedule maintained by most of the Gunter’s crew. Almost all of the plankton scientists work in 12-hour shifts, noon to midnight, or midnight to noon. That’s a long time, but our sampling stations are three to five hours apart, so this transit time can be used to rest and catch meals. A Japanese scientist who specializes in identifying the larvae of the endangered blue fin tuna through a microscope works odd hours, much of it at night from what I can tell. I work from about 6 a.m. to about 10:30 p.m., outside surveying during daylight hours, inside doing paperwork and data back-up at night. The ship’s crew works 4 hours on, 8 hours off, twice each day.

Now on some ships, meals qualify pretty much as sturdy chow. But not here on the Gordon Gunter. Margaret, our chef, does wonders inside the kitchen, constantly pulling out delights. We have a daunting array of entre choices at each meal. We have had fresh fish, caught from the Gulf itself, nearly every day. Some of my contractors rave about the Gunter’s food, and they should know, because they have worked many ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Mealtimes, however, are relatively short, at a bit more than an hour, and always with the same fixed times. But Margaret encourages us to prepare and save a plate if we must continue working, then return to enjoy it at a more leisurely pace when we are off-shift.

JCH_bridge charting

Chris working at "the bridge," here aboard NOAA's Nancy Foster

Time passes surprisingly quickly working out at sea. A regular and packed work schedule fills my day up – it is impossible to get bored, even when the marine life is slow, because the next exciting find can be just over the horizon. The work is also quite tiring, in unexpected ways, because of all the constant bodily adjustments required to accommodate the ship’s motions. This can make for some interesting sorts of muscular fatigue.

Unlike twenty years ago, when going out to sea was such an isolating experience, there is now a wealth of information constantly at one’s fingertips . The bridge, of course, has all sorts of sophisticated navigation and weather data (see photo left). What has changed so much from the era in which I was schooled is all of the real-time environmental information at our disposal from models, satellites, and other sources. We know instantly what the ocean is doing. And with remarkably good internet service, we can communicate that knowledge to the outside world with almost no delay. If there were actually any free time, there is also satellite TV and a huge library of movies. I find all these amenities reassuring, because I have to ask some of our contractors to spend almost 3 weeks at sea at one time. This 10-day leg I signed up for is a relatively short jaunt.

Learn more:

Stay tuned for more tales from the Gulf! Click here to read Chris’ other accounts of life at sea.

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