Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hijinks on the High Seas, Part II

(Long-awaited? or long-forgotten? Anyway, here it is!)

October 18, 2006

I've accumulated a number of small cuts and abrasions on my hands from routine lab and field work. They're not noticeable normally, but squid ink is an irritant and makes them red, inflamed, and horribly itchy. Hooray. Still more exotic wound-related news: you know how giant squids leave sucker marks on whales while they're struggling not to be eaten? Well, I try to be pretty careful and stay away from the suckers, but one of the squid got me pretty good the other night, so I have a lovely double row of sucker ring marks on my left wrist. Maybe I should take a picture before it fades.

Bother the squid, all kinds of other excitement has been going on.

Yesterday we crossed the Equator, which I guess I've technically done quite a few times before while flying to the Southern Hemisphere, but it's a very different thing on a boat. The ship has already crossed once on the prior leg of the cruise, and the crossing was apparently accompanied by a grand hazing ceremony for all the "Pollywogs" (people who've never crossed on a boat before). However, that ceremony wore everyone out, so yesterday's crossing was accompanied by little more than a few cheers and the inevitable jokes over the radio. ("Flying bridge, this is the fantail. Can you see the dotted line yet?")

On to the charismatic marine mammals. When a lot of animals are sighted and sea conditions are good, the small boat (a Zodiac, for anyone who's familiar with these things) is launched to chase the creatures down. And yesterday, I got to be a member of the scientific party on the boat! There were four of us--all women--and a crew member who was driving the boat. Of the other three scientists, two were armed with crossbows and one with a camera.

We had launched in pursuit of pilot whales but ended up surrounded by what one of the crossbow-wielders refers to as "white rats"--Tursiops, bottlenose dolphins. Of course I was staring around me in utter delight, trying to keep my jaw out of the water. I was mere feet away from dolphins, wild dolphins, in the middle of the ocean! They are fast and sleek and beautiful, but these words are meaningless compared to the sheer cruising, twisting, jumping glory that is a dolphin.

What we really wanted for scientific purposes was pilot whales. But since they seemed a lot more boat-shy than the dolphins, we gave up and starting shooting the dolphins. I managed to make myself very useful--I'd be handed a used dart, then I'd unscrew the tip with the sample in it, put it in a bag, label the bag, put that on ice, screw a new tip on the dart, and hand it back to the archers.

After nearly an hour of this (though I hardly noticed the time pass) we finally spotted a group of pilot whales, headed right towards us, swimming in tight formation. They are small, dark whales, often called blackfish, and they are no less beautiful than the dolphins. We managed to get one sample, then headed back to the ship.

October 24, 2006

Today we got a bit of unexpected excitement: we found a couple of turtles entangled in fishing line, and were able to send out a party in the small boat to cut them free. They'd sustained some damage but hadn't accumulated a lot of barnacles, so they probably weren't there very long. We expect they'll do fine, as turtles are pretty sturdy; one of them was missing a flipper from a much earlier encounter, perhaps with a boat or a shark, and seemed to be managing all right.

October 28, 2006

I saw my first sperm whale yesterday evening. Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are huge, majestic, mysterious, fascinating, and many other adjectives as well. One of those adjectives is frustrating. They're boring to listen to on the acoustic array (click-click-click-click in painfully regular intervals), and disinclined to cooperate with photography or biopsy attempts. Worst of all, the sperm whale protocol calls for ninety minutes of effort by all marine mammal observers for each sighting. That means, when a sperm whale is first sighted, the call goes out: "All observers to the flying bridge" and the observers currently off-duty have to drop whatever they're doing and spend an hour and a half looking for that sperm whale. As I understand it, this protocol has been developed because sperm whales can dive for such a long time. Somebody has calculated that ninety minutes is the optimum amount of effort as far as likelihood of re-sighting, or something like that, anyway.

Last night's sperm whale sighting was cut mercifully short by the sunset. But before that happened, I borrowed some binoculars and get a pretty good look at the beast--well, at his back, anyway. He wasn't exactly jumping and frolicking the way the dolphins do. Sperm whales tend to have a lot of scars, many of them inflicted by giant squid as they're being made into a meal. I would have loved to see a really clear sucker ring scar, but no such luck.

Still, it was a thrill to see the Leviathan, in person.

After evening oceanographic operations and another no-luck squid night, I went out to the bow of the ship with the oceanographer and one of the engineers. We left the glaring, artificial lights behind, and my pupils expanded and expanded, drinking in starlight and moonlight until the shapes of my companions were nearly as clear as they would be in daylight.

The stars were bright, abundant, breathtaking. The moon was remarkable, a perfectly horizontal crescent that looked so convincingly like the grin of the Cheshire Cat that we kept expecting the rest of the animal to pop out of the clouds. We watched it sink towards the horizon, turning from white to yellow to orange, and found that a moonset can be quite as striking as a sunset.

Around midnight, as we headed back in, we stopped to lean over the side and admire the bioluminescence. The waves were breaking off the bow with explosions of light, bright enough to illuminate your face. When I looked ahead, I could see similar explosions, anticipating our arrival. I went to bed filled with awe and wonder.

I think this cruise is the first time I've experience a perfect, unbroken, 360-degree horizon. Not the slightest hint of land breaks the smooth circle around us. It makes the night sky spectacular and rainbows, well-nigh miraculous. One morning, earlier in the cruise, I went up to the flying bridge just an hour or two after sunrise. We were headed into one of those tropical squalls so common in these latitudes. In front of the ship was spread the ideal rainbow, arching perfectly from horizon to horizon, and to one side was a gorgeous sundog, a triangle of color under the clouds.

It quite took my breath away.

October 30, 2006

Well, at just about nine and a half degree north, we’ve kissed the ITCZ good-bye. It can be seen as a dark gray smear across the horizon behind us--so dark, in fact, it looks almost like land. Last night it was pouring rain (tropical rain, the kind with raindrops so big that just one will soak you) and this morning there are blue skies and sunshine ahead of us.

November 4, 2006/

After 30 days at sea, being on land again is sensory overload--leading me to realize that living on the boat must have been some form of mild sensory deprivation. I woke up early yesterday; it was still dark outside. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was different, fuller, somehow, where the scent of the high seas had been pure, scarce, empty. The smell of land in the air was the smell of things growing and decomposing, living and dying in abundance.

The second thing I noticed was a light on the horizon. A light. Out there. It was a shock and a pleasure I can't describe to see something other than vast space.

As the sky lightened, pre-dawn, I saw the origin of the lights. Land. Mountains. Shapes and colors I hadn't seen for thirty days filled my vision. It was glorious, glorious! I was ready to get down on my knees and kiss it, or fling my arms wide and go running all over God's green earth.

But there were still many hours to wait; coming in to port and clearing customs is a slow business. I had a busy morning, packing up my samples, scientific gear, and personal gear. But I made a point of going outside often to appreciate the steadily growing number of available sensations.

Manzanillo is a tropical port, so we passed islands of lush green and smelled all the hot, humid, fruity smells associated with such a clime. I saw people on the beach, and wondered who they were. When I realized I didn't recognize them--they were strangers--I was delighted. I had been seeing the same people for so long that unknown faces were inordinately interesting.

November 5, 2006

I truly believe that in the last seventeen years, I have never seen my cat as happy as she was when I walked in the door and started petting her.

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