All Quiet in the Main Lab
Oceanography is a bunch of tired people filtering the ocean.
It reminds me of a Norse story I read a long time ago:
Thor was mad at someone so he went to their place to confront them. They were scared of him and his advanced musculature, so they decided to belittle him targeting his lack of smarts. They challenged him to a drinking competition. He drank and drank and drank, but could not even finish his first cup. He got sad and, humiliated, went home. It turns out that they had hooked up the Ocean to his glass. Tricky. Unknown to him, Thor had drunk several feet of ocean. Nowadays, Thor is diminished, but every day there are tired people huddled on ships around the world making small homages to this godly act.
I wonder how many inches of seawater Oceanographers have drawn off and filtered over the century-long history of the field. I wonder how much coffee was drunk to sustain the action.
Anyways. For the past couple of weeks, we woke up to quiet alarms in dark cabins. Some of us woke up at midnight, some at 5pm. The time of day became a relative thing. Sometimes you’d share dinner with someone having breakfast. So we dressed quietly to avoid waking cabin mates on other schedules. We’d walk into the brightness of fluorescent bulb-lit halls, weaving down the narrow passageways to the movement of the ocean. We’d organize our bottles in the wintery lab air, set cold to mimic sea surface temperatures. We’d milk niskins – the bottles that collect water from set depths for us to analyse – that had been thousands of vertical metres down to the depths of the ocean, a truly mind blowing thing. I often wonder what tales the niskins could tell of life and events in the deep. Chatter at the niskins changed with the mood of the cruise: mostly lively and light hearted, sometimes grumpy and tired, sometimes entirely absent as people focused on sampling and the day ahead, silent while the wind and salty air blew by.
Then into the lab and the loud music and the vacuum pumps and the coffee and pounding of Oreos. And the filtering. Always the filtering. You get to know a lot about a person while they are filtering for hours a day. You get to see them at their best and worst. You get to see how they solve problems while alert or groggy. You find out about their passions and drives. You find out that they like Miley Cyrus. A lot. Nothing makes a group come together like filtering.
But now the last vacuum pump has fallen silent. The last desperate nap has been had. No more sleeping in chairs next to the filtrationrig. No more fevered conversation about whether muffins will be put out in time to keep us going: the ritual of Muffin O’clock. We made it through a whirlwind two weeks of 16 hour days, sampling like people possessed, when all you had to do was keep going.
Your world shrinks when you are at sea. You make friends quickly. You acclimate quickly. Muffin O’clock becomes one of the major events of the day. But there is no place for Muffin O’clock on land. Muffins are just food there, devoid of their symbolism, their ritualized anticipation. Simple things get lost in the transition back to the richness of our lives. Now we are coming back to reality. We are remembering loved ones, as if for the first time. We are organizing events once the ship docks. We are filling hours we had forgotten we even had. We are eating Oreos for pleasure, not survival.
Written by Ben Knowles