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Atlantic coccoliths blog

Day in the life

Jeremy, Tuesday 28 October 2008

Dawn sky. Almost a nice sunrise this morning.

Dawn sky. Almost a nice sunrise this morning.

5.15 Alarm goes off, Martine and I have worked out we don’t need to both get up early so we are alternating this, and unfortunately it is my turn for an early morning.

After getting up I nip across to the bar, conveniently just around the corner from my cabin, for a coffee. Then down to the lab where one of the Plymouth Marine Lab scientists, Carolyn, and chief scientist Malcolm, show me a large black insect that was found on the deck this morning. This is rather strange as we are more than a thousand miles from land.

Since I come from the Natural History Museum they hope I may be able to help identify it. It looks like a big black grasshopper to me; I take a set of photos and promise to ask an expert.

5.45 As I finally get to our corner of the lab the CTD and rosette sampler are still going down on its water collecting mission so I have time to wash and rinse our bottles and prepare the syringe filters we are using to take reconnaissance samples.

6.15 The CTD comes back on deck so it is time to collect the water – attaching hoses to the bottles on the sampler to fill up our jerry cans. This is really the only outdoor job we have so one of our favourite tasks. The sun comes up as we are sampling and a big frigate bird comes to visit, circling over the ship a few times.

6.45 Sampling over, it is back into the lab to do the syringe filter preps and start the main filtration process going.

7.30 Breakfast – a very welcome cooked breakfast (and more coffee), we are well looked after on the ship.

8.00 Start the main work of the morning: Processing the filter samples generated from the day before - we are collecting from 9 water depths in the morning and 13 in the afternoon.

There are two filters from each depth, as we are taking different filter types for light and electron microscopy, so there is a constant flow of filters to look after.

The filters for electron microscopy simply need to be transferred into petri-slides and labelled. For the light microscopy filters, I also make up microscope slides.

Part of the days haul of filters ready for storage. The square bits are where I have cut out a portion of the filter to mount for microsocpy.

Part of the days haul of filters ready for storage. The square bits are where I have cut out a portion of the filter to mount for microsocpy.

9.00 Take a break to send an email to a couple of entomologists in the museum to ask what the grasshopper is. I can’t remember who specialises in this group but I am very confident someone will know (especially as it is a big distinctive insect).

Then back to the microscope to check on the samples I collected this morning. We are near the equator now, the sea is getting more productive, and the coccolithophore communities are slowly changing – especially, and this is something of a surprise, the communities at intermediate depths around 50m.

Gryllus bimaculatus, our grasshopper stowaway.

Gryllus bimaculatus, our grasshopper stowaway.

10.00 Get an email reply from George Beccaloni explaining that our grasshopper is ‘an adult female Mediterranean Field Cricket, Gryllus bimaculatus. This species has a very wide distribution from Africa to Asia and it is also bred extensively in captivity for live food for reptiles etc, and as a lab animal. This species may have flown on board, but it may also be a stowaway. I had one recently brought in to the museum which jumped out of someone’s suitcase in the UK when they got back from Egypt.’

The fact that it is a common species is something of a relief, since Carolyn was very unhappy with the idea of me preserving him for the museum collections – a dragonfly which died on the deck a couple of days ago has ended up pickled in the fridge.

10.45 Reconnaissance of these morning’s filters is finished so I complete the sample labelling and take the trays down to the lab to start filling up with the next set of filters.

Start a more detailed examination of the afternoon filters from yesterday – the basic aim is to do a count of coccolithophore abundance in all the samples and note the dominant species but for the afternoon samples I am usually able to do a more detailed analysis.

12.00 Lunchtime – like I said they look after us well and lunch is a three course meal - with quite a bit of discussion of the grasshopper and other visitors. Then a half hour break for a relaxed coffee in the bar and a little wander round the ship.

The ship stopped after lunch for more sampling

The ship stopped after lunch for more sampling

12.45 Prepare for the afternoon sampling. Martine has decided that this is a good time for an extended sampling so we can collect bulk organic matter samples for DNA analysis through the water column. This means pressing all our bottles back into service.

After washing the bottles, time for a bit of a stroll and chat as the CTD goes out. The lunchtime (or more technically ‘solar noon’) halt is rather impressive as in addition to the CTD midships there is a plankton net deployed further forward and an optics rig near the stern so with three cranes out, the ship looks like it is undertaking large-scale fishing.

13.30 The CTD comes out of the water and sampling gets back in earnest. With about 120 litres of water to collect there is a lot to do – and it is hot and humid outside.

The afternoon’s haul of water (and it all needs to be filtered)

The afternoon’s haul of water (and it all needs to be filtered)

14.00 After half an hour of work in the sun the samples are safely lined up in the lab, and I am in severe need of a shower.

14.30 Back to the microscope to finish off the analysis of yesterday afternoon’s samples – there is a lot of really nice stuff in the samples, but the day is getting a bit long and around this time I find microscope work pretty hard going; a bit of music helps and luckily there is an impressive system in the UIC (Underway Instrumentation Centre) where we have set-up the microscopes.

Our insatiable filtration set-up

Our insatiable filtration set-up

16.00 Start my turn of the day’s filter work. Filtering water is pretty much the coalface of oceanography and there is a lot of it going on on the ship. The basic principle is that you pour water into the top of the filtration apparatus it gets pumped through the filter and into a receiving carboy and the sample gets left behind on the filter.

So the filtering process basically involves pouring water in, ticking off how much has been filtered, watching till the water level falls near the bottom (running the filter dry is a bad idea), closing the tap, pouring in more, re-opening the tap and so on in (hopefully) a nice steady rhythm for as many hours as it takes to get all the samples done.

17.00 Science meeting – there are 18 scientists on board, and although we are in separate small teams, it is very useful to meet once a week or so to discuss plans for the next few days sampling, and debate any interesting results (are low surface-water salinities here a result of Amazon outflow?). Today’s meeting also includes a briefing on the crossing the line ceremony that is getting close and becoming a major focus of discussion.

17.20 Back to the filtration – rather tranquil as the sun is low on the horizon and comes in through the lab windows, through which every now and then I can just about see a shoal of flying fish jumping out of the water.

Further away, there is less tranquility, as the engineering officers have got out their new inflatable swimming pool.

This is tempting but Martine and I still have a lot of work to do as a result of the extended sampling today.

18.20 Stop the filtration, change for dinner (no t-shirts or shorts allowed), and, as the sun is now definitely over the yardarm, its time for a medicinal G&T in the bar.

18.35 Dinner

The all important bar (and coffee machine)

The all important bar (and coffee machine)

19.30 Time for an after dinner coffee and chat in the bar – the bar has a bar, obviously, but it also has lot of comfortable seating space, tables, a darts board etc. and is the social centre for the scientists and officers (there is a separate crew bar which seems a touch anachronisitic but no-one on the ship wants to change that).

After dinner is probably the busiest time of day in the bar with most of us there, a lot of open discussion, and usually a group attempt at doing the crossword from the shipboard paper. Later on the numbers decrease as many people are working shift systems, or retire to their cabins, or like Martine and I tonight, have work to finish off.

20.15 Finish the last bit of filtering then spend an hour or so picking through the day’s zooplankton sample for pteropods– this is a particularly pleasant and relaxing task which I will have to explain in another blog entry.

21.30 Rejoin the bar group for a wind down at the end of a rather longer than average day.

Jeremy, nearly at the equator.

Posted in Equipment, Life at sea

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