Science at Sea: Researchers Share Expedition Experience


Beautiful and nearly ubiquitous, coccolithophores are common algae that form the foundation of ocean food webs and play a significant role in global chemical and carbon cycles. However, they are often scarce in the fertile waters near the equator. This winter, Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch led a research cruise to the Southwest Pacific Ocean to find out why.

The more than 60-day cruise to remote Pacific waters was one of the longest journeys the ship, the RV Roger Revelle, has ever completed, and the COVID-19 pandemic created a unique set of additional challenges. Meticulous planning, extensive quarantines, and rigorous testing all complicated the expedition. The ship even had to alter its course home when the final port closed its borders to foreign traffic!

Thankfully, the team of 45 – including seven from Bigelow Laboratory – completed their research and returned home safe, if not a little tired. Here is what they had to share about their experience on this scientific expedition:

What was the research experience like?

David Drapeau, senior research associate

David Drapeau, senior research associate: I really enjoy watching the people who are on their first big research cruise learn and get competent, remembering what it was like for me. There's no amount of preparation that can get you ready for what it's like to go on one of these trips. It’s fun to watch the people who haven't done it before get into the routine and get through that initial couple days of seasickness or exhaustion from working 12 hours on a shift that may start at midnight.

Sunny Pinkham, research technician

Sunny Pinkham, research technician: Everyone is doing their own different samples and experiments, but, as somebody told me at the beginning of the cruise, there's never enough personnel for the science that needs to be done. That was very true! So, I just kept learning new tasks and interacting with more people because there's always something else to do. Everyone pitches in. The cruise became a great learning experience that way.

Ben Gustafson, Colby College student researcher

Ben Gustafson, Colby College student researcher: I really enjoy focusing on something that intensely for two months where you just get up, eat, sleep, and collect water samples. That has been a really positive experience for me.

What was it like to live and work with this small group for two months?

Guiliana Viglione, research technician and science writer

Giuliana Viglione, research technician and science writer: One of my favorite parts of going to sea has always been the people that you meet. Everyone likes to joke that you have to be a certain kind of weird to enjoy going to sea. You’re out for weeks at a time, completely isolated, and you form friendships really fast because you are just with each other so much of the time and you get really comfortable. The ship brings everyone together.

Hannah Priimiano, Drew University student researcher

Hannah Primiano, Drew University student researcher: One of the first times I realized that it was such a good group of people is when I went to get a glass of water at the beginning of the cruise and got sucked into a card game with people I've never met. It was just really fun, and that was one of the first times I thought, “I'm really going to like this. I'm going to like the people here.” We hadn't started working yet, so I didn't know what exactly it would be like. But I knew I was going to be OK, and I was going to like the whole thing.

Ben Gustafson, Colby College student researcher

Ben: I would say that it was an extremely collaborative environment. Everyone from the other research teams were always willing to lend a hand and answer questions. Everyone was genuinely so interested in being there and always happy to talk to you about science, but also explain to you what birds are outside or to sit and admire the sunset.

What is a memory that sticks out?

Barney Balch, senior research scientist and project lead

Barney Balch, senior research scientist and project lead: As we were headed back north, we had our first clear night. It had been overcast for maybe 30 days straight, but, finally, we had a clear evening. Folks were out on deck after dinner enjoying the setting sun and we saw a very bright light in the sky. It turned out to be the International Space Station that was going over us and we realized the closest humans were actually 250 miles above us! We all stood on deck and waved to it for the four minutes it took to cross from horizon-to-horizon.

Sunny Pinkham, research technician

Sunny: For me, there is the novelty of seeing a whale. We had just deployed an instrument when a humpback whale came up a stone's throw away from us at the stern of the ship. We could hear it groan! Word always spreads rapidly onboard, and within minutes most of the science party and ship crew were on deck joking and laughing as we awaited the next glimpse.

Ben Gustafson, Colby College student researcher

Ben: Right when we were coming back, we found this huge bloom of coccolithophores, which is exactly what we had been looking for. It was first thing in the morning, when we were changing shifts, and normally everyone is so tired. But we are all excited and huddled around this computer that was showing basically just a simple graph with a huge spike on it. Barney turned to us and he said, “This is a really rare opportunity. Remember this moment in science, because this is so cool!” We had found the data that we were looking for, but it was really cool to see just how passionate and excited he and the other researchers were about finding it.

What advice do you have for other first-timers?

Hannah Priimiano, Drew University student researcher

Hannah: Go for it. Make sure you understand what you're getting yourself into – if it's a really long trip, you have to be prepared for that. But it's a great experience. You meet great people, and you spend a lot of time doing cool things. I would recommend it!

Ben Gustafson, Colby College student researcher

Ben: Mentally gear up for a challenging experience, and be ready for all of the unknown possibilities. Whatever expectations you probably have, it will probably not be exactly like that. So just be open to the adventure. Whatever it will be, it will be pretty fantastic.

If you want to read more, check out the blogs written by Giuliana and Ben as they shared their experience at sea.

Photos by Giuliana Viglione