The following article first appeared in Bermuda´s Royal Gazette on January 28, 1997. Reprinted by courtesy of the Editor.
This was not a pleasure cruise!
By Neil Ward
They warned me about this.
Barely two hours out of Ferry Reach and life aboard the Weatherbird II has become, well, nauseating.
The first stirrings of seasickness come early this morning. With the sail around Fort St. Catherine a mere pleasant memory, the 115-foot Weatherbird clears the reefs and heads out to rougher water.
"She has her own distinctive roll," says research scientist Dr. Deborah Steinberg, and it doesn't take long for the pitch of the ocean to bring the Weatherbird's personality into the realm of the real.
Midship in the galley however my stomach is torn: partake of the great looking lunch prepared by cook Robin Nay, or pay heed to the early rumblings of a glassy stomach.
Lunch wins, but it's a short lived victory: I don't make it to dessert.
Outside meanwhile a storm front broods, kicking up winds from the northwest. Under the command of Captain Patrick Reilly, Weatherbird - with 12 souls aboard - sails south into seas running eight to ten feet.
It's just a milk run, a pleasure cruise to the hands aboard the Bermuda Biological Station´s principal research platform. Twice monthly Weatherbird slips her Ferry Reach moorings to venture south into the Sargasso Sea, carrying scientists, lab techs, and students to rendezvous with two deep-ocean sampling sites.
Long before the Island made its mark as a tourist playground, science fell under her charms. Rising abruptly from the ocean floor, the Bermuda seamount affords researchers unparalleled and affordable access to the deep ocean.
"We couldn't do this work as easily from the (mainland) US," said Dr Steinberg, coordinator of the Bermuda Atlantic Time Series (BATS). "Just the time involved in getting beyond the continental shelf is considerable. Here we're in 3500 metres of water in a matter of minutes."
Within 90 minutes Weatherbird has plowed across 26 kilometres of ocean and arrives at Hydrostation S, a long-term oceanic monitoring project commenced in 1954 and thereafter tended bi-weekly by faithful Biostation staff.
Throughout its 43-year lifespan Hydrostation S - now funded by the US National Science Foundation - has been steadily compiling a baseline of information on water temperature, salinity, and the chemical properties of the Sargasso Sea, helping researchers understand the physical forces and seasonal fluctuations that impact the mid-Atlantic environment.
Once at station chief scientist Kjell Gundersen, deckhand Uwe Lipfert, and marine technician Jeff Benson casually stroll across the aft deck and begin to retrieve a series of ‘GoFlo' bottles, cylinders used to collect water samples to a depth of 50 metres.
As waves roll across Weatherbird's flat aft deck the team lose themselves in the task, oblivious to the growing seas and pitch of the boat. The real heaving, it seems, is left to me.
Within an hour the samples are collected and stored and by mid-afternoon we sail southwest from Hydrostation S towards BATS, a spot on the map some 86 kilometres south of Bermuda.
Similar to Hydrostation S, BATS has for the past nine years been providing science with baseline data on sediment decomposition, water temperature, and chemical/organic composition in the deep-ocean environment.
Taken together, researchers hope information from both sites - and others around the world - will provide a fact-based profile of the forces driving global climate change.
The four-hour transit to BATS, however, is no pleasure cruise. The leading edge of the Nova Scotia storm front has more than started to make its presence felt and Weatherbird, bobbing like cork, slogs southwest through 14-foot seas.
We make BATS by late afternoon and with light fading quickly crews scramble across the floodlit aft deck to retrieve a series of sediment traps and sampling bottles.
The storm, meanwhile, continues to gather force. With winds pushing 30 knots Weatherbird's crew commences the last of its tasks, a series of net drags designed to collect deep-sea dwelling zooplankton such as krill, heteropods, copepods, and ctenophores.
The harvest is part of one of the world's largest - albeit unseen - animal migrations. Each night billions of microscopic creatures make their way up the water column to feed in the ocean's surface water.
The vertical migrators are thought to consume vast quantities of phytoplankton, says Dr Steinberg, which in turn are believed to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Expressed in human scale, the migration is the equivalent of walking 25 miles each way for breakfast, she says.
"By eating plant materials in the surface water at night and swimming downward each day, zooplankton potentially move a lot of carbon from the surface to the ocean depths."
But all does not go according to plan this night. By 8 p.m. - with seas running between 15 - 20 feet and Weatherbird in the teeth of a full-blown gale - the net drags are mercifully called off.
It's not a great harvest, admits Dr Steinberg, pointing to a few tiny shrimp-like krill and one translucent eel larva. Hardly worth the trip to hell and back I concur, struggling to hold back my own inner tempest.
Outside meanwhile a horizontal rain is driving as boiling seas hammer Weatherbird; for the eight-hour return trip we tuck into bunks as the gale - gusting to 60 knots - rages against us.
Sleep is, however, impossible. Between holding fast to the bunk and scraping my stomach from the cabin floor, I conclude I've had only one worse night in my life - and that included hypothermia.
For the love of science, I tell myself. Someone's got to do it.