Follow Dr. Katrina Edwards, as she explores the microbial life at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean

11 – 1 – 2011

Today I have a guest post by another shipboard participant in expedition 336 here on the Joides Resolution. Geoff Wheat is a geochemist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stationed (normally) in Monterey, California. He is one of the lead scientists involved in OSMO sampling using our CORKed observatories. He writes today about the night sky - and what we can see of it here at sea.

One aspect of being at sea hundreds of kilometers from land is that the only light at night is powered by generators on the ship or from the Moon and the multitude of stars and planets above. Typically mariners try to minimize the amount of light that the ship produces at night to maintain their “night vision”. This is achieved in a variety of ways such as shielding cabin portholes or using dim red lights on the bridge for various control knobs and switches - much like a back-lit keyboard on a laptop. This is especially important while the ship is steaming and near the coast where small watercraft are bobbing on the swells without lights and have such a low profile that radar returns are minimal. At such times during cloudless nights, the bow offers a spectacular display of the cosmos, if one can maneuver around obstacles on the deck in the dark of night. Even with the hazards of these obstacles the trip to the bow is well worth it! By lying on the deck you can see everything from meteors to satellites to planets to stars to constellations.

One of the most spectacular views of the heavens that I have witnessed occurred on a Navy-operated ship that serviced a three-person submersible vessel. We were out in a small zodic (a small watercraft) waiting to retrieve the submersible on a moonless night. We drove several miles from the ship, cut the engine and lights, and laid on the floor of the boat while we waited for the submersible. The swells blocked our view of the ship, leaving us in complete darkness except for the show above.

Complete darkness is hard to find on the deck of the D/V Joides Resolution.

Because the ship works 24-7 and so much of the deck space is devoted to operations, light floods much of the deck for safe operations. Even on the bow or back on the helicopter deck light is everywhere. There also is the ever-present derrick, which looms above, bathing the ship in light. Yet, with a quest at hand, I searched for the darkest spot on the deck.

I found a nice location behind several large crates on the helicopter deck to begin my search for my favorite stars. I have conducted many similar searches at home with my kids. We would turn off all the lights in the house, head outside in our pajamas, and lie in the driveway looking at stars. We would often see planes and sometimes a meteor or a satellite, but mostly we were looking first for the Big Dipper. We then follow the Big Dipper to the North Star and continue across the sky to the big “W”. My kids know this consolation as the Wheat consolation. I wonder where they heard that?

Looking at the stars I would point out that they are the same stars that I see when I am at sea or traveling around the world. I told them that if they missed me they could always go outside at night, look at the stars, and know that I will be looking at them too. Even now when we go camping or backpacking I take them away to a dark field to search the skies for the Wheat consolation.

Ironically, the light from the ship and the low-lying clouds during the past week have blocked out most of the stars, even my favorites. Yet, I know they are still up there with my kids viewing them from home thinking of me and me looking for the stars thinking of them. Sometimes it is the small things in life that have the most meaning.