Category Archives: Marine bio

Boat envy

My significant other left this morning for a 17 day research cruise on a 187-foot NOAA research vessel.  I’d love to say my feelings are mixed, but the truthier version would be, I’m dying of envy. He’s never been on a research cruise, or any type of large boat for more than a few hours. I’m not exactly Jacques Cousteau (no matter how much I wanted to be him when I was growing up), but I have been on several boat trips of varying lengths, the longest a 10-day trip on the RV Cape Hatteras (135 ft) in 1994, just as I was starting graduate school in Marine Bio at UNC-Wilmington. I never wanted to set foot on shore again after any of them.

btw, the term “cruise” should not conjure up images of Carnival Cruise lines. Research cruises are considerably lacking in luxury, though the cook on my 10 day trip made as good food as I’ve had anywhere (as long as one liked lots of garlic).

I probably got less sleep on the grad school trip than at any comparable span of time in my life, despite being a lifelong expert in insomnia.  My group was aiming to catch larval fish; we used several different methods, the main one being the boat’s huge frame trawl. This was an enormous net, maybe 40 feet long,that tapered down to a PVC barrel about 3 feet long, with mesh inserts. All the larger creatures washed out of the net and small, planktonic creatures were caught in the barrel. We caught miniscule slivers of baby fish, tiny speckled octopi the size of pencil erasers, the transparent larvae of lobsters (looking like weird extraterrestrial spiders, fragile as wet tissue paper– opening photo).  One day we passed the tattered remains of a makeshift raft, probably from one of the groups of desperate Haitians who were risking their lives in attempts to float to America at the time. It was mostly submerged and consisted of old inner tubes, pieces of coolers, part of a box spring, and other junk. We never knew what happened to the poor souls who set out on such a terrifying conveyance.

On other trips I’ve seen humpback whales drifting alongside the boat, waving a startlingly white, 15-foot long pectoral fin languidly at us. Manta rays the size of king-sized beds at dawn, shooting out of the water, turning over in mid-air, gleaming ebony backs traded for white bellies, splashing back into slate blue water with a resounding crash. A basking shark as long as my Elantra loafing at the surface like a cat dozing in the sun. Black and white dolphins surfing in the bow wave, turning over to eye us as we hung over the ship’s side, gaping & grinning like fools. They seemed to laugh at us (which would make them mighty forgiving creatures). The sky at night so velvet black and clear we could actually see satellites passing overhead, which I thought hadn’t been possible since the 70s, but there are some areas with air clear enough still.

R/V Cape Hatteras, my home for 10 days.

A lot of wrong turns resulted in my not spending a whole lot more time at sea. But I’m trying to remember what I was lucky enough to do, and to see.

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