Saturday, August 14, 2010

I found religion!

New Religion

by Bill Holm

This morning no sound but the loud

breathing of the sea. Suppose that

under all that salt water lived the god

that humans have spent ten thousand

years trawling the heavens for.

We caught the wrong metaphor.

Real space is wet and underneath,

the church of shark and whale and cod.

The noise of those vast lungs

exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.

Heaven's not up but down, and hell

is to evaporate in air. Salvation,

to drown and breathe

forever with the sea.

"New Religion" by Bill Holm, from The Chain Letter of the Soul: New & Selected

Poems. © Milkweed Editions, 2009.

* * * *

Well, we are actually returning a day early.

So, if you want to meet me, just be at the Woods Hole Dock at 1630 hours (that’s 4:30 p.m.)

I will be available to sign autographs. Just kidding.

Still, I’m so glad Chief Scientist, Dr. Lloyd Keigwin gave us enough notice about the early return! I was able to prepare myself for the paparazzi

by giving myself a nice mud mask—using 250,000 old mud gathered from underneath the deep water in the Gulf of Maine.

What a luxury!

And, actually I do feel this has been a very glamorous and luxurious trip. Yes, it’s true being a ship for ten days can make for a rough and tumble environment--with all that mud and heavy equipment--but there have certainly been moments of grace and real beauty aboard the Knorr.

I met so many incredible people. And every single person I met taught me something new. For instance, this fellow, Wayne Hinkel—he’s an “ordinary seaman,” but there’s nothing ordinary about him.

Before he decided to spend his life at sea, he had planned to go to FIT in New York City to study fashion design. Yes, I actually found a fashionista on board! Oh, and he paints and he plays guitar. Yes, he’s an artiste and he certainly reminded me of that age old lesson to never judge a book by its cover!

That’s him playing chess with Joe. How intellectual. How civilized.

And speaking of civilized, I cannot leave you without telling you about the food and our magnificent chef, Bobbie Bixler.

Bobbie makes the most delectable creations. She is a culinary artist, completely devoted to her

job of feeding this hard-working group scientists and crew. She began by studying cooking in Italy and has now been all over the world.

Here's a photo of her seared tuna with garlic ginger drizzle.

That night’s menu also included:

Sesame seared tuna

Basmati rice

Butternut squash sauteed with a hint of curry

Sautéed French green beads

Braised red cabbage with sweet hot chipotle

The topper Bobbie’s black bean mango salsa

Flat iron steaks grilled the way you like them

Recipe for Bobbie’s Black Bean Mango Salsa for a Crowd

1 #10 can of black beans drained and quickly rinsed (6 lb. 10 oz)

4 large mangos peeled and diced a bit larger than the beans

1 medium red onion diced small

6 habanera peppers diced or minced 6-8 bunches of green onions finely sliced

2 cups cilantro diced

5-6 large juicy limes

Kosher or sea salt to taste, takes a bit

This salsa only needs about 3 hours to grab the flavor. To do it smaller, just use two 28 oz. cans or 2 lbs dry black beans and cut everything in half.

Safety First.

Time has a funny way of expanding and contracting when you’re at sea, and here it is my last day and suddenly the crew is talking to me. A lot! It actually began happening a few days ago. Little by little I got to know just about everyone. First the Captain (maybe that’s how it started—he gave me the seal of approval!) but then came Dee and Mike and Lee who invited me to tour the Engineer’s Room. I even finally talked to Pete, the man I was most afraid of because he does seem awfully busy and perhaps a little gruff.

I’ve come to realize that it takes time for these guys to befriend you, to trust you, but when they do-- it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world—because you can see that are completely sincere. Trust is a big deal on board of ship, because you never know and you want to make sure the person you’re with is going to be there for you, steady, calm, kind and reliable.

Because when you think about it, isn’t this a metaphor for life and for all relationships. Who do you trust? Who would you want to be in a lifeboat with?

So perhaps I would not be such a bad companion in a lifeboat. Perhaps the crew senses that I would not be the kind of gal who would forget to wear long sleeves and that I would not forget my hat.

And this brings me back to Dr. William G. Thompson.

My WHOI-Climate-Change Scientist-Man. After being on the sea for nine days, more than ever--I am glad I married him. I am glad I agreed to share a “lifeboat” with him.

And, I am so happy to know I will be seeing him in a matter of hours!

So, I must bid you adieu now, Sailors, Scientists and Sea!



Friday, August 13, 2010

Ode to a Ship

Meet Captain Kent.

This is our Captain. The Captain of the Knorr, that is. His name is Kent Sheasley. And truth be told, he really is kind of like Clark Kent —unassuming, a little shy, quiet but still very commanding. And because he’s got to keep the ship on course, it often happens that people don’t even know he’s the captain, until days into a cruise and he introduces himself to you at dinner and asks you--in a very gentlemanly manner--if you’d like a tour of “The Bridge.”

Sure, I’d like a tour!? Are you kidding? But, how’s that ever gonna happen?!

And then he replies simply that he can make it happen. He’s the captain.

View from a bridge.

This is actually what happened. And this is when I discovered that Kent is secretly a Superman. There he stands at the helm, high above the vessel, surrounded by a panoramic view of the blue-blue waves of the Atlantic crashing and flowing round us, dolphins frolicking on the starboard side of the ship, their fins catching the sun’s light as they arc into the sparkling waves. I am not making this up. I am not waxing poetic. This is what really happened. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to return to land and stay there.

I do believe I’ve been hypnotized by the siren song of the sea.

There are so many amazing scientists and crew here, and they are all working around the clock--collecting sediments, guiding our vessel and keeping us on course as we roll and steam forward through the waters of the Gulf of Maine.

Here's a photo of Kevin Butler, Able Seaman.

Yes, even as all this science is taking place, we are always steaming forward, always in motion. And someone is always at the bridge.

Late into the night, when I sleep in my stateroom, on the upper bunk, I am lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of the ship as she glides through the waters. There is something so primal about this rocking motion, this gentle tipping back and forth, that I do believe I sleep better here on the Knorr than I have ever slept anywhere in my entire life. I have always struggled with the idea of where do I belong—New York City, Paris, Woods Hole, Seconsett Island where I live now, or Connecticut where I am originally from?

I have never truly felt at home anywhere. Bu tnow, I think I just don't belong on land. Perhaps the Great Atlantic is really my home.

I say the Great Atlantic, because being here, surrounded by the water on all sides—and watching the various permutations the Atlantic takes on—from the bluest blue to the blackest black, from gently shifting swells to pounding, thrashing white capped waves--I have a newfound respect for ocean. For the Atlantic. For the water I grew up on in Stamford, Connecticut, walking along the beaches, occasionally digging for clams in the mucky, muddy low tide beaches of Shippan Point.

I am a "guest."

Yesterday, when I visited the bridge and talked to Captain Kent Sheasley, he was not in any kind of uniform, but rather he was wearing shorts and a slightly wrinkled tee shirt. But, I suspect that the manner of dress is one of the few things that have actually changed over the years on the Knorr. Other than this, there is a sense of decorum and politesse that I find enchanting.

Kent is incredibly kind to me, and truthfully I can imagine this as a scene in a movie. I am the “guest”, a still-attractive though slightly-fading-older woman. I could be his mother, and so he is very polite to me, but not just because I could be his mother, but because he is an officer and a gentleman! He is after all, the Captain of the Knorr!

And while he was rather reserved, I did get to talking with Dee Emrich. She’s our Chief Mate, second in command.

She told me how everyone on the ship is actually rather sensitive and definitely very sensory-oriented. “This is 911,” she told me, meaning that if anything goes wrong, the people on board this ship become rescue workers. And so, everyone here has a heightened awareness of smell, taste, touch, sound and sight. A strange smell can mean something has gone wrong. But what moves me about this is how very writerly it is. When I teach creative writing, this is the first thing I tell my students. Use your senses! So, in the end, I realize that this sea-faring world and the world of the writer are no so far apart.

You have to be a certain kind of person to spend your life on board a ship. And Dee is that kind of person. She loves the life. She grew up by the beach in Hyannis and graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and she's been on some pretty dramatic WHOI cruises. For instance, she was abroad the Knorr when it traveled to the Irminger Sea—between southern Greenland and Iceland—one of the stormiest places in the world. Not surprisingly, there were several huge storms while she was there and she told me how they had to batten down everything. “Were you scared?” I asked, and she just shrugged her shoulders, calmly telling me, “No. We just did our job.”

When I am ready to leave the Bridge, the kindly Captain tells me that I don’t have to go out through the outside—that’s the way I had come in—by starting at the lower deck and climbing all these precarious stairs (okay, maybe only precarious in my mind) up and up high above the ship, the blue-blue water roiling beneath me.

Rather, the Captain says--directing me to a secret corridor--I can go back down to the deck through the inside chambers of the boat.

Yes, the inside chambers.

And then he bids me farewell.

I had several floors to descend, and so you can be sure, I took out my camera and photographed all along the way. I stopped at this lounge area. Isn’t it exquisite?

Doesn’t it feel very post modern/midcentury chic? Look at the table, the chair, the lamp. And oooh, the door with the porthole.

Standing there, I wanted to just move into this room and play chess all day (and I don’t even know how to play chess).

And then I imagined, I'd drink champagne with Tony Curtis (who would be wearing a nautical cap just like in Some Like it Hot and oh--just watch the ocean curl and foam all around us. Wouldn't that be delightful?

Yes, this is the life for me!

Oh, but I forgot to tell you something really grand! Before I left the bridge, the Captain, (that would be Kent) said he wanted me to come up to the bridge upon arrival, so that I could experience pulling into Woods Hole! This is a very big deal. Very few people get an opportunity like this.

And then later, when I was walking back to the lab, I saw a plaque on the deck level honoring the Knorr because it was the ship that discovered the whereabouts of the Titanic. I looked it up on the internet and learned that there was a very famous arrival for the Knorr, back in 1985 when Bob Ballard returned to a big crowd of fans and reporters!

Here’s a photograph of the media circus that awaited the

famous scientist and crew upon their return to Woods Hole.

Gee, I wonder if there will be anything like that when I return?

And speaking of my return, as it turns out, we having finished coring early and we are actually returning tomorrow at 1630.

That means at 4:30 p.m. I must confess that I am a little out of sorts about this change in plans. I had so much more to write about. Honestly I think I could fill a book.

Well, perhaps I will.

Good night, sea. Good night, sailors. Good night scientists.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Canary in the Coalmine

Lattitude: 39 degrees
Longitude: 069 degrees

Sea Legs

Yes, it occurred to me today that I am really getting my “sea legs.”

Actually, that’s what my husband, (Dr. Bill Thompson of WHOI) said to me in a recent email. And I confess, I really am enjoying myself on the Knorr. Plus, I have learned so much! Cindy, the scientist who sits next to me, said that she has given me a crash course in Geology 101.

She teaches at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology and I just know she’s a fabulous professor, because she is a genius at explaining all this science to me! Plus, she’s really, really nice and always willing to talk to me, no matter how many questions I ask!

Butterflies are free.

Okay, I want to talk about Sea Butterflies today.

But before I do that, I must tell you I was given a very special invitation by the captain of The Knorr himself—to tour “The Bridge.” This is the place in the ship where you stand high above everything else and have a panoramic view of the ocean ahead of you. As we were talking a whole group of dolphins came swimming by us, leaping out of the water and waving their fins at us as if to say howdy! It was such an amazing experience that I want to devote tomorrow’s entire blog to my tour. So stay turned. You will be very surprised by what I have to tell you at The Knorr!

Early this morning I sat outside on the deck. The sun was low and bright in the sky and its reflection on the roiling ocean made the water look completely black—like a big thick piece of shiny black coal.

I began to think about these little creatures that live in the water. They’re officially called Pteropods. But, they also answer to the names Sea Butterflies and Sea Angels. The Sea Angels are referred to as the naked ones, because they don’t make a shell.

Here are two pictures of Sea Butterflies.

Aren't they beautiful? Look at the color. So blue. The French call this Provence Blue.

The Sea Butterfly is very small, but you can see her without a microscope. She’s about the size of your fingertip. And guess what—you can find these little sea creatures right here in the Gulf of Maine—floating on the surface or nestled deep in the sediments. (That would be the mud we’re been chasing. Honestly, after this trip, I will never think of mud as just mud ever again.)

Oh, and I also had to show this beautiful photo of fall fashion. You can see how the designers who create these delicate lace ensembles are obviously influenced by the patterns we find in nature.

It's the way life goes. We are all dependent on one another. That's what the food chain is all about.

All living creatures must eat, and so these little Sea Butterflies do more than just look lovely.

They provide a delicious morsel of food for the fish. And of course, bigger fish eat smaller fish and even bigger fish eat the big fish and so it goes. Humans then eat the fish and you know what—whales eat fish and seals eat fish and penguins eat fish!

Yes, we’re back to the penguins.

I guess I like to bring them up because just about everybody

loves penguins and nobody would want to make the poor penguins go hungry.

Hungry penguins: very sad.

But you know what—we’re really going to have some very hungry penguins in the near future and this is because the ocean is warming. And yes, the ocean is really warming. You can read all about that in yesterday’s blog.

But here’s what you may not know--this warming trend has already done a whole lot of damage to the Sea Butterflies!

The canary in the coal mine.

Right now, even as we speak, the sea butterflies are having a terrible struggle with producing their shells. This is because the ocean is becoming more and more acidic. The ocean is becoming more acidic because of all the CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) coming into it. So, the shells of the sea butterflies are getting thinner and lighter. This is what the WHOI scientists have discovered. This is really happening. Right now.

Why are these Sea Butterflies so vulnerable to the acidity in the ocean? It’s because their shells are made from agagonite, a form of calicium carbonate that dissolves more easily than calcite (which is what many forams are made of).

And if all this is hard to picture. Imagine what it would be like to drink the most acidic orange juice all day long for the next ten years. Imagine what that acid would do to your teeth. Not a pretty picture.

Well, consider the Sea Butterflies!

Their shells are becoming more and more fragile and they’re struggling just to survive. But more than this, we need to pay attention to these little creatures, because they are the canary in the coalmine. So many creatures are dependent on them.

If the Sea Butterflies die, then the fish that eat them will starve

and die, and the fish that eat those fish, and then the bigger fish and then the whales will die…and you see where I’m going with this, they’ll be no more penguins. And nobody wants that to happen!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Heroes on the High Seas

Dinner: Surf and Turf

At dinner tonight, (yes, we actually had lobster and steak!) there was a lot of talk about Puff Daddy and at what point did Puff Daddy (who’s real name is Sean Combs) become P. Diddy. There seems to be some kind of generational divide here that I’m not aware of. Still, everyone agreed that Liv Tyler is way too skinny and that Axl Rose still “rocks out.” Oh, and later, as the evening wore on and we were all up waiting for the 9:45 p.m. core, the discussion on the origin of the term “man basket” came up and well, things got a little bit randy.

Perhaps it’s because it’s our 6th day at sea. (And, for some of the scientists and crew who were on the Azores trip just before this expedition, it’s been over a month!), so everyone is feeling a little wacky.

So forgive me, if this this next though sounds a little wacky, but I suddenly realized that the work we’re doing here reminds me a lot of that cartoon show from the early 1990’s, Captain Planet. It was created by Ted Turner and considered “edutainment” because it taught kids about the importance of protecting our environment.

Oh, and there were plenty of villains with names like Hoggish Greedly, Sly Sludge, Duke Nukem and Veninous Skumm. Each show featured some kind of environmental disaster caused by one of these dastardly villians.

The team of five Planeteers tried to solve the problem, but generally, Captain Planeteer came to the rescue. Each show would end with Captain Planet looking straight at the television audience and saying:

“The power is yours!”

So, I was thinking about Captain Planet today and how what we need here is a real life is a modern Captain Planet!

I mean, all this damage we’re doing the environment and especially to the ocean is really awful. And what’s worse is how there are these people out there who don’t believe that climate change is real. I can’t help but think it’s like those days when people would go around saying, oh, smoking isn’t bad for your health! That cancer connection—oh, that’s just some crazy hoax!

And then along came C. Everett Koop, the Surgeon General and in 1982 he let the

world know in no uncertain terms that yes, smoking is dangerous for your health!

And suddenly, the world changed. The tipping point!

Call me naive, but I think we could do that for our planet.

We could get everyone on board to help protect our oceans if only we had a C. Everett Koop kind of guy. Or a Captain Planet!

Our Very Own Captain Planet: Dr. Ian Nicholas McCave

Well, I have one for you. Yes, right here on board the Knorr, we have our very own hero. An elder statesman of science. Handsome. Calm. Steady. Brilliant. Accomplished. Oh, and he’s got a sexy British accent!!!

Think Sean Connery.

I talked to Dr. McCave earlier today.

He told me how he got into being the profession of saving our oceans from the evil naysayers.

He would have been born on Guernsey Island (the island made famous by the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”) but in 1940 during World War II when his mother was pregnant with him, the family was evacuated and moved to a small town in Scotland. He grew up playing around the beach, swimming and fishing. By the age of ten, he was actually spear fishing and going out in small boats to catch lobsters and crabs. He remembers catching Conger Eels at low tide and then cutting them up to use for bait to catch larger fish. And while he doesn’t do much fishing these days in Cambridge where he teaches at the University of Cambridge--he loves to cook. He often grills halibut, and whole turbots on the barbeque. He’ll grill or flash fry, create a béchamel sauce, add some capers. Delicious!

All this reminds me very much of my husband, Bill (a scientist at WHOI). Bill also grew up by the beach, he loves to fish and he’s a fantastic cook. I find that a lot of climate change scientists, especially the ones that study the ocean are avid fishermen and great cooks. So perhaps it’s their stomach speaking when they talk about the dangers of destroying our waters and the knowledge that if we keep going in this direction, they’ll be no more fish to fry!

Honestly, this is not a trivial matter. Every living being needs to eat. And the food chain begins on the microscopic level and goes right up to us humans. So, the truth is, if we keep ignoring what is happening in our oceans, there really will be no more fish to put on the barbie!

It runs in the family.

A love of the ocean is part of Dr. McCave’s DNA. His great grandfather was a merchant sea captain in the 1800’s. He remembers when he was growing up and looking at his great grandfather’s photograph on the living room mantelpiece, and in fact, he still keeps this photograph in his home today in Cambridge. So, perhaps this great grandfather is a kind of a muse for Dr. McCave’s work.

Dr. McCave took this early interest in fishing and turned it into a very successful career as well as a life long passion in science. He studied geology as an undergraduate at Oxford and then went on to get his Ph.D. at Brown University in sedimentary geology. In fact, that’s where he met Chief Scientist on the Knorr, Dr. Lloyd Keigwin.

Today, Nick—this is what we call Dr. McCave on board the Knorr—is a well-known sedimentologist. He’s an expert in the dynamics of sediment transport by deep sea currents and the study of how sediment is picked up, transported and then deposited by the circulation of the ocean.

The ocean is heating up.

We got to talking about climate change over coffee this morning and he told me that yes, the temperature of the ocean is changing and you can see that from what’s going on with the foraminifera. Those are the pretty, little jewel-like creatures I showed you yesterday. If you measure deep into the ocean you might say oh, there are only very small changes in temperature, say less than a tenth of a degree--but if you add all those changes up all over the world, you will find that the amount of heat in the ocean has changed considerably. Dramatically. And it’s happening all over the world.

This pattern of ocean warming may change circulation patterns before long and this is why Nick and Lloyd and Cindy and all the good scientists of WHOI are hard at work, uncovering the mystery from many different angles. This is why they “read” mud—or sediments. These sediments are kind of like the tea leaves that a gypsy reads to determine the long-ago past, the near past and the future. (Only much more scientific, but go with me here.) The “tea leaves” (or sediments) tell the story of the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period, which preceded it, as well as the thousands of years before these events and up to the present time.

The Little Ice Age

Did you know that from around 1650-1700 we had something called The Little Ice Age? Everything became considerably colder, and in fact the Thames froze over.

Today, the Thames never freezes over. In fact, it hasn’t frozen over since the 1800’s. But you can see these wonderful old paintings of people having parties on the ice.

So, what do the tea leaves say?

Here’s the scary part--we’re now going into an era that’s actually hotter than the Medieval Warm Period.

What does all this have to do with sediment? Mud? Well, when Nick or Lloyd or Cindy or any of the other scientists studying foraminifera, go back to the lab and look at their samples through a microscope, they find that the isotope composition of the shell of the foram (short for foraminifera) has become lighter. Yes, the little shells on the beautiful little sea creatures are getting lighter and thinner. And why is this? It’s because the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prevents the heat from escaping and when it dissolves in the water, it creates carbonic acid. And you know what acid does to things? It dissolves them!

After all, the shells from all these little creatures are made from carbon calcium. And if we keep going in this direction, the little clams and oysters and mussels and periwinkles won’t be able to form shells.

Think of it. For an oyster or a clam, her shell is her clothing, her transportation and even her house, all rolled into one.

I actually already know a little about this because the wonderful, funny and sweet WHOI scientist (and friend), Dr. Anne Cohen, told me about it.

This is a photo I took of Anne at the last year's AGU. Just dig those boots. I mean, with boots like that, you know she too must be a superhero!

See you tomorrow!