Living on the Ocean

RV Sonne in the harbour of Nouméa, New Caledonia prior to SO253.

How was it to live on the sea? Did you get seasick? How was the food? Did you fit into the bed? Where did you go? What did you do on the ship? Did you get sunburned?

As you may or may not already know, this winter, for the first time in my life, I spent one month on the German research vessel Sonne on the Pacific Ocean to investigate hydrothermal systems in the Kermadec volcanic arc for my Bachelor´s thesis. At the underwater volcanoes of the Kermadec arc (located between New Caledonia and New Zealand), extremely hot, acidic, and mineral rich fluids extrude the seafloor forming the chimneys known as black smokers. For my studies, I am working on the chemical analysis of these fluids, but I will not go into further detail on the science here (that may fill a whole new blog entry).

For another perspective on the research cruise I participated in, you may also like to read the official blog: (German) (English)

And for German speakers, I can also really recommend the blog of Harald Strauss describing the life on board over the course of the expedition:

So how did I even get to go on this expedition? Quite simply, there was a position announced by our professor of geochemistry for a Bachelor´s thesis on the geochemical characterization of hydrothermal fluids involving the participation in this expedition on RV Sonne over the winter. Since doing marine research has been my dream for a long time and the goal of my studies in general, I of course immediately applied and actually got the place. It is quite incredible that I got this opportunity at such an early point in my studies already and I am absolutely grateful for this amazing experience!

Such an expedition of course also involves a lot of work around it. The project applications and planning were in preparation for years in advance and we had to begin preparing laboratory equipment, materials, and containers for scientific samples already in the summer to be shipped by container to New Caledonia in early October, 2016. So it was a truly exciting day when we were actually setting off from Germany on December 18th. I knew my working group from preparations already. Most of the rest of the group, however, had only occasionally met for organisational meetings prior to the cruise. So at the airport we were slowly getting together, figuring out who the people we would spend the next month with on the ship would be. We flew to Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia (a small island in the Pacific Ocean between Papua New Guinea and New Zealand that is officially a part of France), and the starting harbour for the expedition. Actually, this was the very first time in my life I ever left Europe!

Setting off from Nouméa with RV Sonne on December 21st, 2016.

The ship was already waiting in the harbour, but while the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) needed to be set up, we still had 2 days to adjust to the change in climate and the time change, as well as enjoy the beauty of a tropical island. Then, after another night in the harbour - on the morning of the 21st of December - it was time to set the proverbial sail. As the youngest, least experienced scientist on board, I was placed in the smallest cabin on board, just above the waterline, sharing the room with another young scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology. But even with my 1.97m, I could still well fit into the bed and we even had a couch, a desk, and a little bathroom with a shower, so I was absolutely happy. 

The first days were busy with unloading all the boxes we had packed in autumn from the containers, while still getting used to the warm climate, setting up the laboratories, and getting to know the other people. For Christmas, everybody had prepared two little gifts that were shared amongst everybody including scientists and the ship´s crew, and many had brought presents from their families with them to open while being so far away from home. Then we arrived in our first working area at Macauley Cone. What an exciting moment, when after all these preparations and some searching by the ROV, the first hot fluids coming out of the seafloor could be seen in the live video transmission in the meeting room of the ship. And when in the evening the ROV was coming out of the water, we were finally getting the first samples to analyze and prepare for shipment to Germany afterwards.

Macauley is a large underwater volcano with a small part sticking out of the water as Macauley island. The island is uninhabited but happens to host the greatest bird colony of New Zealand with milions of sea birds, mostly petrels, storm-petrels, and shearwaters. So we soon found our first stowaways, and I could take some bird photos when I had a little free time during the day. Taking photos of seabirds in flight is very challenging for the camera and the photographer, but with a bit of patience I got some nice lucky shots from close distance in the beautiful light of evenings at sea.

The first stowaway: A black-winged petrel on the deck of RV Sonne.

A red-tailed tropicbird that had chosen the ship to have his meal of a squid.

Three black-winged petrels in flight formation.

Mostly our schedule would be such that at 8 in the morning the ROV was set out into the water and dive until 8 in the evening. During the dives, we could follow the video transmission of all cameras at the ROV on all computers on the ship or on the large screen in the meeting room. So we could direct the exploration and where to take samples of rocks, fluids, or organisms. When the ROV was coming out of the water, many scientists (including me) were waiting on deck already to quickly get their samples into the laboratories to analyze or prepare for shipment to Germany because as soon as the ROV was out of the water, operations with the other pieces of equipment would start. The next device usually was a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Density) water sampling rosette, so within a few hours, the next water samples would arrive... It was a busy schedule for the night (since ship time is expensive, research vessel need to have 24/7 scientific operation!). Usually, we would be busy all night until the morning, which of course was exhausting, but it was those small moments like having a break to get on the uppermost deck and enjoy the sunrise before going to bed that made it all worth it.


Long exposure of Macauley Island in sunrise.


A fascinating phenomenon is the negotiations and hierarchies in the sample acquisition. Every scientific discipline has its own requirements regarding type and volume of sample, and there are only limited amounts of it. There are tough discussions as to who gets how much and in which order. But all these discussions and fights over samples are only meant half serious and half joking, and in the end everybody was more than happy with what they got.

Just one day, people were not that hurried to get to the ROV for their samples: there was something temporarily more interesting... dolphins! It was past sunset already, so there was very little light, hence my images are of just documentary value, but it was an amazing observation. It must have been a school of ~50 dolphins, appearing and diving away, getting closer and closer to the ship, seemingly ivestigating what we were doing there, before they lost interest and swam away, jumping in and out of the water.

But what we were seeing on the seafloor was absolutely fascinating as well... black and white smokers pouring out hot, acidic fluids from the seafloor, pure sulfur covering whole patches on the ground, mussels, shrimps, and barnacles living off the chemical energy in these fluids, and a few times even a shark or some mooray eels passing through the cameras. And not only could we look at images, we could actually retrieve water samples, organisms, and parts of chimneys.

The ROV bringing a large chimney piece with its left "hand".

Two pieces of a hydrothermal chimney in the laboratory.

Closeup of chalcopyrite crytals covering the inside of a chimney.

Now, for a blog post, this is already getting too long, so before I come to an end... did I even answer all those questions? So, no, I luckily did not get seasick, but for the sake of those who did, I will not talk more about this. The food was good, unfortunately, variety was limited, of course - there are just no supermarkets at sea yet, but the kitchen still managed to always make good meals and hold food for the nights. And yes, I did get sunburned, though that happened mostly in the days on land before and after the expedition when we could actually spend some time in the sun.

Coming towards the end of our time at sea, we had to pack everything up again, stow a milion boxes in the containers that would go back to Germany, organize our samples (we have a list of ~300, adding up to about 1700 subsamples for our working group), deal with the customs formalities of New Zealand, and I had to write my report to be finished once we arrived as required by my University. Then the arrival in Auckland... we could see the first islands appearing on the horizon already the evening before, and we knew we would arrive early in the morning, so most of us got up early to see the sunrise while we were sailing into the harbour. And what a sunrise it was. The whole sky was covered in clouds except for a tiny stripe right above the horizon: perfect conditions for a picturesque sunrise straight out of a dream.

Sunrise from RV Sonne on arrival in New Zealand

Once we arrived at the harbour, officials of the New Zealand authorities for immigration, customs and biosecurity came on board to check our passports and import goods, and then we could finally go on land. It was not even that the ground was steady for the first time in a month, but the open space was so exciting - finally being able to walk more than 30m at once.

While some were staying in New Zealand for slightly longer holidays, most of us (including me) had two days to explore Auckland and its surrounding. So we used the first day to explore the city and hike up to Mount Eden for a view over the city. It was a nice day, so we headed for lunch outside at an Italian restaurant. While we were eating, the first drops slowly fell from the sky, and by the time we were finished, the little bit of rain had developed into a full on storm. Of course we hadn´t thought of bringing a raincoat: on the ship the cabin was always close by, one could always just quickly go there and grab whatever one needed. So we got absolutely soaked on our way back, but still happy about the adventure, we enjoyed the rest of the evening inside on board of the ship. The next day we already had to leave the ship and bring our luggage to a hotel for the last night, but after that we still had a free day, so three of us decided to go to Rangitoto, a small volcano island just off Auckland. To get there, we took a little ferry, where they were speaking of heavy waves that made the landing very hard for the crew... we didn´t find those waves very heavy! So we spent the day there, enjoying the view and the hike up to the volcano (though I have to say that underwater volcanoes offer a much more spectacular view if you have an ROV) and got our last sunburn before heading back to Germany.

The skyline of Auckland with RV Sonne in the foreground as seen from the Rangitoto ferry.

The flight back to Germany was long and tiring, and we arrived to the typical Northern German winter weather (grey and moist), but it was still nice to come home again and sleep in my own bed. I only stayed for three days though, quickly unpacking t-shirts and shorts and replacing them with woolen clothes, gloves, scarves, and all the other winter gear before heading off to the next tour...