Doug Levin is the Associate Director for the Center for
Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland,
and is an expert in underwater exploration technology, as well as
designing fun programs that teach complex engineering concepts.
Imagine working in an environment where the floor is rising, tilting, and falling 3 meters (or 10ft, average wave height) every 20 or so seconds (the wave period, which is the time it takes for successive waves to pass a given point). These are the typical working conditions aboard James Cameron’s ship. In seas like they’re experiencing, it’s hard to work and difficult to sleep. Just imagine walking through a ship, climbing ladders and steep stairs, and stepping through bulkhead doors. You walk around anticipating your next handhold. It might be a wall, a table, or a colleague that you’re walking by.
The Mermaid Sapphire, one of two support ship vessels, will locate the submersible after its return from the ocean deep. Photograph by Charlie Arneson.
Now picture this crew soldering wires, welding, even tightening a
screw. Stand on a heaving deck and try and do this precise work without
breaking your target repair or stabbing yourself with the screwdriver
you’re wielding. The challenge increases by an order of magnitude trying
to manage the pendulous swing of the sub. Care and planning are
essential to make certain that this precious cargo doesn’t smash any of
its appendages before it gets into the water.
Now comes the sleeping part. You’re in your bunk, which is roughly the
size of a twin bed. Shipboard, I’ve always preferred the top bunk. In
high seas you can “crook” your foot over the side and around the
bedframe to keep from rolling or falling out. In some cases, I’ve even
used oversized bungees to strap myself in. Food is another issue.
Invariably, there will be folks on board that do not do well in “seas.”
They take Dramamine or wear “pressure” bracelets to keep “sea sickness”
at bay. Some will prescribe fresh air on the back deck. But in this
case, it’s too dangerous to venture outside. Others will offer you
Saltines or one of those round Lifesaver candies (cherry is best). In
my personal experience, there are two foods that are the best for
sea sickness…grape jelly and bananas (note: there is a superstition
that bananas are bad luck on a boat). These foods are best because they
taste the same coming up as they did going down…
OK, now we’re on “weather standby”…those words are like “good news…bad news.” The bad news
is that work is suspended. On the ocean, this might mean that the skies
are a sapphire blue; clear and sunny. The problem is that the seas are
“angry.” Waves are exceeding the comfort range of the boat and making
working conditions aboard dangerous. In this case, the Mermaid Sapphire
(the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE mother ship) has “hightailed it” to the dock and
is tied up tight. Read Dr. MacInnis’s Expedition Journal,
and you get a sense that the crew is getting antsy and ready to
experience the celebration of their successful dive to the Challenger
At the dock, you have a little time to catch up on work
that you couldn’t get to when you were on shift, repairing systems that
have sat idle and need some TLC. You might enjoy a visit with your
colleagues, perhaps joining a game of Booray (Louisiana Favorite),
hearts, spades, or poker. It might also be your first opportunity to
grab a good night’s sleep or keep your food down.
What would you do on board the ship during the time that you’re not working?
1. deepseachallenge.com (Main National Geographic site for the expedition)
2. NatGeoEd.org/deepsea-challenge (National Geographic Education site for the expedition. Find activities, maps, multimedia, reference content, and more.)
3. Expedition Journal (The official blog from the deck of Mermaid Sapphire, James Cameron’s mother ship. Our Education bloggers are using this blog, as well as the main deepseachallenge.com website, to inform their writing about the expedition.)