By William Boll
Anxiously awaiting my watch hours to be posted, I strolled about NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer trying not to be a bother as we departed from Norfolk, VA. I was an intern aboard the ship and beginning an expedition to survey and map deep-sea canyons off the Northeast coast of the United States. This would be my first time aboard a research vessel, and my excitement grew when I discovered while preparing for this cruise that I would be witness to a full moon on the open ocean as well as the transit of Venus across the sun. That’s when it hit me: This would be a once in a lifetime experience.
When my hours were posted, I learned I would be on night watch, 2000-0400 hrs. So although my grand plans to chart the stars at sea instantly capsized, I still was excited to get started, and I quickly trained myself for the nights to come. My tasks included cleaning raw data collected by multibeam sonar and obtaining temperature profiles of the water column. The multibeam sonar would produce bathymetry data, the equivalent of topography data only underwater.
Seeing the data for the first time I became impressed by the resolution. When compared to previous bathymetry data derived by satellite, there is no competition. The feeling of seeing these remarkable underwater features first hand before anyone else and knowing that scientists around the world would use this data for years to come was momentous.
As a soon-to-graduate physical oceanography masters student, I couldn’t help but think of the physical processes taking place that have helped to shape these underwater canyons. My graduate thesis focuses on internal waves, and it was great to see the connection from the papers I have read with the high-resolution data that we were producing.
Over the course of the cruise I found time to take in the mesmerizing views, and often frequented the bridge, where the ship’s navigation took place. One of the most majestic sites I viewed from the bridge was the Spanish tall ship Juan Sebastian De Elcano on its way to Norfolk for Harborfest (Opsail). It is the third largest tall ship in the world, and it was remarkable to see this vessel underway with its sails up. Another time, I was first to spot fishing buoys dead ahead but in the far distance. The sighting “put a feather in my cap,” as a new friend would say, because by pointing it out, the bridge team had enough time to safely maneuver around the gear. Occasionally, at night, I managed to sneak away for a cup of tea in order to catch glimpses of the beautiful sky.
I was fortunate to be selected for this scientific exploration. NOAA’s mission to carefully study the atmospheric and marine environments and then spread that knowledge to the public while aiming to conserve resources aligns with my ideals of what a scientist should be.
William Boll is a master’s student at Old Dominion University’s Department for Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences studying wave energy. He holds an undergraduate degree in physics from Georgia Institute of Technology.