First Impressions of Life Aboard a Research Vessel

By Regan Drennan, Research Assistant, Natural History Museum, London
May 21, 2018

When it comes to research cruises, I am indeed a novice. As a very early career researcher (I have just completed a Masters degree), DeepCCZ is my very first cruise, and I really had no clue what to expect. My main point of reference for life on-board a ship was primarily from TV and movies—either from period pieces with big wooden sailing ships and Napoleonic hats (usually involving pirates) or something more modern, which more often than not included some sort of natural catastrophe (iceberg based, for example).

I suppose that, in hindsight, after being on the RV Kilo Moana for a week or so, a better point of reference would come from more spacey sci-fi-like genres that include a spaceship exploring the depths of the universe. Of course, there are obvious parallels between deep-sea research and space exploration, both fictional and non-fictional. Both involve traversing the dark unknown, harsh and extreme conditions, huge distances, isolated working environments, and alien-like worlds and creatures. The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) control room even looks like something out of a sci-fi spaceship, and the ROV itself is like a brave astronaut plunging into the cold gloom, a single tether it’s only connection back to the ship.

The ROV about to embark into the inky depths.

The ROV about to embark into the inky depths. Image courtesy of Regan Drennan, DeepCCZ expedition. Download larger version (jpg, 1.5 MB).

However, it’s how the functioning of a (space)ship’s crew is often portrayed in this genre that I find most reminiscent of life on the RV Kilo Moana, a united hive of activity where everyone on-board plays a skilled, discrete, and important role. On the Kilo Moana, this varies from navigation and engineering to the roles of the technicians, stewards and chefs, the ROV crew, and the scientists themselves. It’s nice that everyone, no matter how different their job, is working together towards the same end result—to explore and gather data on elusive, fragile, unexplored, and potentially very important ecosystems.

The ship itself feels alive; there is constant movement as the vessel rocks and rolls across the waves, in addition to the continual hum of engines, machinery, electronics, and the elements outdoors—but there is also the round-the-clock activity of the people on board, from the crew working on keeping the ship (and its people) running smoothly, to people deploying or recovering scientific equipment in and out of the sea; people in labs taking samples, performing analyses, and gathering data; technicians and engineers meticulously going over and tweaking the delicate mechanisms and inner workings of the ROV; and the ROV pilots, who skilfully and dexterously navigate the vehicle through the abyss, thousands of meters below the ship.

The whole experience so far has given me a great appreciation for just how much work from so many people goes into collecting this kind of data. The captain of the Kilo Moana, Captain Gray Drewry, often states that “It takes a village to run a ship,” and indeed it takes everyone involved to cooperate together for this kind of expedition to be successful. When you read a scientific paper in this field, you are not just seeing the work of the scientists, but also the effort and input of everyone who helped those scientists to get to that point and produce that work. Gaining this appreciation has been my most valuable takeaway lesson of the cruise thus far, and I am excited to continue working with everyone on-board, so that we may gain new insights into the Clarion-Clipperton Zone ecosystems and explore the deep sea: the “final frontier” of marine science!