Journey into Midnight: Light and Life Below the Twilight Zone

Heading Home

By Sönke Johnsen, Professor of Biology - Duke University
June 21, 2019

R/V Point Sur, heading home. Photo by Dante Fenolio.

R/V Point Sur, heading home. Image courtesy of Danté Fenolio. Download larger version (jpg, 891 KB).

I like to say that that everyone wants to go to sea once, but only one out of a hundred ever wants to go again. Those who do it again and again fall in love with the animals, the people, the adventure, and also the ships themselves. Ships are wonderful things, and will tell you much if you listen. Lying in my bunk, the whine of the hydraulic system tells me that the trawl is in the water, the grinding of the bow thrusters tells me that we're adjusting direction to retrieve the Medusa, and the clatter of dishes tells me that yet another meal is about to be served.

Under it all, though, is the sound of the engine itself, churning day and night to move us, power our lights, and keep us pointed safely into the waves. This fundamental note of our lives for the last two weeks will stop tomorrow morning, and the ship – like Cinderella's carriage – will no longer be a living creature of the sea, but a chunk of metal tied to a commercial dock in Gulfport, Mississippi. I'll be happy to see trees again, to call my wife and daughter, and to walk more than 50 feet in a single direction. But I'll also be sad.

We call it the post-cruise blues, the sadness that lasts for several weeks at the end of any expedition. But why? Yes, the work can be fascinating, but can also be tedious and hard. We also, though well cared for and well fed, lead an offshore life with little sleep, zero privacy, and a ban on certain creature comforts (I would literally kill for a drink). So what are we grieving when we go back to shore, and what brings some of us out here again and again?

It's community. We are 23 out here, in an emptiness that stretches past the horizon in all directions. In these two weeks, our only reminders of the larger world have been two ships and an oil rig at great distance and a thin stream of email. So we only have each other. Many of us were strangers before this cruise, and we come from diverse worlds with diverse beliefs. But we are a community. We have a purpose, and each of us is valued and plays an essential role.

As Heather mentioned in her log, we do almost everything as a team. Launching the remotely operated vehicle (ROV), for example, requires 10 people scattered throughout the ship. One person's job may be to just hold a line as the ROV is lifted over the side of the deck and into the water. But if this person lets go of this line, the ROV will swing out, and then swing back into the side of the ship with the force of a small SUV. Everything we do matters to each other.

As a scientist, I have been trained for decades to use cautious language, to never say that I am certain about anything. But I am certain about this – we want community. We want to be in a group where what we do matters. Many of us spend our lives looking for this, or – if we once had it – finding our way back. And those of us who find it at sea come back again and again. For me, it is an escape from the more complex and competitive world on land where it can be hard to find a place.

It's certainly no utopia. We're in a tight space, trying to get a lot done. We're tired, and we often disagree about what should happen next. As chief scientist on this cruise, it is my job to make sure that all the researchers feel that they are being treated fairly, and it is not an easy job (did I mention that drink?). But we care for each other. We catch each other as we stumble on the endlessly shifting deck, we protect each other's heads from hanging hazards, and we nurture each other's dreams (here, wake up, I found this fish that you've been looking for...).

Why? Because we have to. We are well over a hundred miles from land in a boat that tops out at 10 miles per hour. Imagine driving a sick loved one to an emergency room halfway across your state in a car that does only 10 miles per hour. If anything happens on a ship, whether an accident or an ugly personal conflict, we have to deal with it. And we do. It turns out that 23 people more or less randomly put on a small boat in the middle of the sea can get along, pull together as a team, and accomplish great things. At any given time we are either exploring the deep with a robot sub controlled from a van bolted to the bow, pulling a large net through the ocean, or setting loose a remote camera through the water column looking for (and finding!) giant squid. We deal with storms, broken equipment, and frustrations of all kinds, but we get it done.

So this is what I will miss when the engine finally stops its churning and we all – after hugs, handshakes, and promises to stay in touch – get into our various vehicles and drive away. I will miss the knowledge that a group of disparate people can come together; treat each other with respect, kindness, and humor; and get the job done. I wish this experience for my university, my town, my adopted country, and for our world, which – like our boat – is just a blip in a sea that goes beyond the horizon in every direction. We are all at sea, and we are all in it together.