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Free Time? What Free Time?

Noelle Turner / Ocean Exploration Trust

One question that regularly comes up when discussing the Nautilus is what do people do when they aren’t working in the van? Do they swim? Read? Sleep? Play cards? Well maybe if on the rare occasion there is time, but odds are they continue working. The tricky thing about understanding life on the Nautilus is to first remember that when on expedition the boat is running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This means that everybody on board essentially has two jobs, their job on watch in the control van and their job on board when they aren’t in the van. To give you an idea, here is a short synopsis of what free time is for some members of the Nautilus.

I’ll start with the ROV pilots. First thing you have to understand is that the pilots are not just the ROV pilots, they are also the ROV engineers, technicians, tech support, dive prep, dive recovery, post dive technicians, I could go on. That means that when they go off watch they have a laundry list of tasks to complete to prepare for the upcoming dive, upcoming recovery or next change. It also means that when the dive is complete and the ROV comes back up on the ship their work begins in earnest. The goal for the science team is to be back in the water doing research as fast as possible, which means the ROV team has to work usually straight through between dives to get both ROVs ready again. When you are working at depth and at sea things rarely go perfectly and the ease with which Nautilus is able to transition from dive to dive without much down time is testament to the skill of the ROV team.

To give you an idea of the tasks they have had on this leg, Hercules was outfitted with  two new devices which both had to be mounted, wired and then incorporated into the control systems without having been tested on shore or designed exactly for Hercules. In addition Argus had a leak during one dive and one of the arms on Hercules needed some trouble shooting and repair. Watching from home you probably did not notice any of this happening, and did not see any delay in operations which should tell you how hard the team must have been working behind the scenes.

The data loggers once off watch are responsible for keeping the dive reports up to date and complete. Also the data manager is responsible for making certain that all data is properly processed, stored, backed up and that the system is working optimally at all times. This includes the several thousand images captured during each dive. This requires constant checking, tweaking and organizing to make sure each scientist associated with the expedition will be getting the data they need. In addition it’s not just photos that are data. The data manager also is responsible for any samples. Once the ROV comes up the data manager must coordinate the removal of the samples from the ROV, and then ensure that each is processed exactly so that no data is lost. This means every sample taken off the sea floor is properly catalogued, documented and labeled so it will end up at the right place in the proper condition.

The expedition leaders and chief scientists are the ones tasked with keeping this intricate dance going. They are responsible for making sure each part of the team is functioning properly, so that even when they get off watch odds are they are still watching the feeds coming from the dives, while at the same time planning the next move. They are also in constant communication with shore based members of the team, the scientists following from different universities, the captain and all the other interested parties. All of these different groups are all communicating through the expedition leader and chief scientist. They need to make sure each party gets the information they want and need, while at the same time making sure the expedition is moving along on time and accomplishing all the goals that were set at the beginning. If any problems or issues arrive they are the ones who have to make the tough decisions and make certain that problems get fixed so that the overall mission is not comprimised.

The communications coordinator is another role where free time is something of a dream. Nautilus operates seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time which means that someone who is in constant communication with people back in the US keeps some very strange hours on board the boat. Combine that with the need to be relaying a constant stream of updates and information to those on watch and the amount of time available for sleep is scattered and infrequent. There are also always interactions between ship and shore going on, interviews, aquarium shows and live events that need coordination and management. One of the biggest challenges for the communications coordinator is to be able to help the team communicate to the best of our ability with an international public. When you are confined to a small boat it’s hard to remember your presence is being sent out internationally. The communications coordinator has to be thinking of every possible person listening and how to best get them excited and immersed in the expedition.