Jurassic Ocean Crust Magnetic Survey: 2011 Expedition in the Pacific

The R/V Thomas G. Thompson left Honolulu on November 5, 2011 heading toward the Western Pacific. This expedition journal was written by cruise participants and uploaded about once per weekday, depending on internet availability.

December 4, 2011: A Sea of Sei

The start of my day is like many others across the world, with the annoying sound of an alarm blaring just out of reach. The muffled groan from the bunk below tells me that my roommate, Jen, who had just come back from shift a few hours earlier, does not appreciate the continuous beeping from my small, yet effective alarm clock. I blindly reach for the nuisance, our room is pitch black due to the lack of windows, and sigh in relief as the room falls back into the peaceful silence. I entertain the idea of resting my eyes for just a while longer, but I know that would lead me back into the land of slumber, so I begrudgingly start to get up. I move slowly around the top bunk as I try not to bump my head against the ceiling in my search for the ladder down. After fumbling for a few minutes my shaky feet find the ladder and I quickly make my way down as the ship tries to lurch me from my hold. I flip on a small light to get ready before rushing out of the room to make it to my shift change in time.

Sei whales have a diffuse, misty blow pattern. It comes up to breathe, exposing its back and dorsal fin.

One sei whale (Credit: Will Koeppen)

Rubbing the tiredness out of my eyes I arrive to find the previous watchstanders excitedly recalling what went on during the past four hours. The ship had caught the attention of some curious whales and they had gotten close enough for anyone awake at the time to get pictures. I am a bit disappointed to have missed the chance to see the whales but I shrug it off as I get down to work. The computer lab is quiet as usual and I am able to fall back into the book I was reading in between my duties as a watchstander. Maybe my lack of focus to the world outside of The Da Vinci Code and plotting the ship’s current position, allowed almost the entire computer lab to vacate without my noticing. I'm not the only one though, as my fellow watch stander, Ashley, is focused on updating the daily reports. It isn't until an hour and a half later that Ashley asks about the whereabouts of the previous occupants of the room, and I take notice of my too-quiet surroundings. The computer lab as well as the main lab are void of life besides the two of us. Even our fellow group member, Tom, is missing. It’s common for some of the people in the computer lab to disappear at times due to work occurring on the back deck, but Ashley and I aren’t used to the complete lack of activity that usually surrounds us. We don't want to leave our posts, so we dutifully stay at our stations.

The fast rescue boat is attached to the Thompson by a heavy chain and cradle system. 
When you climb in you are about 30 feet above the water.

Climb in (Credit: Will Koeppen)

A little while later, Tom clambers in. Apparently everyone is outside enjoying the nice weather as well as getting boat rides on the rescue boat. My mouth is hanging wide open, and the urge to slap Tom for not grabbing me to have fun with rest of the group is almost too hard to resist. I swallow my brief anger at Tom as I realize that someone would have had to stay at the station anyway, but the fact that I missed out on an interesting adventure was not something I am happy about. As I am getting ready to settle unhappily back to my duties, the voice of the captain on the intercom fills the room. “Anybody who wants to go on a boat ride, come on up to the deck.” I stop myself from jumping out of my seat, leaving all my work at the station behind, and running up to the boat deck. Ashley is struggling as well, but she too stays seated. Tom tells us to go out there and have some fun, but we voice our concerns about leaving. Even then, it doesn’t take much convincing and Ashley and I rush out of our seats before Tom can finish telling us that he will take over watchstanding.

With people inside, the boat is lowered to the water line. It can be a jerky ride to the ocean surface.

In the water (Credit: Will Koeppen)

After making a detour to our respective rooms to grab sunglasses and cameras we make our way upstairs. The decks are littered with a number of the crew and science team enjoying the beautiful day. The rescue boat can be seen a good distance away from the ship racing towards us, and I grow more excited at the chance to get a ride. I meet up with Dr. Oakley and the two Bridgets on the boat deck and that is when it hits me. How are we going to get on the boat if we are all the way up here on the 02 deck and the boat is all the way down there? My head is filled with images of me trying to jump from the ship to the tiny rescue boat. Before I get too worried I see that the boat is being lifted up to the higher deck on a cradle winch system. I see Masako and Will on the rescue boat coming up with huge smiles on their faces. Before I know it, a life vest is in my hands, and I’m crawling on board. I can’t hide my excitement and Dr. Oakley can’t help but laugh at my eagerness. I’m like a kid waiting in line at the carnival ride, too excited for the ride to start to sit still. I’m caught a little off guard when the boat suddenly lurches to one side as the winch lowers us down. A hand reaches out to grab my vest and I give a grateful smile to Dr. Oakley as we settle in for our ride.

Dani and Adrienne in the front of the boat. They are pretty ecstatic.

Pretty great day (Credit: Dani Moyer)

Under the experienced hands of Zeke Machado, one of the Thompson's ABs, the boat glides quickly on the water, and we head off away from the ship. I learn on the journey that Zeke has a lot of experience piloting small boats, having piloted various whale watching operations for over ten years as well as participating in humpback whale research. His work had taken him all over the Hawaiian islands as well as the waters of Alaska. The quiet sailor who sometimes had an intimidating air about him expertly handled the boat in the choppy water, and I know that I was in good hands. We are a good distance away from the ship when Zeke lets the boat idle in open water. Memories of watching Jaws one too many times has me looking over the edge for any fins sticking up.

The dorsal fin of the Sei Whale is actually quite small compared to the rest of its body.

Not Jaws (Credit: Will Koeppen)

Before my imagination takes the best of me I am greeted by the sight of a large whale swimming close to the boat, almost as if it is trying to figure out what we are. It's an amazing sight and I can’t believe I'm getting the chance to see this majestic animal up close and personal. My camera is firmly stuck in my hand as I try to catch the image of the whale coming up to the surface. Lucas, the third mate, quickly brings out his underwater camera to try and catch a glimpse of what is going on below the surface. Bridget W. attempts to identify what species of whale is gracing us with its presence before we lose sight of it. Just as we are about to radio back and return to the ship, another whale is spotted to our starboard side. As we all shift to the right another is seen on the left, as well as two more trailing behind us. I spin around in a couple of circles as I try to take in all that I am seeing. In total there are six whales that are checking out our bright orange boat in the middle of the water. We are surrounded by these magnificent, and as I come to realize, quite large creatures. They stay around our boat until we head back for lunch to let other people have a ride.

Zeke carries a hook on the end of a large chain. He attaches it to the cradle, which is then dragged up the side of the ship so we can get back on board.

Zeke brings us in (Credit: Will Koeppen)

We head back to the ship at dizzying speeds, and I’m reminded of times when my dad would take me to murky Blue Marsh Lake to go fishing (I would beg him to race us around the lake). We make a lap around the ship before getting pulled up by the winch. I am all smiles as I tell the others what we saw and they prepare to get on their trip out. By now my shift had ended, and I make my way up to enjoy the barbecue out on "the sky lounge" (the 03 deck) with the rest of the crew and science team. Everyone is in good spirits as we celebrate the midway point of the cruise with good food and of course another round of cornhole. I can’t help but gush about my adventure as I munch on one of Sarah’s delicious desserts, still unable to sit still in my seat. The rescue boat seems to make trips for the majority of the day as groups go out to fish in the mahi-mahi rich waters. Lucas is seen in the library working hard at editing the footage he recorded while we were out in the water, and I can’t wait to see the end result. Gary, one of the PSOs, sends out emails to his colleagues to figure out what kind of whales we encountered, and they respond that they were the third largest whale in the Pacific Ocean, sei whales. The rest of the day is spent outside in the beautiful we ather, reading out on the hammock and sending an excited email back home. As I lay out under the stars before my second shift starts, I can’t help but think that this was one of the best days of my life. ♦

Sei whales are usually quite large and can be as long as 20 meters. The whales we saw were smaller (10-15 meters), presumably younger.

Stills from Lucas' video footage. Really. (Credit: Lucas Shuler)