Monday, October 26, 2009

If fools rush in, it's the wise man who heads to port - right?

Heroes of the High Seas. Medal of the day goes to all involved in the safe recovery of Nereus aboard ship in rapidly deteriorating conditions. Both our Captain, Dale, and Andy have decided that since they have now proven that they can get the vehicle back safely in bad weather, they don’t need to do so again. I’m all for that – we’d just like nice weather for Leg 2 now, please. Thank you!
Position at 16h00 EST - Headed for Grand Cayman
Lat: 18° 40’N Long: 081° 35’W
Water depth: >6000m

Late on Saturday I was reading part of Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” - I bought this after a visit to China a couple of years ago and have found it can be a good travelling companion. That probably counts as my equivalent to Ford Prefect’s recommendation to “always know where your towel’s at” in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (although, for the record, I also make sure I always bring my own towel on research cruises too – at least one home comfort you can take on the road).

Anyway, on Saturday night I was reading the section of the Tao Te Ching that includes one of the more well-known sayings I had heard long before I knew of its provenance: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Just two lines down was a couplet that struck home even more keenly:

“People on the verge of success often lose patience
And fail in their undertakings.”

I’ve been flirting with making that kind of mistake a lot these past few days. When our Nereus dive 19 didn’t go as planned last Wednesday, but we intercepted a weak buoyant plume sample, I tried to make up for lost time on Nereus 20 by focusing on a small area, near to the seafloor, rather than doing the more cautious thing and repeating what we had planned for dive 19. As a result we didn’t make much progress on Nereus 20 either, especially after the thruster fell off!

So Nereus dive 21 was exactly the right thing to do. Drop back and do the more cautious thing and wait. And presto, that decision paid off and we completed the survey I described yesterday and closed in on our biggest hydrothermal signals.

So have I learned from my mistakes? Yes, I have, and apparently given the opportunity, I can repeat them exactly! Well, not quite, but I did make a decision yesterday that 20:20 hindsight suggests could have been better.

Knowing that we could only survey a fraction of the remaining seafloor in the time left (we only had one dive left before we headed to port), I decided to focus all our attention in the southern half of the remaining area, rather than focusing on the seafloor area right under the strongest plume anomalies we had seen. Basically, I was gambling that any vent sites were sited on top of the shallowest part of our remaining search area. Nereus is now back on deck (see later) and the data suggest we have passed over some areas of diffuse chemically enriched flow but have not yet found the hot vents we’re after. But they MUST still be there because Nereus passed through two dispersing plumes of smokey, chemically enriched water on its way to the seabed on Sunday, and passed through both those plumes again, on its way back up to the surface, about half a mile farther to the south east, around 8 o’clock this morning. But wherever those vents are, it seems like they aren’t where Nereus just went :(

To add insult to injury, the weather turned against us overnight – indeed, it started getting worse almost as soon as we launched Nereus yesterday. So I was immensely relieved when we had the vehicle safely back on deck today, just before lunch. The weather today, without question, is the worst we have had all trip, so quite frankly I thought everyone involved – both the Captain and ship’s crew as well as Andy and all our Nereus deck team - were quite magnificent pulling that off. Nereus got a kiss of green paint from the ship’s hull and a piece of 4x4 timber gave its life in the cause of science but other than that we recovered unscathed with no major dramas. That is always a good thing.

This afternoon we ran ahead of the waves for an hour or two and then turned and faced into the weather for a further hour to keep the ship on a comfortable heading while evaluating whether we should try one or more further CTD stations to trawl through our search area one (or more) last times. But the weather certainly isn’t getting any better so (finally) heeding the cautions of sages down the ages, we’ve decided that (i) since we still have an intact vehicle and an intact CTD system on deck, and (ii) that we’ll expect to have at least SOME better weather on Leg 2 - at least, that’s what I ordered when I booked this cruise ;) – then discretion is the better part of valor. We’ll take what we have achieved already, thank you very much, and live to fight another day.

So we’re off to port, now, where our Leg 2 scientists and a National Geographic film crew await us. They’ll all be coming back out with us toward the end of the coming week. Since I’ll have a dozen other things to attend to in port I’m going to sign off now for a while, but will aim to be back on-line again on Thursday, when Leg 2 of the expedition gets underway. Don’t know about you guys, but I can’t wait :)

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