notes from the field

No. 17 - Fishing Machine

I arrived at the pier in the windy port on the Strait of Magellan just as the ship was landing. It was a Russian ship that we chartered to help us conduct our annual checkup of the South Shetland Islands. The surveys were complete, the field camps were closed, the labs were packed, the data were backed-up and stuffed into briefcases, and a bunch of pent-up people, weary from months in the field, were ready to rock and roll. I had been aboard a month earlier and had come back to take the ship out for a survey of bottom fishes. We had tons of gear to move off and on, and many serious things to talk about, before the ship departed again. But for now I was obliged to share in their celebrations. We partied all night and only blinked for dawn.

Over the next several days, the ship was transformed into a fishing machine with all of the winches, cables, reels, gantries and blocks required to drag a net, big enough to engulf the ship itself, a mile behind and a thousand feet below. We have many other sensors, including more underwater acoustics and video cameras, but the big gun in our arsenal is the bottom trawl.

Last night we were 1/3 of the way across Drake's Passage when our progress slowed and then stopped. Westerly swells from a distant weather system came at our starboard side and gradually built to enormous size. In a short period of time the ship's rolls became so extreme that the Captain was forced to turn into the weather and reduce speed to slow ahead. By late morning things had settled down enough to come back to the left and increase speed. We're now going down swell but we must tack back and forth in order to get to Elephant Island where we'll begin the survey.

But this isn't so bad. It gives us more time to get accustomed to the movement of the ship, to get our equipment set up and tested, and to get acquainted with each other. The grind will come soon enough.


next episode: Bottom Trawling.