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Welcome to the research vessel Atlantis! Of the 31 scientists and technicians who joined this expedition, nearly half grew up speaking languages other than English. In this video, hear researchers’ greetings in Chinese, German, French, Hindi, Greek, Spanish, and Italian.

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The first day aboard Atlantis is a flurry of activity, as scientists and technicians rush to unpack gear from shipping crates and reassemble it in the lab. In this time-lapse video, you’ll see just how much stuff can be crammed onto a workbench in the span of an hour.

Today's Weather
Partly Cloudy
Lat: 9° 46.547' N
Long: 101° 34.981' W
Winds: NNE; 18.5 knots
Air Temp: 26.0°C, 78.8 °F
Bar. Pressure: 1010.7 mbar
Humidity: 79.8%
Sea surface temp: 26.6°C; 79.9 °F 
Visibility: Unlimited

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At Sea, At Last!

January 1, 2014 (posted January 2, 2014)
by David Levin

On a Friday afternoon in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, our crew is getting its final taste of land before shipping out for the next month. Some walk along the town's bustling main street in search of last-minute supplies. Others stare at the ocean from a nearby beach, sipping from coconuts sold by locals. For an afternoon, at least, our pace has slowed to match the sticky heat of a Costa Rican December.

It's amazing how quickly life can change, however, especially once you're at sea. At 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, we pulled up our anchor, and with little fanfare, began our four-day voyage west into the Pacific Ocean. By dinnertime, the coast had disappeared over the horizon, and our sleepy afternoon in Puntarenas began to seem like a distant memory. Since then, the research vessel (R/V) Atlantis, our new home and workplace, has become a whirlwind of activity as scientists and engineers assemble laboratory equipment, calibrate sensors, and mix chemicals to use in their upcoming experiments.

The amount of gear the group has hauled aboard is staggering. Dionysis Foustoukos, a geochemist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, points to a stack of wooden crates and laughs. "Those came all the way from home. We basically moved our entire lab onto the ship," he said.

Focus on microbes

Meanwhile, on deck, members of the team that operates the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason are just as busy. They’re making sure the vehicle is in top condition, replacing parts and painstakingly testing every cable.

On this voyage, Jason will give us a window into another world on the bottom of the deep ocean. Over the course of 20 days, we’ll use the vehicle to explore hydrothermal vents on the seafloor, which spew hot, chemical-rich fluids into the ocean more than 1.5 miles below the surface. No light can reach down to these depths, so the vents sit in total darkness. Yet they support a huge variety of life, from crabs to clams to tubeworms.

Those animals aren’t the stars of the show on this cruise, though. This time, our focus is on the really tiny stuff. Microbes.

Thirty-one scientists, technicians, and engineers are here to study these organisms, which thrive on chemicals in the vent fluid. The group is a diverse mix of people—although many are based in the U.S., many of them come from nations and territories scattered around the globe. They speak German, French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Hindi.

Many have dozens of cruises under their belts. Others are experiencing life on a research ship for the first time. Regardless of their past experience at sea, all these people are brought together by one thing: exploring the unknown, and gaining a new understanding of tiny organisms that are invisible to the naked eye.

"Most of the stuff we study can seem pretty abstract," said Jesse McNichol, a Ph.D. student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “I mean, you can’t see a microbe without a microscope, but now we’ll be able to see something concrete—the sites where they actually live. That’s really exciting.”

Working on the seafloor

Studying microbes at the seafloor, however, raises some logistical challenges. Jason will help solve those. "If we were using a submarine like Alvin, the whole cruise would revolve around eight-hour dives", said Stefan Sievert, the chief scientist on this voyage, “but Jason can stay on the bottom all day and all night.”

If Jason is working around the clock, that means we will, too. The researchers, along with a team of pilots (the people who will operate Jason from a control room on the ship) will change shifts every four hours, so research on the vent sites can continue 24 hours a day.

Life on the ship isn’t all work, though. Two days ago, we celebrated New Year’s Eve at sea with a ping-pong and poker tournament. Paper snowflakes, colored lights, and Christmas decorations still linger around the ship, adding a festive atmosphere.

At the stroke of midnight, ten of us counted down the final seconds of 2013 in the ship’s library, and after a brief celebration, wandered off to bed, yawning. Since leaving port, everyone aboard Atlantis has worked late into the night to prepare for our arrival at the vent sites. Missing hours of sleep is just part of the job, though, and Sievert shrugs it off with a smile.

"In science," he said, "you need a little dedication."


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