What to expect and how to behave on your first research cruise

This blog post is an edited version that incorporated a lot of feedback I received on an earlier post over on my (Mirjam)’s blog “Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching”. If you have more to add, please let us know and we’ll update!

Going on your first research cruise is an exciting experience, and you are probably not quite sure what to expect from being out at sea on a ship with lots of new people for days, weeks or even months at a time. There are a lot of situations where you might not be quite sure how to behave, especially since the ship you are joining might be crewed with people from a different culture. And even if it isn’t — it’s like going on a sleep-over at your friend’s house as a kid: You never quiiite know what to expect, whether you’ll like what’s for dinner, and what polite behaviour might look like in that family.

Before we go into the actual “rules”, the main thing to be aware of is that while you are onboard the ship for what feels like a long time, that is nothing compared to how long the crew stays on the ship. The ship is their home for half the year every year, and you are a guest in their home. As Ilker Fer put it on Twitter: “Don’t forget that while this might be a rare and intense fieldwork for you, the ship is a daily workplace and home for the crew. Hard working and ambitious scientists and students tend to forget this.”

That said, it’s not immediately obvious what all of this means in terms of concrete behaviour. What’s considered polite in some cultures might be very rude in others. So if in doubt, just ask!

It’s ok (and even encouraged!) to ask if you are unsure of anything

Asking is actually the top 2 answer that our favourite sailor gave us in response to what students should know about how to behave on a research ship. Here are his top 3:

  1. Always be yourself. If you pretend to be someone you are not, people will find out soon enough anyway.
  2. Just ask. There are no stupid questions and sometimes having asked about something you are not sure about on a ship might end up being crucial for your safety.
  3. Be friendly. ’nuff said.

He says that’s all people need to know about how to behave at sea. While I kind of agree, those three rules are kind of … vague. But there are some “rules” (it’s more like guidelines, anyway, and bonus points if you got the movie reference) for what we have found works well on a research ship.

Etiquette on a research ship

Meal times

While meal times are often given as a one-hour time slot and you might think that means you can drop in at any time during that one-hour window, that’s not how things work on a ship. Usually, this one-hour window is meant as two 30min windows for people working on different watches. In between those two windows, the first group of people has to get out of the mess (not the messmess, the room where food is served on a ship is called the mess), the tables have to be cleared completely, and food refilled. So to be polite towards the people making sure you get fed, it’s good advice to arrive on time for your feeding window and don’t linger too long after you are done eating, so they can get the room ready for the next group or finish off that meal to move on to other tasks. If people start wiping the tables, it’s a clear signal that you should find some other spot to lounge in. If, however, you have to be late for a meal due to work reasons, everybody will be happily accommodate you and make sure you leave happy and satisfied. Just don’t push it without a good reason.

Thank the cook & galley personnel

This should go without saying, but if someone puts a nice meal on the table in front of you, say thank you. If the food was delicious, let the cook know. “Takk for maten” is something that comes pretty much automatic out of every Norwegian’s mouth, but whatever your background, I think everyone should adopt it on a ship (and maybe also at home ;-)).

Don’t complain about the lack of fresh veggies and fruit

Amelie Kirchgaessner shared this one with us on Twitter: “Don’t moan about the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. When there is some, be grateful, and eat it, even though the banana may bend the wrong way or have brown spots. Also, consider those who may be onboard for longer, ie have a stronger craving for freshies.”

If you drink the last drop of coffee, start brewing a new pot

This rule has actually been rejected by my favourite sailor after it was put forward on Twitter — while on some ships the polite thing might be to start brewing a new pot, on that particular ship the crew would prefer you let them know there is no coffee left so they can brew it themselves. Which goes back to asking what kind of help is wanted and needed before “helping”.

“No work clothes” means “no work clothes”

On ships, there are usually areas that you are supposed to not walk through, or hang out in, wearing work clothes. That’s because the ship is the crew’s home for long periods at a time (and also yours while you are at sea), and keeping a home nice and tidy is a big part of making it feel like home. And also it’s just mean to make the cleaning crews do extra work just because you couldn’t be bothered to change out of your fishy boots.

When you leave your cabin, leave the door open

Leaving the door to your cabin open when you are not in it makes it a lot easier for the crew to get their work done. They won’t knock on your door when it’s closed because they are respecting your privacy and your sleep, but they want to empty your trash, put new towels in your cabin, clean, etc.. The larger you make the time window for them to do that by just leaving your cabin door open, the less they have to organize their work day around catering towards you.

Be quiet on corridors, people are sleeping

You are not the only one going on watches (and even worse — just because you don’t go on watch doesn’t mean that other people are not), so be considerate of other people’s sleep. While it sucks to be tired as a scientist on a ship, other people have safety-relevant work to do (and also just live on the ship for many weeks at a time) so they should definitely be able to get the sleep they need.

Also consider whether you really have to go to your own comfy cabin and your own comfy toilet during your watch if you know people are sleeping in the cabins next to yours. Cabin doors are loud, vacuum toilets are really loud, but walls between cabins are more like paper than like actual walls. If you can avoid making unnecessary noises that might wake up other people by just going to a common restroom, you should probably consider doing that.

Respect people’s privacy

There is not a lot of spaces where you can hide on a ship to get your alone time when you need it. So do not enter other people’s cabins unless invited, and don’t go knocking on their doors unless there is a good reason. People will leave their doors open if they are open to communications, if the doors are closed it means you should leave people alone unless you really have a good reason.

Also the cabins are the only private spaces people get. If you wouldn’t go into someone’s bedroom in their house without explicit permission, why would you do it on a ship?

And as Hugh Venables points out: “Everyone relaxes and misses home differently. Know when to be professional, when to be silly, when to be the butt of a joke, when to answer back and when to leave alone”

Access to all areas?

Usually, you are free to go pretty much wherever you like on a research ship (except, as I said above, into other people’s private spaces). If areas are off limit (like for example the engine room or spaces where food is stored and prepared), you will be told that. But it’s still good practice to ask whether it’s ok to hang out. For example, in heavy weather or very tight straights, people on the bridge might prefer to not having you hanging around and possibly obstructing their work. And while they will tell you that, just asking whether it’s ok to be there makes it less awkward for everybody involved. Same if you visit other scientists in their labs, or the crew in the trawl mess — sometimes it might not be immediately obvious to you that people are concentrating on their work, even though they might look like they are just chilling, and that you are getting in the way of that. Or even just getting in the way of people chilling when they need to do that.

Be on time for handover between watches

Even if you are told that your watch runs from midnight to six in the morning and from noon to six in the evening, that doesn’t mean you show up at midnight and noon sharp. It means that the other watch wants to be able to leave at midnight and noon sharp, so handover should have happened before that time. It’s good practice to show up at least 5 minutes before watch changes.

Be on time for stations

People not being ready to start working when the ship is on station is a pet peeve of mine. Ship time is very expensive, so spending it on waiting for someone who wanted to get a hot chocolate right when the ship is ready to take measurements (instead of looking at the screen that shows you the navigation data of the ship, including ETAs of stations etc and getting it while there still is plenty of time) is a very bad use of taxpayers’ money.

Also be aware that there are a lot of people waiting for you once the ship is in position to start measuring: The officers on the bridge, the deck crew possibly standing outside in cold, windy, rainy weather, your other scientist colleagues. Not very good for the general mood if they unnecessarily have to wait for you.

Be proactive in offering help

This “rule” was suggested by Kim Martini: “Be proactive in offering help, but [very importantly!] always ask first because sometimes what you think are the right steps just may create more work”. And we 100% agree with both parts of this rule! Do offer to help, always, but always make sure the other person tells you what exactly they want done. And Kim adds “definitely offer help when loading and first getting on board. You never know if you get seasick later in the cruise and need someone to help you!”

It’s cold and in the middle of the night for the crew, too

Just because they might not let you see it doesn’t mean you are the only one that is tired and cold and feels cranky. I guess this goes back to rule no 3: Always be friendly and considerate of the people around you…

And as Ian Brooks put it on Twitter: “When the deck crew ask what time you need to put that bit of kit over the side, the correct answer is just AFTER coffee break!” And Joana Beja points out: “On my last cruise we found that the crew had had their dinner “on deck” so as to not delay work… none of us noticed and they didn’t tell us! They were great but it only happened once and we made sure we told them how thankful we were. and that it wasn’t required at all.”

Radio communication is safety relevant

Having fun with a radio is fun, but there are a lot of people working on the bridge or the deck that have to listen to everything you say on the radio. So if you try to be overly funny, you might end up annoying people, and worse, making it more difficult for them to do their job and keep you safe.

Don’t discuss safety issues

If the crew tells you to wear a life vest on top of your floatation suite (that is certified as being sufficient in itself) when going on a small boat trip, or a helmet when taking water samples, just wear it. In the end they are the ones that know better, and they are the ones responsible for your safety so even if they are, in your opinion, unnecessarily cautious, they are just doing your job making sure you are safe. So even if it seems unnecessary to you, if they tell you to do something, just do it.

If plans change, let people know early on (and maybe explain why)

Changing your plans might require a lot of work on the crew‘s part — putting together different instrumentation, rearranging equipment on deck, changing out winches, all kinds of stuff that you might not be aware of. So if you happen to change your plans, let them know as soon as possible so it creates the least amount of stress for them.

Also offer to explain the scientific reasons why you now think the new plan is better than the old one. In my experience, in general the crew is really curious about what they are helping you achieve (and what you really could not achieve on your own if they weren’t there to help!), and really appreciate if you let them in on what you are doing for what purpose. And also what the outcomes are!

Don’t make a cruise longer than it has to be

Even though it might be fun for you to extend your cruise for a couple of extra hours just because it’s so nice to be at sea and you feel like you payed for that day of ship time anyway, don’t change arrival times back in port on a short notice without a really good reason. The crew might have made plans with their family and friends whom they don’t see very often, that they will have to cancel. This is going to make a lot of people not very happy!

And this goes without saying: Don’t extend a cruise just to get the extra pay you get for every day you spend at sea. While I find it hard to imagine people actually do that, I have heard from so many different crew that they think a lot of scientists do that, that it’s hard to ignore the possibility that it actually happens, and quite often at that.

Etiquette on a research ship: Anything to add?

If there is anything you think should be added, please let us know and we’ll happily edit this blog post! 

Hip, Hip…..

…Hurray! We got money from the university to send Nadine (and some instrumentation) onboard “Kronprins Håkon” (KPH amongst friends) to Antarctica next season! KPH is the brand new Norwegian icebreaker and she will sail down to Dronning Maud Land and Fimbullisen in February, 2019.

Fimbullisen is a relatively small ice shelf that overhangs the continental slope in the eastern Weddell Sea. The Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) has three sub-ice shelf moorings installed there, and two years ago we added an APRES (a handy little thing that you place on top of the ice to measure time series of ice shelf thickness from which one can infer the basal melt rate) to one of their sites. The plan is now to – in collaboration with NPI – also measure what happens outside of the ice shelf cavity.

Map over Antarctica with the Fimbull ice shelf marked in red. From npolar.no.

Getting prepared for emergencies

Going on a scientific cruise is mostly exciting, interesting and fun, but it is also linked to risks.
I participated in a survival suit course that prepares us for emergencies on the ship during which we have to use floating suites and life rafts to survive in cold waters far away from help. During the training we learned how to handle the suits, swim in them, build formations to stay close together and how to enter a life raft that contains all survival equipment. It was a lot of fun and we are now well prepared for our next cruise!

Recovering moorings in Bjørnafjorden with students

Do you remember our student cruise in the fjords south of Bergen some weeks ago? We brought students on the ship Kristin Bonnevie to deploy moorings and take CTD measurements (read about it here: https://skolelab.uib.no/blogg/darelius/2018/02/07/to-the-bjornafjord-with-students-from-gfi/).
Last week, we returned to Bjørnafjorden with Bachelor students on board of Kristin Bonnevie to recover the moorings and take more CTD sections. All four moorings were recovered smoothly and successfully without any loss, which made us very happy! During the whole cruise, the students took CTD measurements, also with miniCTDs, for which they had to drive out with a little boat to get into more shallow areas. The student definitely returned from the cruise with a lot of data to work with.

Recovery of moorings in Bjørnafjorden during a student cruise. Moorings are arrays of instruments that are brought to the see floor by heavy weights. A release and floating elements are used to bring the instruments back to the surface.
With this little boat, we went further into the fjords in shallower areas to take measurements with miniCTDs.


Polarstern in the Weddell Sea

I’m still in the Bjørnafjord doing one last section before we head back to Bergen – but I just had a report from Svein Østerhus and Polarstern. They are now just north of the front of the Ronne Ice shelf in the Weddell Sea.

Polarstern in the Weddell Sea.

Scientist from British Antarctic Survey are onboard with “Boaty McBoatface” – an unmanned, autonomous (i.e. not attached to a cable) submarine with sensors for just about everything onboard – that they plan to send on a mission beneath the Ronne ice shelf! Truly exciting!!! I’d love to be there…

While being in the vicinity of the ice shelf front, Svein will deploy a couple of temperature recording LoTUS bouys  (see previous post)  within the ice shelf front polynya* for me. These will remain five years at the bottom before surfacing… so be patient!


*a polynya is an area within otherwise ice covered water. Tidal currents and wind typically keep the area just in front of the ice shelf front ice free during summer, and often also during winter.


Trying out triangulation!

A new day in the Bjørnafjord with the fjord oceanography students from GFI has begun – and we decided to check in on one of our moorings. The moorings are equipped with an “acoustic release”, a unit which we can communicate with using acoustic signals. Normally we only talk to it to tell it to release the anchor and come up to the surface, but you can also use it to find out where the mooring actually is… and that was what was on the schedule this morning.

Waiting for the ship to get in position (Algot, Vår and Carola)

The captain made three stops around the position where we let go of the anchor, and at each position we lowered a transducer down into the water and asked the release to tell us how far away it is*. There was some confusion about what codes to actually use (sorry Kristin for waking you up!), but once we got the right one the release responded promptly!

Transducer going down!
Is there anyone out there? Vår listening for the acoustic release to respond










With three positions and three distances you can draw three circles – and if all is well they ought to cross each other in one location… which is where your mooring is! This time it was well and safe were we thought it was – which is good, because the captain had already reported the position to the navy who will do submarine training here in the weeks to come!

*what actually happens is that the deck unit measures the time it takes between emitting a signal and receiving a response, and knowing the speed of sound in the water you can calculate the distance.

To the Bjørnafjord with students from GFI!

You don’t have to go all the way to Antarctica to do exciting oceanographic fieldwork! This week I’m lucky enough to bring a bunch of enthusiastic students out on Krisitin Bonnevie to explore the fjord “Bjørnafjorden” just South of Bergen. Many of them have never been at sea before, but a week of CTD’s and moorings and they are ready to go just about anywhere!

Leaving Bergen for Bjørnafjorden (Photo: Carola Detring)

One of the aims of the cruise is too try to solve the puzzle with the mysterious tidal currents in Lukksundet… Lukksundet is a narrow strait connecting the Bjørnafjord to the Hardangerfjord in the south. The tidal currents are very strong here – nothing strange with that – what’s strange is that they turn every two hours!

Discussing mooring design (photo: Carola Detring)

The tides along the coast of Norway are semi-diurnal; there are two high tides and two low tides a day. We’d expect the tidal currents to have the same periodicity (i.e. to change direction every sixth hour), but to be shifted in time so that maximum tidal currents occur in between high and low tides. Obviously, something more complicated is happening in Lukksundet! I’ve got an hypothesis about what is going on… do you?

Map over Lukksundet, with the Bjørnafjord in the north and the Hardangfjord in the south.

The students have deployed moorings within and around the strait, and hopefully we’ll be able to resolve the riddle when we retrieve the data on another student cruise to the fjord a month from now!

On our way to deploy a tidal gauge in Lukksundet (Poto: Carola Detring)

The students have posted photos and a film from the cruise here!




A birthday present from the Weddell Sea!

Amongst the facebook birthday wishes in my inbox I also found this perculiar Message:

Transmit Time: 2018-02-02T13:41:59Z UTC

Iridium Latitude: -77.0799

Iridium Longitude: -33.8234

Data: 2c31362c54454d50313030302c323031372d30312d30312030303a30303a30362c36302c393534302c333630302c2d312e3837312c333233392c332c3630382e33342c3630352e39312c31312e30322c76322e362e382c31363031383b…

which means that at least one of the LoTUS buoys that I deployed last year did what it was told and surfaced today!

A LoTUS buoy waiting to be deployed

LoTUS stands for “Long Term Underwater Sensing” and it is a bottomlander that you more or less through over the side of the ship. It sinks to the bottom, where it measures the tempearture until it is programmed to let og of its weight and come to the surface. Once at the surface, it transmits the data back to us in the office via satellite. Very nice!

The number in the Message above are as in-understandable to me as they are to you – but hopefully the instrument devellopers from KTH will be able to transform them into understandable data… a one year long temperature record from a location just north of the Filchner Ice Shelf front in the Weddell Sea! There was one more buoy that was programmed to come up today and which didn’t yet report home – so keep your finger’s crossed!

A collegaue of mine, Svein Østerhus, is currently onboard Polarstern in the Weddell Sea, and he will deploy more of these buoys for me later during the cruise!

Below are a few Pictures from the LoTUS buoy deployment last year:

Sorting out the ropes…
Waiting for the ship to be in the right position… (I’m in black and yellow)
… and off it goes!



27/01/2018: On to Plan C!

Guest blog by Karen Assmann

After our outing on to the eastern Getz Ice Shelf, the weather got a bit worse again we continued our way east with more moorings being recovered and deployed and three ocean gliders going in the water. These small autonomous underwater vehicles will spend the next year going in and out of the Dotson Ice Shelf cavity, if everything goes to plan. Getting ocean observations in the ice shelf cavities, rather than along their edges like we do with ships and moorings, is difficult. The few observations that exist come from drilling holes through several hundred meters of ice and deploying instruments through them or from sending bigger unmanned submarines into them. So sending ocean gliders that normally profile the surface ocean into the cavity under the ice shelf is rather daring. If the project by the University of Washington and Columbia University succeeds, it will mean that we will learn a huge amount about what happens in the ocean under the shelves, but the risk that the ocean gliders do not make it back out is high.

Looking across the helicopter deck towards Moore Dome where the weather station was supposed to be deployed. Now that there won’t be any more helicopter operations, other equipment has been moved back on to the helicopter deck.


At this point the weather turned good again and we dashed east across the bay to start on the next lot of helicopter work. This was to include the replacement of an automated weather station (AWS), and two days of radar and magnetics surveys and ApRES deployments on Thwaites Glacier and Dotson Ice Shelf. We were crossing fingers for 3 days of good weather. The AWS replacement on the first day ended rather abruptly, when the old weather station couldn’t be found and the responsible scientist decided not to replace it with a new one. Preparations for the second day of air operations came to an abrupt halt when a leak in the hydraulic system of one of the helicopters was found. Despite best efforts and extensive spares kits the leak couldn’t be fixed and this spelled the end of any work that needed a helicopter. Two working helicopters are needed for safe operations as an emergency backup, so the fact that one of them was no longer safe to fly meant the other couldn’t fly either. After a brief pause to re-group, on we went with the ocean work on the schedule while considering what could be done with the time that has suddenly become available.


24/01/2018: More moorings…and a birthday in the air and on the ice shelf

Guest blog by Karen Assmann

After we finished our mooring marathon at the western Getz ice shelf we started to make our way east towards the Amundsen polynya. One stop on the way was the last UIB mooring that was placed in one of the smaller openings of the ice shelf. The area where the mooring was located had been covered in fast ice and heavy sea ice since we started monitoring sea ice conditions at the start of the cruise. When we got there the mooring position was located in open water about 100 meters from sea ice that was tightly packed by strong winds. After a bit of deliberation we decided not to release and recover the mooring, because we were worried that the strong winds and surface currents were going to carry it into the sea ice. We did however talk to the acoustic release and worked out that the mooring was still where we had left it two years ago.

Gray, blustery waves and a heavy sea ice cover at the UIB3 mooring site.

Then we turned further eastward to make use of a weather window that would allow us to complete some of the helicopter work that was on the schedule. As well as a joint KOPRI/University of Bergen/University of Gothenburg effort to deploy autonomous phase-sensitive radars ApRES to measure ice shelf basal melt rates, there was also a group from the University of Texas who had installed radar to measure the ice sheet structure and magnetics equipment to find out about the type of ground under the ice on one of the helicopters. After being windy, snowy and cloudy for a few days the weather turned sunny, clear and calm on 22 January that also happened to be my birthday. After a few delays we loaded our equipment into one of our helicopters, hopped in and away we went over the cliff of the ice shelf edge onto the white expanse of the eastern Getz ice shelf. I have been involved in research around ice shelves for 20 years and two years ago I finally got to stand on one. This time was just as exciting even though at the surface and ice shelf is just very flat and white and big.

An ApRES site during the setup with a central snowhole to hold the actual instrument and battery and two holes for the antenna boxes to transmit and receive the radar signal.

We spent a bit of time setting up our first ApRES site, while the helicopter shuttled out more equipment and fuel drums for the other helicopter to refuel while doing its radar and magnetics surveys. Then we loaded everything into the helicopter and moved to the second site where the setup went much faster, partly because we now had the pilot to help as well, partly because we had now worked out how to do things efficiently. After a photo session we took the scenic route back to the ship.


The ApRES team with the mast holding the Iridium and GPS antennas that is all that remains above the surface when the site has been deployed.
Looking towards the western side of the bay at Getz East. One of the icebergs in the distance probably damaged some instruments on one of the KOPRI moorings.