Two Weeks Out at Sea

We are excited to welcome Ashley Arnold to Dispatches from the Field today! Ashley is a graduate student studying microbial ecology at the University of British Columbia. Today she tells us about two very interesting weeks out at sea. For more about Ashley, see the end of this post. 

Wait, you’re going where?!

Will you have internet connection?

I don’t get it…why are you going again?

Do you get seasick?

These are just a few of the questions I was asked when I told my non-field work going friends and family that I would be spending two weeks on a research trip in out on the Pacific Ocean. To be fair, these are pretty standard questions to ask when someone tells you that they will be travelling 1700 km off shore to the open ocean – but honestly, it didn’t seem too odd to me. Throughout my undergrad and graduate degree at the University of British Columbia, I’ve been lucky enough to do a good amount of field work, partly due to my interest in environmental science and partly because I work in a lab which studies environmental microbial ecology. To me, field work is just another part of the job and I’ve been lucky enough to go on some pretty incredible research trips.

But this trip obviously wasn’t what those closest to me thought their token scientist friend would be doing as part of her research…so I got very practiced at answering those questions.

Wait, you’re going where!?

Out to sea! But more specifically, the northeast subarctic Pacific Ocean along the Line P[] transect onboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel – John P Tully (we call it The Tully for short). Line P is an oceanic transect starting from the southern part of Vancouver Island, British Columbia and ending at Ocean Station Papa located at 50ºN 145ºW. Line P is one of the longest running ocean transects, as Station Papa was a weather station from 1949 until the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans took over running the transect program in 1981. Now, the Line P program involves taking ocean measurements such as salinity, temperature, oxygen concentration and chlorophyll at 26 locations along the transect. This data is important for ocean monitoring, particularly in recent years, when there have been some noticeable temperature anomalies[].


This was probably the most common question I got asked, since people wanted to know if there would be any way to contact me while I was away. (Well, this is the explanation I’m choosing to go with, anyway). You’d think the answer would be no, since we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean…but this research trip was a bit of an anomaly internet-wise, since we took a satellite sponsored by Ocean Networks Canada[] with us.  In the end, there were only a few days when we were completely offline on this trip. (In general, though, we’re out of internet range after 3 – 5 days.)


The Ocean Networks Canada satellite that accompanied us for the cruise.


Our working space while onboard. At each station we collect water and filter it through a filter to collect bacteria, archaea and  plankton. Later, DNA and RNA will be extracted from those filters and sent for sequencing.

I don’t get it…why are you going? 

For science! But also for my lab!

My lab, the Hallam lab[], has been involved with this project for around 10 years now. As a lab, we’re interested in trying to uncover the metabolic abilities of different microorganisms in oceanic, terrestrial and human-impacted environments, primarily through DNA and RNA sequencing. Line P is one of our ocean projects. And since we’ve been collecting data for almost a decade, it’s now a time series, which allows us to look at changes in the oceanic microbial community over time and across different seasons. Pretty cool right?!

Do you get seasick?

Ah, yes, seasickness. Our lab technician likes to say this whenever someone asks about seasickness: “If you haven’t been seasick, you just haven’t been in rough enough waters yet”. At first I thought this was a little dramatic, but I get what she’s saying now.

On this trip, I got seasick for a few days and it was awful. I came prepared with an arsenal of various seasickness medication and was doing pretty well for the first few days. And then I got overconfident and stopped taking any medication. Naively, I thought I had acquired my “sea legs” and was really starting to embrace my new life as a sea-going scientist.

Of course, this new persona emerged just as we hit some rough weather that made the boat sway back and forth and side to side all the time. And I mean all the time. Trying to go to bed? Hard to sleep, because the boat is swaying. Trying to walk down the hallway? Better hold on, because the boat is swaying. Want to enjoy a nice meal with your fellow sea-going scientists? Ha, nope. Your stomach definitely doesn’t want anything because the boat is still swaying.

It’s not a great feeling. I don’t wish it on anyone. I definitely learned my lesson: take your seasickness meds!

Hopefully, my answers to the above questions have given my friends, family and anyone interested in the scientific adventures of a grad student some idea of what my two weeks out at sea were like. It was a lot of work and a big chunk of time to be away from my normal life… but overall I had a great time, and I’m glad I got to experience life at sea!


Some days the view looked like this.


But most days it looked like this. It was pretty grey and cloudy for the majority of the trip.


Land ho! After two weeks at sea it was nice to see land again.

Ashley Arnold is a Masters student at the University of British Columbia studying microbial ecology in contaminated soil environments though her research interests in biogeochemical cycles and microbial ecology more broadly are not constrained to a particular environment. A long-time member of the Hallam lab at UBC, Ashley has been on numerous field adventures to collect samples for different on-going research projects such as biogeochemical cycling in Saanich Inlet, BC, coastal environmental monitoring at the Hakai Research Institute and the Long Term Soil Productivity Project at O’Connor Lake. When she’s not in the lab, you can find her enthusiastically encouraging her lab mates to listen to her most recent podcast obsession or talking about musicals.


One thought on “Two Weeks Out at Sea

  1. Pingback: Tagging along on the Great Trail | Dispatches from the Field

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