Daylight breaks at 0600 during our transit north to Nome—still more than 24 hours to port. Our ship changed course in the middle of the night due to one of our crew requiring medical attention. The air in the wheelhouse was heavy and cold, weighed down by the thoughts about our fellow crew member and the bite of cold North Bering Sea air coming from the northeast. Overnight, the bow of the ship battled almost futility against the errant 12-14ft seas hampering our speed to 5 knots and crushing the disposition of even some of the seasoned science crew. And with a long steam to Nome, I find myself in the wheelhouse early in the morning with a cup of coffee talking with the first mate, Terry, and our bird/marine mammal observer, Marty Reedy. A faint mist of condensation has accumulated on the inside panes of the wheelhouse windows, another indication that temperatures are getting colder outside. The computer screens displaying our position, engine room status, and radar remain dimmed from the night before to reduce the glare. The two men don’t talk much this early in the morning—at least not when I entered. It’s quiet, like the kind of quiet that if you listen carefully, the wisdom becomes deafening. I begin to wonder with their combined sea time what they have seen, the ships they have been on, how they are still drawn to the ocean. Just then, a soft chime emanates near Marty’s station jarring my meandering thoughts into focus.
My attention turns to Marty, one of the few scientists that can collect data underway. There are a few underway water samples that can be collected (e.g., surface oxygen, harmful algal blooms, underway chlorophyll), but those are not continuous samples. Marty, on the other hand, is up in the wheelhouse for 12-15 hours a day scanning the horizon for birds. The soft chime chirps again, and I see that Marty instinctively picked up his binoculars, almost conditioned to the chime. Sixty-five seconds later, the same thing, only this time I heard him say, “Got one!” He enters the bird species, a shearwater, and the behavior into a laptop positioned precariously along the windowsill next to his tall, slender frame.
Marty is one of those guys who gets along with everyone—the old salts, the greenhorns, and the guys like me who know enough to get in trouble. He’s quick with a joke, always eager to help, and truly diligent with his work. His kind eyes sometimes hide behind his glasses just like his laugh mired in a tangle of grey man-beard that I hope I can grow one day. We talk about camera equipment, another photographer Chris Linder, and eventually his sampling protocol as another chime reminds him to scan the horizon. Another 65 seconds—chime—and another scan that represents how much time it takes the vessel to traverse 300 meters. In that time, Marty scans an invisible 300m square grid from the starboard bow to starboard beam, recording any activity that happens within the grid during that 65-second window—and starts again. I begin to do some math. In an hour that equates to roughly 55 samples an hour…over 800 in a 15-hour day…close to 19,800 samples over the course of the entire Leg 1 of the 24-day cruise! And how many of these research cruises has Marty been on? How many hundreds of thousands of scans he has done looking out towards the vast North Pacific counting and identifying sea birds and marine mammals?
Immediately, I am humbled. Now anytime I am in the wheelhouse, I will always remember to ask if he needs a cup of coffee.