Before 2018, I had never spent more than two days on a boat in the open ocean.
In the past nine months, I have joined four different major research expeditions, culminating in over 100 days spent living and working at sea. Below are just a few moments (and people) that stand out in my mind.
Day 15: Andvord Bay, Antarctica
Brightly colored streamers line the mess hall. Amy, one of our marine technicians, places a Funfetti cake, covered in homemade whipped-cream icing and sliced peaches, on the table in front of me. She lights a solitary candle (in the confined, dry environment onboard, fire is a major hazard.) I blow out the candle, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning.
Today is March 2nd , 2018—my 30th birthday. It is also my 15th day living aboard the Laurence M. Gould in the Antarctic Peninsula.
After lunch, I run into KC in the hallway. I have only known KC for the two weeks we’ve been living on the ship, but he has quickly become a close friend.
“It’s your birthday!” he says brightly, giving me a huge hug. “What do you want to do to celebrate?”
KC’s enthusiasm warms my heart in a profound way. Over the past few years, my birthday celebrations have included surprises, concerts, dance parties, and travels with friends. But on a research vessel in Antarctica, the celebratory options are a bit limited.
“I was thinking about watching a movie in the lounge tonight,” I say hesitantly. “Would you be down to do that?”
“Of course! Let’s do it!”
After a long day of field work, KC and I don our comfiest clothes, grab some leftover birthday cake from the mess, and head to the lounge. We put on Into the Wild and plop down onto the worn-out, oversized leather couches.
An hour into the movie, as we watch the young Alexander Supertramp cooking a squirrel over a fire in the backcountry of Alaska, the ship lurches. KC and I have to catch ourselves, so we don’t roll off the couch. I laugh as I steady myself. I was so immersed in the movie that I forgot—just for a few minutes—that I’m on a ship at the bottom of the world.
Day 47: 1,000 miles off the coast of southern California
After photographing an epic sunrise and the first CTD deployment of the day, I finally sit down in the mess to eat breakfast and drink a much-needed cup of coffee. Across the table is Hans, a 30-year-old native of Germany and our lead deckhand. Like many crew members on this ship, Hans strikes me as professional and polite—but quiet. Before now, we’ve only exchanged a few words. He chews his food slowly and stares at me. When he swallows, he points his fork at my right arm, and says, “that’s a really cool tattoo.” He pauses, and smiles. “Really, really cool.”
I sip my coffee, trying to shake off my early-morning auto-pilot mode. “Thanks!” I say cheerily. “You have a tattoo of a mountain on your calf, right?”
Hans nods. “It’s a volcano in southern Chile.”
This statement jolts me with far more energy than coffee ever could—I suddenly feel wide awake.
“Seriously?? Which one?”
Twenty minutes later, Hans and I have exchanged stories of climbing volcanoes, getting tattoos, traveling around the world, and how and why these things make us feel so alive.
Day 76: 200 miles off the coast of Mexico
The sun went down almost an hour ago, but the sky continues to radiate deep hues of blue and red. A warm breeze washes across the storage deck, enticing me and the other crew members to linger here a little longer. I scroll through the sunset photos on my camera, comparing shots with Leighton, our lead marine technician. Luke, our second officer, sits on an overturned bucket, quietly strumming his guitar. Rumor has it that Luke is quite the musician, but I’ve never heard him play. Because he reports to work on the bridge at midnight (until 4am) Luke typically uses the early evening hours to rest. It’s a pleasant surprise to see him here now, especially with his guitar in hand.
When the conversation reaches a lull, Leighton turns to Luke. “Go on then,” he says in his booming Welsh accent. “Play us something music man!”
Luke looks up at us with a modest expression. “What do you want to hear?”
A couple people fire off requests. After a brief back and forth, Luke begins to strum the chords to a song that, for me, acts as a time warp. The year is suddenly 2008 and I’m a sophomore in college, sitting on a porch in Carrboro.
“Heading down south to the land of the pines, I’m thumbin my way into North Caroline…”
The reality is that it’s 2018 and I’m on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, over 2,500 miles from North Carolina. But listening to Luke sing, I feel right at home.
Day 104: San Diego Harbor
Just after 10pm, the lights on the Coronado bridge send twinkling reflections across the smooth surface of San Diego Harbor. I stand on the aft deck with Leo, one of our deckhands, and Lou, one of our chefs. We stare out over the water, exchanging stories.
Today marks the end of my fourth expedition this year. While I just celebrated my 100th day at sea, Leo and Lou have spent thousands of days working on ships. Tomorrow Lou will begin two months of travel across the U.S. and Mexico before she returns to her native New Zealand. Leo is heading home to his family in Latvia. I’m going back to North Carolina.
“The first week is always rough,” Leo says, describing the transition from the daily routine and order of the ship to the chaotic joy of life at home with his two young boys.
I listen and nod in agreement. While I have no idea what it’s like to be a parent, I can empathize with the strangeness of the transition. When I got home after three months of travel this summer, it took me the better part of two weeks to adjust. I wonder how I’ll feel when I return to Chapel Hill this time.
Exactly 24 hours later, as I board a red-eye flight bound for the east coast, I experience the sensation of stepping into a portal. I am hit with the sudden realization that I now inhabit two parallel worlds, with completely different sets of people and experiences in each. Both brim with beauty, challenges, and lessons—but they exist apart.
There is my life on land, and then there is my life at sea.