The Pacific Ocean | 13° 59.9592' N, 109° 59/9340' W | July 12, 2018
When Chief Officer Jason Garwood hands me a mug of tea, I accept it gratefully and gently blow on the emanating steam. The force of my breath forms tiny ripples across the small circle of hot liquid. Outside, the early morning breeze generates the same effect, creating steady, rhythmic waves across the surface of the northeastern tropical Pacific. Right now we are roughly 215 miles off the coast of southern Mexico.
I sip my tea slowly, savoring the rich flavor, and stare at the horizon through the giant windows on the bridge. As we watch the sky change colors, Jason and I chat about the places we're from: Bristol (the U.K.) and Chapel Hill (the U.S.) We talk about life at sea versus life at home. Even though we are both 30-years-old and regularly spend several weeks at sea, Jason and I have radically different lives - he is married with two children, and I'm a single nomad. Still, we enjoy some good chats in these early morning hours. He tells me a little bit about his family, and I tell him a little bit about my righteous friend group. We also talk for a long time about running, and how much we miss it.
Today is my 42nd day aboard the Falkor and my 75th day at sea this year. When I told friends and family that I would be spending two months in the Pacific Ocean this summer, the conversation usually went something like this:
friend: “Wow! What islands are you going to?”
me: “Actually, we’ll be in the middle of the ocean the entire time. I won’t see land for about a month.”
I wondered if this would bother me. Will I get sick of the open ocean? Will the endless waves start to drive me crazy?
As I finish my tea, the sun (now high in the sky) scatters shimmering light across the vast expanse of water, highlighting the crest of each individual wave.
I smile. No, I am definitely not sick of the ocean.
Over the next hour, I upload photos, check my email, and grab a coffee from the mess (living and working with so many Brits has endeared me to a "proper" cup of tea, but it won't replace my requisite morning coffee). I spot Chief Scientist Andrew Babbin at one of the long tables, chatting with a few of his grad students over breakfast. I slide into a chair, wait for a pause in the conversation, and then ask Andrew about scheduling a time to do another interview. He dramatically rolls his eyes. "Fiiiiine," he says, employing his charming sarcasm. "I guess I can tell you how awesome I am again."
In all the expeditions I've joined over the past few years, I've had the pleasure of working with many talented chief scientists, but Andrew is one of the best. His quick wit and dry sense of humor bring levity to our long days, and his willingness to participate in outreach initiatives makes my job much easier.
After finalizing a time to meet with Andrew, I head up to the main deck. Shifting my camera aside, I strap on a life jacket and hard hat, then enter the starboard bay, where John Fulmer is moving through the motions of another CTD deployment. One challenging part of my job during this expedition is to create a variety of imagery, even though the bulk of the science operations includes just two major activities: the CTD goes into the water. The CTD comes out of the water. Again, and again, and again.
Fortunately, our wonderful marine technicians are more than willing to help me capture some unique angles.
"John, can we put my GoPro in the middle of the platform to get a shot of the CTD coming back on board?"
"And can you make sure it doesn't get crushed by the frame?"
"No guarantees!" he says cheerily.
At lunch, I sit down across from Hans. He chews his food slowly, and stares at me. If I didn't know him so well, I might feel slightly weirded out by his penetrating gaze, but Hans is one of my favorite people on the ship. From his one-sided starting contests to his random existential musings to his big tattoos, the many eccentricities of Hans delight me. The first time we ever talked, he complimented the mountains tattooed on my right arm, and I asked him about the mountain on his right calf. He explained it's the Osorno volcano in southern Chile, and that he spent a week hiking it with his scout troop a few years back.
Then his mouth split into a happy grin. "There's nothing like climbing a volcano," he said.
Hans didn't know it at the time, but he had just said the magic words. Unable to contain my excitement, I launched into telling him about my love of volcanoes, from working on Llaima (located just north of Osorno) to climbing Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta.
When we're not talking about volcanoes, we exchange stories from music festivals and travels around the world. But today we chat about where we are right now.
"It's strange to have this little world of daily routines and friends and habits and hobbies out here," I say. "And then you have a whole other world back home."
Hans gives me one of his characteristic smiles. "The trick," he says, "is to be the same person—to feel like yourself—in both worlds."
I press the red button on my audio recorder and say, “Alright, the first question is easy. Just introduce yourself—tell me your name and official title.”
“My name is Mirosalv Mirchev, and I am the Chief Engineer on board R/V Falkor.”
Chatting with Miro is something I do almost every day—usually over a cup of coffee or at dinner. While our conversations often brim with his vivid descriptions and easy laughter, now that I'm officially interviewing him, he appears more reserved. I try my best to ask thoughtful questions, while not stiffening the flow of conversation.
I tell Miro how impressed I have been with his team of engineers. On an oceanographic expedition, if something breaks or if a piece of equipment stops working, we can't simply run to Home Depot to buy a replacement part or purchase a tool to fix it. We have to use whatever tools and materials we happen to have on board. But a workshop full of tools is not enough—you need to possess the ingenuity, creativity, and resiliency to design a solution, and to do so quickly, in all kinds of conditions. Last week, I filmed Miro attaching a newly fabricated part in the pouring rain. The resourcefulness of his team has been crucial to the success of the science operations on board, and I'm excited to feature them in my next video.
When I ask Miro about the problem-solving mentality and dedication required to be an engineer, he responds modestly. "We are just doing our jobs."
I politely press him to tell me about the process. "When someone comes to you and says 'we're not sure what to do about this problem', how do you respond?" I ask. "How do you approach it?"
Miro remains humble in his response, but he begins to tell me more details. "First we look at the complexity of the problem. And we don't treat it as a problem—we treat it as a challenge. Teamwork is very important..."
"So I interviewed Miro," I say, with the tiniest hint of pride in my voice.
"Oh yeah?" Ewan looks slightly surprised. "How did it go?"
"Good. Miro is a humble dude. I could tell he didn't want to brag about himself, but I got him talking about his team and the conversation went well from there. He said some nice things about you."
Ewan raises his eyebrows. "Really? What did he say?"
"That you're really good at welding."
Ewan grins. I can tell he's trying to play it cool, but I also know that praise from the Chief Engineer is a big deal.
Before boarding the Falkor in late May, I had no idea what to expect from the other people on board. Will I meet any people like me? Will I make friends? Will I spend my time at sea feeling lonely and isolated?
The answers to those questions turned out to be yes, yes, and no. Making friends has been an easy, natural process. But out of all the lovely people I've befriended on the ship, I feel closest to Ewan.
While we have very different lives (Ewan is a husband and a dad) and we've only known each other for a few weeks, our conversations possess the cadence of old friends. Ewan references kite boarding and mountain biking with the same regularity and reverence that I use to describe scuba diving and mountaineering. We compare our skill sets (welding and photography) and our professions (engineering and journalism), finding common ground in the qualities required to be not just good, but very good, at these things. We exchange stories of mistakes we've made in the past, goals for the future, and how we ended up here—working on a research vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
We talk about our families, especially his wife and daughter, and how hard it is for him to be away from them. I tell Ewan I don't want to have children and I doubt I'll ever get married. We can't always relate, but we are both good at listening and showing up for each other.
When I walk up to the storage deck in the afternoon, I find Phil Guenther, our captain, chatting on the radio.
Phil is many things—a rock climber, a photographer, and a good leader. Originally from Germany, he often exhibits the hospitality and warmth I've come to associate with Canadians. Ship captains can come off as austere, but Phil embodies generosity and genuine altruism. On the first day of the expedition, just moments after I introduced myself, Phil went to his camera bag and handed me two prime Canon lenses. "Use these as much as you like while you're on board," he said. "Let me know what you think of them." Two days later, we were both doing pull-ups on the boat deck and chatting casually about hang-board training when Phil said, "we have a meeting on the bridge in 10 minutes—you should come."
Since then we've had many conversations about photography, communication and leadership. But we also talk about exercise, sleep, and creating a sustainable lifestyle at sea.
"Every day here is like Groundhog Day," he says. "So you just create the perfect day for yourself, and press repeat."
When it comes to creating my perfect day, exercise is a big factor. I figured out years ago that if I don't physically challenge my body during the day, I won't sleep at night. When living on a ship, regular exercise becomes even more important—both for maintaining physical and mental fitness. Fortunately, I'm not the only one who thinks this.
At 5 o'clock sharp, I walk out onto the storage deck to find my afternoon workout buddies—Luke, Mick and Emiel. During my first week on the ship, I went down to the gym (a cramped room with no windows) to run on the treadmill every day. Then one afternoon Luke spotted me doing sets of weighted pull-ups and invited me to to join him and Mick for a kettle bell workout on the storage deck. We've been hitting the circuit training hard just about every day since then (and I haven't gone back to the small, stuffy gym.)
Over the past two months, we've come up with dozens of different routines. I show the guys some of the killer exercises from group workouts at Progression (push-up pyramids! squat pyramids!) Meanwhile Luke and Mick introduce me to a million variations of squats, lunges, dips and lifts. We take turns playing drill sergeant. Mick makes us run sprints. Luke decides we'll do pull-ups right after a series of push-ups. I instigate an insane squat routine. We also come up with new stuff together—like creating eight different ways to do a burpee.
My muscles feel sore every day, but I sleep great every night. And I never miss a workout. Being in beast mode on a boat feels right.
At 5:45am, I join Jason on the bridge for our customary early cup of tea, but no bright colors line the horizon this morning. Instead we stare at a wall of low clouds and a bizarre sight—a rocky outcropping. We are just off the California coastline and we're starting to see land. From listening to Jason chat with the U.S. Coast Guard over the radio, I learn we will arrive back in San Diego in just under three hours. After so many weeks at sea, the idea of leaving the rhythm and routine of the ship feels very strange.
Even though my official work is done, I don't want to stop documenting the intricacies of this little world that I've come to know so well. I finish my tea and head out onto the deck.
Against a gray backdrop, I find a myriad of bright blue. Ollie Knight is busy pulling out lines across the bow. One of the most positive and easy-going people on the ship, I liked Ollie from the moment I met him. During the first conversation we ever had, I was struck by the joy he exuded. "I'm just a genuinely happy person," he said. "And I've got the best job in the world." He proceeded to tell me about his recent trip to Iceland, and then listed off some of the personal and professional goals he wants to achieve over the next few years.
Will I meet any people like me? The question seems a bit ridiculous now.
Yes, Marley. The answer is yes.
Back in my cabin, faced with the arduous task of packing, I allow my thoughts to linger on my colleagues who have become dear friends. It's fun to imagine that I might randomly bump into them somewhere down the road—over beers in an Irish pub, on a trail heading up to the summit of a volcano, or perhaps during another oceanographic expedition. The reality, however, is that I won't see many of these people again—which is a bit tough to wrap my head around. I try to focus instead on what I'm about to do.
When I leave the ship tomorrow, I'll jump into my best friend's car to embark on an epic road trip across the western half of the United States and Canada. The next month will be full of massive mountains, sore legs, cold beers, and blistered feet. I can't wait to experience a complete change of scenery—to sleep outside, cook over a camp stove, and haul a heavy pack up some rugged, rocky terrain.
And yet, a small part of me longs to stay here. To keep pressing repeat.