For the sheer excitement of being here

by Andie Hay

It dawned on me today that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the SWOT satellite. That is, I wouldn’t be in the middle of the Southern Ocean surrounded by oceanographers and hydrochemists and experts of all the different flavours that the clever folks on this ship come in. Strange thought, that a small lump of metal and solar panels orbiting through space managed to shepherd us all onto CSIRO research vessel (RV) Investigator and down to this particular patch of ocean.

My field of research is the in-situ validation of altimetry measurements, that is, relating the ‘real world’ of waves, tides, currents, gravity, density, atmosphere and so on to the sea surface heights measured by the radar altimeters on the SWOT satellite. All with accuracy at around the centimetre level!

UTAS PhD student Andie Hay on the FOCUS voyage in the Southern Ocean

The SWOT validation effort is my only real point of connection with the FOCUS voyage, so although this voyage would no doubt have been replaced by another if SWOT didn’t exist, I certainly wouldn’t be on it. I’m not an oceanographer (not really, not yet at least) so the thought of heading out to sea for over a month to do science was not even on my radar. (Lucky SWOT is so good in that department I guess…)

You could perhaps see it as mildly inconvenient then that I am loving the experience quite so much. For the excitement of it mostly, I think. For the sense that there are questions that need answering, and here is this group of people ready and willing to pour so much of their lives into searching for those answers. Then again, perhaps all this love and excitement from me is more due to the fact that as a PhD student I have to continually stretch just that little bit beyond my knowledge and skills into the realms of unknowns, and here I am part of a team with a clear job to do. It is quite the gift really. The learning and curiosity can be properly enjoyed, because I don’t have to write up a paper about it later (the data for my work has already been collected, see?). Everyone keeps expecting that I’ll get bored of doing our CTD casts and taking the water samples, but I don’t think they quite appreciate the relief of having a clear, immediate, useful role to fill. It’s a good feeling.

But yes, at least slightly inconvenient. After all, it is a time-limited experience and we are already past the halfway mark. Perhaps there are a few on board that could be convinced to go rogue and continue sampling the Southern Ocean instead of going home, but I don’t think there are enough of us to take the ship. We’d run out of fuel eventually anyway…. and food come to think of it… and though my piratical inclinations are strong, I don’t think I’d have the heart to keep people away from their families for any longer than they signed up for.

Probably best then to accept my fate and return home on 20 December with everyone else (*sigh*). Perhaps the ocean fever will settle once I’m back on land. Perhaps I’ll arrive home well-rested, relaxed, and with this newfound gratitude for the doors that SWOT has opened up for me, so that the final year of the PhD will see me energised and determined to contribute whatever I can to the validation effort. Overly optimistic, do you think? I think I’ll hope for that anyway. I’ve never truly got the hang of letting go of my hopeless hopes, to be honest with you.

photo: Andie Hay

For now though I shall just enjoy being here. Being with this group of quite remarkable people, hearing about their work and their lives. Finding ways to keep ourselves entertained during the routine operations, and filling our down-time with table tennis and card games and playing songs and spotting sea birds. One thing I am sure I will miss is my morning routine of going out on deck first thing after waking up (just before lunchtime, because on my shift I don’t get to sleep until 4am most nights). If the weather is not too rough, I can stand at the bow of the ship and look at the waves and the sky, and watch the birds, and sing as loudly as I want, and just generally marvel at the world before spending the rest of my day and night in the belly of the ship. After my morning dip in the daylight a few days ago I wrote a poem. If you’ve got this far, then you might enjoy it! Love to you, wherever you are (and do thank Benoit next time you see him, for being the driving force to make all of this happen).

This research is supported by a grant of sea time on RV Investigator from the CSIRO Marine National Facility which is supported by the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

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