A Dark and Stormy Night

Notes: This post was written by Isaiah Milton, an undergraduate researcher who is participating in the Woods Hole Partnership Education Program (PEP). The photo (taken by L. Blanco-Bercial) shows the SeaDance in the foreground with the Atlantic Explorer in the background. Isaiah was able to venture out on both vessels during his recent trip to Bermuda.

Being in the field of Marine Science, I have had opportunities to observe and witness the raw beauty and power of nature to its fullest. Whether it’s diving on a coral reef and watching a group of black-tip reef sharks frenzy feed or watching a cascading waterfall turn to mist as it stretches further and further producing a rainbow on its way down, all of my interactions with nature have been awe inspiring. Every single one of these unique experiences have left me with a vivid memory and an appetite for another brush with nature. During my recent trip to the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) with my PEP mentor I had another one of these rare experiences.

On a Tuesday night sometime after nine-thirty, I boarded a small research vessel called the Sea Dance with our colleague Dr. Leocadio Blanco-Bercial, a zooplankton ecologist at BIOS. He introduced me to the captain of the boat, who in turn began explaining the purpose of our trip tonight and what role I would be playing. I was told that we were taking an expedition to “Station Leo”, a remote sampling spot in the middle of the Sargasso Sea about 3-4 miles off the coast of Bermuda. We were going out to this sampling station to collect two samples of zooplankton in the water column. This sample of zooplankton would be the basis for my upcoming experiments to measure the metabolic cost of copepod feeding (as part of a larger diel vertical migration project). Our sampling equipment consisted of a Reeve net with a 20-liter cod end that would be connected to a winch on the side of the Sea Dance. We loaded all of the equipment on the boat and prepared for departure from the dock. The air was much cooler than earlier in the day and I was ready for the ocean breeze that was to come during the trip out to the site.

The captain revved the engine of the boat signaling that we were about to make a departure. My fellow shipmate removed the lines connecting the boat to the dock, and the captain slowly made his way away from the dock towards the canal that led to open ocean. We sped along underneath a bridge and out into Saint George’s Harbor, which had several islands of different sizes spaced about the entryway to the ocean. The boat weaved between the islands and began to pick up speed as we made our way out into the open ocean and further away from land. Now moving about 25 knots, the boat continued a steady pattern of jumping as it bounced along the waves making its way to “Station Leo”.

It was now much darker without the lights of the island illuminating the boat and the surrounding area, and as we bounced along the boat was only illuminated by the bright light of the stars and the third quarter moon. It was partially cloudy with many wispy cirrus clouds and a large mass of cumulonimbus clouds moving across the sky slowly. As we sped along, I gazed up at the vibrant stars that pierced the clear sky which occasionally became obscured by the giant mass of clouds. While I stared in awe at the beauty of the sky, I was startled by a bright flash in the clouds obscuring my view. Lightning flashed within the massive cloud silently and light up the night sky like a brilliant firework. A wide grin crept across my face as I watched the lightning continue to flash within the clouds for several minutes. After several minutes of the beautiful flashing set over the gorgeous backdrop of the stars, a gust split the cumulonimbus cloud in half like a pair of shears slicing cleanly through a piece of leather. All that was left was a pillar of stars peeking out from in between the now split massive cloud. This was without a doubt another brush with nature that would not be forgotten.

Finally, after a 20-minute bumpy ride we made it to the sampling site “Station Leo”. I helped to set up the Reeve net and to deploy the net down into the water column. After we cast the net, I helped Leo and the captain search for pelagic fish for a separate study they were conducting. The captain shined a light into the water, while Leo lay in wait with net in hand waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. After a few minutes of chatting and waiting, a small flying fish swam within range of Leo’s net. He quickly scooped it up and cheered as he brought it aboard. After we deployed the Reeve net deployment second time, we waited for another fish to swim by. A larger flying fish swam by but quickly escaped before Leo could catch it. Luckily a small lantern fish swam within range to replace the fish we missed. It died promptly after we transferred it into the bucket on the boat, as these fish are very fragile. We pulled in the second net and stored our two samples at the back of the boat covered, so we wouldn’t lose any of the contents. Then the captain revved the engine again and we made our way back to the station after a successful collection trip.