Rollin’ on the waves with my scientist homies

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Sort of ready for the safety drill.  Photo by Andreas Muenchow

Seasickness comes and goes. I was hoping to be okay after five days in, and most of the time I am, but I’m still reliant on the seasick pills. There is nothing in my adult life that can describe what this feels like, but there are two experiences from my childhood that match it well. The first is riding backwards in the way back seat of a full-size station wagon in West Virginia. West Virginia is full of roads with sharp turns in the mountains where the road will also “drop” you for a second if you drive too fast over a rise. The second is swinging on a swing. The particular swing I’m thinking of was connected to my babysitter’s swing set. It was two benches connected to each other by a metal frame that you could pile a lot of kids on. We would pretend that we were either pirates at sea or for more drama, escaping the pirates. Of course, there were always alligators, sharks or both underneath, so you couldn’t just jump off when the swing got too high and the poles started to pull out of the ground.

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Rock and roll childhood

This is what being on the ship feels like to me only besides swinging from side to side the ship can swing in any direction, sometimes all directions so you feel a bit stirred up. Imagine that you’re swinging high on this swing but there is nothing to hold on to. Now imagine that you are doing this taking a shower, carrying a tray of food, reading, typing or doing anything that you need to do in a day. I thought that it would be a nice motion for sleeping, and sometimes it is. When it’s not, like last night, it reminds me of the scene in the early surfer movies where a girl would be thrown up in the air on a blanket on the beach, caught falling and then thrown up again. Okay, I didn’t mean to write thrown up, but you get the picture. The movement of the ship never stops. You can’t get out of the car, jump off the swing or ask the hunky surfers to please, for Christ sake, put you down. This morning was a rough one, I saw spray at my window over four stories above the ocean and the ship is moving quite a lot. This very green Dragonfly stayed in bed hoping that sleep, dreams and a seasickness pill might make it better, it did. Knitting, staring at the horizon when it’s visible and peppermint tea help as well.

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View from the galley porthole.

Not everything about the ship being in constant motion is bad as I discovered watching a Star Wars movie the other night. The ship was rocking in the same motion as the land speeders racing through the forest. It was really cool. People pay money to have this experience in theatres. I’m going to watch the Phantom Menace tonight for the pod race, unless it makes me sick.

A lucky artist at sea

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Dragonfly Leathrum on the main deck of the R/V Maria S. Merian in Scoresby Sound, Greenland. Photo by Simon Wett UHH

I am neither scientist nor sailor but an American artist living in Bremerhaven, Germany looking at Greenland beyond the rails of R/V Maria S. Merian. How I got here is another story, but my purpose is to convey work at sea to a broader audience with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Dr. Torsten Kanzow of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute is leading scientists from Germany, England, Greece, India, and the USA in their various projects. We are all collecting ocean data in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland and in Scoresby Sound in Greenland. Even though I have been seasick on and off this first week of four, observing students, technicians, engineers, and crew working together is an eye-opening adventure.

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The Maria S. Merian docked in Reykjavik Harbor. Photo by Dr. Andreas Muenchow UDEL

The research vessel R/V Maria S. Merian is all work all the time. Different groups fill every minute of twenty-four-hour work days. They collect and process data, prepare instruments for year-long deployments into the ocean, and recover instruments placed in the water in prior years. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I document what is happening from an artist’s perspective using photographs, drawings, paintings, and blogs. My first assignment was to photograph all members of the science party so a large poster could be made to help everyone get to know each other. Two days later I was seasick and missed a good photo opportunity when scientists, technicians and crew recovered a first mooring from the Denmark Strait. Dr. Andreas Muenchow from the University of Delaware covered for me and probably took better photos because as a seasoned sailing scientist he is more comfortable with deck operations.

The next day we saw an iceberg: My First Iceberg! Little did I know there were thousands of icebergs just beyond my horizon that I will write about next week.

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Iceberg in the Denmark Strait. Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum

We sailed back and forth across the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland to map a massive plume of dense water cascading cold Arctic water down the sloping bottom into the Atlantic Ocean. The ship stops every hour or so to lower a metal frame called a CTD that has many sensors and bottles strapped to it. This measures temperature, salinity, velocity, and oxygen levels. The scientists and crew also deployed and recovered moorings which measure similar things. The moorings are weighted down at the bottom with old train wheels. A nice bit of upcycling. All scientists meet every evening after dinner to compare new data and ideas that were collected and processed during the prior day and night. They organize all this in graphs and charts. It is fascinating to see the information visually. As a lucky artist I receive somewhat unexpectedly an advanced tutorial in physical oceanography without taking a single class in mathematics or physics.

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Mooring deployments in the Denmark Strait August 2018 from aboard R/V Maria S. Merian. Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum

It was a good first week even though my sea sickness pills are all gone. The scientists, mostly students, are extremely bright, nice, and working hard at their stations. The weather has been fair during the week. We enjoyed some unexpected sunshine and we huddled through a few cold and foggy days. I photographed sunsets, moon rises, whales, dolphins, and many of the different sensors, scientists, and science work. Calmer seas here and there allowed me to complete two paintings of Iceland as well.