Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sensory Overload

- Phil Bresnahan

Life on a research vessel is a strange conflation of simplicity and almost overwhelming stimulation. On the one hand, it’s essential that we bring only what we need to avoid excess clutter. In the labs, we tend to bring spare components for just about everything possible in preparation for the inevitable malfunctions but there’s always much more that we need to leave behind (such as our highly-inclined-to-seasickness advisors). Personal belongings are even more constrained:
-“Hey, isn’t that the same shirt I saw you wearing a few days ago?”
-“Um, nope. That was yesterday…”
Despite our attempt at modest packing, though, the sensory environment on board is far from limited, in every category.

Let’s start with taste. Mike, Erskin, and Thomas have done a deliciously fantastic job of fattening us up with every style of cuisine and an incessant supply of desserts and freshly baked breads (we have regularly scheduled breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a snack before lunch, cheese and freshly baked bread before dinner, and an evening snack every day—I’m not kidding). I have a difficult enough time making my meals taste fresh after I’ve had the food stored for a week so I’ve been amazed by how fresh everything has been here, especially now that we haven’t seen land for three full weeks. I am very impressed with the variety, too. I expected to be eating variations of the same meals after the first few days but I don’t think I’ve seen the same thing twice at any lunch or dinner. Matt talks about this culinary phenomenon more in his post, below.

In the olfactory and vision categories, the stimuli can bring either a flooding calmness or an emptying loneliness. We see the same ship, same faces, same clouds, and same five foot waves every day, accompanied by an irreplaceable smell that only the open ocean can bring. At times, this can be the best combination imaginable. It’s quite peaceful to be out in the middle of nowhere with new friends and an infinite view of the horizon yet there are times when it’s easy to forget the soothing feeling and wish to be back on land, back in a more familiar setting where it’s possible to walk more than fifty steps in one direction (without falling off of a boat into near-iceberg-temperature (or, freezing) water).

The feelings sensed on board can create some strange problems. With the ship’s constant rocking, the disconnect between what we feel and what we see can be quite an uncomfortable combination. Even for those who don’t get seasick, it takes a few days to get used to the rolling and pitching. And no matter how much you adjust to the feeling, it’s simply impossible to learn how to predict the onslaught of every rogue wave and avoid stumbling into the nearest wall. These waves, by the way, have an incredible ability to know exactly when you’re carrying soup or a recently refilled mug of tea.

And finally, we have the sounds, without a doubt the most overwhelming of the five. A complete list of these would span pages, so I’ll highlight just a few. The obvious ones include the sound of the water buffeting against the hull, the whirring of the motors in everyone’s instruments, and the steady hum of the ship’s engines. The ones for which I wasn’t as well prepared include the cacophonous drilling, rust removing, sanding, and paint chipping of the non-stop boat maintenance (don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, I’d much prefer a well-maintained ship and a little extra noise than the opposite), the gym’s radio dialed all the way up, the fog horn that blasts every two minutes, Cyril’s chatter, and, of course, the dragon. We must have acquired the dragon when we were up near Iceland (naturally). The dragon’s quarters, apparently, are directly below mine and she is clearly not happy to be on board. She intermittently roars loader than I could have imagined possible, bangs into the walls, and occasionally hisses (letting the built-up steam escape, presumably). I mentioned my discovery to the Captain and he looked at me strangely and quickly mumbled something about stern thrusters, large waves hitting the hull, and the engine’s cooling system. I shouldn’t be surprised; I’m sure I’d manufacture a response like his too if I were trying to smuggle a dragon into the United States. Anyway, this new addition to our ship has kept me wide awake during the past two nights, it being far too noisy to consider sleeping or even thinking, for that matter.

After three weeks of nonstop sensory overload, I’m looking forward to a real bed in a silent, dragonless room but I’ll certainly miss the peacefulness of the open ocean. Twenty-four hours left! (But who’s counting?)