By Paula Ezcurra
Our 14-day island biogeography expedition in the southern Gulf of California took place aboard the Searcher. For these two weeks, 25 scientists and six crew members lived, ate, slept, and worked from the ship. As with all field work, conducting research while at sea requires a scientist to adapt to their surroundings.
It is surprising how quickly one adapts to new spaces and schedules. Though small, after a few days you grow accustomed to sharing a two-bunk cabin. Living in these tight quarters always reminds me of how little one truly needs to be comfortable. These cabins are impressively well-designed to optimize space, and feature outlets, shelves, space under the bunks, and small overhead lights for each bunk.
Another way in which one must adapt to life on a research vessel is the eating schedule. For this expedition, meals were planned around maximizing time in the field. Wake-up calls for breakfast began around 5:30 a.m. so we could get to the field by seven in the morning for a full day’s work. Each day, we all packed a lunch to have midday on the island, returning to the boat in the late afternoon for group dinner at 6:00 p.m. All meals on the boat were prepared by the Searcher’s talented kitchen staff, Geri Sue and Dan. The two of them worked wonders in the small galley every morning and evening, and often also making mid-day snacks of freshly baked cookies or grilled cheese sandwiches.
Most nights, a team of researchers would return to the island shortly after dinner for a nocturnal shift that could last until 12:00 a.m. Often, there was an option to camp out on the island overnight, allowing one to get away from the sounds and lights of the boat and experience the quiet solitude of the islands at night.
To get to each island, we had to disembark from the Searcher and take smaller skiffs in groups of seven or so to land. These skiffs had to be lowered into the water and lifted back onto the boat each day, as we navigated from island to island. To accommodate the variety of activities conducted by each team, the crew—Jim, Ryan, Mike, and Chris—worked constantly taking each team back and forth from the islands with their equipment and samples, and helping them in and out of the skiffs safely.
All of the work conducted on the islands generated additional work to be completed on the boat afterwards. Each team had to find the time and space either outside or in the galley to press plants, process DNA samples, sort seeds, pin specimens, sort through photos, and record field notes.
On top of all of this, weather is always a factor that can derail research plans. This trip was no exception. Early on, we had several days of rough seas and strong winds, which made working, eating, sleeping, and disembarking even more of an adventure than it already was. Guided by the Searcher’s Captain, Art, the team leaders also had to adapt to weather conditions and reevaluate the planned route to keep us on schedule, all while following safety protocols.
In the end, conducting research aboard the Searcher was only possible thanks to an experienced and supportive crew, and a team of enthusiastic and adventurous scientists.