Report 1: The beginning

Dropping the pilot as we leave Fremantle
Dropping the pilot as we leave Fremantle

Steve Nicol, Voyage Leader

We had a rather peculiar beginning to this voyage, mostly a result of our departure from Fremantle. Although I had a complete listing of arrival times for everyone flying into Perth, ensuring that everyone was aboard the ship at 1400 on the 2nd of January was quite another matter. Even insisting that all our people slept on board on the night of the 1st did not fill me with great confidence because come 2230 hours on the first, several people had not yet been sighted, one plane was delayed, most people had disappeared to the nearest hostelry and I was pacing the deck largely alone. Much to my surprise and delight I did encounter all of my shipmates on board at 0830 when we began the briefing with an appropriately kindergarten-like roll call.

Leaving Fremantle was made more difficult by the hordes of media who descended on the docks eager to misquote us. New Year's Day was slow in WA – the competing story was a scuffle in Kalbarri – so not only did we get TV and newspaper journalists on the dock insistent on knowing how we were single-handedly going to discredit the Japanese scientific whaling program, but also we were escorted out of the Swan River by a helicopter borne news team eager to film our first bout of seasickness. The noisy helicopter caused great angst amongst the hordes wandering around the helideck trying to sustain mobile phone contact with their loved-ones – a 21st century equivalent of the paper streamers of yore.

Since sailing things have been proceeding – but slowly. It takes a while to slow down to the pace of life on the ship and to become accustomed to its rhythms and cycles – largely revolving around meal times. Several meetings have been held discussing the mechanics of extracting the maximal amount of scientific data from a limited suite of instruments over a 71-day voyage. There seems to be sufficient consensus that we may well be able to squeeze the planned research into the time available given ideal weather conditions, superhuman efforts on the part of all aboard and an appropriate level of human sacrifice. Given that it is some nine days before we conduct our first sampling in anger we are currently putting our faith in the prevailing good weather, resting up in anticipation of the efforts ahead and will hold off on the sacrificial offerings unless the weather gods demand them.

The first few days at sea are always a bit strange; many people are feeling queasy and most people are tired so one encounters one's cohabitants sporadically and infrequently. Getting to know the names of 85 people is also a major task, especially for one of my advanced age and in the present company I certainly do feel somewhat geriatric – the average age is 32 and several of us fall outside two standard deviations of that! This learning process is not aided by the people who insist on wearing different clothes every day – I have just got used to associating the white T shirt with someone called John when he goes and puts on a purple one and my system is thrown into confusion. Luckily, Toby (who I do recognise no matter which T shirt he is wearing) is prowling the corridors with a digital camera allegedly collecting mug shots which will be displayed on the ship's website so that I can check and find out that the person I have just called Sandra is in fact Bruce.

We have had benign conditions since setting sail which has helped immensely – but we cannot bank on it, so are making all speed while we can. Our first real sampling site is at roughly 62°S and 80°E, some 2000 nautical miles away from Fremantle, though between here and there we will be ejecting the odd oceanographic buoy, towing some sampling gear and collecting underway data. We aim to make a couple of stops to test our gear before we arrive at the first real sampling site so that we have some time to fix it should it malfunction. We are also conducting a plethora of activities on this voyage so it is as well to examine how feasible our theoretical workplans actually are when out at sea. Next week will see the survey begin in anger as we begin the long oceanographic transect along the 62nd parallel between 30°E and 80°E and then we will feel we are truly under way.