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Patagonian Corals Expedition 2013: A Day in the “Office”

The Huinay Scientific Field Station's vessel, the Llonco, traverses Comau Fjord to bring us diving supplies. The stunning mountains have been an amazing backdrop this last few days. Photo by Rhian Waller.
The Huinay Scientific Field Station’s vessel, the Llonco, traverses Comau Fjord to bring us diving supplies. The stunning mountains have been an amazing backdrop this last few days. Photo by Rhian Waller.

On expedition we often joke that one day rolls into another, and it takes three checks to make sure we have the right date and day of the week written on samples and dive logs. With long (similar) days and no weekend breaks, it’s easy to lose track of time and suddenly you’re on the home stretch.

With not much room to gear up on the back deck of one of the research vessels we've had to get ready one at a time. Cold-water diving is equipment, and concentration, intensive - miss one thing and there's there potential for disaster at worst, and aborted dives at best. Photo by Laura Malaguti.
With not much room to gear up on the back deck of one of the research vessels we’ve had to get ready one at a time. Cold-water diving is equipment, and concentration, intensive – miss one thing and there’s there potential for disaster at worst, and aborted dives at best. Photo by Laura Malaguti.

I find us here towards the end of the expedition, looking back at photographs from the last few days of diving with a smile. There’s enough jokes out there on the internet making light of the life marine biologists appear to lead (beaches, sunshine, whales and dolphins). This expedition was proceeded for me with long hours in the office, nights and weekends at my computer, writing papers and proposals for the next big expeditions, meetings (endless meetings) and keeping my laboratory afloat ordering supplies, looking over samples and organizing students and technicians.

But I do truly believe I have the best job in the world. My office doesn’t always have a computer in it – sometimes it’s utterly quiet (only the sound of your bubbles) and complete darkness, pierced only by the flashlight in my hand searching for the seafloor many feet below you.

At 80ft depth in the fjords there is next to no ambient light. We're guided only by flashlights, helping us to find our samples and discover new things on the seafloor. Photo by Rhian Waller.
At 80ft depth in the fjords there is next to no ambient light. We’re guided only by flashlights, helping us to find our samples and discover new things on the seafloor. Photo by Rhian Waller.

The days in the ‘office’ during this expedition have been glorious. On returning from Renihue, the rain (finally) stopped, and we’ve had nothing but sunshine, low winds and better visibility at depth (though still dark from a falling plankton bloom sitting at 20-60ft depth). A typical day in this expedition has been to get up early, grab breakfast at our dorms and head to the dive locker to load gear. The last few days have been icy on the pier, so it’s been a gentle walk down a steep slope with heavy equipment, loading it all onto one of the small boats.

Loading gear carefully onto the research vessels - taking care down the icy early morning dock. Photo by Rhian Waller.
Loading gear carefully onto the research vessels – taking care down the icy early morning dock. Photo by Rhian Waller.

A few days ago we spent a whole day at Lilihuape island, so we took a packed a lunch and took out the larger covered vessel to keep us warmer between dives. An hour commute to our dive site and three of us jumped in, one at a time. As we started to sink we lost sight of one another briefly in the plankton ‘murk’, but dropped down to 90ft as fast as we could, knowing that it should clear at depth and we’d find one another again by the glow of our flashlights.

Down we go and we fan out, staying just enough in sight not to loose one another and search out the logger. A purple sea star sits on a rock wall covered in corals – reminding me it’s not just the corals that are spectacular – the sheer diversity and density of ALL life here is astounding. What an office view.

A purple sea star sits amongst the corals at Lilihuape Island. Photo by Laura Grange.
A purple sea star sits amongst the corals at Lilihuape Island. Photo by Laura Grange.

On another dive to an area called Punta Huinay we located another data-logger left out for a year  – covered in yet more sea stars, purple, pink and orange! Luckily they’re not covering the temperature and salinity sensors (which are well protected). The light meter may not have read correctly though, so pictures were taken and notes recorded – every little thing goes into the dive and expedition logs, you never know what small detail might be important later.

Data logger devils. These cheeky sea stars may well have messed up our light meters, but luckily the salinity and temperature measures will be unaffected. Photo by Rhian Waller.
Data logger devils. These cheeky sea stars may well have messed up our light meters, but luckily the salinity and temperature measures will be unaffected. Photo by Rhian Waller.

At the end of the day we bring all the heavy gear and samples back to the laboratory. All the samples need to be put away – either live in tanks or prepared and preserved for later analysis. All the dive gear has to be washed of salt, all the photographic and sampling gear needs special attention to make sure it’s all in clean, working, condition for the next day of diving. All the photos are downloaded, dive logs and written and the expedition log is filled in. We rarely finish before 10pm, ready to set an early alarm for the next day and do it all again.

Myself (Rhian Waller) sampling corals at an area called X-Huinay. So many things to concentrate on when your office is underwater - finding the samples in near darkness; not letting go of the sampling tools, jar and bag all at once; keeping an eye on your air supply and how much time you have left; checking your buddy is still there; and of course, looking for the next sampling patch. Photo by Katie McConnell.
Myself (Rhian Waller) sampling corals at an area called X-Huinay. So many things to concentrate on when your office is underwater – finding the samples in near darkness; not letting go of the sampling tools, jar and bag all at once; keeping an eye on your air supply and how much time you have left; checking your buddy is still there; and of course, looking for the next sampling patch. Photo by Katie McConnell.

But I wouldn’t swop the long hours, before, during or post expedition for a 9-5 in an office. I just like my underwater office all too much, even if it is only a few times per year. As we wrap up the last few days and head back to civilization, be sure to tune in with an update on the project as a whole.

And of course, I couldn't resist one more photo of the spectacular coral beds here in Patagonia. Like colorful feather dusters sticking out of the rocks. Photo by Rhian Waller.
And of course, I couldn’t resist one more photo of the spectacular coral beds here in Patagonia. Like colorful feather dusters sticking out of the rocks. Photo by Rhian Waller.

 

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