26. Life at Sea as a Scientist

I haven’t written a blog before, but this past summer I took part in a research cruise around the Arabian Peninsula, so I feel I really should give this a try. So here goes…

The research cruise was entitled AQABA (Air Quality and Climate Change in the Arabian Basin) which examined the impact of air pollution on public health, the climate and the environment in the Arabian Basin. The project was on board a converted research vessel called Kommandor Iona, with the journey starting in Toulon, France on June 25th sailing via the Red Sea, through the Persian Gulf to Kuwait (1st leg) and then returning back to Toulon for the return leg (2nd leg). I and my fellow researchers on board measured all kinds of air chemistry, such as particles, greenhouse gases, and meteorological data.

My journey began in Manchester, from where I flew to Kuwait via the glam of Dubai, to join the ship for the 2nd leg of the campaign. Prior to leaving Dubai, I felt apprehensive about how well this cruise was going to go in part perhaps because a colleague and friend of mine had taken part in the 1st leg and had had a torrid time trying to get the aerosol instruments that we were responsible for, to work well. Heavy waves, high temperatures and several power cuts made the job on board incredibly difficult, so as I sat on the plane to Kuwait, I couldn’t help but feel nervous about the month ahead.

I arrived in Kuwait to 50-degree Celsius heat and had no time at all to settle myself in to this new environment. Before I knew it, I found myself on board the ship, anchored in Kuwait docks. Within thirty minutes, the quick debrief with my colleague was complete and then I was, on my own. A hectic start for sure, but this was only a taste of things to come…

We left Kuwait on time and cruised through the Persian Gulf in incredible heat, but with calm waters we were happy. The instruments were coping well, calibrations and all, which was a genuine surprise, considering how the instruments had performed during the first leg! Getting used to life on board took no time at all. There were ~30 of us on board, mostly from German institutes and from a wide variety of scientific and personal backgrounds. Eating cooked food together for breakfast, lunch and dinner certainly helped us all to calve out new friendships. And the food really was incredible! Any food you can think of, they cooked it for us, from fresh sushi and salmon, to curries and Italian cuisine. I can say hand on heart (and stomach) I ate better on that ship than I eat at home! We even had a BBQ out on the back deck (as shown in the picture), which really was truly memorable; the setting sun lit up the dust- and pollution-ridden sky and the sparkling lights around us from countless oil rigs and tanker ships certainly made the BBQ experience unique, different compared with the usual garden event.



We made quick progress past Qatar, Dubai and Oman into the Indian Ocean, where things went south (literally). We were met by 6 metre waves hitting us head on and eventually from the side, causing our ship to rock in all directions. This lasted for around a week, resulting in no sleep for the whole period… Morale on board definitely took a hit (no pun intended) due to the lack of sleep and sense of inevitable doom for our instruments. Waves crashing into the ship were fusing the containers where the instruments were located, the internet was down most of the time (yes, internet is truly global, at least most of the time) and access to the instruments was tough resulting in our being stuck inside the ship. Somehow, the instruments I was operating decided to be kind and work perfectly the whole time. It was at times a little disconcerting that the instruments were working so well, surely the apparent success wasn’t real, especially considering how things were in the previous leg? It was this, the fact that the instruments worked, that made life bearable on board. If the instruments decided to play up during this period of no sleep, I’m sure bad things would have happened.

Eventually we made it through the Indian Ocean towards the Red Sea, where life was looking easier. But hold on…. One morning, around 9am, I was completing the daily calibrations for one of the aerosol instruments in the container. The day felt good. Cooked breakfast was eaten, coffee drank, some morning chats with friends enjoyed. But things took a turn for the worse, as a phone call came through in the container. We were ordered to return to inside the ship due to suspicious ship movement up ahead. What could this be? A few hours passed, and lunch hour approached. It was at this point that the crew told us all to move down immediately to the kitchen area and be served lunch, so we were all in the one area of the ship. A member of the ship security eventually walked down the stairs to us all, fully dressed from head to toe in heavy-weight armour with an automatic rifle in his hand. This was when we realised something was wrong… He spoke to us all and informed us that we had, what the crew call, an “approach” by a suspicious vessel (pirates!!). Turns out the pirates had been loitering up ahead, eventually deciding to approach our ship, take a look around and check us out by taking a closer look. Thankfully they were warned them off, in part by the barbed-wire wrapped around the ship but probably in the main by the armed security guys on board. So, whilst it was certainly a close call, thankfully nothing too scary actually transpired! We had been fully trained and were aware of the risks of travelling through pirate-waters, but had never expected to get that close to them. All in the name of science eh?

After these eventful few days, we worked our way up the Red Sea in calmer waters. Another BBQ took place, which really was needed after the previous eventful week on board. Even the crew were enjoying a well-earned rest! And from here we worked our way towards the Suez Canal, one of the most bizarre places I have ever been to. We anchored up at the south sector of the Suez Canal, in preparation for custom agencies and port authority personnel to come aboard and complete all the necessary paperwork to get us through the passage. But a lot of unexpected guests paid us a visit….

These guests were local merchants, with a cornucopia of gifts. From leather wallets and handbags, to Egyptian rugs and cushion covers. From Egyptian t-shirts and mugs, to mobile phone sim cards and medication. A lot of stuff right? Despite the peculiarity of the occasion, we all flocked there in awe of the vast array of gifts on offer. I make no comment on whether I bought any ‘local’ items… What was also bizarre was the fact these guys stayed on board for the whole Suez passage in the hope we would buy some more items along the way. Throughout the Suez passage, we saw a vast assortment of ships. One ship, the crew told us, was carrying 30,000 containers and was going a lot faster than us too! Thousands of ships are to be found in this truly remarkable region at any one time.

The northern entrance of the Suez Canal marked the end of my time on board Kommandor Iona. I left on an equally bizarre trip home via several police stations to collect visas, with lots of life-long memories in tow. It is very hard even to touch upon all the highlights of this trip. I could write another 10 pages talking about everything that went on during this incredible field campaign. But, alas, I should end this blog post here. Thanks for reading and I hope it has given you an insight into what PhD fieldwork can entail!

James Brook, PGF Forum Physical Geography Officer