Andddd go! The first mate throws a flagged buoy off the back of the ship. It hits the water with a crash and begins to bob in the waves. “Man overboard!” someone shouts. Right away, two scientists point, full-armed, at the buoy. It’s their job to be the spotters. No matter where the buoy goes, they point. The captain is notified to slow the research vessel so that a rescue boat can be launched to pick up the ‘man overboard’. By the time the rescue boat makes it to the buoy, it’s been 10 minutes and the buoy is barely visible as the waves move up and down between the vessel and the buoy. The buoy is recovered and the new ship-goers have learned a valuable lesson. This is the best-case scenario that could happen if, perhaps, you reached too far out to grab some research equipment or walked too close to an unsecured opening and toppled overboard. The sun is shining. Two spotters are watching you. The entire crew is mobilized to come pick you up while you tread water. The take homes from this drill: safety first, always have one hand for the ship, and tell someone where you are. If you take risks, fall off the back deck at nighttime, and you didn’t tell your bunk mate that you were quickly checking on some scientific samples…you may be in the water a very long time or worse.
Thinking about safety is a large part of your everyday job when you do science at sea. There are the obvious dangers, such as the winch wire, ship cranes, and large oceanographic equipment. You stay away from these unless you’re properly trained and wearing a hardhat. However, something as simple as stairs can become a hazard at sea if the boat rocks at the right time. Try to imagine doing everything that you do in a day while swaying side to side. Sleeping (back and forth), eating (back and forth), and showering (back and forth). Moreover, ocean scientists must perform their research while the boat is inconsistently shifting this way and that. Imagine pouring a mixture from one beaker to the next under these conditions. Imagine that mixture is a dangerous acid. As scientists, we take steps to minimize ‘typical’ science actions like pouring, because one sharp roll of the ship can mean a spill. We secure everything we use with ties and straps. A ‘secured’ lab might look a bit silly with bungee cords on this and ratchet straps on that. It’s certainly annoying to remove the ties each time you need to do something. However, at sea, safety is serious business and is the key to successful research.