The Larvaceans

August 13

Rumors of a super-secret Internet abound. This is what happens when people raised on social media and on-demand news cycles and ready-precision answers to everything are forced to stare at blank loader windows while the barest threads of even html script struggle to fill the vacuum and clog the ports between the serial register and the video buffer. Internet service at sea is slow, expensive, and unpredictable. I’d look up better terms regarding how data comes in the Wi-Fi and stuffs up all parts of our machines, but forgive me. I’m not going to use a piece of my daily 150MB ration to look that up online. No doubt the data would come with routing diagrams that are stupid heavy. Google is not smart enough to know both where I am and what this means, and I think the AI can remain in the dark for now, because my eyes have glazed as anyone’s, waiting for information to load. I will drift away in the dark and jerk excitedly at every flicker of light or life, when there’s probably something else I should be doing, like actually scratching these words down—yes, on paper—at first, with a black micron 01 pen. Always. Low tech. This one’s label has faded from the cap and I still haven’t figured out how that wear comes about. The part that matters, the nib too, is worn down, and I have begun to feel the steel against the paper as I continue to scrawl this very sentence. I think the final death throes began at the start of the page, back when it was fresh and newborn, and now I’ve come to the part where I start imagining capping the pen one last time and tossing it in the bin. I’ll have to get up to do that, make ceremony of it, say a few words—no light dragging it across a frozen wasteland of a laptop screen.

I suppose I could save this pen and keep it as a memento, perhaps label it so I’ll know it put in a hard 13 days travelling and half the cruise before giving up the ghost—when I notice it again in drawer half a dozen years down the road. Otherwise it’s just one of many, many, unnamed pens—and I have done this, just once, brought a pen back from a life and a death in backpacks. That one is in a box at the moment, back home in Fairbanks, buried with a decade’s worth of memorable detritus I swept off a shelf back in May. I didn’t label that pen. I know what it is. What it is was used for. Where I was sitting when I ground out a dozen pages in a little coffee shop in Stirling, Scotland in 2017. What that pen did that day was both sublime and earthshattering. I’ll talk about it someday. But in the meantime, note that the Earth shifted a little in orbit because of it. Science has not yet noticed this. Science is looking at other things.

Writing by hand better weathers distraction, because even though I know we’re pointed within a few degrees of true north and the satellite is blocked by the mast and there’re a couple dozen people squeezing words and pictures through that narrow pipe, I’ll try anyway. Then there’s that screen again. And I’ll be staring at the blankness like it were pitch black and I some blind filter-feeder collecting debris from the water. A word here and there. A flash of something edible sucked into my house, such as it is.

I walked into the electronics lab earlier today and asked if anyone could tell me if had the correct capitals on the password for the ship-to-shore server. Didn’t help the rumors that those in the room talking acoustics and pinging data from swarms of copepod and krill a hundred meters beneath the boat had no idea what the ship-to-shore server was. I shut my mouth and left, and found Ethan, who is in the know.

There are rumors of a high-speed government funded satellite orbiting just where we need it, and it can send those who have the codes all the good YouTube videos and refill our podcasts and download all the eBooks that the crew has recommended each other. Personally, I think the science techs go around at night and leave cat videos under all the pillows of all the good little boys and girls, which is to say, our Internet history buffers, where we can be surprised and entertained, and assume naturally that they were there all along.

Phil has the right idea. He gathers up new video every time we do a CTD cast. He babies the camera on the DAVPR like it’s his personal YouTube channel sending him all the wildlife shows. It’s one way to get Animal Planet. Phil won’t share the videos, but after days of begging he’s sent me a few stills. I’ve put GoPros on the CTD cage and down to 50 meters recorded bottle trips and air-bubbles and the fading light as the rosette sinks beneath a camera’s ability to see. Phil’s camera is more sophisticated and aims for the near microscopic. Firing a strobe, the camera grabs 30 frames a second.

There’re no vistas to look upon tens of meters below the surface. Light has a hard time down there. The Digital Autonomous Video Plankton Recorder (DAVPR) camera images a field of view 17x13mm. What results is a storm of plankton streaming past the camera: copepods (Calanus glacialis and Pseudocalanus spp. most common), larvaceans and their houses, marine snow particles, chaetognaths, diatoms, barnacle nauplii, jellyfish and ctenophores, and crab zoea.

Focus varies, but with our lack of proper Internet goods, I’ve not heard him complain. Phil’s laptop spools through the 50,000 some frames of a half-hour cast. It identifies suspects dramatically, much in the same way facial recognition software appears to work on a TV show taking license, pulling up candidate snapshots like digital polaroids and saving these for later analysis.

Okay, they are not cat videos, but the larvaceans are quite wonderful in situ. They and their inflated houses, red guts and serpentine tails make for quite a show amidst the other surprised plankton. Not to mention, they have a terrible fondness for clogging the Mocness nets like scraps of wild rumor. No pointing fingers when someone’s got a saltwater hose aimed for payback. I can only confirm the gunk in the nets is real.


You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

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