A day on Polarstern

I wake up from the buzzing of my phone. It’s dark in the room and my eyes refuse to open. Whatever, I will sleep a bit more.

When I’m woken again, I don’t feel any more awake than I did the first time. But I know I should get up. I have been sleeping for nine hours – that somehow should be enough. The door behind our room is repeatedly slammed open and then closed, accompanied by running feet and muffled talking. There’s probably whales outside.


I go out in our room and look out the window. Claudia is still asleep, but I know that she wants me to open up the curtains so we get a bit of light in. It’s the Arctic summer, and never really gets dark, but our curtains block out all light. After taking a shower in our tiny bathroom I go out to find some breakfast. It’s noon, and everybody else already had lunch at 11.30. It’s the main meal of the day on Polarstern, and usually consists of potatoes, some meat, sauce and a bit of vegetables. It’s great if you’re into traditional German food. But it’s usually not really my thing. So I go downstairs to the crew’s cantina and fix myself some breakfast. Usually coffee and bread with peanutbutter or pancakes.

Then it’s time to drop by the winch room where Laura and Wilken are working to check up on what’s happening and how their watch has been. On Polarstern cruises, there’s a tight schedule of the different instruments that go in the water to collect the samples. Sometimes everything works out as planned, but often changes occur, so before each watch we need to know what’s going on – and then continuously keep an eye on the plan.

We have divided the watches in two 12-hour shifts, and I share the night shift with Claudia – working from four in the afternoon to four in the morning. In the beginning it was hard to get used to, but as time passed we actually came to like the night shift. On a busy ship like Polarstern, with almost 100 people on board, it’s actually quiet nice to get the quiet night to yourself.

We don’t work the whole 12 hours, only when the CTD goes in – which it often does at night. So I go back to the room, where I spent a couple of hours working on the computer. At home, I usually work remotely on supercomputers through the internet, but on Polarstern this is of course not possible. Instead, I read up on papers that I need to read, and work on my own papers. Later I meet with some of the others for coffee.

In addition to the physical oceanography work we do on board, Claudia and I have agreed to keep an eye on a machine that continuously measures gases in the atmospheric. So I go to the floor beneath the bridge and note how the measurements are coming along. Then I get a small bottle and go down to the working deck, where we take a water sample everyday. Here, all the work is carried out when we are on station, and I chat a bit with the crew before going upstairs again.

Slowly, people are going to bed, and Claudia and I start preparing for the CTD. In the winch room Mine is already writing down a detailed plan for the in-situ pumps that will be attached to the line. Mine works with plastic pollution, and the pumps will measure micro plastics in the water column. We talk through the plan with the crew, and Claudia suits up to go on deck and drive the CTD out. I stay upstairs to turn on the CTD and guide the measurements. It’s all a matter of communication between me, Sebastian who is controlling the winch and the crew on deck – both Claudia, Mine’s people and the deckhand.

Once the CTD is in the water I turn it on, and ask Sebastian to start the decent. On the way down we do stops at the depths discussed with Mine to mount the pumps. In the end the CTD is at depth, 1600 metres, we take the water samples that are planned here and then pull it up so far that the pumps are located in the designated depths. And then we wait. The pumps need to be in for 1.5 hours, so we have time to get a coffee and talk, while we also keep an eye on the bottom depth and the CTD depth. The crew on the bridge always make an effort to keep the ship in the same place for the duration of the station, but there will always be some drift, so we need to make sure that the CTD does not suddenly hit the bottom. Despite of it being in the middle of the night, it’s still light outside, and the mood is good in the room – though Mine is tense, she is always worried that something will happen to the pumps. Towards the end of the pumping, the deck crew go back down to receive the pumps, and when everybody is ready I ask Sebastian to start raising the CTD. On the way up we help each other to keep an eye on the pump depth, so the CTD can be stopped in time for the pumps to come off. And we stop at the designated depths for water samples. As we approach the surface, Claudia starts calling the people who will work with the water samples. They are in bed sleeping, and since we never really know when the CTD will be at the surface, we have a list with people to call. On the computer screen we have plots of the measured salinity, temperature and chlorophyll, so many of the water sample people drop by the winch room to get to know what to expect in their sampling; the physical environment affects the biology, and the biologists may decide to do extra measurements in certain cases.

Once the CTD is back on deck it is secured, and our job is over for now. The next is Nicole who measures plankton in a net. It’s early morning, and it’s time for Claudia and I to go to bed.



One thought on “A day on Polarstern

  1. Pingback: Deutsches Schiffartsmuseum | Immersed

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