Life on a Polar Research Ship

All aboard! The RV Polarstern has set sail for North-East Greenland.

Huddled at the waterfront of Tromso, Arctic Norway, I joined a large group of fellow scientists for my first scientific cruise – actually, the first time on any form of boat for longer than a day – so 5 weeks at sea seemed daunting. I was both excited and anxious, but it was comforting to learn quickly that I was not the only one. Soon after gathering, we were all whisked away to the port, where we boarded the Polarstern and joined the ship’s crew.

Polarstern in Tromso
All on-board and awaiting departure from Tromso.

Our first task was to find our 2-person cabins. They are small, but more than sufficient with an en-suite toilet and shower. Exploring the ship’s many decks, I found a gym, swimming pool, sauna, bar, library, lounge, and of course a dining mess. Food is naturally a big part of life on ships, and we are provided with 3 ample meals each day as well as afternoon coffee and cake. The food has been tasty and filling, and is exactly what is needed for a polar cruise. An important lesson for day one, however: don’t sit at the officers’ table!

Cruise clothing
Our selection of polar cruise clothing spread across the cabin bed.

Hatches to the store are open for just 15 minutes, a few days a week, and provide a lot of excitement. When the time comes, quick footsteps can be heard between decks as everyone rushes to buy treats. You need to buy drinking water, chocolate and other “Bonded Goods”, which are essential for morale.

The Deutsch Welle and The International are the ship’s daily newspapers, providing a useful way to keep some contact with the rest of the world. They cover news in both German and English languages. As a guest on a German ship, I feel some responsibility to speak German when possible, despite most on board speaking very good English. Perhaps I can improve my very basic German skills by reading the Deutsch Welle.

The ship’s swimming pool, viewed from the gym (left), and the purchasing hatch to the ship’s store rooms (right).

Every evening the ship’s meteorologist presents a weather report, which is a great way to understand the current weather conditions and to hear what weather is yet to come. Our first at-sea weather report came with a warning: put away and strap down your possessions and equipment. As predicted, the next day a storm gave us 41-knot winds and 4-5 m high waves. As the waves get bigger, keeping balance becomes a lot harder, and the ship’s corridors resemble the Ministry for Silly Walks (Monty Python reference). My first 48-hours on the ship were far from tranquil, but I am yet to get sea-sick.

Stormy Seas
Stormy seas to start our expedition (Photo: A. Muenchow).

Over the following few days we head north and then west towards the Greenland continental shelf. As we progress, science activity on deck rapidly increases. My main role on this expedition is to collect rock samples from on land, but I will also help to map the ocean floor and collect ocean-bottom mud and sediment. This will be new for me, but it is always fun to learn. Can’t wait to get started!


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