research vessel tourist

On Thursday, I met up with Brandi Murphy, one of the technicians on my icebreaker trip in the Bering Sea last year. Brandi works for the University of California – San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She’s at their Nimitz Marine Facility, or, as I would call it, “the place where they keep the boats.” Since I was in town for a conference, she offered to give me a tour.

It turns out Brandi doesn’t normally do the kind of stuff she was doing last spring on the Healy. On that cruise, she was collecting water; normally, she does marine seismic stuff. Basically, she knows how to tow an air gun behind a boat, make it go boom, and record the sounds that bounce back on a bunch of hydrophones. Here’s the 800-meter cable o’ hydrophones:

brandi with cable

“Cable” is really not a good enough word for this. It’s a flexible tube filled with silicon oil. The orange bits are hydrophones – there are 48 spaced along the cable – and the blue bits are floats that keep it hanging at the right level in the water. Wires carry the data from the hydrophones, and computers along the cable process it before sending it back to the ship.

So this high-tech tube trails behind a research vessel and records the sounds from the air guns bouncing off the bottom of the sea. They actually go about 1,000 meters below the bottom, so scientists can use this to map the rocks below the surface.

Next, we poked around the New Horizon, one of Scripp’s research vessels. It’s a whole lot smaller than the Healy, which is my point of reference for all ships. For example, the Healy has two gyms with lots of exercise equipment. The New Horizon has a stairmaster in a workroom and this:

shipboard gym

And now, something Brandi thinks you should know if you’re ever on a ship. The lifeboat is supposed to be released by a little pressure-sensitive mechanism. But if that happens, the boat is already underwater and things are pretty bad. So if you should ever find yourself needing a lifeboat, release the latch she’s pointing at or cut the rope below it.

important safety message

Then find the black thing coming out of the end and pull it to make the raft inflate.

Finally, Brandi took me to look at FLIP. That’s for “Floating Instrument Platform.” It isn’t a boat; it has to get towed out to sea. See the big long thing sticking out front, kinda looks like submarine? That’s part of FLIP. It’s filled with air right now. When it gets out to sea, they fill it with water and the whole thing turns – it takes half an hour – until it’s floating upright in the water.


Everything turns 90 degrees. The walls become floors. And people live aboard, so everything has to either be capable of moving 90 degrees or be duplicated at 90 degrees.

Walking around on the platform is like being in an Escher print. Look up while standing on the deck and you’ll see an unclimbable ladder:

where are the giant ants?

Inside, we saw a bunk on wheels and this sink, in a bathroom:

swing sink

And here’s a door outside:

brandi on a door

The whole thing was both disorienting and totally cool. This video shows what it looks like when it’s flipped.

Brandi is also a knitter – she was working on beautiful burgundy-colored cardigan on the cruise last year. Here’s her knitting blog, which is mostly about spinning these days, but let’s not hold that against her.

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One Response to research vessel tourist

  1. SteveBetz says:

    That’s very cool — I haven’t known anyone that works at Scripps Oceanographic — that’d be a pretty cool tour.

    Sorry we couldn’t cross paths!