Somewhere, beyond the sea

It was after receiving a perfectly heartfelt email from my parents, and with a healthy level of homesickness that necessitated a little soppiness about home without the wish to be back there at that precise moment, that Jess ad I headed into work on the morning of the 26th. Or, rather, the early afternoon. Upon receiving the news that we had to head to the boat at 8:00pm, we thought that perhaps over twelve hours in the office might perhaps be pushing it a tad too much. We got a taxi instead of troubling Dr Wan, who was heading off on holiday that evening.

A few hours later and hard at work at our desks (coffee at the ready, to be deployed when required) we looked up when heard a hustle-bustle at the door – Yanti had arrived! As well as her replying to my near constant messages about our preparations to come here, Yanti is on out survey nearly all the time. She needs an awful lot of sighting data for her thesis so if there is a boat going somewhere, she’s going to be on it. Everyone in the office clearly misses her, so they were looking forward to seeing her for a little bit before she headed out again – almost as excited as were were to meet her! Though we did feel like we were vaguely kidnapping her from her adoptive office family.

Yanti is, in a word, lovely. Really, really lovely. She showed us the example sighting forms and gave us a twenty pages booklet of all the marine mammals we could possibly see (then told us we’ll probably only see two or three species) before launching into a whole conversation about how we were, how our stay so far had been, had people been nice to us and, of course, what foods we’d tried. Always with the food here. I love it.

After she left with a promise to see us later, we cracked back on to work. Work and, of course, composing a mixtape for Dr Wan and writing the previous blog entry. Running close to the time at which we’d promised to be downstairs waiting for the bus, we hit send on our blog posts still resplendent with spelling errors and ran outside. We carried our stuff out, helping Yanti as she met us there, and took pictures with some of the children of the other crew who were getting on the bus too. More people joined – to whom we gleefully said hello – as the bus set off for the dock, located on Pulau Duyong in the middle of the river, right beside the Heritage Resort & Spa. Waving that in front of out faces was a cruel temptation, let me tell you that, especially considering we were about to go for a week without a shower. Hulking equipment off the bis and down to the marina in a couple of trips, we were helped onto the majesty of the RV Discovery. Made of aluminium it was big, white and apparently very, very light – it was too far out from the dock to half-step-half-jump on to, so one of the crew simply walked over to the rope and gave it a little pull. It obediently bobbed straight over. We feared Kirat’s warnings regarding the seasickness inducing properties of this vessel may prove true, but this didn’t stop us from eagerly clambering aboard. And where did we go, you ask? To our cabin.

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In view is the Purple Box (capitals necessary). It held the binoculars, camera and sighting forms. It was our charge. It made us feel important.

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I honestly can’t express how happy this sign made us. Us – proper scientists!

Scientist Cabin Number 1! How great is that!?

We were thrilled. Yanti put her stuff in the Senior Scientist Cabin, much to her joy, and with the rest of the scientists and some of the crew we headed along the boardwalk to a little cafe, where we enjoyed teh tarik and watched some football before bed.

The next morning we woke, as instructed, at 6:45am. A luxurious lie in. Though we’d bedded down as the ship sat motionless at the dockside, in the middle of the night we’d away anchor and started sailing. I woke up to the motion of the ship and started feeling decidedly queer. Something was sitting low in my stomach. Trying to brush it off, Jess and I dressed and hopped across the little corridor to the dining room. We were offered a breakfast of hot chilli noodles, which I enjoyed for approximately two mouthfuls before I turned and whispered to Jess, “I feel sick. I going to be sick.”

I quickly exited stage left and, while I was not sick, experienced the most intensely unpleasant feeling I have ever had the misfortune to. I felt like my entire body was just shaking, vibrating. I couldn’t move my fingers (or, at least, felt like I couldn’t – Jess insist I was stood there saying, “I can’t move my fingers!” while clenching and unclenching my hands with absolutely no problem). It was all the joy of four days of flu packed into about two and a half minutes. I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat it.

Stood by the railing on the main deck, we were snapped out of our revive by the captain, calling us up to the top deck for a safety briefing. Informed as we were on hard hat regulations and what we were ready to do, Jess and I were eager to get to work!

…Only to be told by Yanti we couldn’t yet. Why? Because it was raining. Yes, fair enough in theory – rain could affect visibility and mean you miss sightings and your data is unrepresentative. But this rain could barely have been called drizzle. Jess called it mizzle. It was mizzling. I deciding to head inside to escape it, but was outside again and revisiting my breakfast in under two minutes. I was on my tiptoes with my head over the starboard side of the main deck when a cheerful voice directly beside me exclaimed, “Dolphins!”. Actively wiping vomit from my mouth (apologies for the detail), I snapped my head up from staring mournfully at the waves to be greeted with an absolutely amazing sight.

A pod of 30 bottlenose dolphins, splintered all around the boat. Twenty foot away at the most. The mood was amazing – the crew were whooping and cheering as the dolphins splashed in and out of the water. I’ve never been so happy so directly following being sick.

After about five minutes the dolphins dispersed and, considering what we’d just witnessed, we dubbed the weather good enough for surveying. Jess took the ship’s bow and I took the starboard side – even when we took the occasional break off survey effort, we stayed outside out of simple fear that venturing inside would cause a repeat of earlier. I still felt queasy though the feeling went away with time, and was helped in part by my discovery that singing as the boat bounced along the waves kept my mind off it perfectly. I think I worked my way through most Disney classics, the best of the 40s and 50s, and the collective discography of the Rat Pack (see: the title of this post). I had a great time. The people on the bridge when the door was open, likely less so.

I think I skipped dinner in the end out of fear of both the food and the idea of being in confined spacesl Jess took hers and definitely regretted it.

The next day, we woke comfortably later as Yanti and ourselves realised that the most important meal of the day took priority over starting survey promptly. I declined food (a recurring theme throughout the whole week that led to me being lovely and svelte if I do say so myself), and soon we were up doing our work. It felt absolutely brilliant to get into a rhytmn of actually… working. Pulling our own weight. Doing science. Actual science! That afternoon we’d come off effort for the first time in about four hours, only to be called by a ship wide announcement through the tannoy; an excited call of, “Dolphin! Dolphin!”.

(With exactly that emphasis, we loved it.)

We dashed up the steep stairs to the bridge, scanning around through all of the windows, but we could not see a single dolphin. Yanti and a few of our new friends on the crew were stood at the bow, though – we ran out.

Bowriding ten foot below us were six bottlenose dolphins. Weaving around each other, leaping in and out of the water and flicking sea spray up at us. We were on our bellies, faces and arms dangling off the side to get as close as we could. It was absolutely amazing.

 

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We could hear them whistling to each other! It was amazing. I guess you need to co-ordinate this kind of acrobatics.

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Feet for scale.

Jess and I assumed they must have been the local pantropical spotted dolphin, from the fact they were not plain grey and instead had a freckled pattern on their underside, however Yanti assured this that this was the Indo-Pacific colouring of the bottlenose. There was, I confess, a moment after she wrote ‘bottlenose’ on the sighting form that Jess and I shared a look, almost as if to put forward a condescending, “Noooo, Yanti, I think you’re wrong”. Bear in mind this woman has been on over thirty survey cruises in the past two years. This is her PhD.

Yeah, I’m glad we didn’t actually try and correct her.

We had our third and final sighting that evening – I was sat on the sofa and enjoying a gorgeous lamb curry while watching Captain America: The Winter Solider when there was another announcement.

“Dolphin!”

The others on the sofa turned to grin, and we quickly assembled up on the bridge – from where we popped out, on the starboard side we could see three dolphins; two adults and a juvenile. They didn’t spend a lot of time at the surface, instead only making one or two clear jumps from the water. From our position over an artificial reef, we knew that this behaviour was that of active hunting.

Clearly busy with their dinner the dolphins soon hurried off, and after filling out the sighting form we retreated to our own. Jess – previously feeling right as reign in the face of my seasickness – took a turn for the worse and went to bed early to try and ward it off. I merrily stayed up, watching the end of Cap (that film does awful things to my heart) and heading to bed with a spring in my step.

Those were the only sightings we had in our week’s survey, unfortunately. Though in all honestly I don’t feel we particularly noticed! We were having a fab time. We alternated in between staring at the horizon on gorgeously bright days, scanning for dolphins; chatting with Yanti about anything and everything, including our shared passion for Marvel films and the office gossip; hiding under the eaves of the bridge when the rain got too strong to survey; marvelling at the sea when it was a brilliant opaque green, like melted mint ice cream; teaching the crew rummy (which they insisted on calling ‘grummy’) and cheat (about which they were deeply enthusiastic on a level usually reserved for football supporters, in the pub, after a few pints); sunburning, myself on my arms and neck and Jess in a slightly embarrassing but very endearing sunglasses shape; and Jess discovering her predilection for rice crackers, which we foraged out from the pantry (kept within what was meant to be the Wet Lab, used for actual science) and made a squirrel-like stash of.

The days kind of blurred together. Every night found us tucked up in our bunks, reading our books and lulled to sleep by the gentle to and fro of the ship’s rocking (less ‘gentle’ when the anchor was lowered, though – think the noise that happens when the landing gear on a plane is lowered, then times it but 30 and make it last for five minutes). It was only at one point when we bedded down we realised… tomorrow was our last day surveying. We spent it taking frankly fabulous pictures with the crew, jumping all over the top deck and sitting in the small powerboat, as well as Jess and I sitting in our favourite position on the bow of the ship, wind artfully blowing back our hair as we dorkily jammed to our favourite songs.

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I had to be helped up onto it.

I think the best times we’ll remember from this trip are only half marine biology themed, unfortunately – we really, with the whole crew, had far too good a time doing everything else.

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“I just want you to dance with me tonight…”

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