As WC has mentioned before, he was lucky enough to work a summer as a deck technician on the R/V Acona for the University of Alaska Institute for Marine Science. WC has told a story or two about that summer. Here’s another one.
The Acona, under the late geologist Rick Wright, did a swing up in to the Bering Sea in mid-July, running transects from the Aleutians to a bit north of the Pribilof Islands. Wright was interested in the odd, intermittent volcanic features scattered across the Bering Sea. But any cruise also involved sample stations looking at the bathythermographic profile, mud samples from the bottom and samples from the water column.
Water samples back in 1967 were taken with Nansen bottles. They clamped to a weighted cable at regular intervals. They were open cylinders, with brass weights dangling under each one. When they are all set and at depth, you slid a weight down the cable which closed the cylinder, capturing water from that depth, and releasing the next brass weight, domino-fashion, all the way down. Stringing Nansen bottles was tricky; if you let a brass weight go while trying to hook it on the cable, you triggered the whole string and got to start over. If you dropped a bottle, you just spent about $500 in 1967 dollars.
On a calm, flat day it was an easy business. There aren’t many calm, flat days in the Bering Sea. The cable moved as the ship rocked in the waves; some waves of ice cold seawater splashed over you. Your fingers were freezing cold and stiff. And the R/V Acona, God love her, rolled in waves like the bathtub she was.
On a foggy, early morning, WC was stringing Nansen bottles north of the Pribilof Islands. The Acona was rolling so that the face of the next wave was right in front of you, and you were intermittently up to your hips in freezing cold water. The cable was moving three feet away and then angling back against the safety bar of the platform. The wind was dead calm. As WC was starting to clamp yet another Nansen bottle to the cable, a walrus poked his head out of the wave face, just a few feet from WC’s face. It was so close WC could see the little indentations where the whiskers emerged from the walrus’s face. And just as WC’s face was about to reach its closest point to the walrus’s face, the walrus belched. It was a huge belch. A cloud of walrus breath and stomach gas, easily visible as mist in the cold, calm air, wafted over WC. Just as the roll of the ship brought another wave over WC.
WC involuntarily gasped from the cold water, inhaling all that walrus belch.
The stench was unbelievably bad. All of the rotten fish in the world mixed with fetid clams and an acidic vomit overlay. It was gaggingly, horribly awful. Even the deckhand running the winch gagged, and he was five feet further away. WC retched, still grasping the partially clamped Nansen bottle, and as the ship rolled away from the cable, WC started to be pulled out of the ship. Let go of the Nansen bottle or go swimming in the Bering Sea?
WC let go of the Nansen bottle. It slid down the cable, triggering the whole chain of bottles.
Happily, the partially clamped bottle somehow stayed on when the deckhand recovered enough to pull the cable up. WC got yelled at for by the crew chief for wasting time on a sample station – it took about 15 minutes to pull the bottle string up, removing and then reattaching the bottles – but the chewing out was nothing compared to what the walrus inflicted on WC. The stench seemed to stay in WC’s nose for days.
That was, by the way, the first and only walrus WC has seen in the wild. It was enough.