Stretched out on the beach at the Radisson Plaza, awaiting our survey ship's arrival in Port Louis, Mauritius, we guiltily justify our last glimpse of paradise before our month's incarceration at sea a thousand miles from the nearest convenience store. Join the ship RRS Charles Darwin after short delay for welding (!) and then travel eastwards into the wild blue yonder. Marine research should always be in this sort of climate.
Blazing sun and very deepest azure sea - a little too lumpy for some, and so very quiet in the saloon where old hands among us playfully wolf down monstrous fry-ups. All round great excitement over our first rock samples snatched from 4,000m water depth. Using a toothed mega-bucket that has not changed much since the first Challenger ocean expedition of 1872, we whoop and holler over a pile of old (about 9 million years old) cobbles and sand that most normal people would use to make concrete.
Start sending back pictures and data for the cruise website - The Fire Down Below: Volcanoes under a Tropical Ocean. Really hope that people will send emails asking questions about the research while we are still at sea. The whole crew is involved and it is great for keeping up morale. Boat drill has the scientific party drenched trying to rig and run out a fire hose. Crew and officers smirk.
Now the big toys are out. Two and a half tons of electronics towed a couple of miles behind the ship - 300m off bottom. Skating across a rugged and very unforgiving Indian Ocean floor, the instruments give us sonar images of a world of a thousand volcanoes, cleaved by massive faults, and blanketed by acres of lava flows. It is the perfect set for a sci-fi movie, except it is at 400 atmospheres of pressure - and very dark.
Our fourth curry, so we must have had four Saturdays out here by now. Email stimulated by the website for the cruise is beginning to trickle in, and we fight to answer it. Watch-standers checking on the quality of data recorded are visibly transforming into glazed auto-mata but maintain a semblance of sanity via a colossal multi-user game of "Civilisation" over the ship's computer network.
Now on the last lap of our mapping, collecting and curating campaign, we are able to ponder the forces that shape the seafloor at plate boundaries, debate if there is any chocolate left on board and practise packing for getting off. This ceremony, affectionately known as "baggage trials", should not normally be undertaken until the last week. Some people cheat. In odd moments, we prepare our smug smiles for our oncoming replacement colleagues.
Lindsay Parson is currently at 20o25'S 68o07'E. He is a marine geophysicist at the Southampton Oceanography Centre and principal scientist on RRS Charles Darwin cruise CD1.
The ship's party maintains the cruise website at www.soc.soton.ac.uk/PR/NEWS