Trip Aboard the Oleander
By: Sonia Mark Flechtner

Last spring I volunteered to take part in the SOO (Ships Of Opportunity) program by conducting data collection aboard The Oleander. This was such a unique and interesting experience that I wanted to share portions of my trip report with you.

Note: This opportunity is strictly on a volunteer basis. NOAA employees can volunteer to travel aboard the commercial ship The Oleander, (which kindly allows us to conduct our research) and take observations which will be used by NOAA and affiliated universities for oceanic research.

May 7-13, 2004


To collect data by:

  • Dropping XBTs (Bathythermograph probes)
  • Taking Water Samples
  • Monitoring & Recording readings from the thermosalinograph
  • Launching the CPR (Continuous Plankton Recorder)

This data will be studied and used by NOAA, Northeast Fisheries Center, and the University of Rhode Island.

Caribou, ME

Thursday, May 7

I had intially planned on an optimistic departure time, but unfortunately with working an evening shift the night before, reality caught up with me. Making it down to Narragansett, RI for a tour of the National Marine Fisheries Service seemed impossible. I called and left a message with Daniel Smith, my contact for this trip, relaying that I hadn't left and wouldn’t be making it for a quick tour that afternoon. And then with a very large cup of coffee and AAA Trip Tik in hand, I barely made it out the door by 7am.

Drive down to Rhode Island

The weather at least cooperated with my drive down to Rhode Island. I was also thankful that I didn’t see any deer or moose, as they are likely to come out this time of year and run across highways. Passing Boston I realized that I was making excellant time and may just make it in time for quick tour.

Narragansett, RI

Thursday Afternoon, May 7

I ended up making it to the NMFS to meet Dan before he needed to leave. The area was beautiful with plenty of farms, orchards, and parks dotting the landscape. Coming from a wonderful, environmentally friendly office building in Caribou, I was still impressed with the location of their office, being tucked away amongst the trees and right on the water.

Dan gave me a quick tour of the office, showing me the aquarium, conference room, and his workshop were he kept the CPR. (An instrument I would soon become very familiar with using.) Before departing, he introduced me to Jerome Preziosio, whom picked up my tour and offered advice for the trip. He lent me a very detailed map of the island which came in handy later. During the tour he introduced me to Karen Tsugis, another Oleander veteran. While talking to Karen about the trip she alerted me to the fact that my electrical plugs would not work with the ship’s European outlets. Dismayed that I could not dry or curl my hair (or use my laptop to do work, of course) she decided that it may be a good idea to purchase one adapter for the sole use of Oleander volunteers. After a quick trip to Radio Shack with Karen, she dropped me off at my hotel, and I was off to find dinner and more supplies for my journey.

(Pictured is the CPR, Continuous Plankton Recorder, in Dan’s workshop)

Newark, NJ Shipyard

Friday, May 8

The next morning I left my car parked at Dan's house and from there we drove 4 hours to Newark. The shipyard looked to me like something straight out of Star Wars. Large containers were being loaded and unloaded by very tall mechanical lifts. You had to run and dodge them in the parking lot, or risk getting honked at very loudly. I met the Captain and some members of the crew, who all appeared to be in good spirits. Captain Vrolich showed me to my cabin, and Dan set about to brief me on my duties during the trip.

(Pictured: Newark Shipyard)

After Dan completed the trip briefing and departed I climbed down to my cabin to try to get some sleep...But too much was going on outside and I couldn’t sleep. I started to get my cabin organized by putting away my things so they wouldn’t fly about and break during the trip. While doing so, I was dissapointed to discover that the adapter Karen purchased wasn’t going to fit. I decided to go explore the ship and strike up conversation with some of the crew. (Someone had to have an adapter!) I ran into Second Officer, Mark, in the Wheelhouse and he briefed me on safety while aboard the ship. After he finished I felt very hungry all the sudden and found my way down to the kitchen where a delicious pound cake was waiting for me. Benjie, the ship’s cook, was kind to lend me an adapter after I told him the one I brought wouldn’t fit. This was very nice of him, and I made a mental note to make sure that I thanked him before leaving.

(Pictured: The cabin where I stayed aboard the ship)

At Sea

Friday-Sunday, May 8-10

We departed a few minutes late, and I started dropping XBT’s upon arriving at Ambrose Light. I also watched as the CPR (or the “Fish” as the crew affectionally called it) was lowered into the water and noted the time. It will be towed behind the ship at an approximate depth of ten meters until we are 250 nautical miles out. The next 24 hours consisted of me dropping an XBT at the top of each hour, and then going down to my bunk (2 decks below) to catch 20 minutes of sleep. My alarm would go off and I would repeat the process climbing up those narrow stairs back to the wheelhouse and make another drop.

(Pictured: The CPR or “Fish” being lowered into water)

24 hours and several bruises later I was glad to get that part of the trip over with. All the XBT drops went without problems and I never needed a second try! I am now relaxing in my cabin catching up on writing my travel report. This has been the most delightful trip so far. As I am typing now, I can see dolphins jumping outside my cabin window. It's quite a beautiful sight. When I’m on deck I can even see them under the water because the water is so clear, clean, and very blue.

Unfortunately the CPR on the outbound trip did not work. After trying to pull out the tray mechanism for an hour, I was finally able to get it out...and then I saw the reason I was having so much difficulty. The silk had bunched up on the right-hand side like an accordion. This was making it very difficult to pull the tray out with the silk creating a jam. My clothes were covered with dirt and oil (probably ruined) and my hands were burning from the formaldehyde, so I took a brief break.

Later, back in the cargo area it took me a few hours to install the new CPR for inbound launch. The smell of the formaldehyde was awful and I needed to take frequent breaks to clear my head from the fumes. I had difficulty getting the tray back into the “fish”. After many hours of trying, I still couldn’t do it even though the day before Dan had showed me how easily it could be done. I finally asked the Captain if someone could help me, and a crew member was able to get it in, but only after he tried for an hour. Now hopefully the inbound trip will be a successful.

Bermuda Arrival

Sunday-Monday, May 10-11

Our stay in Bermuda was a short one so I took advantage of it and tried to see as much of the island as possible. I ran into several people from the States who asked why I was traveling alone. They were very interested when I told them about this program and one couple had even been to Caribou, Maine!

(Pictured: Arriving in Hamilton, Bermuda)

I purchased a bus/ferry pass to travel around. I enjoyed learning about the island’s rich history. The beaches were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately I forgot to bring my bathing suit. I was also surprised that I didn’t see any damage from Hurricane Fabian. When I asked some of the locals they about this event most seemed apathetic on the subject, as though it was not a really big deal.

Back At Sea

Tuesday-Thursday, May 12-14

Dropping XBTs on the inbound trip shouldn’t have been a problem, after all there were only a handful to do and I wasn’t in a zombie-like state this time around. However, I started encountering problems with XBT not going deeper than 150 meters. (When the actual depth should have been more than 1,000 meters!) The two second attempts I made proved to be successful, so that was all well and good.

Since I had a major lack of sleep on the outbound trip, I regret I did not take and water samples. These were all made on the first day of the inbound trip, Tuesday May 11th. This was not a problem, since the instructions indicated either was fine. I made sure to turn the faucet off after each time, as Dan emphasized doing so. The Captain and crew also reminded me of this many times before I even starting the process. I get the impression that this has been a problem in the past.

I was very proud of the fact that I didn’t get seasick. The crew seemed very surprised and pleased with this. I did get a little grossed out when the crew would eat anchovies whole at the dinner table and I could still see them still moving! (I politely declined this snack.) Meals were very good and there was almost always too much to eat. (Which is very surprising for me!) I started asking for half portions when I couldn’t finish what was on my plate. Benjie, the cook, was very kind in that he would prepare something else when the meal consisted of creatures from the sea.

Thursday morning the fog was very thick as the Captain and Crew tried to navigate to our slip. The morning seemed plagued with problems. Upon arriving (15 minutes early) another cargo ship was in our berth. We had to idle in the middle of the bay for more than an hour, while waiting for the ship to move. A very annoyed crew took everything in stride and the Captain did an amazing “parallel boat docking” between two large ships. (I was astounded; I didn’t think there was enough space for half the length of our ship!)

Dan was waiting as our boat pulled in. Iwas a little bit worried that he had to wait a long time since we were an hour late, but he said he had just arrived. It felt like it was 100 degrees at the Newark Shipyard. I rushed about the boat collecting all the XBTs, water samples, and my luggage. The inbound trip was a success with the Continuous Plankton Recorder. I was relieved, since this is the one job where you have very little control over making it work. Both Dan and I were puzzled as to why the silk bunched up like an accordion the first run.

(Pictured: Reeling in the CPR)

I was anxious to leave for I had a long drive back to northern Maine. Dan and I loaded the van and left the shipyard around 10 am. We were both perspiring heavily from the heat and hard labor. He mentioned that in the middle of the summer it feels much warmer than it did today, like 120 degrees!

Caribou, ME

Friday, May 14

Made it back home and only had to drive 2 hours in the dark. The Oleander trip was a wonderful experience, one that I will always remember. If asked I would do it again in a heartbeat. I was very impressed with how serious the crew took our research. Whether it was carefully lowering the “fish” or helping me troubleshoot a problem, they were a dependable resource I could go to for help. With that being said, I would like to sincerely thank the Captain, Officers, and crew of The Oleander for an amazing experience. Also thank you to NOAA for making such a significant and important opportunity available. And not to mention many thanks to the management staff at WFO Caribou for allowing me the time off to volunteer. It was truly a privilege.

General Interest Home

Maine-ly Weather Home