My First Oceanographic Research Cruise/Adventure to Easter Island

By Herb Windom

Editor’s note: Dr. Herb Windom was the first faculty scientist hired at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in 1968. He spent his entire career here. He is now retired and an emeritus professor.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to obtain my graduate education at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) from 1963-1968. A major part of the SIO curriculum, implemented in the mid-1960’s, was the development of an annual summer field course built around a departmental sea-going expedition. On these expeditions, organized around staff research projects, students participated in field work at sea, on islands and on adjacent continental areas, carrying on studies in marine and terrestrial geology, geochemistry and geophysics. Formal lectures and seminars were given on the ship by staff members and visiting professors. Much of the work was published by the students themselves. One of these cruises was the Carrousel Expedition (summer 1964) in which my fellow first year students and I participated. Although this expedition occurred more than a half century ago, and although I have participated in numerous since, I still have the most vivid detailed memories of this one. I think it also has to do with the quality of the people who were part of this experience and its distinct time and location. This also was the first time I would leave the U.S., except for a couple of day trips to Mexican border towns.

The Expedition Carrousel and would take more than two months and go from San Diego down the eastern Pacific, south to Easter Island, then to Valparaíso, Chile, and then back to San Diego. The ship was the R/V Spencer F. Baird (named after a famous American naturalist of the 19th century). The R/V Baird was 135 feet long and could carry up to 35 crew and scientists. The R/V Baird was a decommissioned navy sea-going tug.

rv baird

Research Vessel Baird Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Library

There were only five students on the cruise (four first-year students and another, Bill Dowd, who was nearing the end of his thesis research). There were a couple of technicians, one being Min Koide, who was a great, warm-hearted guy who was very special to me with his help in my development of practical skills in the lab. The team also included a postdoc, Rudy Bieri, who worked with Professor Goldberg. Goldberg would later become my major professor and thesis advisor. The crew consisted of a captain, first and second mates, engineer, doctor, 3 or 4 able-bodied seamen and two cooks.

There were three SIO professors on the San Diego to Valparaíso, Chili leg of the cruise; Ed Goldberg and Harmon Craig, both marine geochemists. Marine geologist Bill Menard was the chief scientist on the cruise. In addition, Sir Edward (Teddy) Bullard, the most famous British geophysicist of his generation, also participated in the cruise. All four of these scientists interrupted their scientific training and work to serve in their respective countries’ navies during World War II, and all four were destined to become members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for their contributions to aid our understanding of Earth’s processes. At the time, I didn’t recognize the depth of experience represented by the men around me — men that I would work with, learn from, eat, talk and play cards with, and suffer through their continuous good-natured ribbing about my southern dialect. I would spend the next month with these men and would not appreciate the importance of this experience and the privilege it was to sail with them until much later in life.

As the ship left San Diego to head south, families and loved ones were at the dock to see us depart. As we entered the Pacific Ocean proper, the water was like glass and it was a beautiful day. Everyone was enjoying the smooth ride with just a bit of yawing of the ship as we steamed southward. That was one of the last times I saw John Booker (another first year student) topside until we reached Easter Island. He was seasickness’ first casualty. The rest of us began getting acquainted with the ship and were introduced to our responsibilities for the cruise. This included “standing watch.” Watches were eight hours on and eight hours off. This included everyone on the ship. The three daily watches started at midnight, 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Students were assigned to the lab where their duties included maintaining the precision depth recorder or PDR. The PDR required attention when the depth scale changed and a note needed to be marked on the paper readout. Students were also responsible for making sure that the PDR didn’t run out of paper. This was before desktop computers. 

The PDR records were always collected on every research cruise. Back then, we still did not have a very complete understanding of ocean depth and bottom features. Menard was a pioneer in developing this knowledge for the Pacific Ocean, and that was his main scientific mission on this cruise — looking for unusual features and defining them better. One evening while I was on the 4 p.m.-midnight watch, the PDR started showing that the depth was decreasing rapidly. I called the bridge. They began to slow the ship and called the chief scientist. Menard came to the PDR lab to see what was going on and immediately realized that we were cruising over a seamount that had never been documented before. The ship spent the rest of the night going back and forth over this bottom feature to survey it in detail. Menard named the seamount after his wife, and it is now on all Pacific Ocean bathymetric charts.

In addition to acquiring more data on ocean bathymetry, bathythermographs (BTs) were deployed at every degree of longitude and latitude. A BT looked like a torpedo, but inside it contained a mechanical device that responded to temperature and pressure by moving a stylus that etched a gold-coated glass slide.  It was tethered to a wire and spooled out from a winch while the ship was underway, so that it dove to depths approaching 100 meters. It was then retrieved and the gold-coated slide removed and read using a microscope. The data was recorded in a log book. Today, there are much more sophisticated ways of gathering information on water column temperature changes with depth. 

A major objective of this cruise was to obtain water samples for analysis of noble gases (e.g., helium, neon, argon, etc.). Ed Goldberg and his team (Bieri and Koide) used one approach that involved deploying sampling devices attached to a hydrowire that was designed especially to collect samples that could be brought back to the surface sealed so that that they would not depressurize.

The sample could then be brought back to the lab, and later opened and analyzed under controlled conditions. Harmon Craig and his team (Dowd) used a simpler approach which collected samples in unpressurized samplers and collected the gases from the samples as soon as the samplers were taken off the hydrowire.

Other devices were also attached to the hydrowire at intervals to collect samples used to measure salinity and dissolved oxygen, and these same samplers, called Nansen Bottles, also recorded temperature. The depth of the samples was determined by where it was attached to the wire and how much wire was spooled off of the winch. A pair of reversing thermometers, one “protected” and the other “unprotected” from pressure, on the Nansen bottles, were also used to calculate the depth of sampling because often the hydrowire did not hang straight down because of deep currents.

Once all the samplers were deployed they were “soaked” for about a half hour to equilibrate with the temperature and pressure at their respective depths, after which a “messenger” (a weighted short cylinder that could fit over the wire) was slid down the wire. It would trigger the first sampler to close and release another messenger to slide down to the next, and so on. Depending on the depth (the average depth of the Pacific Ocean is about 3 miles) it could take several hours to complete the entire process.  

Of course the students were involved in every aspect of the sampling and analysis of samples for the various parameters. They also logged in data on data sheets (again, decades before personal computers) by hand. The days when we were on a sampling station were generally fun because the sea was usually calm, and everyone would be outside on the large afterdeck of the ship. It was a break from the boredom of cruising along with nothing to see except ocean from horizon to horizon.

Food on the ship was okay for the first couple of weeks, but it went downhill very rapidly after that. We had coffee or hot tea for breakfast with scrambled powdered eggs, stale bread for toast, and bacon (which seemed to be plentiful). Only powdered juices were available after the first week, so water was the main beverage with no ice. Other meals were cold cuts for lunch and canned stews, hashes, soups and vegetables (Fresh ones were gone after the first week.) for dinner. The R/V Baird was a small ship with very little freezer space. Several of my fellow students and I found a bunch of frozen steaks hidden in the corner of a walk-in freezer on the last leg of the cruise. We suspected the cook(s) planned on taking them home after we reached our home port.

Clipperton Atoll

At about a week and a half into the cruise we came to Clipperton Atoll. (An atoll is a circular island formed mainly from coral that grows around a volcanic island that slowly sinks because of the weight of the lava on the thin ocean crust. Eventually, all or most of the volcano is beneath the surface and what is left is an island that forms a ring of coral sand surrounding a lagoon. (Clipperton still has a bit of the original volcano that rises above the beaches.) Located about 800 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico, and a French possession, Clipperton was uninhabited, but in the early nineteenth century it had a very small community of people who maintained a lighthouse on the one outcrop of the original volcano.

We arrived at Clipperton Atoll around noon and used a lifeboat to go ashore. This was not a scientific stop but it was near our cruise track and the chief scientist and captain thought it would be a nice break from the monotony of the cruise. The island was relatively sparse of vegetation with only a few palm trees here and there. Blue-footed Boobies, which nest on the ground, were everywhere as well land crabs, which supposedly are poisonous. There were a number of relics of military equipment left over from when there was a small outpost of U.S. troops there during the second World War.

We stayed on the island until late afternoon and then went back to the ship where the crew was fishing with hand lines using bacon as bait. They were catching one fish after another. I had fishing line and hooks in anticipation of trading with the natives on Easter Island. (We were informed that we should bring things for trade on Easter Island, so I had brought some fishing gear, socks and a few cheap watches that I had bought in Tijuana before the cruise.) I shared the hooks and line with other students, and we found that we could catch fish with just the shiny hook. I can’t remember if the cooks prepared any of the fish or if we just threw them back.

We departed a few hours after sunset destined for another couple of weeks of anticipated boredom. Clipperton was a great treat and an education about a tropical island, which, to this point, I had only read about. Our attention now turned to Easter Island. Spending my whole life in the Southeastern U.S., I was not very worldly and had no idea what or where Easter Island was. We were all urged to read “Kon Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl, which chronicled a voyage on a balsa raft from South America to Easter Island to support his theory that this was the way the island was populated.

On to Easter Island

The cruise to Easter Island took about two weeks going almost due south. It was fairly monotonous, only stopping at predetermined hydrocast stations for water sampling and BTs at every degree of longitude and latitude.   The seamount discovery, mentioned earlier, and one other bizarre event were the highlights of the expedition. One of the crew members, who loved fishing, would put out a line every time we were on a water sampling station. Once, while on station, a huge Mako shark started circling the ship. A creative crew member decided that he would put something to attract the shark on a large hook tied onto a strong line. His choice was a grapefruit. It worked! With the help of the chief scientist, Menard, the crewman hauled the great beast aboard. The shark turned out to be more than 10 feet in length. As the shark started flipping back and forth, everyone looked at each other thinking, “What do we do now?” It’s amazing how a ferocious man-eating animal brings out our most primitive instincts to kill it. So our chief scientist — soon to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and soon to become the Director of the prestigious U.S. Geological Survey — assumed the role of “Dispatcher in Chief” with a fire axe. The bloody mess was left to the students to clean up with fire hoses and shovels. Everyone else, except us students and the winch operator, went to lunch as the water sampling bottles “soaked.”

There was one important event that occurred on this leg of the cruise — crossing the Equator. This happened on June 22, 1964 at longitude 111° 31’ W.  As the ship crossed, all the ship’s alarms and whistles went off scaring the crap out of all of the students and a couple of new crewmen who had not crossed before. All on board who had not crossed the equator before, referred to as “pollywogs,” went through an initiation. This was like a fraternity initiation, just more compact. This included climbing masts and towers, and a bunch of other obnoxious stuff including kissing King Neptune’s belly, King Neptune being played by Ernest Kaipolumanu, a native Hawaiian crew member. Once you have completed the initiation you received your Sh.D. (Doctor of Shellbackosophy) diploma (I still have mine.) from the University of Pelagia signed by King Neptune and the chief scientist. Traditionally, King Neptune is the oldest Sh.D., or Shellback, on the ship.

Easter Island

The ship arrived offshore of Easter Island in the afternoon and was met by a number of dugout canoes carrying local natives, some of whom crawled aboard in spite of being discouraged from doing so. They had a variety of carvings to trade and I was ready. With a couple of fishing hooks, I could trade for a carving. After I had so many carvings, I began just giving the fish hooks away to the grateful crowd. There were a couple of female natives who came aboard with the men, and I heard later that they had something else to trade. Several of the crew apparently took advantage of this bit of local commerce.

There was no harbor on Easter Island that could accommodate anything other than a small boat. So we remained on the ship overnight but went ashore the next morning after breakfast by using the ship’s lifeboats that carried about a dozen men. Going into the small harbor the boats had to negotiate large swells and breaking waves, but the crew handled the boats with great skill. We docked at a relatively small, stationary dock. Because tides around this part of the Pacific Ocean are only a couple of feet, a floating dock was unnecessary. 

Easter Island is a possession of Chili and, as such, has a local governor. The island is more than 2,000 miles from the mainland, and at the time we were there, the island had no place for a plane to land. So, back then, all transport and travel between the two was by ship, with only two transports per year that brought food and medical supplies. As far as I could tell, there were no significant products to export to the mainland from Easter Island. There was a priest and three nuns on the island, who maintained a medical clinic of sorts, but I doubt they had the resources to address a major injury. They did, however, take care of John Booker’s seasickness, at least temporarily, and managed to get some food in him before we departed. The native population was probably in the order of 100.

Easter Island’s original inhabitants, the Rapa Nui people, are believed to have arrived from the west around 1200 A.D. They were apparently very industrious, finding leisure time to carve great Moai structures — the giant stone statues that are the trademark of Easter Island — and develop sufficient agriculture to support a population estimated at 2,000-3,000 by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722. However, the deforestations and the introduction of the Polynesian rat had already begun to create an unsustainable ecosystem at that time. The history of Easter Island is a microcosm of a world where population exceeds the natural resources to sustain it, leading to starvation, internal conflicts, cannibalism and invasion. The last of those took the form of exposing the indigenous population to many new diseases for which they had no immunity and to abduction by South American slave traders.

Given their history of contact with the outside world, it is amazing how Easter Islanders were able to maintain their hospitable culture, one so characteristic of Polynesia. They were very welcoming, taking us on trips around the island on dirt paths, in the island’s one jeep and one truck. They took us to see the Moai that were liberated from the volcanic source rock and transported around the island. (Back then, very few of the Moai were still standing upright on the island with their traditional “topknots” made from red volcanic pumice. Now they are reerected all over the island for tourists.) The natives had a few horses. None, though, looked well-bred and all were difficult to ride bareback, using only a sheepskin as a saddle. A ride into one of the dormant volcanoes on one of those horses was a wild adventure.

For the natives, our visit demanded a celebration (a.k.a. luau). They butchered a sheep and cooked it over an open fire with a piece of fence wire holding it above the flames. I don’t remember any local vegetables but we brought a number of cans of fruits, meats and vegetables. While we chowed down on the mutton, the natives devoured the contents of the cans. Following the luau there was dancing (I guess this was the local version of the hula.), and some of our group, especially the professors, joined in. Notable among the dancers from the ship was Sir Edward in his long sleeve white shirt.

During our brief stay on Easter Island, I had managed to trade socks and fishing hooks for all the wood carvings I could carry. None of the natives were interested in the cheap watches that I had bought in Tijuana. (Clearly keeping track of time was not important on Easter Island then.) So I gave them away — one to the jeep driver, the others to two of the nuns. As we were leaving in the lifeboats back to the ship, I watched Sir Edward, just before getting into the boat, take off his Bermuda shorts and trade them for a tiki. This happened in front of a small crowd of amused natives, the nuns, the priest, and the governor and his wife.

As we began to leave the small harbor, I noticed the two nuns shaking their watches and putting them to their ear. I felt badly about that, but at least I had not used the watches in a trade. I had too little time to think about this as we hit the surf leaving the harbor. Every wave just missed capsizing us. Fortunately, Frankie Rodriguez, who used to work on Portuguese tuna fishing boats, was extremely skilled and got us through with no harm. Unfortunately, a couple of years later, Frankie fell off a gangplank and drowned.   A very nice guy. 

I left Easter Island with great memories and a new knowledge about South Pacific people. I would like to go back, but it may be disappointing. There is now an international airport there and a population of over 8,000 living on this 63 square mile triangle of land with a dormant volcano at each corner. Hanga Roa, where we landed, is now a city with paved streets laid out in a regular fashion as any other city, with commercial buildings, schools, churches, 280 hotels and numerous restaurants. Paved roads and highways now connect every part of the island and a Google satellite image of the Island indicates that automobiles abound. Easter Island is now a tourist destination which is apparently the basis of its economy. Once again the outside world has left its mark.


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