Shannon’s Scrapbook: Adventures in the Equatorial Pacific, Part I


Shannon O'Donnell

Before I ventured into the ‘lightweight’ TV side of the meteorology business, I was part of an atmospheric research team at the University of Washington known as the ‘

Mesoscale Group‘. Under the direction of Professor Robert Houze, the group has studied precipitation-producing clouds in the rainiest climates around the globe. As an undergraduate, I was mostly assigned the ‘bottom-feeder’ jobs that nobody else wanted to sift through…mostly editing endless amounts of radar data from various projects. But once in awhile I was invited to tag along on a research mission, the most uh, ‘memorable’ of which was a six week tour of the Equatorial Pacific.

Looking back at this experience, in some regards it can be filed under the ‘What was I thinking?’ category. Here I’d had the typical European-backpack-graduation-trip loosely planned out with some of my college girlfriends. But when the opportunity to hitch a ride on board the NOAA ship ‘Discoverer‘ came up, I jumped at the chance. A summer spent sunning on the deck of the government equivalent of a cruise ship…how bad could it be? Plus, I’d be handsomely paid with nowhere (other than the small onboard ‘store’ that sold t-shirts and candy bars) to spend my money, versus incurring loads of debt traveling through Europe. I figured I needed the boost to my bank account more than the coming-of-age American-in-Europe hostel experience. However, I would soon find out there was another price to be paid for my decision.

The trip started out as expected. I flew from Seattle to San Francisco to catch the ship, as the ‘Discoverer’ was docked at the Embarcadero. It was July–marine layer season–and I was awestruck by the beauty of the shallow, thick fog rolling under the Golden Gate like a woolly blanket, dropping the temps in the ‘City by the Bay’ by about 20 degrees in ten minutes (little did I know just how much I would be talking about this very sort of event as a Bay Area forecaster in a few years time!) On board the ship, I was shown to my ‘berth’, a tiny room with a bunk bed equipped with seat belts in case of rough seas! It became apparent that I wouldn’t be making too many female friends on my journey…of the roughly 150 people aboard, there were only a dozen women.

Life at sea had its challenges, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did not get seasick. My stash of Dramamine went untouched. However, the gentle roll of the ship still had to be reckoned with…maintaining your balance while taking a shower or climbing the staircases was not easy, and a stroll on the ship’s treadmill was extra exercise as you had to struggle not to fall off not only the back, but the sides!

My main job aboard the ship was to launch radiosondes, a.k.a. ‘weather balloons’, every 2 to 3 hours. This meant I had to get up a few times a night to do a launch…I shudder to think of how careless I was, safety-wise, when doing the night-launches. The radiosondes were housed in an on-deck shack similar to a ‘portable’ (like the trailers you see on school campuses when they’ve run out of classroom space), so I had to go out on the deck in the PITCH black and kind of feel my way to the trailer. I’m sure I must have had a flashlight or something, but I don’t remember donning a life jacket when going out there. However, we DID have to practice getting into a lifesuit…here I am dressed as a giant orange pumpkin–ha ha, shark bait!) Had I somehow slipped overboard, I guess that would have been the end of it! At any rate, here is a pic of me performing a DAYLIGHT launch. That’s me in the bottom left corner, using the remote control to launch the balloon out of that big metal canister.

One of the main purposes of this particular cruise was to head out into the mid-Pacific and change the weather equipment perched atop floating buoys scattered along 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south. You see, commercial fisherman with not much better to do come along and ‘knock’ the equipment off for sport, so NOAA has to go out and re-outfit the buoys with new weather stations every so often… your tax dollars at work, right? To get to the buoys, you must be lowered on an 8 foot zodiac raft via a pulley system from the deck of the ship down into the swirling ocean waters below. Shark-infested waters? You bet. The buoys serve to set up ‘islands of life’ in that barnacles grow on their undersides, hence attracting small fish, which attract big fish, which attract…SHARKS! It took me the entire trip to get up the courage to ride along (I was the radiosonde girl, this terrifying task wasn’t what I’D signed up for, thank goodness), but I did go ahead and take the plunge in the zodiac. That’s me in the yellow hardhat in the middle, getting lowered into the water. I vividly remember the ocean looked like ‘moving terrain’ from that perspective…the waves are so massive out there. And you certainly do see sharks around the raft…mainly 6′ oceanic whitetips. Big enough for me!

Here I am on the bow of the ship (where is Leo DiCaprio?), somewhere near the beginning of the mission. At least it must be, because I’m still looking pretty smiley here. Little did I know about the, um, ‘adventures’ to come. Ever hear about what they do to navy novices upon crossing the equator? I’ll tell you about that next time. Plus, a fish tale to rival any of Brent Cannon’s in another blog to come.

Shannon O’Donnell
NBC11 WeatherPlus Meteorologist


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