Two weeks on board the Ángeles Alvariño: three researchers describe what it’s like to follow Atlantic bluefin tuna in the waters around the Balearics


Author: Maria López

Oceanographic trips are part of the work of IEO scientists. Such trips provide an opportunity to collect a range of data and samples for use in subsequent research. Tunibal is an annual research trip which has been conducted in Balearic waters for the last 20 years to evaluate the status of Atlantic bluefin tuna populations. It takes place in June and July, timed to coincide with the tuna breeding season in the Balearic Sea.

Video by Andrea Causacao

Studying the health of Atlantic bluefin tuna populations
Lasting for approximately two weeks, the trip provides an opportunity to collect tuna larvae, and water and plankton samples, to identify how conditions at the time of spawning affect tuna larva populations. All this material feeds into a range of research projects. It also takes it possible to identify the health of the tuna population and to enable ICCAT to establish fishing quotas.

Two weeks on board the Ángeles Alvariño
The Tunibal research trip takes place in June and July on the oceanographic vessel Ángeles Alvariño. To find out more about this work and about life aboard this kind of ship, we decided to speak to three of the scientists who are part of the research team that sails the high seas in search of scientific treasure.

“At the beginning, it sounds romantic,” explains Andrea Casaucao. After many months on dry land, working with data on a computer screen, she appreciates the chance to “spend two weeks at sea, on an annual trip. We leave in June, but you never know the exact date because the goal is to identify the state of the Atlantic bluefin tuna when it reproduces. You’re away for Midsummer and the end of the school year.”

Researchers from other IEO centers, from scientific institutions in other countries, and from a range of specialist backgrounds make up the teams of experts who live and work together for approximately two weeks.

Is it really such a romantic experience? That’s a good question, bearing in mind that the research work never stops, and the tasks can be boring and repetitive. The various research teams perform their duties around the clock. To do this, they use a shift system and not everyone will be lucky enough to work normal hours. Two or three weeks before they leave, the trip leader organizes the working groups and allocates their work over six shifts, each of four hours: from 08:00 to 12:00; from 12:00 to 16:00; from 16:00 to 20:00: from 20:00 to 00:00; from 00:00 to 04:00; and from 04:00 to 08:00.

Rise and shine at 3:30, lunch at 11, and lights out at 10pm

Andrea, together with her fellow scientists Patricia Reglero and Josefin Titelman, was allocated two shifts: from 04:00 till 08:00 in the morning, and from 16:00 to 20:00 in the evening – a timetable that not everyone finds easy to adapt to. “I like the morning, and I prefer silence,” Josefin tells us. “And it isn’t so hot.” In contrast, Andrea struggled to get used to a timetable that required her to “go to bed early and change my sleeping and eating routines.”

It’s also worth noting that not every trip is the same, as Patricia explains. “When I was young I was quite happy to do the ‘middle watch’, from midnight until 4 in the morning. On this trip, I’ve been getting up at 3:30. After the shift, I would have breakfast at 8, have lunch between 11 and 12, go back to work from 4 till 8pm, then go to bed at 10. So I had to adapt to a ‘normal’ timetable when I was back on land.”

The work also conditions relationships on board, because “you spend a lot of time with the people on your shift, and you hardly see the others,” Patricia explains. “You share a cabin and a bathroom. You sleep in a bunkbed and you have to decide who gets the top bunk and who gets the bottom one, who’s going to get a nice breeze from the air-con. If your companion is on the same shift as you, you have no privacy,” says Patricia, who shared a cabin with Josefin.

It was easy for them to get along because they are not just colleagues, they’re also friends. “The whole issue of your cabin mate is a lottery,” explains Andrea. “My cabin mate had a different shift to me, the cushy one. Luckily, I already knew her, so it was easier.” She goes on to tell us that she didn’t know the other people on her shift very well, “but hierarchy wasn’t a problem.”

All hands on deck
The work scientists do on board the Ángeles Alvariño is a far cry from how we typically imagine researchers in their laboratories. As Josefin explains, it’s “hard physical work.” Most of the work is done on deck, which means that researchers have “a real sensation of being at sea,” Patricia tells us. During each shift, nets are cast to collect organisms, primarily the eggs and larvae of tuna and other species, in addition to plankton. They submerge the CTD, an instrument that measures the salinity, temperature and depth of the water. And they collect samples to measure nutrient and chlorophyl levels in the lab.
“The lab is like a factory. Every 10 nautical miles, we cast the net and take water samples.

Then we move on to another station. On each shift, the vessel visits three stations,” Josefin explains. There are 120 stations around the Balearic archipelago. Samples collected during the trip will provide the basis for a year’s worth of research. In addition to the scientists, there is always one crew member and one officer assigned to each shift.

Although the members of the team are seasoned mariners, they sometimes suffer from seasickness, and that’s not much fun because they still have to do their shifts. “I’m used to the North Sea. The Mediterranean is warmer and calmer. I don’t usually get seasick but I’ve been on trips where everyone has succumbed,” says Josefin.

The joy of small pleasures
Life on board the Ángeles Alvariño is simple: work, rest and eat. “There isn’t much to do, apart from talking. It’s a big change from normal life,” Josefin explains. Despite that – or maybe because of it – you appreciate the day-to-day details with particular intensity. “I’m in charge of my own time. It’s nice being on board, you appreciate the little things. You’re in a bubble, a lot of the time you don’t have phone coverage, you don’t have WhatsApp; it’s an electronic detox,” Josefin says. “Mealtimes are important moments in the day, and so are the sunrises and sunsets, or when you sight dolphins. They’re easy to spot because they follow the boat,” Patricia tells us.

The three scientists agree that a two-week trip is the ideal length, although Andrea once took part in a trip that was half scientific, half military, and lasted three weeks. In her view, you need to have a vocation for this kind of work. “I’ve learned a lot on this trip,” she concludes. Josefin once spent five weeks on a boat in the North Sea. “The work is very physical and repetitive, it’s a really intense experience, where you meet other scientists. It’s nice to do it for a while – and it’s also nice to go home,” she tells us. For Patricia, one trip a year is ideal: “spending time at sea, getting out of the office, and having time to do experiments.”

Despite the occasional setback – the air-con broke down and they couldn’t sleep because of the heat – the trip “was very easy; if people get along then you have a good time,” Josefin explains. And that’s the way it should be, although in two weeks of living at close quarters, “they see the worst side of you, when you’re tired, and you have to control yourself and understand other people,” Patricia says. But during the trip there was “a good vibe, on the boat and on the shift.”