National Geographic


Expedition Journal

An Adventure in Vertigo

Western Pacific Ocean, in the eastern Caroline Islands

We move around the ship with the caution of night burglars. We pause before a door, wait for a few seconds, and swing it open slowly. We hesitate in hallways, put both arms out to steady ourselves, and step forward in slow motion. We are living in a world where walls move, floors tilt, and railings shift out of your grasp. Walking from one deck to another is an adventure in vertigo.

We’re five degrees above the equator, our heading is almost due north, and our speed is eleven knots. A strong, steady wind is creating row after row of white-capped waves. At the moment, the Mermaid Sapphire is plowing through 30-foot (9-meter) swells coming from two directions—east-northeast and east-southeast. She rolls 10 degrees to the west, returns briefly to her centerline, and rolls ten degrees to the east. Occasionally she catches a swell at the wrong angle and a three-second shudder runs the full length of her hull.

Sapphire’s upper decks and outer railings are covered with a thin layer of salt. Her main deck is slick with water from the last wave that washed through the scuppers. The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER’s white hanger has been pulled back; there are moments when the electric-green sub looks like she’s floating on the slick.

Moderated by the movement of the ship, each one of us is engaged in a kinetic conversation with the ocean. Our inner ears, eyes, muscles, joints, and brains struggle to respond to her crazy-world movements. For most of us the response eventually involves some version of sweating, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. We want to lie down, take Dramamine, or reach for a Scopolamine skin patch. This morning at seven, the mess hall was empty.

The sub team designs its way around this disorienting stressor. They work on lower decks where the motion is more subdued. They do chores that don’t require too much balance for too long. They stay away from high places, pace themselves, and take occasional breaks. They postpone precision work on electronic and hydraulic systems until the ship returns to less turbulent waters.

The forecast isn’t promising. We’re expecting 13-foot (4-meter) swells tomorrow and possibly higher the day after.

I’ve spent too much time staring at my computer screen trying to type this report. What’s that? My stomach just did a triple axel? It’s time to leave the confinement of my cabin and seek the fresh air of the lee railing.


Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Joe MacInnis

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam