Jen Whittingham reflects on recent travels to Antarctica.
Some would argue that the need to physically go to the ocean and “do” ocean science is becoming less necessary due to advances in satellite technology that reduce the need for the collection of physical samples. As a student, not even in the oceanography department, I therefore consider myself extremely fortunate to have not only been to sea but to the Southern Ocean, even reaching the marginal ice zone in Antarctica. This trip formed part of my PhD research on different ways of knowing the ocean. I conducted a laboratory ethnography of an oceanographic cruise in the Antarctic polar zone. As a social-scientist-humanities researcher, I was the weirdo on board who researches people and uses words like ‘relationships’, ‘connections’, and ‘emotions’, concepts that were not part of the scientific vocabulary of many of the scientists. My research comes from a recognition that knowledge matters and how we make knowledge is not a neutral process but is influenced by our positionality and context. This knowledge making, in turn, produces certain relationships with the world around us. On the ship, I was interested in how scientific ocean knowledge is produced and what the implications of that knowledge production might be.
Sensing Nature, Making Science
It became clear to me quite quickly that sensing the ocean was a crucial element of making sense of the ocean. In other words, before the science and the data analysis can take place, a phenomenon must be sensed. Our bodies are our most immediate and intimate sensors, continuously sensing what is around us, temperature, salinity, moisture, light, sound, and motion. On this level, my body knew it was going south. With every degree of latitude, the atmosphere became dryer and colder as we travelled on the ship further and further south towards Antarctica. But our human bodies were not the only sensors on the ship. The scientists and their technologies aboard turned the ship into a giant floating sensor in the middle of the Southern Ocean. All the research teams were, in essence, seeking to sense something, from waves, vibrations, temperature, and metals, to phytoplankton, clouds, and wind. The sensing didn’t stop with the boat, satellites were also a part of this sensory oceanic orchestra that make a lot of the science possible, and some would argue – better. The scientists sensed, measured, monitored, mapped, and made visual multiple dimensions of the Southern Ocean. Technologies enabled us as humans to visualise oceanic processes that would otherwise be invisible and from this sensing, scientific, social, cultural, and political sense could be made. Like Lehman (2018: 58) has stated, “oceanographic sensing practices shape the understandings of the ocean that underlie everything from pop culture to climate change negotiations.”
Making visible what would otherwise be invisible is a wonderful ability of science. Aboard the ship, looking out to an endless sea, at the deep, dark, greys, blues and whites of waves as they wish wash and crisscross through one another, towards and away from one another, whirls with no logic; it might seem that we were alone out there and indeed we were, in one sense, completely isolated from other humans. Yet, what the scientists showed me is that we were not alone, we were there with the phytoplankton, dinoflagellates, bacterial communities, nutrients, and viruses, an infinite assemblage of life. The flow cytometer, the filters, the McLane pump, the microscopes, the surface drifters, the graphs, the complex equations, all revealed an ecology of beings, uncovering worlds within the waves. This might suggest that in the absence of people on such a remote ocean, other non-human and more-than human actors are more central to understanding and governing the Southern Ocean.
Frontiers of Knowledge and Sea Truthing
The Southern Ocean is not scientifically well known; it’s a data-poor region. It is extremely remote, and the harsh environmental conditions make the going and the doing of science logistically difficult and expensive. There is an even greater lack of data for the winter season when collecting data is even more perilous and risky. The waves, the wind, the cold, the ice, all the elements of the Southern Ocean in winter, when we were there, seemed to be very much against the scientific itinerary. Nature seemed to be getting on with itself while the scientists tried so desperately to plan, organise, strategise and problem-solve. The rigidity of science on land must give way to a science of flexibility, creativity, and improvisation on the Southern Ocean in winter. This lack of data was extremely exciting for the scientists, it pointed them in the direction of discovery, not of the ocean itself but of its processes and behaviours. Approaching the frontiers of knowledge and the anticipation of science to come was palpable amongst everyone on the ship. One unforgettable moment was when the side door of the ship was opening for the first time to lower the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) to a depth of 1000m. This instrument is used to collect sea water from different depths of the ocean and was one of the key pieces of equipment that many of the teams were reliant upon for their work. As the side door of the ship slowly opened and the boundless ocean was revealed through it, all the scientists aboard had their phones in hand and recorded the momentous occasion. It felt like a red-carpet moment with fans awaiting their favourite celebrity. The CTD hung in the collective hope of science to come and was carefully lowered into the invisibility of the sea beneath us. This is where the deep, invisible ocean becomes visible on computer screens; salinity becomes a blue line, temperature a red line and carbon dioxide, a yellow line. We cannot see the depth of the sea as it is with our eyes, but we are presented with a technology-mediated representation of it, one that is measured and then mapped on a graph. Such sensing technologies outsource the human nervous system, the human eyes, ears, and hands to an assemblage of technologies, that in turn create new representations of nature.
Since most contemporary oceanography takes place behind a computer and involves wading through large data sets, ‘why is this cruise even necessary?’, I thought. It became clear though that a shared mission across many of the teams was to validate or ‘ground truth’ historical data collected via remote technologies. Ground truthing, which, in this case could be termed ‘ocean’ or ‘sea truthing’ is the process of gathering ‘the proper, objective, provable data provided by direct observation and measurement’. The theory is that combining real-time, on-the-sea data with numerical models generates more robust and reliable modelling. For example, one of the teams was taking direct measurements of carbon dioxide and simultaneous and continuous heat flux (the exchange of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere) observations to address uncertainty in annual Southern Ocean carbon dioxide and heat observations (SANAP, 2022). Another team sought to observe, measure, and map the sea ice edge, in other words, identifying in real time where the sea ice in the Southern Ocean begins. This is again due to a lack of observations of sea ice in the Southern Ocean in winter. The lack of data is so acute, one of the meteorologists told me, that in some of these models that include sea ice edge analysis, data from the Arctic is used to model the Antarctic Sea ice edge. So, while the need for a scientist to go to sea to collect physical samples or perform direct observations is becoming less frequent, with the rise of big data, these physical, ship-based activities remain crucial for maintaining the accuracy of oceanic and climate modelling.
The Plurality of Scientific Knowledge Production
Part of laboratory ethnography as a research method and approach aims to lift the veil on science. It represents an attempt to understand more intimately what science is and how it is produced and mediated through social interactions with nature and technology. Engaging with literature in Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies, I have learnt how the scientific practice of primarily white, European men during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly outside of Europe, involved the acquisition and assimilation of local and/or traditional knowledge and practice. Scientists did not only approach the shores of far-off lands on their voyages of exploration, but they also approached knowledge systems and ways of knowing and understanding the land and the seas to which they were foreign. Local and traditional knowledges were thus bound up in and with scientific narratives but crucially, these knowledge holders were not celebrated for their inputs (in the heroic ways that scientist were) or even recognised as contributing to or enabling science. One of my missions on the cruise was thus to explore the role of ‘non-scientists’ in the production of science, the technicians, the engineers, the crew members, the captains, and the cooks. Where does the science begin and end? If the scientists had to cook every meal, clean their rooms, maintain and operate the equipment, and navigate themselves at sea, science would not get done. Gaining insights into how the crew perceive their role in the science was illuminating; while they did not consider themselves scientists they were deeply woven into the picture through their life-long knowledge of the sea, of seafaring machinery and ultimately, their deep love for being at sea. The CTD for example, one of the most important machines on board that collects the sea water from different depths, is operated primarily by the crew. One crew member said that they had to remind one of the scientists to turn on the light sensor of the CTD and he knew that his reminder saved their samples. Another example is ‘the pancakes’, these gigantic samples of sea ice are identified by the scientists but collected solely by the crew. It demonstrates that science does not involve only scientific knowledge but experiential knowledge, embodied, practical knowledge, and social knowledge.
As a personal reflection, being at sea for 21 days despite much of the chaos that ensued was also a time of reflection, relaxation, and contentment. My eyes became sharper, and my mind became more interested and able to sense my surroundings. When all you see for days on end is an endless horizon of grey-hued seas, it becomes easier to notice subtle differences and changes in clouds, colours, and motions from one day to the next. This is something I am still carrying with me – the ability to take the time to really look at nature around me and actively see it. In a similar way, “science polishes the gift of seeing” (Kimmerer, 2013:48) and makes visible an abundance of human/non-human relations. In the Southern Ocean, these relationalities may in turn help to paint new imaginaries of Antarctica – not as a blank slate untouched by humans and ripe for exploitation by them but as a vibrant, bustling, busy and active place teaming with multispecies relations of conviviality that are under threat.
Kimmerer. R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions
Lehman, J. (2018). From ships to robots: The social relations of sensing the world ocean. Social Studies of Science, 48(1), 57–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312717743579
SANAP (South African National Antarctic Programme) (2022). SCALE-WIN22 Science Team CO2-HEAT. Available at https://www.sanap.ac.za/scale-win22-science-team-co2-heat: Accessed on 04/10/2022