January 14, 2008
Joanna O'Neill, marine geologist, Fugro Seafloor Surveys
The job: Volcanoes, shipwrecks, seismic faults – for Joanna O'Neill, it's all in a day's work. As a marine geologist for Fugro Seafloor Surveys in downtown Seattle, she spends part of the year on land and part of the year at sea, creating topographic maps of the ocean floor for the company's telecommunications, energy and construction clients.
Q. How did you land on this type of work?
A. My dad is a marine biologist, my sister-in-law is also a marine biologist and my brother is a marine engineer. So marine science was always an interest for me.
I majored in environmental studies and natural history at Stanford. And then I went to graduate school at University of California, Santa Barbara for geology. But I had never even heard of the job I have now until I finished school.
I took this job right out of graduate school, and I've been with the company seven years. I started as a geophysical data analyst, meaning I processed sonar data to make maps of the ocean floor. I did that for four years before becoming a geologist.
Q. How much of the year are you out at sea?
A. We're probably out three to five months a year. The trips are usually one to two months each. Last year, I did four or five trips.
Q. What does the offshore part of your job entail?
A. We collect side-scan sonar data on the computer, which we can turn into topographic maps. We look at what the ocean bottom is made of and basically try to find a flat, safe place [where our clients can] put cable. We're looking for anything that would be a hazard to the cable: anchors or fishing activity, submarine volcanoes, any kind of seismic fault, rock exposures, shipwrecks.
Sometimes we get schools of fish in our data and we can hear dolphins in our sonar. We can sometimes hear whales, too. And I'm always hoping we'll find a 10-kilometer squid. That's the romantic side. You're exploring places that nobody's ever seen before.
We also do coring – taking sediment samples. That tells us what the ocean bottom is made of – is it sand, is it clay, is it rocks, is it gravel? Coring involves taking a big, 2-meter tube and dropping it over the side of the boat. When it hits the bottom it triggers, meaning it punches into the ground and sucks up the sediment. Then we bring it back up. We core all the way down to 1,000 meters. Sometimes the currents are really strong and they push the apparatus aside. So it can take a long while.
Q. How dangerous is the work?
A. You have to take [classes in] emergency at sea, safety at sea, firefighting, first aid. Because if you're out on the ocean and something goes wrong, there's nobody coming for you any time soon.
When you're coring, you're working on deck. We work hard at making it a safe environment, but the coring apparatus is actually quite dangerous. You have to wear a hardhat and work vest and steel-toed boots. When the coring tube comes up, I get the sample and then immediately get out of the way to analyze it, on the other side of the deck. I don't work on the deck as much as the engineers do. They've got to deploy and run the gear, even in bad weather. And they have to be harnessed in.
Q. What parts of the globe has the job taken you to?
A. I've been able to travel all over the world. I've been to India, the Middle East, Africa, islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Indonesia, Singapore, Hawaii, Alaska. And I've been to places you wouldn't necessarily go on your own, like Oman.
The life aquatic:
"This job is a lifestyle. You have to be ready to spend a large amount of time away from home and with your coworkers, and you have to live in close proximity to them. Sometimes you like them, and sometimes you don't. It can be hard on your personal relationships, but it's never boring. It's an adventure every time."
Q. How much sightseeing do you get to do on these trips?
A. In theory, you fly in, you get on the boat, and you survey. I don't get to go to any of these places and be a tourist. You don't explore much farther than the city that you actually land in. You go into port for a day, and sometimes you get to walk around. You never have as much as time as you want. In some ways it sounds more exotic than it is. I mean, you get there and you're in the middle of the ocean. So you might as well be anywhere.
Q. Do you ever get cabin fever when you're at sea?
A. You have a lot of camaraderie with people that you work with. Usually there will be about 15 of us and 15 crew members, so maybe 30 to 35 people on the boat. Sometimes you get to know them better than you want to. We watch a lot of movies, play video games. But most of the time you're just working. It's 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Most people who assume this work are definitely ready for it. We do have some people who go out once and never come back, though.
Q. Do you get comp time once you come back to shore?
A. We do earn comp time when we're offshore. You get two days for every seven days you work. You also get your "sea pay," which is an added amount to your regular paycheck.
Q. What do you work on when you're back in the Seattle office?
A. The reporting phase goes for several weeks after being offshore, depending on what the client wants. So I'll be working with a data analyst on my reports. The data analyst plugs all the data we collected at sea into charts, and the geologist interprets it. The job is pretty technical. We use MicroStation, a CAD (computer-aided design) program, to interpret the data. And we use GIS (geographic information systems) software to present and handle spatial data.
Q. What experience should aspiring marine geologists collect?
A. To be a geologist, graduate school is a must. You need to have a master's or a Ph.D. in geology. Experience in computer data analysis is a must. When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of offshore surveying for my thesis. I was studying hydrothermal vents and submarine volcanoes, so I was familiar with how to look at the digital imagery and interpret data. To be a data analyst, though, you don't have to have an undergrad degree in geology at all. But most of the analysts I work with have some sort of background in marine science, surveying, cartography or engineering. And some of them do have their master's in geology.
Q. How stiff is the competition in this field?
A. It's hard to find a job in ocean science. When I was in graduate school, I thought I was just going to get a research job, but there aren't very many of them compared to how many people want to work in marine science. If people are looking, though, my company's in a growth phase now. And we're hiring.
Freelance writer Michelle Goodman is author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. She lives in Seattle, where she works from a spare bedroom with her dog Buddy at her feet.
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