I have not used soap in 6 days. In any other community, eluding a proper shower would liken us to untouchables of an old caste system or modern-day hippies letting nature’s smells take over. The main reason we can’t use soap during this port stop is that we’re not allowed to let any chemicals into the waters of the protected atoll. Any shampoo, conditioner, or body wash entering the delicate marine system would affect the ecosystem balance and potentially have a negative impact on the living organisms and nutrient flow. We also have to limit our allotted shower time because we can’t turn on the water-makers in this protected zone, so we won’t be able to produce freshwater until we’re back out at sea. As students of biology, earth sciences, and conservation, we completely understand this and obviously prioritize the health of the lagoon and reefs of Palmyra. However, under the scorching heat and penetrating humidity, we’ve all been yearning for a nice shower. Raised in a tropical island myself, I’m accustomed to taking several showers a day in this climate (my dad takes at least 6). Now the ship’s crew has transitioned from 60-second Navy showers to zero showers down below deck. Nonetheless, there’s a silver lining - we are able to take deck showers in our bathing suits on the forward deck, generously with saltwater and conservatively with freshwater. Though we can’t use soap, these showers are a real treat! I save this amazingly refreshing experience for the time right before I climb into my bunk to sleep, and treasure every drop of freshwater.
Since I’ve been surveying coral reefs and running underwater transects for my project on coral disease ecology throughout most of my time in Palmyra, I was in the water more often than not anyway, so I didn’t start missing real showers until about the beginning of day 5. Plus all the minerals and nutrients in the ocean must surely provide a cleansing experience, right? The overall solution for most students has simply been to spend more and more time in the ocean – not a bad trade-off, especially when it means diving into the pristine, clean and clear waters of Palmyra.
Before this trip I never would have thought I could survive for a week without soap. But it turns out it’s actually quite doable – especially if everybody smells the same. At some point in the trip our baseline for decent smells has collectively shifted, it’s all relative anyway. There’s all sorts of smells – food odors, trash smells, people – things pile up on the ship and we can’t just toss garbage overboard. Parents, relax, we do an excellent job of cleaning the boat everyday and these smells and contained. It’s just interesting to think about how nearly everything is still on board… somewhere. Mildew has slowly been creeping up on us and is now trying to take over. We also couldn’t do laundry within a 12 mile radius of Palmyra – but we’re underway now and soon enough we’ll be able to do both laundry AND take real showers! We’re even going to get to pump out the poop today after our first station stop. It’s going to be a great day.
Though this whole situation might sound gross and grimy to anyone reading this blog from land, it’s totally fine out here at sea. In a way, the smells have brought us all closer, we’re all experiencing them together, battling them, and doing what needs to get done on the ship as we go. Superficial things like showers begin to seem meaningless when compared to the depth of our friendships, the significance of our scientific research, and the commitment to successfully sailing the Robert C. Seamans.