When you’re 600 miles away from land, hunting for a lost continent aboard a ship in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, the blue-black waves won’t offer any clues. Days on the JOIDES Resolution are spent eating Filipino food, waiting for the next day’s experiments, and analyzing fossils unearthed from the seabed.
For Gerald Dickens, Ph.D., the co-chief scientist on the recent expedition to Zealandia — the submerged hunk of continental crust that sank after breaking off Australia — the journey, and its aftermath, has been a mix of wild, often inexplicable emotions.
“There is the true thrill of the findings, both expected and unexpected,” Dickens, who’s also a professor at Rice University, tells Inverse. “This is then blended with the personal issues of being on a ship, working more than 14 hours a day with the same people, day in and day out for two months, all away from any sense of normalcy and most connections to family.”
“I chase science on the ocean”
Dickens, though, is acutely aware of how tremendously rad his job can be: “This is my life: I chase science on the ocean,” he says. “It’s really hard to pick a favorite part, because I cannot complain about being paid a decent salary for hanging out with smart and cool people exploring.”
For two months, Dickens, along with 30 other researchers and 20 crew members, probed the 5 million square kilometers that belong to what’s considered the world’s eighth continent. Some 94 percent of Zealandia is underwater — its visible crust previously thought to be scattered islands of New Zealand and New Caledonia. It wasn’t until 1995 that scientists became vocal about how it could be a continent, and it was just back in February when scientists announced they had enough geophysical data to confidently say the stretch of separated crust deserved the title.
When the team set out in July aboard the JOIDES Resolution — a massive research vessel equipped with a drill pipe that can retrieve thousands of feet of sediment — they became the first crew to expressly go to an unexplored continent and bring back evidence of what its existence means for the geological record and our future on Earth.