FALMOUTH, Mass. — On the whale-watch boat, they called them “racing stripes.”

“I used to work at a company that had regular trips, one right after another,” recalled Allison Henry, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine mammal observer for the past 13 years. Rough days sometimes meant many of the whale-watch passengers got seasick, she said.

When they would return to Gloucester after one of those bad trips, the crew would see a couple hundred passengers on the docks eagerly waiting for their chance to see whales.

“They were so excited, and then there was the dawning recognition of what that was running down the side of the boat,” Henry said.

Seasickness is one of the gritty realities of ocean travel, whether it’s that idyllic Caribbean cruise or a day out on dad’s boat. For those in the maritime trades, such as fishermen and marine scientists, it’s an everyday possibility that can make your chosen profession hell on earth.

“They used to think I was dead, I turned so white,” said Michael Anderson, 73, a lifelong commercial fisherman from Chatham. Anderson loved the sea, fishing and hunting his whole life. Commercial bass fishing paid his way through college.

After graduation, Anderson got a spot on a tub trawler out of Chatham, fishing for cod with long lines of baited hooks. On his first trip, the crew closed the cabin windows, lit up cigarettes and started baiting hooks. The captain put the boat on autopilot and joined them, smoking a foul-smelling cheroot.

“I was sick all the time. Deathly, deathly ill,” Anderson recalled.

It’s an affliction for which science and modern medicine have a few theories, but no answers, said Thomas Stoffregen, a University of Minnesota professor in the School of Kinesiology. Scientists say man’s first nautical adventure was 60,000 years ago, with boats predating the horse as the oldest means of transport by more than 50,000 years.

Seasickness was there all along.

“This is something truly ancient,” Stoffregen told a lunchtime audience at a lecture on seasickness and sea legs at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Friday.

The prevailing theory says a disconnect occurs between the information supplied by your eyes and what your inner ears, feet and joints are telling your brain. Like the gyroscopes in a missile guidance system that feeds its orientation into a computer, signals from three fluid-filled canals tell the brain in which direction your head is moving, and sensory cells in two small compartments in the ear detect swaying, bouncing or rocking movements, according to the Michigan Ear Institute website.

But when you’re in a ship’s cabin on a rolling sea, for instance, your inner ear is sending signals to the brain that your body is in motion, but your eyes don’t detect it in the room. That disconnect, the theory says, causes enough disorientation to the brain that it leads to dizziness and other symptoms of motion sickness.

Nausea induced by motion sickness actually stems from an entirely different source, some say. They believe it is a self-preservation reflex to poison. Eating an unfamiliar noxious plant frequently triggers dizziness that induces vomiting in the hope the stomach will expel the harmful substance. The dizziness of motion sickness just happens to trigger the same reaction.

Stoffregen has an additional theory. He says muscles are constantly working to keep us upright. This posture stabilization happens below the conscious level, is hard to detect, but is measurable.

When the body’s equilibrium is thrown off by the pitch and roll of a ship at sea, the mind struggles to adapt. Stoffregen’s research shows that most do adjust mechanically by changing their gait, the way they walk. That’s called getting your sea legs.

But the assault on the brain of the unfamiliar sensation of the world shifting under your feet can induce anxiety, cold sweat, nausea and other symptoms of seasickness. Stoffregen’s studies in flight simulators, video games and virtual entertainment showed that unstable control of the posture precedes motion sickness.

To study the effect at sea, Stoffregen used a force plate — a device that looks like a bathroom scale but measures subtle shifts in body position — to measure the amount of sway in a body as the brain takes in sensory information and adjusts muscles to maintain balance. He tested crew members on research vessels, Semester at Sea students on large cruise vessels, and elderly cruise ship passengers by asking them to focus on an object just a few feet away, one a little further away and a third at more than 30 feet, effectively what would be the horizon line. They did the test at the dock and at sea.

What he found was that on land, looking at the horizon made us less stable. Think of focusing on the far rim of the Grand Canyon as compared with the ground. But at sea that was reversed. Staring off at the horizon, as nautical lore has posited for generations, did result in less sway and more stability.

“Almost everybody feels something. Our body is hardwired to alert you to the fact your environment is moving,” said Albert Plueddemann, chair of the physical oceanography department at WHOI.

Jonathan Hare, the science and research director for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, recalled being curled up on the floor of the dry lab on his first research cruise off Cape Hatteras.

“Next morning, I was sick as a dog and the chief boatswain’s mate said something to me that I remember to this day. ‘There are two types of people, those who get seasick, and liars,'” Hare said.

All but eight of the 33 students tested experienced seasickness, with 12 having moderate to severe symptoms. By cross-referencing the degree to which students suffered from seasickness with their degree of postural stability, Stoffregen found that those with more sway at the dock experienced severe seasickness.

“If I can have you stand on my force plate for one minute, I can tell you whether you’re going to get seasick,” Stoffregen said in an interview following his presentation.

That would be helpful information to those thinking of spending thousands of dollars on a cruise or to the Navy spending millions to train mariners who might end up incapacitated at sea. A seasickness screening would be the Naval equivalent of the fighter pilot’s eye exam.

But there are also many stories of those who have overcome this debilitating experience.

“I have tremendous pride,” Anderson said. “I would stay on my feet and clean fish even when I couldn’t stand it.”

NOAA acoustician Genevieve Davis had been out on many research trips without experiencing any ill effects, but three years ago she voyaged out to Georges Bank on a commercial scallop vessel to retrieve bottom-mounted data recorders in advance of the hurricane season. With seas running 7 to 12 feet, she went to bed feeling a little woozy. The next morning, and for four more days, she couldn’t hold down anything more than a sip of water.

“I remember abandoning all care of self-image, and puking on deck with everyone around,” she said. “You feel like you’re never going to be normal again.”

But she made a point of being on deck to execute the retrieving of the monitors, the job she was assigned to do.

“Instead of letting it completely take over, I got sick over the side of the boat and carried on,” she said.

Even professional mariners such as Chad Cary, a commander in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps who runs some of the research vessels used by scientists, get seasick. He remembered a rough trip in the Gulf of Alaska where the chief scientist was feeling it, but also knew his responsibility as the leader of a 10 person scientific party.

“I walked through the wet lab to see how the scientists are doing and the chief scientist has two buckets. One to sort the plankton samples, the other bucket was for vomiting,” he said. “He was dedicated. He didn’t miss a beat.”

Those experiencing seasickness are easy to spot. “They get quiet, they withdraw,” Cary said. “The arms are crossed, hooded sweatshirt, zipped all the way up.”

One of the symptoms of seasickness is a tendency to focus on the struggle to maintain control.

“That first stage, when you feel a little cloudy and tired, a lot of people get to that stage and start worrying about getting sick, and that worrying and focusing on it, that makes it a certainty,” Hare said.

When Henry feels seasickness coming on, she gets claustrophobic. Her shirt feels tight around her neck, and she finds herself pulling on the collar.

“I get warm and I get a headache,” she said.

Focusing on something else, a job that needs to be done, or a distraction, can alleviate the symptoms.

In 1982, Judy Dutra, her late husband David, their 10-year-old son and a crewman were sailing to St. Thomas in their 45-foot wooden sailboat Arethusa when they were surprised by a hurricane 300 miles off Morehead City, North Carolina. Dutra had suffered from chronic seasickness while working with her husband on his Provincetown dragger.

“Funny thing is, we were way beyond seasick. It was almost like a dream state. (The crewman) and Dave were tied into the cockpit. My son and I were in a bunk,” she recalled. “I think I was concentrating on was I going to survive, not me so much, but my 10-year-old son Jackson. I didn’t want him to die. It wasn’t fair.”

After years of dreading every trip, Anderson was ready to sell his home, move inland and find a different occupation. But for some reason he still can’t explain, he bought his own fishing vessel and hired a crew. The added responsibility seemed to focus him and he never had seasickness again.

“It’s inexplicable. I have no real idea what happened,” Anderson said.

The mind is powerful, but the science on it is lacking, Stoffregen said.

“Those kinds of stories get told, and told, and told,” he said. “They might be true, but I have no research on it.”

The supposed cures are myriad, but the results appear to be individual, almost anecdotal, and not quantified by science.

The stern is the most stable part of the boat above decks. Fresh air, looking at the horizon seems to help many, but not all. Taking an antihistamine or preventative medication such as Bonine can leave one tired and groggy, or worse.

“It was like a throwback to the ’60s,” Anderson said of the hallucinations he sometimes experienced taking anti-seasick medications.

Davis takes anti-seasick meds even if it’s looks like it’ll be an easy trip.

Eliminating sensory stimuli — the smell of food, or diesel fuel and smoke — often helps. Sometimes, understanding and a few kind words are all that’s needed.

“People who are seasick are absolutely miserable and want to die,” Henry said. “But if you tell them you know how they feel, it helps, that it’s going to get better, that they are going to get better.”

She was impressed by an Alaskan whale-watch company that kept a close eye on its passengers.

“They knew what they were looking for and tag-teamed anyone who might feel uncomfortable, got them water, a blanket, and got them outside,” Henry said.

Sympathy, however, only goes so far.

“I had sympathy,” Anderson said. “But not if they lie down and quit on me.”

For most people it does get better within a relatively short period of time. Your body automatically adjusts, Stoffregen’s research showed. Even novices such as the students on the Semester At Sea cruise automatically found the horizon line stabilizing within 24 hours without being told. Seniors ages 60 to 91 who were on a cruise observed by Stoffregen did not fall or drop cafeteria dining trays during the first two days when their bodies were adapting to the unfamiliar pitch and roll of the ship.

There’s little research into why people such as longtime Chatham fisherman Fred Bennett never get seasick even in extreme conditions.

“It never affected me really, and I’ve been on the water since I was 5 years old,” Bennett said. Even on a Navy destroyer rolling from side to side in a four-day hurricane when everyone from the captain to the cook was green, Bennett never felt the urge. He recalled that on his first trip across the Atlantic three or four seamen were discharged due to dehydration from chronic seasickness, but others said it wasn’t necessarily a barrier to a maritime career.

Henry had been in love with whales since she was 5 years old. Her whole educational career path was geared toward whale research. But on her first trip as an intern on a Gloucester whale-watch boat, she got seasick. And it kept happening on succeeding trips.

“Oh boy, I’ve been wanting this my whole life. How am I going to do this?” Henry asked herself at the time.

Nowadays, with her eyes glued to a computer screen, entering data as her plane banks hard, cutting a slow circle in the sky over a group of right whales, Henry keeps a ziplock bag in her flight suit for the feeling that sometimes comes over her.

“You learn what you’re capable of. You can get sick and keep on moving,” Davis said.

If you want to work at WHOI, you have to sign on for cruises, Plueddemann said. “But going out to sea is not for everybody.”

With today’s sophisticated technologies, gathering data remotely, there’s a lot of research that can be done without leaving land, Plueddemann said, but you should try it and see how you react.

“I’ve been to see a couple of times with people who spent their life at computers, and it’s an eye-opening experience for them to see the vastness, the dynamics of it,” Hare said. “The romantic nature of it is true. You’re out at night and you see the Milky Way like you could reach out and grab it. You catch all the marine life you could never see from land, experience the colors of the ocean.”

“I wouldn’t give up any time at sea, even the snotty cruises, vomiting at the rail,” he said.


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Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com