Posted on January 27, 2009
I woke up this morning after semi-consciously dreaming that I was inside a Slurpee machine. Turns out, my dream was influenced by the slush-thunk-slush-slush sound of the ship’s hull breaking through sea ice. I immediately ran on deck to check it out.
We’re now in the area of Charcot Island. The scenery here is exactly what I used to picture when I thought of Antarctica… Enormous icebergs, as tall as houses and as long as trains, were everywhere. Stretching between the scattered large bergs was a gently rolling expanse of white, the remains of winter’s pack ice. Crabeater seals snarled at the ship as we crept along. Every time we hit a particularly large chunk of ice, the whole ship shuddered.
In recent news:
* We launched a Zodiac this morning in search of a penguin colony, reported to be on the island a few decades ago. No one has set foot on Charcot since the 1920s. The birders weren’t able to find a good landing spot, but did catch sight of a couple penguins on the island.
* Yesterday we discovered two new islands.
* Two days ago we made a stop at Rothera, a British Antarctic base. The base overlooks a bay which must be some kind of iceberg dump–the place is full of them. In the afternoon, we were challenged to the annual Gould vs. Rothera soccer match, which is played on the base’s air strip. The match was postponed because a twin-otter plane needed to take off, but we eventually played… and lost. At night the Rotherans hosted a dance party, complete with live entertainment and a front end loader as the backdrop for the stage.
Posted on January 24, 2009
Ships make an unbelievable number of noises. Engine rumble, generator rumble, water sloshing in pipes as the boat rocks, waves crashing against the hull. The thunk of ice as we plow straight through it (quoth Chance
Miller: “It’s like we’re driving a giant Tonka truck!”). Loose porthole covers creaking. The bow thrusters, which sound exactly like a rocket launching, and are conveniently located just below my bunk (least favorite wake-up call ever: “GADOOOOSHHHS HSHKSKKSKS KSKSKSSSSSH HHHHHHHHHH!! KSSSHRRRRRSSSSSSSOOOOOOOSHSHHHHHH!!!!!”). The hydraulics on the several-ton crane on the back deck. The sonar ping every two seconds (nicknamed “The Chirp,” it sounds like a cross between a faucet dripping and a bird).
When I’m not on the boat, I suddenly realize how quiet it seems. Where’s the electronics-buzz? Isn’t the engine running?
Today I got off the boat for the first time in about three weeks. We’ve left Ocean Station Obama (which turned out to be a big hit with the press), and circled back to pick up the birders. Five days ago we left the birders (two people who study penguins) to stay in a minivan-sized, leaky makeshift hut on Avian Island. The island is home to something like 80,000 breeding pairs of penguins, along with elephant seals, fur seals, and a few other birds. Avian is beautiful. It also smells like a thousand port-a-johns shoved into a bad seafood restaurant.
Before picking up the birders, we indulged in a little tourism with the Zodiacs. We lowered the Zodiacs into the water with the crane, and motored out to a nearby rocky beach at the foot of a glacier, where we found an old british airplane wreck, and an abandoned Chilean Antarctic base. Now overrun with angry elephant seals and a handful of Weddell seals, the base consisted of a few old wooden shacks perched high on the rocks. ”Rustic” might be generous. Most of the paint had peeled off the buildings, and the wood was beginning to rot away. Eerily, though, the interior of the buildings seemed untouched. Old bedding was still on the cots, skis were still leaning against the wall, pots and pans were left sitting on the counters, and photos of naked women were still stuck on the walls. Oh, Antarctica.
Tomorrow we’ll make a stop at Rothera, a British Antarctic base, before steaming 20 hours to Charcot Island, which will be the farthest south the Gould has ever been.
Posted on January 20, 2009
Good news: I can almost feel my hand again! I’ve just gotten back inside after filming humpback whales for the last hour. There were four of them, barely 50 feet from the bow of the ship, having some kind of feeding frenzy. It was “sunrise,” which, in Antarctica, isn’t so much a transition from night to day as it is a pink-hued transition from a dusky purple sky to a bright blue one. We’re far enough north that the sun dips just below the horizon, but far enough south that it never gets dark. Sunrise and sunset are more or less one continuous act, as the sun moves diagonally across the sky. The whales were so close that we could hear them breathing, and could clearly make out the expandable ridges on their gargantuan chins. They spent an hour rolling around at the surface–diving, blowing bubbles, waving at us with their fins, gulping krill with their mouths. I think if my mouth were as proportionally large as theirs, it would stretch from the top of my head down almost to my bellybutton. They have big mouths.
Today begins the three days of Ocean Station OBAMA. Chief Scientist Doug is getting interviewed on NPR soon.
Time to go warm up my fingers before they fall off.
Posted on January 12, 2009
In honor of Inauguration Day, we decided to name an upcoming sampling site OBAMA (Ocean Biology and Antarctic Marine Analysis, or something cheesy like that).
Turns out, one of the scientists on board is friends with Obama’s new science advisor, and sent him an email about OBAMA. The response was as follows: the President will love this. Send us more info.
We are all completely dorking out, fretting over what to say in our must-be-perfect one-page memo to the Obama Administration. Suggestions?
Posted on January 11, 2009
Days tend to run together on board ships. Down here this has been
especially true, since the sun never sets. Here’s a recap of my last day:
0030, January 10th: on the back deck of the Gould. The back deck is
barely five feet above the water, so waves are constantly coming over the
railing and sloshing back and forth across the deck as the ship rocks.
It’s foggy and wet. We’re waiting to deploy the “Mocness,” a fancy
plankton net with nine several-meters-long, automatically-closing nets, a
fluorometer, and a number of other gadgets.
0200: half sitting, half napping in the electronics room, waiting for the
net to come back up. It’s still 1500 meters below the surface.
0245: back on deck, wearing waterproof bib pants and a “float coat” (a
lifejacket/parka hybrid). The Mocness is surfacing. We hook it to an
enormous crane, haul it on deck, and begin unloading the contents into
0330: huddled around the buckets, picking plankton out of the
0750: drowsily grab breakfast and climb the stairs to the bridge, where
everyone has gathered to try spotting the sediment trap, which has been at
the bottom of the sea for exactly one year. Usually I’m only on duty from
1600-0400, but today presence is mandatory for the sediment trap recovery.
At 0800 a button will be pushed, the trap will float to the surface, and
the first person to sight it wins 50 dollars.
0803: Rick and I spot the trap. I win 50 bucks.
0830: The next hour is spent hauling the giant trap, along with its radio
transmitter and floats (which look like enormous yellow hard hats) on
deck. The back of the ship opens up to more easily drag equipment aboard.
Some of the marine techs have to tether themselves to the deck to keep
from falling in as they operate the crane. Waves keep rolling on deck.
0930: a few of us are decked out in foul weather gear, scrubbing mud,
hydroids, and other sea gunk off of the old trap and floats. The swells
have picked up to about 15 feet.
1030: I’m on deck mousing shackles for the new sediment trap which will be
sent down for another year.
1600: in the “rad van” (a trailer which has been bolted to the back deck
to contain all radioactivity) getting some samples ready for the
scintillation counter, which will determine the radioactive content in
about 90 tiny vials.
1800: I try running on the treadmill. This proves pretty difficult with
the 15-foot swells. After being thrown into a wall, I opt for the
stationary bike instead.
2000: in the MT (marine tech) shop helping Dan build stairs for the
birders, who we are going to leave on an island for a few days to study
penguins. Why do they need stairs on an island? Beats me. Miraculously,
I survive the evening without chopping a single finger off with a power
2330: midrats (“midnight rations”). This is always my favorite meal of
0005: seven of us climb into the bunk of an unsuspecting marine tech, who
0130: there’s not a lot of science going on tonight, so three of us are
back on deck scrubbing stuff. The sky isn’t exactly dark, but thanks to
the fog it’s an eerie shade of purple. A few petrels are bobbing in the
Posted on January 3, 2009
We’ve reached the Antarctic Peninsula archipelago, a group of islands
clustered at the tip of the continent. When the fog cleared this morning,
we were able to see the southern edge of one of these islands. My first
sight of Antarctica was of jagged, icy cliffs towering about 5,000 feet
above the water. The snow and ice were shaded blue from the sky and
water, and there was still fog just on the horizon, making the cliffs look
like they were hovering somewhere in the clouds. Absolutely incredible.
Posted on January 3, 2009
Aside from a few hours of 20-foot swells, our Drake Passage crossing has been fairly uneventful. Even the 20-foot swells weren’t all that exciting–the Gould is so big we just float right through them. So far we’ve watched several movies, played some Scrabble, and have begun playing a Cribbage tournament (I already lost, in my first game). I almost slept through midnight on New Year’s Eve.
For a while, all sorts of birds would follow our ship. We’ve seen petrels and albatross coasting above the Gould’s wake. As soon as we crossed into Antarctic waters, though, the birds just disappeared.
It’s getting colder, too, so that I have to bundle up in my big, red, standard-issue US Antarctic Program parka before I head out on deck. By early tomorrow morning, we should be out of the Drake Passage and sailing down the Antarctic Peninsula, in view of glaciers, icebergs, whales…
In the meantime, here are some sweet facts about Antarctica to keep you entertained:
Antarctica is a place of extremes: the highest, coldest, driest, southernmost continent on Earth. The warmest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was 14.6°C (58.3°F). The coldest is -89.2°C (-128.6°F). In some parts of the continent, winds regularly blow 200 kilometers per hour. Interestingly, Antarctica has the world’s lowest average rainfall, which technically also makes it the world’s largest desert. All the precipitation that has ever fallen on the continent piles up, locked in ice averaging nearly 2 kilometers thick–which is Earth’s largest store of freshwater. The Antarctic Peninsula, where I’m headed, juts out as far north as 63°S, and is home to most of the continent’s research stations.
Posted on January 1, 2009
The R/V Laurence Gould (henceforth “Larry G.”) will be leaving the pier in Punta Arenas in 45 minutes. I joined the ship’s company yesterday afternoon, and have still been trying to find my way around. It’s great to be on a ship again, but this is an entirely different experience. Compared to the SSV Seamans, this ship is enormous–there are four levels below decks, multiple decks above, a giant bridge, a few cranes, and (get this!) a sauna. Compared to a few of the other ships in port here, though, Larry G. seems pretty tiny. We’re right next to the R/V Palmer, which is like the monster-sized sister to the Gould. Across the pier is a gargantuan Japanese fishing vessel.
So far our only job has been to get all of our gear organized and tied down in preparation for “The Crossing,” which is the ominous-sounding title for the four days we’ll spend going across the Drake Passage. The Drake is the expanse of ocean between the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It has some of the most notoriously rough seas in the world, because the Antarctic Circumpolar Current must squeeze between the two continents.
Today I had a chance to get off the ship and explore Punta Arenas a bit. My day included:
- rubbing the bronze toe of a large statue of Magellan. This will apparently grant me a safe passage through the Strait on my way south.
- running around town looking for some lost luggage, which I found in a hotel where Shakleton himself once set foot (it was a municipal building at the time of his rescue from the Antarctic)
- wandering through a colony of penguins that live on grass and burrow into the dirt.
- 40-knot winds.