Usually we zip-tie a small plastic baby Jesus (like one you might bake into a Mardi Gras cake), or the Rubber Iguana of Good Fortune, or some other “lucky charm” to the sediment trap before we deploy it. A little luck is entirely necessary: as soon as the sediment trap sinks several hundred meters and settles into the chilly bottom of the Antarctic ocean, we abandon it. Exactly one year later, we return to the same spot, push a button, and keep our fingers crossed in the hopes that, by some miracle of science, technology, and/or our plastic talismen, the trap will bob to the surface… at which point we can welcome our poor little forsaken trap into our loving, open arms. Or at least our loving, open nets and grappling hooks. Communication with the trap after twelve months underwater is a little like trying to contact intelligent life on an alien planet.
In case you’re wondering: the sediment trap is basically a large funnel (see picture) intended to capture plankton poop and other small things on their merry way to the bottom of the sea. Below the funnel is a ring of bottles, which rotates so that only one bottle is collecting samples during a given time period. That way we can dig through the bottles and figure out how productive a particular month is. During, say, February (the middle of southern-hemisphere summer) when it is relatively warm and everyone in the sea is awake and active and at their pooping-est, you might correctly guess that our sediment bottles are a good bit more full than, say, the wintertime bottles. There are lots of nuances, of course (scientists LOVE nuances!), but that’s more or less the pattern.
My job today consisted of:
1. waking up at midnight. My 12-hour shift normally begins at 4am, which is already WAY too early. Good thing there is daylight 24 hours a day during the summer down here.
2. being present for the Pushing-of-the-Release-Button, and then keeping an eye out for the bright yellow buoys attached to the trap. For being first to spot the trap, I won 50 bucks! I am the champ of trap-spotting. I also won two years ago, and last year, when I was not on the boat, the trap failed to release and remained forever at the bottom of the ocean. It is clear that I am critical to mission success. Right?
3. pulling aboard and cleaning the trap. Anything that has been living in the briny deep for a year has a certain… perfume… that stings your nose in a not-completely-unpleasant way. Because I am a returning veteran, I got to stand by with the hose while the new kids scrubba-dub-dubbed. Suckers!
4. disassembling, downloadin’ data from, reassembling, and reprogramming the trap so that its bottles rotate at the appropriate date and time. Don’t be too impressed… I had an instruction manual.
5. TATTOOING THE TRAP! The chief scientist handed me a giant Sharpie and told me to go to town. So I drew a huge anchor and a banner reading “H#LL-BENT ON SEDIMENT” (see picture)
6. redeploying the trap… and down it goes for another twelve months. Godspeed, lil trap. You’ve done good work this year.
The day couldn’t be lovelier: a big chain of mountainous islands in the distance, bright blue skies, and a balmy -2.1 degrees. (again, see picture, and note that the Marine Tech on the left is not wearing a jacket because he is “from Alaska” and “it’s nice out, guys, shut up.”)
Is it time for bed yet?