A Race to the Deepest Point on Earth

The media is buzzing today with news of James Cameron’s upcoming solo journey into the Challenger Deep.  At 35,768 ft (more than 6.7 miles!) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, it’s the deepest spot on Earth.  He broke a solo depth record yesterday during a test dive.

Jacques Piccard and Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh, in the Bathyscaphe Trieste, were the first and last to journey into the trench.  That was in 1960!  Since then only two robotic missions have made it.  We’ve sent humans to the Moon more often and more recently than we have to the Challenger Deep.

Cameron, however, is not the only one with a bid for the Deep.  A handful of private endeavors have built or commissioned submersibles in the last couple years. Among them is Richard Branson, the billionaire papa of Virgin Records (and Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Airways, to name a few), whose goal is to dive into the deepest point in each of Earth’s five oceans this year – including, of course, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific.

We have perhaps arrived at a new age of exploration, in which Private Company 1 and Private Company 2 race each other to distant frontiers.  Whether you think it a noble motive or not… if a movie mogul and Branson want to spur each other towards the first live video feed from the darkest pit of the sea?  I say bring it on, y’all!  Scientific discoveries and incredible technological advancements often go hand in hand with competitive exploration.

Read more from the New York Times here.

Goodbye Gould

Yesterday the ARSV Gould left the pier, taking most of the winter crew northbound.  I’m usually the one leaving on the Gould – either on my way farther south for a research cruise or heading home – so it was strange and a little eerie to be left on land while the ship pulled away…  This is it!  Those of us who are still here are here to stay for a long time.

There isn’t time for second thoughts, though, because tradition (and peer pressure) says that we all must jump into the water while those leaving on the Gould wave goodbye.  After that it’s a mad dash to the hot tub.  By the time you’ve thawed out enough to think, the boat has already disappeared from view and it’s just you and your newly-adopted family.  Video of our polar plunge coming soon!

Home Sweet Antarctica

We made it!  Greetings from the pier at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

The last few days have consisted mostly of sitting around in the ship’s lounge (my eyeballs are going to explode if I watch another movie) punctuated by one action-packed morning at Copacabana.  Copa is a tiny two-room beachfront hut, whose only neighbors are several hundreds of penguins.   Arctowski, the Polish Antarctic station, is a few miles away by boat.  Talk about social paradise, eh?  We dropped off the four researchers who will be staying at Copa until February, spent several hours hauling their food, equipment, and propane up the beach by sled, rewarded ourselves with a beer, and headed back to Mother Gould in our Zodiacs (small, inflatable motor boats).  Check out this wacky cloud that blew over us at the beach:

In the foreground is a crew with one of the Zodiacs.  The Gould is that dark spot on the horizon underneath the wacky cloud.

Last night was about the stormiest we’ve seen — gusting 50 with heavy snow and ice — and this morning at 0800 we arrived at my home for the next four months.  My day is full of orientations and training meetings, but I really can’t complain because there are icebergs and penguins in my back yard.

Ice in sight

We just crossed over 60 degrees South latitude, and are seeing ice for the first time!  I don’t care how many times I come down here… sea ice never gets boring.  It’s hypnotic, watching it rise and fall with the waves, listening to it scrape and slush against the ship’s hull.  For now it’s just brash ice – the remaining chunks of broken-up pack ice and crumbled icebergs – but by this time tomorrow we’ll be well into berg territory.  The weather right now:  air is just above freezing, the water is just below freezing, and there’s so much fog I can barely see the stern of the ship when I’m standing on deck.

flying south for the winter

This is why geese and retired couples migrate south for the winter.  Good thing I’m heading south, too, though I may overshoot balmy Florida by a few miles…


More than a year after my last blog post (let’s call it “busy” rather than “lazy”) I’m back on board with the Palmer LTER.  Assuming my flight isn’t snowed-in, I’ll fly tomorrow to Punta Arenas, Chile, get some standard-issue Antarctic gear, and hop aboard the ARSV Laurence Gould.  From there, we’ll churn out through the Strait of Magellan, then four days south through the world’s most notoriously tempestuous seas (think “Deadliest Catch” meets “Ice Road Truckers”), until we hit the Antarctic Peninsula for five weeks of research.


Just when I was beginning to wonder why I’d renewed the domain for this blog…

T-minus 10 days until I head out to NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS).  I’ll be helping with a 14-day mission on the Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, testing the Lunar Electric Rover, which looks like this:


Check out the website for the 2009 Desert RATS field season.  You’ll find links to the D-RATS Youtube channel, Twitter page, blog, and Flickr page.

Chilly in Chile

…as if that pun has never been made before. Apologies.

Anyway, here I am! After nearly 30 hours of flights and layovers, I have made it to Punta Arenas, Chile.  At the Santiago airport, representatives from Raytheon (the company that oversees many US polar deployments) met our group and breezed us through customs.  I totally felt like a VIP celebrity … if celebrities ever arrive at airports wearing enormous backpacks and hiking boots.

Punta Arenas is, incidentally, home to the southernmost beer brewery and southernmost grapevines in the world.

Time for me to go to bed. Early tomorrow morning I will head to a giant warehouse overlooking the Strait of Magellan, where I will be issued my cold weather gear, and then move onto the LM Gould.