Thursday, September 18, 2008

Arrival to Palmer !

If yesterday led me to think of poetry, this morning left me speechless. The captain kindly slowed the Gould during the night so that on first light we would enter the grandiose and narrow Lemaire Channel. What a spectacular sight, first navigated in 1858, the channel consists of: enormous sheer-cliffed mountains falling to the sea, iridescent green icebergs floating in clear blue water. The Lemaire is rimmed by the Antarctic mainland on one side and numerous islands on the other. The largest and most impressive is Anvers Island, my home for the next seven months. Along the way we passed crabeater and fur seals as well as a colony of Adelie penguins walking across the ice. We watched the penguins in awe as they slid along on their bellies or waddled along, looking down as they did for leopard seals that could leap out of the sea below.

One of my shipmates saw my face and captured my sense of awe. He asked, "You know the first time you looked into the Grand Canyon ? Well, it didn't even come close to this, did it ?" I was reminded of the first time I saw the moon through a telescope. Except, this time I was standing in the beauty, not just looking at it.

Rather than muck things up with words about the channel, I'll just post some images.

sunrise on the mountains:

birds and seals:

iceburgs and mountains:

At lunchtime we pulled up to the dock at Palmer station. Low clouds had come in but it was still a gorgeous day. The natural setting of the station was stunning with numerous small islands nearby and an enormous cracked blue glacier on Anvers. I had seen from photos The 28 members of the winter crew came out to greet us and tie the boat up. From there the day was whirlwind - introductions, orientation, fresh baked cookies in the galley. For most of my shipmates this was a homecoming. Most had worked previously at Palmer and all except me had worked in Antarctica before. The place and jobs they were coming back to were familiar. For me, everything was new. I met my outgoing predecessor in the research associate job and started handover training with him.

I though to myself: "this is real. I am in Antarctica and I am about to start work."

Note: Many of these photos are courtesy of Scott Sternbach, professor of photography and NSF artist in residence. They are #2, 4, 7 and 9 above. All rights to these photos are reserved through Scott of course. You can see more of Scott's incredible work at:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day Two of the Drake: Sea Ice !

Today was a day pushing through the ice. I'm not sure what to say about so much strangeness and beauty so I'll just post this quote which flitted about my mind today.

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798:

And no there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

The land of ice, and of fearful sounds where no living thing was to be seen.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken--
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
like noises in a swound !

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Entering the Southern Ocean

Since we left Punta Arenas the ride has gotten progressively rockier. The weather is still very good with no big waves but there are long rollers and the boat sways with each one of these. Last night I figured out that if I stuffed my pillows between me and the edge of the bunk I didn't roll so much and I could get to sleep.

All morning we continued our path south through seemingly endless steel gray water. And then in the afternoon, something changed. We went through a dense fog bank and then I could feel the air temperature cool. I went down to the lab to see the sea monitors so I could watch the sea surface temperature. The water was getting colder, seemingly by the minute, when I glanced at the monitor it was actually below freezing, about -1 deg C. We were entering the Antarctica Circumpolar Current and the Drake Passage.

At the bottom of the world, the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans meet and swirl around in a wind driven fury. Sailors commemorate these storm tossed waters according to their lines of latitude as the “roaring forties”, the “furious fifties”, and finally the “screaming sixties”. As the ominous names suggest, the waters of this ocean are turbulent. Persistent westerly winds generate strong swells and, sometimes, mountainous seas. At about 60 deg south the Antarctic Circumpolar current separates the subtropical waters of the other oceans from the body of water known as the Southern Ocean. This is the world’s biggest ocean current, flowing eastward at an astonishing rate of 153 million cubic meters per second, roughly a hundred times the flow of all the world's rivers.
Our entry into the Southern Ocean was through the very young Drake Passage. The Drake opened when Antarctica moved away from South America 30 to 34 million years ago; this separation of the continents allowed the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which chilled the formerly forested continent and covered it is glaciers. The Drake and the Southern Ocean are deep: 13,000 to 16,000 feet over most of its extent, as compared to an average depth of 12,000 feet for the other oceans. If you want to read more about the Drake or the South Ocean, there is a good website here:

As we entered The Drake, my shipmates and I became ocean researchers. Understanding the interaction of the Southern Ocean with its neighbors is important to an understanding of global climate, and so, every 20 minutes we collected data. In shifts we measured the temperature, salinity, oxygen concentration, pH and other parameters of surface water. Probes dropped over the side transmitted additional data to 1500 feet.

Standing outside we began seeing more wildlife. Southern Giant Petrels were in sight most of the time as were Wandering Albatross, Greater Shearwaters, Snowy Petrels, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, and Cape Petrels. All of these birds are great wanderers who live 90% of their lives over the ocean. To deal with the salt water, they have evolved salt glands that takes the salt out of the water and secretes it through their nostrils. Sometime later a Minke whale passed us headed the other direction.

Late in the afternoon we sailed into a field of sea ice. Wow. We had seen ice off in the distance a few times but this was the first time we had to travel through it. The ice was in crusty plates about 2 foot thick called "pancake ice" and as the ship slowed to 3 knots and plowed into it we could hear resounding booms as it hit the outer hull. Lots of people crowded onto the bridge and the mate let us all try a turn steering through the ice.

As afternoon gave way to evening, the ice grew thicker and the ship's crew turned on spotlights to see the path ahead. It seemed we were barely moving but the sound of the ice was a constant "knock, knock" on the hull. The mate swung the spotlights from side to side like giant eyes as he drove, looking for icebergs. Staring into the night from the bow was an unreal feeling. The powerful lights which apparently looked out a mile were eaten up by the darkness. I went to my cabin swaying with the ship and wondering what the next day would be like.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Departure from Chile

This morning the crew cast off lines and we set sail out the Strait of Magellan to the Atlantic ocean. Our trip will take four to five days, depending on weather: one day down to the tip of South America, two days to cross the Drake Passage and then, depending on the sea ice, one or two days more to Palmer. The boat travels at a relatively slow pace, about ten to twelve knots (15 miles an hour).

It had been cloudy in dock but once we got underway the clouds cleared and it became a simply gorgeous afternoon. The deckhands went to work on all sorts of outdoor tasks and I wandered the deck just taking in the sun and sea. In the late afternoon a gorgeous group of dolphins joined alongside our bow. Everyone called them "oreo dolphins" but I looked them up and they're called Commerson's Dolphins. I have never seen animals with so much playful energy. There were about six of them and they leapt and spun out of the water, dancing along our wake.

Towards dinnertime a small boat pulled up alongside us and the captain of the Gould put our engines in reverse, stopping the boat. An athletic figure jumped from our boat to the smaller one. This was the Chilean pilot who had been aboard to guide us through the narrow strait. His departure was our sign that we were in open ocean and on our way.

As I climbed down to the galley for dinner I reflected on the people aboard with me. In addition to the dozen crew members of the Gould, there are fifteen of us aboard who will be staying at Palmer. What's remarkable is that we form a complete little community. Most all of the jobs you might need in a small town are represented: leader, doctor, cook, electrician, carpenter, engineer (that's me), mechanic, crane operator, trash collector. We also have a couple of jobs unique to where we are going including a boating captain and two artists. Together, we have the skills to form a very small but adequate little town. It's an interesting thought.