Into the Ice

Hello again from the Drake Passage.    It is very  “gross” right now.  Gross is a very technical term that means it is gusting  50 knots an hour,  snowing sideways,  and there are seasick people on board  (me included  ugh). 

We are currently sampling stations at the edge of the Drake- or rather we were until the wind picked up.   The more southern of these stations have some lovely first year sea- ice.  There isn’t much multi year ice around here.  Thus far it has been a really weird ice year.   There is a lot of sea ice for sure.  It is farther north than last year.   However,  it is all thin,  and so new that nothing is growing on it.  Last year  when we found ice it was covered with  algae and critters.  This year the ice is pristine white,   and there are hardly any  seals  or birds  hanging out on it. 

Even though the ice is rather  weak,  it is still gorgeous.

You can’t tell from the photo,   but some of the pancake ice is quite large.   On the ship,  we all day dream about playing Frogger.  Only in our version we would hop from pancake to pancake  and try to avoid getting eaten by killer whales and leopard seals.    When the swell is up  (we have had some 4 meter swells)  we  contemplate using a pancake to surf.

In many places,  the area between the  pancakes is filled with brash ice,  which is just a fancy name for slush.   This slushy stuff gets into everything!   It clogs the saltwater supply lines for the lab- we spend ages trying to melt it before we can work. It fills the  zoooplankton  net,  creating a snow cone.  The slushy ice just fills and over flows the end of the net,  and we need to melt out all of the animals  before we can do our work.

One morning it was calm, clear, absolutely perfect and I had some time in between taking samples.    We all went out to the bow to see what we could see.

We were treated to pancakes at sunrise

Since it was such a beautiful morning,  I stayed out on the bow deck   for a little while longer.  I was rewarded with my first seal sightings of the  trip

The elephant seal is a rather special  sighting.   They hardly ever haul out on ice and are rarely seen in the winter.   I was pretty lucky to be out there at the right time in the right spot.

This is a rather weird ice year.  I am really interested to see what this means for our zooplankton  catches.  

The Dreaded Drake

To get to the Antarctic by ship  from South America,  you  must cross the Drake Passage.  The Drake  is why many people choose not to go to Antarctica.  Even on a mild crossing,  it feels like you are being tossed around in a washing  machine.  I got a fun video of a wave completely enveloping the stern deck and slamming into the window of the watertight  door.  Sadly,  the video is too large for me to load from here.  I’ll post it when I get home.

 

You should notice two things with this picture.  The wave practically fills the window.  The window is more than 20 feet above a calm sea.   The door has a sign on it saying “keep water tight doors  closed”  and there are two jets of water shooting  from the door seals.  This happened all night long.  It was OK  because this door leads to the aquarium room  which has a giant drain under the  floor grates.

While all of this was going on,  my shift mates and I were doing science.  We climbed up one deck level and deployed drifter bouys and XBTs.  Sadly, I don’t have any pictures as I needed one hand to launch the gear  and a second hand to hold on!

Drifter buoys are equipped with with a number of sensors that record things like temperature,  current and salinity.  They transmit  their data via a satellite connection.  Down here, most drifters last three to four months.

XBTs  are basically disposable fancy thermometers.   They remained connected to the ship via a thing copper wire.  The have a range of a few hundred meters.  Once they reach the bottom,  or exceed  their range,  the copper wire is snapped.    The whole time an XBT is connected it transmits  a graph of temperature at depth.

Ok, enough boring science stuff  here  are some photos of animals we saw right before we entered the Drake.

 

 

Safety First!!

Going down to the Antarctic is no joke, especially in winter.  While it is possible that some fishermen might be around,  we will very likely  encounter no other vessels.   There are very few icebreakers that can tackle the kind of ice we expect to see in winter,  and most of those vessels have gone to the arctic for the summer.   If something happens,  we need to be able to rescue ourselves, or hang in there for several days until help can arrive.  So, safety equipment and safety drills are a big thing down here.

We have an EMT and an infirmary onboard.  No one ever goes in the infirmary unless there is  a medical situation,  so I don’t have any photos.   We also have heaps of safety equipment like life jackets,  immersion suits,  and  fully enclosed life boats stocked with emergency food and water.   At the start of every trip we are trained on how to use all of these things.

We all had to try on immersion suits.  I actually had to switch suits  because the one I was originally assigned was way too big.    This one fits pretty good,  except my hair was a bit too big.

After trying on the immersion  suits we moved  onto  the life boats.  This ship comes equipped with two fully enclosed life boats that can carry 75 people each.  We have 49 people on board, so yay redundancy. We also have several  of the more traditional inflatable life rafts.   However,  in Antarctic conditions, you wouldn’t last very long in the inflatables.  They are the absolute last resort.

As terrifying as the prospect of needing this gear is,  I am really glad we have it.   We will have weekly safety drills every Tuesday at 12:30.    We won’t go through trying on the suits every week,  but we will have to carry them around,  and show up properly dressed in  boots,  pants,  coats,  hat and gloves.  We also have to pack  “bug out” bags that have snacks  water, toilet paper and any needed medication.

Now it is time to cross the Drake and then get to work.

Here is a parting shot of some fishermen hanging out in their survival suits while at the dock in Punta Arenas.

Ready to set sail

Hello from the port in Punta Arenas,  Chile. Punta Arenas  is a great  little port town in Chilean Patagonia.  It is both an Antarctic Gateway port and a  gateway port for the wilds of Chile.  It is a fantastic tiny town filled with sporting goods shops,  grocery stores,  and  a plethora of restaurants.  It is very important that we adventurers  get to savor our last luxuries before setting out.

Today I officially moved onto the Research Vessel Ice Breaker (RVIB) Nathaniel B. Palmer (a.k.a  the NBP,  the Palmer,  or the Natty Bee). The Palmer’s little sister the RVIB Lawrence M. Gould  (a.k.a.  Larry Muffin,  the Muffin,  Fisher Prices’s my First Ice Breaker),  is also in port. 

 

You may remember from an earlier year that the Larry Muffin  is a bit of a precious boat.    It had some serious design flaws that caused it to list 15 degrees when it was first launched.  As a result  it has permanent water wings and other stabilizers.    You might notice the bulge of orange under the gangway,  well that is one water wing.    They keep the ship more stable,  but man it is loud when waves smack into them.

Today on the Palmer, the mission was to finalize setting up the zooplankton lab  and secure all the equipment for crossing the Drake  Passage.   I was put in charge of tie downs,  which basically meant that I directed and supervised while every one else tied stuff down.   It was a great job.   I may have also filled  in where they missed stuff.   I am fairly confident that our stuff is secure for the crossing.  We used a ton of bungee cords and rope.

 

After that it was time to do our errands  and  say good bye to luxuries.  I learned an odd  fact about Chileans today.   They use baking soda medicinally, so you have to get some from the pharmacist.   The grocery stores do not stock it in the baking aisle and most   pharmacies don’t stock it at all.  Alas,  without baking soda my stainless steel tea mug is going to get grungy. 

We will have some fresh fruit and veg on the ship,  but they will be rationed and will likely disappear before the cruise is over. Lush green salads with many fresh veg generally don’t appear in the galley.  Today’s mission was to eat  great salad

And of course  I had to get to know the new members of the zooplankton team.  What  better way than to go for hot chocolate?

Memories of Chocolatta hot chocolate will keep me warm while I work the night shift in  Antarctica.

Punta Arenas has lots of friendly dogs.   They all needed to be pet goodbye.  I even recognized a few from last year.

There is a famous statue in the square in the center of town.  Legend has it that if you kiss the foot of El Indio you will return safely  to Punta Arenas.

Tomorrow morning we set sail!