Let the Sciencing Begin!

It takes us a little while to get up and running doing science.  When we leave port in  Punta Arenas we pass through both Chile’s and Argentina’s territorial water.  Both countries require permits to collect oceanographic data in their waters.   Since our focus  is the Antarctic,  we don’t have those permits.  We have to wait to collect data until we exit both countries’ EEZ  (Exclusive Economic Zone- a swath of ocean extending from the shoreline to 200 miles  offshore in the open ocean).

Once  we clear the EEZs were  are free to start collecting data.  At this point,  we are still too far north to catch the Antarctic critters we are interested in.  However,  the conditions in the  more northerly water could impact the  zooplankton living further south.  The first science we start involves sampling the water column while we continue to transit further south.  

We deploy drifter buoys for colleagues at NOAA studying world oceanographic conditions.    The buoys are fitted with an array of sensors  such as temperature, salinity, and GPS position.  The buoys are also equipped with a satellite link so that the data can be transmitted back to the office without anyone needing to go retrieve them.  We deploy the buoys  by throwing them over the back of the ship  out into the water.  It’s  super easy.

The other tool we using to sample the water column before we get to our survey grid is the   XBT.  These are small probes that  measure temperature at depth.    We launch them using something that looks like a gun.  In reality the  “gun”  is a holster that connects the probe to the ship’s electronic system using a very thin copper wire.   This allows us to get real time data.   The probe has a lead weight at its front end, then sensors,  then a coil of very thin copper wire.The copper wire spooled inside the probe is several kilometers long.  The probe sinks to 760 meters before it stops transmitting,  the while the ship is travelling away from the probe  We launch the probe by gently tipping it overboard  using the “gun”.  We amuse ourselves by telling the new folks that it is an actual gun  and explosions are possible when launching.   We try to make them wear truly silly “safety gear”.  This year’s target was masters student who has never been to sea before.

Brynn , the newbie,  had a picture perfect  successful launch.    But,  she was totally  confused as to why there was no “bang”, no nothing other than a little  “ploop”  as the probe hit the water.  It was too hard to contain our laughter, so we let her in on the joke.  She was  a great  sport about it.

When we launch an XBT someone down in the science deck is responsible for data collection.  This involves hitting a button to begin collection and watching the temperature plot to make sure that the wire doesn’t hit the ship.  When the copper wire hits the metal ship we get really wonky readings.

Temperature plots in polar oceans  are the polar opposite (pun totally intended) of the  plots you would get in more temperate regions.  Here  deeper water is warmer than surface water.  Near surface water is continually cooled by the cold air temperature.  The deeper water holds the heat.  So up above is a very typical polar water temperature at depth plot.

It won’t belong now before we settle into our  zooplankton sampling routine!

Safety Third!

The joke around here is that we have three priorities when doing research 1) Look good  2) get the data and 3) be safe.   We actually take safety very seriously  and as we sit through our numerous safety  trainings,  pilled high in safety gear often smile and say “Safety third!”  In reality the priority order is reversed.  Dead scientists can’t analyze data so…..(better safe than letting your rival complete your work and take your glory)

Our safety preparations start before we ever leave town.   On our last day in  port we visit a statue in a square in the center of town.  The statue is tribute to the explorer Magellan and features a figure known as El Indio.  El Indio represents the now wiped out population of native people who assisted Magellan on his explorations of this region.  Tradition has it that if you rub (or kiss) his toe you will safely return to Punta Arenas.


This year many of us had pretty severe flight delays, so our usual port rituals were cut short.  We all made sure to visit Indio and ask for a safe trip.

Once we are aboard the ship  and pushed off from dock the real safety program begins.   We start with a safety “briefing”.   The briefing takes about two hours as it covers  heaps  of material.    It is by no means brief.  We hear about the many ways the boat can injure us.    In rough seas banging doors can amputate fingers and hands.  Roughs seas also make it easy to fall down the stairs.    We have a saying on the ship-  “A hand for you, and hand for the ship”.  We never go up and down stairs with two full hands.  One hand is always on the hand rail.

After that, we learn about  all the safety gear that will keep us alive in the event of an emergency at sea.   In the winter there are very few boats at sea.  It would take days for  rescuers to reach us,  so we need to keep ourselves warm and dry until help can arrive.

Everyone is issued an emersion suit.  Assuming your head does not go under water,  these are waterproof suits that fit over your clothing.  The suits keep you dry.   You clothing keeps you warm.  You end up looking  like Gumby

Even in an Immersion suit  floating around in the Antarctic all exposed is no fun.  So we have fully covered life boats.  These things are waterproof,  have engines,  will shelter us from storms…and make us puke our guts out.  We have 53 people on board.  Each life boat can hold 75.  We leave no one behind.  The life boats are insanely uncomfortable.  We sit on hard benches and use webbing harness to keep us secured.  This  would be really important if the boat started rolling violently in bad weather.

One last “safety feature”  is that when transiting near-shore channels , we use a Pilot.  The waters in these areas can quickly change depths and ships can become grounded.   We use a professional pilot- someone who knows these water ways very well- to safely guide  the ship out of the channel.  The pilot boarded the ship in port and exited  once we reached an area that is easier to navigate.

So it might get windy and crazy out here,  but we will be safe.

Getting Ready Blog

Admittedly,  this blog post is already off to an awkward start.  The first blog I  posted this year was a “getting ready” blog .  But that blog was more of a getting ready to blog, blog.  This more of  glimpse into the chaos that is actually getting my stuff together so  that I can go to Antarctica blog.  Every year people  ask me – “Do you just pack every piece of clothing you own so that you  don’t die? and “How do you actually get to Antarctica”.  So  please allow me to demystify the going to Antarctica  ritual- um I mean finely tuned scientific process- I follow.

I am fortunate that when I go to Antarctica, I  go embedded with in a larger program.  This year, and the last two years, that larger program has been NOAA’s Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program.  The good folks at NOAA AMLR start organizing for the next cruise just as soon as the last one has ended.  This spring they shipped a container to port holding all of the scientific supplies   we need  (sample jars, chemicals, krill net etc.)


I start my  own personal preparations  about two months in advance of the cruise.   Everyone who goes to Antarctica needs to get medical clearance,  which involves at least one Drs. appointment, if not more.  I also  need to get   a prescription for seasickness medicine.  We have to work in conditions that normally make me puke my guts out,  so I like  to “patch it up”.

Ok  then I have a really dull month of getting my digital life in order.  My computer needs to be updated and virus checked  before it will be allowed on the ships network  (which is required! for me to get this silly little blog out).    I have  to pass the world’s  dullest IT  training and swear to every god I can think of that I won’t  reveal my passwords or intentionally  leave the government network vulnerable to Russian hackers. I also check on little bloggy here- remind myself of the password and make sure it is ready to post from sea. Then there is mountain paperwork- to dull to describe- to be allowed to  go on the cruise. Once all of that is done, I can purchase my plane ticket and get to packing!  (Exclamation mark is a stand in for the enthusiasm that I should have, but sadly lost doing paperwork and fighting technical issues with the blog)

So let’s talk  packing.  No, I do not bring every piece of clothing I own.  I mean I would look really silly wearing a fancy  dress to do krill research, although some of the folks on the ship do like to dress up for the fancy science we do.

I try to pack light for a number of reasons, the most important is that the less I pack, the more room I have to bring home alfajores (a handmade yummy cookie/candy treat from Chile).   Also important considerations- since I am cheap and “like” exercise I will need to carry all of my stuff from the hotel in town out to the end of the dock where the ship is waiting (and back again at the end of the cruise). Finally, there is very little storage in my state room on the ship.  If I bring too much stuff, I will end up cuddling it at night.  

These constraints have brought me to a two back pack and one camera bag system.  One back pack for my computer and work supplies.  A second back pack for my clothes/personal supplies.   When I get to Punta Arenas I am provided with all the extreme cold weather outerwear I need.  On the ship I have access to a washer and dryer,  so my packing is quite simple: 1 pair of jeans a a couple nice-ish shirts for when we are in port, one set of pjs,  2 pairs of quick dry field pants, 4 quick dry field shirts (sometimes I spill things and am too lazy to do laundry right away), 3 different long under wear bottoms in different weights,  2 long under wear tops, 2 fleece half zip tops,  one fleece jacket, one puffy jacket,3  hats, mittens, neck fleece (that also doubles as hair containment, one set of “boat shoes” (aka fuzzy slippers with soles)  and enough socks and underwear to float a ship. 

I also pack an assortment of sundries like  insulated tea mug (NECESSITY!)  water bottle,  supplies for writing post cards, and exercise supplies.  I’ll admit, that last one is a new addition for this year.  April Green (at HT) gave me  a loaner box of Zumba DVDs and toning weights.  It would just be embarrassing if I didn’t come back in decent shape.  For the last few months my fitness goal has been  “do not embarrass myself in front of April”  There is no reason that should change on the cruise.

Toiletries are kept simple because…

The medicine cabinet is a whole ‘nother issue.  At sea there are no stores.   We cannot just on over to CVS to pick up some cold medicine at the first sign of the sniffles.  We have a stocked infirmary on board, but it has its limits.   Last year a horrible cold tore threw the science team.  We found some of the infirmary’s limits (no where near enough cough drops).  I try to pack every convenience pharmacy product I can think of,  cold  medicine, cough drops upset tummy tablets, a years supply of sea sickness tablets….


My bags are packed and I am ready to go. This year’s odyssey starts in the Austin airport.   Then I fly to Houston. From Houston,  I catch a flight to Santiago de Chile.   I get the joy of spending 8 hours in the Santiago airport while I wait for my last flight to Punta Arenas Chile.    At least I know where to find  a nice buffet and run into friends in Santiago

The layover in Santiago passed quickly. I already started meeting new cruise friends.  The flight to Punta Arenas is usually predictable.  Its about four hours long.  There are two light snack services…and for whatever reason the Chilean airline plays Canadian comedy shows.  There  is one,  “Just for for Laughs Gags” that is actually brilliant in its stupidity.  It is just a compilation of silly  gags with a laugh track.  I can tell that I am exhausted at the end of a long trip when it makes me bust out laughing.  

All was going well until they tried to land the plane.   We made two attempts but fog prevented a safe landing.  We were diverted to a nearby town in Argentina.  Of  course, since we crossed an international border we were not allowed off the plane.  We had to wait for the fog to clear.   Very nervous stuff when you have to catch a ship and get it ready for an Antarctic cruise.  Also very tired hungry stuff and folks trying very hard not to get grumpy.  After a few hours wait  on the tarmac in Argentina  we got sent back to the Chilean city of Puerto Mont.  No flights until tomorrow afternoon.  It was not possible to get from where we were to Punta Arenas by bus or car.  Booo. All the hotel  rooms were taken there so we had to take an hour long bus ride to Puerto Varas. Double booo.   In the dark we waited in line at the first  hotel.  The line stretched out onto the street..  It was cold, we were grumpy, they ran out of rooms.   So on to the next hotel.  Triple booo. We finally got into our hotel room at 3 am! 


We woke up the next morning to discover that Puerto Varas is gorgeous.  We finally got to eat,  take in some sights,  and enjoy being out of the airport for a little while.  I was stranded with seven people from the cruise.    We looked at shuffling all of us , out personal stuff and a few crates of scientific  equipment  through all the airports as a team building exercise.  We found actual exercise equipment and quickly decided that moving luggage was all the exercise we currently needed.

We  had another hour long bus trip back to the airport and then several hours of waiting around,  but we got on a plane.  We made it to Punta Arenas  21 hours late.  Tomorrow will be a rushed busy day in port!