rime_plumnancyThirty-six hours of plane travel later, I’m home and have had enough sleep to string a couple of words together in patterns other people can make some sense of. I think.

The sunrise as we stood on the pier in Punta Arenas waiting for our airport van was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, bar none. The low, tattered clouds glowed red and orange interwoven with strips of light so bright as to be nearly white. A stone’s throw away, a pair of dolphins played, leaping and splashing. Of course, my camera was packed.

As someone put it during dinner at La Taska (which turned out to be the pub with libations mentioned in the previous post) when a long voyage ends, it’s a strange feeling. You miss home and you can’t wait to see your family again. At the same time, it’s hard to say good-bye to your shipmates. But say good-bye we did — to some who stayed behind on the ship, to some in Santiago, to some in Dallas. With each good-bye, the group got a little smaller, till finally it was just Steve Rock and I headed for San Francisco.

We flew over southern Utah — Zion, Bryce Canyon. I recall looking down on Lake Powell thinking, I want to be down there in the hot, bright sun, floating on my back till every part of me is warm again. John met me at the airport with a hug so wonderful that it was even better than I had imagined it would be — which is saying quite a bit, given my imagination. In a daze, I watched the familiar landmarks slide by. We opened the sunroof, and the wind came in like silk, so different from the iron wind of Antarctica.

As soon as we got home, I went out to look at the garden, which I found transformed by the month of June. Bees hummed, leaves rustled, green shoots had blossomed into brilliant colors. The trees were loaded with fruit. I picked a Santa Rosa plum, ripe and warmed by the sun, and ate it on the spot as the juice ran down my chin. I don’t know if I have ever tasted anything quite so good before.

That has been my approximate state since Wednesday morning — after the austere beauty of the Scotia Sea, the unimaginable lushness of a temperate latitude. Everything is so intense. It’s like being a child again.

Kristof, yes, my understanding is that NPR will do a longer piece on our icebreaker voyage sometime in the next few weeks. Stay tuned. :) Peggy, thank you. I hope you are right, because communicating something about this important research to people who are not scientists was one of my goals. And Phil, I’ll be dancing in the park tomorrow, as a matter of fact, with great pleasure. (We are talking about Tai Chi, sometimes known as the slow dance.)

Ah…and what about my land legs? Merciful heavens be praised, it appears the whole problem was that I had my land legs all along. I haven’t suffered a moment’s “dock rock” since leaving the ship. There is justice in the world.

Oh Those Petrels

[This post written 6/29/08; position: lat -52’55”, long -66’46”; temp 4C; wind chill -10C]

In response to Tracy’s comment on yesterday’s post, thank you, Tracy. I’m very glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the virtual trip. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing about it, and having such a great excuse to take thousands of pictures! Will I be joining the scientists for the March voyage? No, I won’t be. Someone else will have their turn at an Antarctic adventure next March. :)

Today, finding myself at leisure, the sun out, and the temperature above freezing, I spent some time out on deck. We have had petrels following the ship ever since we left iceberg A43K a few days ago. The ones I enjoyed watching today were Cape and giant petrels. I estimate that I have about a thousand pictures of petrels by now, most of them truly crummy, because it’s so hard to photograph birds while they are flying. I’m better at it now than I was at the start of the voyage, but that is not saying much. Still, it was great to be outside in the sun. The wind no longer has the biting quality it did further south. With the wind chill now in the minus single digits during the day (and the days much longer!) it felt quite mild out there.

The top picture doesn’t really capture it, but the sea in the ship’s wake was particularly beautiful today. The sun shimmered on the white tips of the waves. In places, the water was so luminous that it seemed to be lit from within, glowing blue-green. The Cape petrels are always fun to watch, they are so skillful in flight — swooping and diving, scooping water with their feet and their beaks. The thing is, they move too fast for this photographer. I took lots of blurry pictures of them. But there were these two giant petrels. Giant petrels are the heavy aircraft of the petrel world, and they move much more slowly than their smaller cousins. Thus, they are a better target for novice photographers. Unfortunately, the best giant petrel picture I got today, lovely though it was, filled the frame to overflowing, mostly cutting off the bird’s head. So I settled for this one. Not as good, but it will give you some idea what I was seeing today in the NBP’s wake.

Now I am off to join the party we’re having down in the galley. The invitation says we should wear our “issued best.” IOW, items of extreme weather clothing we were issued but haven’t worn yet. For me, I guess that’ll be the heavy plaid flannel shirt and the sea boots. We are now in the Strait of Magellan, and the ship’s information screen says our next destination is “A pub with libations.” We should be in Punta Arenas by 10:00 a.m. local time tomorrow. Ah, solid ground, be kind to me, please.

It’s Getting Warmer!

[This post written 6/28/08; position: lat -54’14”, long -60’27”; temp 4C; wind chill -13C]

The water is pretty rough today, so I apologize in advance if this post seems a bit anemic. There are a couple of comments to respond to. One is from NickZ from awhile back. Nick wonders whether I’ll be able to use the multi-colored iceberg as a taking-off point for some artwork. Maybe, Nick, though I haven’t done any real painting in years. At the moment, I’m finding photography to be a pretty good outlet! Boby, thanks for your kind words. Yes, these blogs will stay online. I hope they will remain useful and interesting for some time to come.

As you can see from the pictures, today we got a tour of the Nathaniel B. Palmer’s engine room, which is one of the cleanest and roomiest I’ve ever been in. Also the loudest. As you can also see, we wore ear protectors part of the time. The NBP has four Caterpillar engines (about 12,000 horsepower total), and even though only two of them were online today, they produce quite a roar. One interesting fact I learned today is that the NBP produces its own fresh water for drinking and bathing by using waste engine heat to desalinate seawater. I suspect this only surprised me because I’m pretty naive about the workings of ships. But it impressed me. There is probably less worry about water usage on this ship than there is back home in California. :)

It was so loud in the engine room that didn’t catch the name of the fellow who gave us our tour — who is shown in the bottom photo, in blue. Thank you, it was a great tour and I enjoyed it very much. [Added later: His name is Jerry Lake. Lake is a shortened version of his real last name, which is even harder to spell than mine. Thank you, Jerry, great tour!]

We also had a big meeting during which our principal investigators presented summaries of the work they have done and the results they have gotten during the voyage. That was very interesting. We were treated to footage from the ROV and half a dozen fascinating slide presentations. It is too early to make many firm conclusions based on the work done during this voyage, but in several cases, the results look tantalizing and important. Clearly, we have gathered an enormous amount of information about everything from the chemistry of the seawater near icebergs to the nature of the life forms. In addition, we’ve tried some new ways of doing things — I’m thinking particularly of the RC airplanes and Steve Rock’s sonar device. And these are tools that will clearly prove useful in the future. It has been a wonderful voyage.

Mending Nets

[This post written 6/27/08; position: lat -55’31”, long -54’08”; temp 1C; wind chill -7C]

We’ve had excellent weather luck today — very little wind, and quite a smooth sea. As a result, we are traveling a little faster today than yesterday, about 10 knots. We are making for South America. How strange to think of myself on a ship making for South America. I feel an odd new kinship with Charles Darwin, who also spent time in a ship headed for South America and never got his sea legs.

Katie and Phil, my shipmates have been warning me to get prepared for the adjustment to solid land. I said, “But if I’m still on meclozine, and I never really got my sea legs, maybe I’m still adjusted to land.” But they shook their heads and said it doesn’t work that way. OTOH, I have spent time on sailboats, and a week on a ship in Alaska, and never had any problem adjusting to land afterwards. I guess time will tell.

Katie and Boby, alas, the final CTD of the trip was cancelled because we’re not making enough headway to arrive on time and still stop for additional science. So all of those meticulously decorated Styrofoam cups are destined to remain ordinary for the rest of their short lives. Here is the secret, revealed. In much the same way as you will find hideously deformed marshmallow peeps (it’s the microwaves, my dears) in the offices of horror writers, you will find decorated miniature Styrofoam cups (about the size of shot glasses) in the offices of oceanographers. It is traditional to send a mesh bag of Styrofoam cups into the abyss with the last CTD of the trip. The pressure of the water at those depths squeezes all the air out of the Styrofoam, leaving a hard plastic miniature. (This does not work with Hostess Twinkies, according to someone who swears they tried it, which come up looking utterly unchanged.)

Sandy, I’m sorry to say I haven’t been able to get any pictures of salp chains. But briefly, salps are small, transparent organisms that live in the sea. Here is a picture of a single salp taken by our shipmate Stephanie Bush, close to life-size. Imagine several dozen of these attached end-to-end in a beautiful, transparent chain. The pink shrimplike things were krill, a favorite food of baleen whales.

In addition to spending some time on deck today taking a couple of hundred pictures of petrels (two of which are worth keeping, ah the joys of digital photography), I went downstairs to see what was happening in the labs. Things were pretty quiet. The researchers are carefully packing up the equipment they so carefully unpacked and arranged in the ship’s labs just a month ago. They are also preparing their samples for shipping, which is complicated by the need for temperature control and customs paperwork. To my surprise, I found the hydrolab and the hallway outside it pretty much completely occupied by the nets of the MOCNESS. And what would these nets be doing spread out on the deck? Ah. The nets get holes in them in the normal course of things — from snags in the water, from being hauled on board filled with their catch, etc. And these have to be meticulously repaired before the MOCNESS is stored away for safekeeping.

So this was the scene I came upon today. As fishermen have done for time out of mind, our fisherfolk are mending their nets. In the top picture, Marko examines the net for holes. In the bottom picture, Stephanie repairs holes by hand with a big needle and an awl while Stian repairs bigger holes with a heavy-duty sewing machine.

And now I am off to listen to my iPod for a while. One of the wonderful things about this adventure has been the sudden lack of distractions. It’s been a long time since I have done anything with undivided attention, and a very long time indeed since I have listened to my favorite songs with my whole self. I’m finding it a wonderful treat, like getting to know old friends again.

Keepers of the Scrumptious Vittles

[This post written 6/26/08; position: lat -56’43”, long -48’15”; temp 2C; wind chill -14C]

It seems the big calving event of Tuesday was not captured by any of the photographers aboard. Lots of pictures taken seconds after it happened, but nothing snapped at the moment. The picture above was taken by John Helly from the bridge, though, and will give you some idea of the size of the piece that calved.

Now, however, we have left our icebergs behind. All night and all day we have been traveling north and west, the waves coming toward our port quarter. This is good from a comfort standpoint; less so from a speed standpoint, because these waves (and the accompanying wind) slow us down. We are traveling at a speed of about 8 knots. Though the ship is capable of cruising at 12, the waves would give us quite a beating at that speed. As it is, I have been walking like a drunken sailor all day, swaying along the decks as the ship tilts beneath me. I am pleased to say that I’ve had no problem with seasickness, and slept well last night. This rocking motion has begun to seem so natural that at times I barely notice it. Everyone who has spent long periods at sea says there will be an adjustment period when we get back on dry land. Next time you see a sailor who is weaving drunkenly down the sidewalk, don’t be too quick to judge. Maybe he weaves because the sidewalk is unnaturally still.

It has been a very quiet day on the NBP. I spent awhile this morning outside on the aft deck, watching the petrels that were flying along behind us. I haven’t been able to find out why they like to follow the ship. But watching them puts me in mind of the big groups of bicyclists back home, who jockey for position behind the fastest riders. Drafting, it’s called. Maybe the petrels are letting the ship push the air out of their way. Or maybe the ship creates eddies and currents in the air that the petrels find conducive to good fishing or fast transit. I took a few pictures, but mostly I just watched the birds and the sea. After I complained about not having my camera during the big calving, a friend pointed out that maybe I enjoyed it more without the distraction of the camera. She has a point. I love photography, but seeing the world through a viewfinder does take me out of the moment. It’s nice to just relax and soak up a scene now and then.

At any rate, it was a quiet day. When it was time to write today’s post, nothing came immediately to mind. Then I remembered that I’ve been wanting to write a little something about the food on the NBP, which is delicious, and in many ways amazing. The head cook, Nestor, is hard to catch sight of because he is always working behind scenes. These are pictures of Lorenzo, one of Nestor’s helpers. He tends the griddle and does a lot of the fry cooking. His pancakes are among the best I have ever eaten.

We have been at sea since May 31. That’s three-and-a-half weeks. Yet we are still enjoying crispy lettuce, carrot sticks, and fresh citrus and apples. It was fun to watch how Nestor managed our supplies as time passed. For the first week we had all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables. During the second week, the leaf lettuce disappeared. But we still had tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus, green beans, cucumbers, fresh pineapple, kiwi fruit, grapes, pears, apples, oranges, bananas, bananas, bananas! And lots of iceberg lettuce. Tomatoes and cucumbers disappeared next. Then the pineapple and kiwi fruit were slowly replaced with canned peaches and pineapple. Late last week, fresh banana bread and muffins appeared. We still have, as mentioned, the lettuce, as well as fresh onions. There are oranges, too. The apples are looking a bit tired, but are still quite tasty.

The galley is equipped with enormous freezers and extra-cold refrigerators. Keeping produce just above freezing seems to work well for most things. There’s a lot of meat on the menu — every variety — plus fish. There are always two or three options at every meal, and soup at lunch and dinner. There are delicious stews and curries, pastas and casseroles. A wonderful variety of sausages. I don’t know what it’s like for the vegetarians among us, but they seem to be getting along without much trouble. Then there are the desserts, a dangerous delight. These have included flans, double chocolate cakes, ice cream cakes, all kinds of cookies, and even fresh donuts! To say that Nestor is a dab hand in the kitchen is a vast understatement. We’ll see the outcome of all this when I get home, take a deep breath, and face the bathroom scales.

Eerily Reptilian

[This post written 6/25/08; position: lat -57’45”, long -43’10”; temp -1C; wind chill -16C]

I had just finished my shower this morning and was putting on a lot of lotion. I have spent quite a lot of time in dry places before. Death Valley and the canyonlands of Utah (which are pretty darned dry) are among my favorite places. But I don’t think my skin has ever gotten as dry as it is now. Before coming here, I read as much as I could about Antarctica, and over and over again I read that it’s one of the driest places on Earth — a true desert. Down on the continent, it’s so dry that broken ice chunks become smooth as river pebbles after a little while. The wind is so dry that it sucks the water out of the ice in a process called sublimation, leaving the surfaces rounded. I didn’t pay as much attention to all that as I might have, because I assumed it would be much moister out here on the sea. Maybe it is, but my skin sure doesn’t know it.

Phil asks whether I’m a little sad that the trip is nearly over, or am looking forward to being back in the warmth and sunshine. I would have to say it’s a little of both. I have seen wonders in the past month that I will probably never see again, and will certainly never forget, and I have made some new friends. On the other hand, I miss my family enormously. And I miss the long light of summer. It will be very good to get home. Many of the people I talked to at meals today expressed similar feelings. It’s been a wonderful trip, but home is wonderful, too. Within the hour, we’ll begin our sea trek back toward Punta Arenas. We expect some bad weather along the way, but that’s okay.

We did have a last “big chunk” of excitement today here at iceberg A43K. No, it wasn’t another calving. We crossed paths with a hunk of ice that very much stood out from others we’ve seen on this trip. We thought the ice with the algae stripe in it was exciting, but take a look at this one!

Tim Shaw was so excited when he saw this growler that he had to go out and collect a piece. So, the wind and sea being very calm today, he and Ken Smith, First Mate Rachelle, and a couple of marine techs took the NBP’s small motor boat out to see what they could get. As you can see, the thing was visually stunning. The colors ranged from glasslike transparency to milky blue and caramel to sooty black. There were so many petrels flying around it that one of the biologists joked that maybe the black parts were petrel droppings. It actually seemed possible at the time. But once Tim got a close look at it, he knew immediately that the material in the ice was rock and rock powder, probably scraped from the Antarctic continent when this ice was still part of a glacier. You can also see the same sort of dimpling on the surface that we saw earlier in footage from the ROV. Combined with the coloring, it makes the ice look eerily reptilian.

I was able to see the sample later on down in the lab, and there are so many pebbles and sandy particles embedded in it that it feels rough even through the plastic bags Tim wrapped it in. The ice was so hard that they had to use a short-handled sledgehammer to chip off a piece not much larger than a loaf of bread. The opportunity to examine a chunk of ice like this so closely was invaluable. It does seem to add to the evidence that icebergs may be dropping large quantities of terrestrial material into the Antarctic oceans, fertilizing the waters around them.

Now I am off to decorate a Styrofoam cup. The reason will remain a mystery for the nonce, and perhaps forever.

The Photographer’s Dilemma

[This post written 6/24/08; position: lat -57’45”, long -43’10”; temp 0C; wind chill -13C]

It’s been another interesting day aboard the NBP. I think I mentioned that yesterday we passed through an area where there were a lot of free-floating chunks of ice in the water, many with a distinctive brown stripe running through them. Tim Shaw captured a piece that included this peculiar stripe. Last night, while the sample was still frozen, he theorized that the stripe might be a layer of ash or dust from a volcano. But today, after it thawed, it became clear that the stripe is composed of biological material of some sort. Tim says it smells like fish, and is probably a layer of algae. He gave the biologists a sample to work on, and they will try to determine what it is. The picture above shows one of these chunks. This particular piece was about the size of a small car.

The ROV did its final dive of the cruise today, and it went beautifully. Brett, Paul, and Bruce Robison guided it 56 meters down along A43K’s underwater surface. They got some great pictures. I hope to post a few soon, but as of tonight, no still shots have been rendered yet. The underwater ice is striated and beautiful, but much cleaner than the similar surfaces the researchers saw on their summer voyage a few years ago. Very little, if anything, is growing on the surfaces we saw today. We think this is due to seasonal differences in the amount of available light, which all plants need in order to grow. The ROV also captured some good footage of salp chains, a medusa jellyfish, and a squid about 8 inches long.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was caught without my camera today during one of the most amazing photo opportunities of the voyage. I went out to the aft control room to see how the ROV dive had gone. The light was not especially good today and it was snowing on top of that. I didn’t expect to be out long, so I left the camera lying on my bunk. The moral of this story is that in a place like this, you never know when you’re going to see something you’ll want to remember for the rest of your life. As I stood there, a section of iceberg A43K’s cliff face simply dropped away and fell into the sea. The calved section looked to be several times the length of the ship. We were well away from the iceberg when this happened, and neither we nor the ship were in any danger. But it was quite a breathtaking sight, watching the ice majestically disappear into the water, then shoot back into the air in a spray of brine and ice crystals. The resulting wave was large enough to rock the ship, but not large enough to leave any decks awash. If I can find someone who got a picture of it, I will try to post that soon, along with stills from the ROV.

Tonight at midnight, we’ll deploy the MOCNESS one last time, retrieving it at dawn. Then we’ll travel around the iceberg in a final circumnavigation for John Helly. We’ll do some water sampling. And when evening comes, we’ll head back toward Punta Arenas, a trip of several days.


[This post written 6/23/08; position: lat -57’45”, long -43’10”; temp 0C; wind chill -14C]

We have a few questions from folks. First, Phil, that’s right. The researchers theorize that some of these icebergs were originally Antarctic glaciers, which may well contain iron-bearing material scraped from the continent. I hear you’ve got more than high temperatures at home. I hope the fires are far from Saratoga! Jbirch, trying to make us jealous, eh? Well, it won’t work. (whimper whimper) Katie, you are definitely your uncle Paul’s niece. Yesterday I asked Alana about the things sticking out of the football. Your theory is correct. They are wooden dowels intended to keep the football from bouncing or rolling off the iceberg.

[Pausing to apply Chapstick.] Boy, I sure have gone through a lot of Chapstick in the last month.

In two days, we must start our return journey if we hope to reach Punta Arenas as planned on June 30. Time is growing short, and the scientists are anxious to fit in as much work as possible in the hours remaining. But as so often happens, Mother Nature is making it something of a challenge. The rough seas have returned, which made it impossible to launch the ROV as we had planned. But we’ve still managed to pack a lot into the day.

The one-two dance of storm and sudden warmth seems to have filled the sea with those small chunks of ice called “growlers.” Someone told me they are called that because they make the captain growl when the ship hits them. I put no particular stock in this rumor; just doing my best to spread it. We saw many today. A number of them had a peculiar brown stripe, thin and very distinct. Tim Shaw managed to capture a sample of this striated ice. When I asked him about it at dinner (turkey ala king), he said the stripe is not algae, which was one possibility. It is dirt, and very porous. He thinks it might be volcanic in origin, though this is still speculation. He will need to test the samples in his lab back in the States before he can be sure. Certainly tantalizing.

We have also been moving to different locations around the iceberg in order to collect water samples. These will be used by Maria Vernet and her team as well as Vivien Peng and Nicole Middaugh for their bacteriological study. And a good deal of the water will be used by Tim Shaw and Ben Twining for their iron analyses. At midnight tonight, we’ll deploy the MOCNESS. This being one of the last times we’ll use the MOCNESS this voyage, I thought it would be fun to show a selection of the pictures I took the other morning at dawn, as the MOCNESS was retrieved after a night of harvesting. Here’s what I saw:

I should explain that MOCNESS is an acronym that stands for Multiple Opening-Closing Net Environmental Sensing System. It can best be described as a series of six nets, each of which can be opened or closed at a different depth and location. The nets are quite large — each with a mouth 10 meters in diameter. The device is towed behind the ship for some hours. On this voyage, we have usually deployed it around midnight, and retrieved it at dawn, around 7:00 a.m.

In the top pictures, you can see the rectangular black frame of the MOCNESS being drawn up from the water and set in the special brackets waiting for it on the deck. In the middle pictures, we see Ron Kaufmann’s team pulling the nets out of the water. In the bottom pictures, you can see what all the fuss is about — the “cod ends” of the nets, the bottles where the harvested sea creatures collect. The cod end bottles are emptied into buckets and then sorted in the hydrolab, a process I wrote about earlier (“Plankton and Penguins,” June 12).

Tomorrow and the next day, we’ll try for a last voyage of the Phoenix ROV, and weather permitting, Steve Rock will do one last deployment of his special sonar. We’ll do some more water sampling, maybe another MOCNESS, and a final circumnavigation of iceberg A43K for John Helly. Then it’s back to port, over the bounding main.

Here Comes the Sun

[This post written 6/22/08; position: lat -57’45”, long -42’56”; temp -2C; wind chill -18C]

When we got up this morning, the storm was well and truly over. As I lay in bed this morning, I sensed a certain brightening, and when I opened my eyes I saw fingers of sunlight streaming into the cabin. Outside, it was as if there had never been a storm. The sea was calm and smooth. It was so warm that the ice on the decks had turned to slush, and everywhere, icicles were drip, drip, dripping. Awhile later, I was out on deck, admiring the brilliantly lit facets of the small iceberg we had arrived at during the night, and generally soaking up the sun.

I heard at breakfast that the drone the engineers launched last night was recovered, so everything was set for the launch of the real thing this morning — a Lagrangian Sediment Trap (or LST). The LST is a fairly complex device designed to capture particulate matter as it drifts downward beneath an iceberg. It can be programmed to sink to a specified depth, stay there for a specified length of time or until a specified amount of material has collected, then return to the surface and signal that it’s ready to be picked up. The top picture shows the LST being launched. In the middle, you can see it on deck with some people for scale. The red flag on top makes it easier to see it as it floats on the surface waiting to be retrieved. The funnel-like objects are just what they look like. Sediment drops into the wide mouths of the funnels and falls through narrow tubes into receptacles.

What sorts of things turn up in the receptacles? Tomorrow we will probably have a better idea. But what’s expected is everything from dead organisms to dust and pebbles released by the melting ice.

Later, as we circumnavigated the iceberg so Steve Rock could use his special sonar to create images of its underwater portions, we discovered a mob of chinstrap penguins perched on one of the lower portions. (Captain Mike took me aside the other day to explain to me that “flock of penguins” is incorrect. Collectively, they are referred to as a “mob of penguins.” I hope I am not just being gullible.) They seem to like chunks of ice that are good-sized, but have sloping surfaces that can be scaled by penguin feet. In other words, the ice has to be shaped so they can climb or flip themselves out of the water onto it and then walk some distance up it. This frequently entails hilarious antics that include sliding back into the water willy-nilly. It’s fascinating to watch them. I got some pictures of them, but we were a little too far away for my lens, and there wasn’t enough light, so they aren’t great. I will save them for the horrendously long slideshow I plan to subject people to when I get home. :)

Toward sunset, I heard radio chatter that made me wonder if something was up with the iceberg. The captain announced that the sonar team should suspend activities temporarily while he moved the ship out to a safer distance. And someone else said they could hear the iceberg popping and groaning. I pulled on my boots, grabbed a jacket and the camera, and headed for the bridge. The iceberg was beautiful in the pale light of sunset. Then, all at once, a large chunk of it broke away and fell into the sea. This seems to happen in slow motion, I suppose because the pieces of ice are so large. The water rises up in a spray, and powdered ice flies like smoke. From our distant vantage point, it was a lovely thing to watch. Kudos to Captain Mike for his preternatural ability see it coming well ahead of time.

The Pack Ice Cometh

[This post written 6/21/08; position: lat -58’09”, long -42’32”; temp -6C; wind chill -29C]

As I write this, the wind on the bridge is gusting around 40 miles per hour, and the swells are running 15 feet high. Believe it or not, the weather is better now than it was earlier in the day!

There was a moment during breakfast this morning when I looked up and saw that the bearded face of the man sitting next to me — Kevin, one of the ship’s crew — was luminous with golden sunlight. The sun was out! I rushed to the nearest porthole. At first I saw nothing, because the porthole looked more like the window of a heavy duty washing machine. Waves were pounding up against it. But between them, yes indeed, there was sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds. It was a beautiful sight, all those white-capped cold-blue waves glittering in the creamy Antarctic sun.

I scraped my plate and hurried to my cabin, hoping to get outside on deck in time to catch a ray or two. As I struggled into my Carhartts and pulled on my boots, I was thinking of that old Ray Bradbury story about the planet where the sun only comes out once in a lifetime, and the children, not entirely understanding, lock one of their classmates in a closet for a joke, and accidentally forget to let her out until after the sun has disappeared. Alas. By the time I had zipped myself into my fleece and my parka and pulled on my hat and gloves, the sun was gone again. I went outside anyway, because, well, I was all dressed up and the fresh air is always a good thing, especially if it’s brisk. I took my camera with me, because I always do.

Even without the sun, it was wild and wonderful out there. On the upper decks, there was no danger of waves washing over, but still the thrill of being close to them, right in the teeth of the wind. As I gazed out from the overlook above the starboard A-frame (deserted, all missions scrubbed for the day due to the weather), I saw what seemed to be chunky icebergs and a thin line of ice gleaming white in the distance. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were. We often travel miles during the night, to whatever location the scientists want to sample. Was I seeing our iceberg in the distance? I didn’t think so. What I saw on the horizon looked far bigger than even our enormous iceberg. If you look closely at the top picture, you can see what I saw. It could only be the pack ice. But the day before, the pack ice was much too far away for us to see.

When I went inside, I asked about it. Rob Sherlock confirmed that it was indeed the pack ice. “It’s coming up fast. It’s because of the wind,” he said.

A couple of hours later, looking down from the bridge, there was no denying that we were only a few miles from the edge of the pack ice, and it was still hurtling toward us. Wind blew the tips off the waves in white striations, coming directly off that enormous mass of ice. The speed and power of it were palpable. A short time later, Ken Smith voiced concern about the sudden nearness of so much ice. If it overtakes A43K, we’ll no longer be able to study it, because the proximity of so much other ice will skew the data.

It was a quiet day for the scientists — a day of waiting and watching, catching up on some much-needed sleep. Some went to bed because they had to due to seasickness in these big swells. I did all right because fairly early in the day, seeing that the weather would be rough, I popped an extra half tab of Meklozine. Woohooo! I’ve weathered the day like an old salt. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.