Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adventure on the high seas

For the past week we have been experiencing a different side of Antarctica. My first week here was sunny and warm (30-40F) with very little wind. The dining room was filled with pink sunset light for hours every night and icebergs sparkled white in the distance. Our water sample collecting days were pleasant and straightforward. It was easy to sit on the platform of our boat and lean over the water a little bit to load the collection bottles onto the cable. Sometimes we didn’t even wear hats or gloves. We could do all our sampling in about 2 hours, and as we called in to say we were coming back to the station, the radio operator would remark on how speedy we were.

That all changed last week. Clouds moved in, the water became almost black and topped with whitecaps. The wind has picked up to 30 and 40 knot gusts, snatching my breath as I walk between the buildings. The wind whips the flags on the flagpole violently. Right now the sea is a gray green color and the sky is gray and the only difference between the two seems to be that the water is flecked with whitecaps and slivers of ice.

Our days in the field have changed along with the weather. We hoped to go out last Thursday but the wind kept us in. The next day we caught a weather window and were able to sneak out. I thought we were lucky to be out until we rounded the point and left the protected harbor area. Then we hit the swell that had built up over the last day – only about 3 feet but it felt big in our zodiac. Amanda was driving and I was sitting in front looking out for shoals and ice. I was very thankful for my rubber bibs as I would have been soaked almost instantly by the spray. The rocks straight ahead were getting bigger and bigger. I didn’t want to offend Amanda by warning her about what seemed to be an obvious obstacle but I finally shouted “watch out for the rocks,” and she turned the boat. She thanked me afterward, because she hadn’t seen them!

Once we got safely to our collection location, we to load the bottles onto the cable as the boat rocked violently. I started out sitting on the platform next to the winch and I realized that there was problem: I needed to hold onto the cable, the bottle and boat. You may notice that I just listed three things, but it is safe to assume that I only have two hands. So which one goes? The boat obviously. I had to load the bottles with only the 1/4” steel cable to hold onto, as the boat rocked out from under me. Eventually Amanda and I traded off but it was quite a harrowing experience. As wave after wave approached our boat I tried to make myself feel better by telling myself that these are the same waters that so many explorers braved - the wild sea, the Southern Ocean, and I was sharing in that history. It worked well enough but I was glad to be motoring back to the station by a longer but more protected route among some nearby islands. But it wasn’t over yet. Small and medium sized ice bits had been blown into the protection of the islands. Floating ice is deceptive because it can be beautiful, and if small it bobs up and down making it look unsubstantial. However it is as hard and sharp as a rock. Driving a boat through this scattered ice, called brash ice, is like driving through an obstacle course with floating rocks. And then of course there were real rocks, shoals with waves breaking over them. This was quite a challenge and I was amazed that I didn’t hit any significant pieces of ice. Several times I didn’t see a large piece of ice until I had just missed it, not a comforting feeling.

The ship that we arrived on and which is now doing research to the south of here, hit this same storm and was forced to stop all their research and sail in a holding pattern for 36 hours. Tomorrow is another field day but for now I am happy to sip my hot chocolate and look out to sea, at the icebergs drifting slowly along the horizon.

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