Thursday, January 28, 2010

Watch the Bergy Bits

Well today I had planned to write about waste management practices but due to recent events, this post will be more exciting than I expected it to be. But don’t worry you waste junkies – I won’t forget about the macerator.

Amanda and I woke up early this morning to start a 12-hour experiment before we went out to collect water samples. There was a bit of wind forecast for today, but when we got on the water it was almost entirely calm and we were in high spirits. We hit heavy brash ice on the way out – floating chunks anywhere from inches to 15 feet long. According to the International Ice Patrol, pieces of ice less than 1 meter long are “Growlers” and pieces 1-5m long are called “Bergy Bits.” So we made our way through a mixture of Growlers and Bergy Bits, which are a pain because they can get stuck between the outboard motor and the back of the boat, hampering your ability to steer. Amanda slowed the boat to a crawl while I looked out for Bergy Bits. Ice constantly hit and crunched against the bottom of the boat. We finally reached open water before we got to Station E, the further of our two sampling sites. It was quite calm at E and we did our usual routine, lowering the bottles, tripping the closure mechanisms and hauling them back up. Amanda filtered the water for dissolved organic carbon and isotope measurements. I programmed the GPS unit and headed to Station B, which is on the way back to Palmer. I gladly sped over the calm water and Amanda wondered aloud “Where did all the ice go?” I figured that the wind had already moved it further out to sea. But we needn’t have worried about where the ice went; before long, it found us and wouldn’t let us go!

Half a mile from Station B, we entered the brash ice patch again. I drove in a sinuous path, which clears the area behind the boat and decreases the amount of ice trapped next to the motor. However it was difficult to keep the ice off, and the more it built up, the more difficult it became to steer and avoid still more. Finally I was trying to turn right and the boat just wasn’t responding. I asked Amanda “Isn’t this ridiculous that I’m turning as hard right as I can and we’re still going left?” It was just after that that I realized that we were on top of an iceberg. It seemed to be holding on to the bottom of the boat for dear life. I tried to kick it away but it meant business. That was probably the moment that I should have gone into reverse and backed off of it, but I didn’t realize how big it was. The boat has an oar, and although I think it’s intended for motor emergencies, the oar seemed like a pretty good tool for the job of escaping the grasp of an iceberg. I tried pushing it down and back past the boat. Although I was making progress, I wasn’t liking what I saw; the ice just kept coming and coming. I could see the air bubbles trapped in it, like the whites of its eyes. Amanda tried her hand, and we worked out a system in which she pushed on the oar and I pushed on her. In retrospect this was already going in the wrong direction, but we felt like we were close to success. Unfortunately, we weren’t.

Amanda slipped and hit her knee on a metal shackle. She said it really hurt, so I took over and she sat on the pontoon. My back was to her, and about a minute later she said that she wasn’t feeling well, that she was tired. Then she said that she felt like she was going to faint. At this point I realized that I had a bigger problem than a clingy iceberg. My first thought was to get her sitting down. She was quickly becoming unresponsive so I helped her onto the floor of the boat and stretched her legs out, trying to get her comfortable. I think the last thing that happened before she lost consciousness was me asking her if she wanted any water. Then her head fell back against the boat and her eyes rolled back. I was shocked, and what made the situation scary was that I still hadn’t made the connection between Amanda’s fall and her loss of consciousness. She hadn’t cried out or crumpled or done anything that would make her fall seem serious. The way she was slipping away was sudden and inexplicable. I felt very alone, in the middle of the ice with a person who to me, was unconscious for no apparent reason. After what seemed like a long time but was really probably a split second, I called Palmer station and said “This is the A Team and we have a medical emergency. We have an unconscious Amanda.” The doctor on station got on the radio and the ocean search and rescue team was contacted. I heard the station manager say “OSAR this is not a drill, I repeat this is not a drill.” Apparently I managed to sound cool as a cucumber on the radio even though I felt scared and helpless.

I was incredibly relieved when Amanda woke up. Although I didn't let myself articulate it, until that moment I wasn't sure that she would wake up. She said that if I hadn’t firmly sat her down on the floor she definitely would have fallen out of the boat, and we would have had a much bigger problem. The rescue team, made up of employees who we work and play with every day, did an excellent job of caring for Amanda. When Ryan arrived on the OSAR boat, he was calm and communicative. He didn’t rush in; he spoke to me respectfully and told me that he was going to step into our boat. I had total trust in him already as the boating coordinator, and he handled this situation perfectly. We returned to the station and the doctor checked Amanda out while I did some time-sensitive work in the lab. She was fine but thoroughly shaken up; what happened was that she fell on a particularly sensitive part of her knee and the acute pain caused her to faint. Afterwards the only trace of her injury is a faint pink spot and a general tenderness in her knee.

This experience was quite a reminder that although we have a great time in the boats, Antarctica can be a dangerous place. Luckily everyone worked really well together, and I am so thankful for how the search and rescue team and the doctor helped us out. And to all those lonely bergy bits out there, I have plenty of friends already thank you very much.