Icebergs and Penguins and Seals, Oh My!

If I wanted to turn a phrase, I’d be tempted to say I’m on the top of the bottom of the world. It’s 10 p.m. and I’m up a couple of hours early for my shift, camping out in one of my favorite places on the ship. The sensation of watching the Palmer move through pack ice from the top of the tower at night is a rarified and otherworldly one; I’m lost in the memory of that grainy NASA footage in which Neil Armstrong guides the lunar lander low over an alien landscape. In a world where so much of our experience is secondhand – read, or watched on TV or fabricated entirely through the magic of video games – I keep coming back to the singularity of where I am, of what I am seeing with my own eyes, and how impossibly lucky I am to be here.

We’re all feeling lucky to be here, even the old-timers – it’s a constant topic of conversation, the way most people might make idle talk about the weather. I was out on the starboard rail of the 01 deck with Cliff yesterday afternoon as we motored through the bergy water to a station just off the tip of Graham Land (yeah, that’s what they call it: “bergy water”). Enormous flat-topped islands of ice, fifteen stories high and a mile on any side paraded past us among the jumble wreckage of old glaciers that had bled out into the sea. And every minute or two there’d be the sound of the hatch opening and another squee as Rachel or Elliot or Sara emerged, camera in hand to try to capture the uncaptureable scale of our surroundings. We were Gullivers afloat on a sea of ice.

We’ve all said it a dozen times: “Can you believe we’re getting paid to do this?”

In the past day, the pack ice has become thicker as we move eastward to the narrow end of the Bransfield Strait. Abe, our official “bird nerd”, has started pointing out clusters of penguins on the ice, imperceptible black dots in the distance, slowly resolving to an irregular arrangement of tuxedoed bowling pins watching us indifferently as we approach. And from time to time someone will call out “seal!” and the more exuberant of us will scramble for our cameras.

The problem with so much exuberance in this Brobdingnagian landscape is that after we’ve put in our twelve hour shifts, we’ve got to make time for basic necessities like food, showers and, for example, sleep. But every minute feels like Christmas morning – we can’t bear to close our eyes, we can’t bear the thought of missing a thing.

I know it will pass. I know that by week three, I’ll feel as jaded as the worst of old timer and won’t be able to stir myself to be bothered for a look at a chorus line of emperor penguins dancing the Cancan on a calving glacier. But that level of jade is still a long way off, and in the meantime, I really do need some sleep.

But hey, since I’m up and writing, let me make good on the promise to tell you a bit more about how the Palmer is staffed:

Basically, there are three organizations involved onboard: Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO) who owns and operates the ship, Lockheed Martin/Antarctic Service Contract (ASC) who provides technical support for the onboard scientists and finally the scientists themselves, usually NSF grantees, but in our case mostly folks from NOAA and their students.

As I said, ECO is in charge of running the ship. Their ranks seem to be divided into what I’ll call “officers” (I don’t know what term they use), galley crew and our AB’s (able seamen – an actual technical designation).

  • Officers: I think of the officers as occupying two realms: the bridge and the engine room. On the Palmer, they’re all American, mostly from Boston or Louisiana, it seems.
  • Captain, Chief Mate, 2nd Mate and 3rd Mate. They take 4-hour watches on the bridge, basically pointing the ship where it’s supposed to go; whoever’s on duty has ultimate authority on who gets to do what on board. A lot of what they do feels familiar to me as a pilot, looking out front for hours on end, dialing in headings, checking weather and making tiny corrections to heading and engine settings. We get to spend time with them because the bridge is a great place from which to watch the world go by.
  • Chief Engineer, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Assistant Engineers. Their realm is the mysterious workings below deck, making sure that the ship is capable of going in the direction the folks upstairs try to point it. We don’t get to spend much time with them, because we’re not allowed below deck. We’re supposed to get a tour at some point, but until then, my principal imagery comes Tolkien’s underground workshop of the dwarves, an image made more cogent by the large Santa Clause-like beards that Dave and Richard wear.
  • We’re supposed to have a galley crew of three: Mike, our crazy Cajun Ship’s Cook and two assistants, but we’re short one, so Mike and Marcella are each doing a shift and a half, cooking us four meals a day: breakfast (0730-0830), lunch (1130-1230), dinner (1730-1830) and “midrats”, midnight rations from 2330-0030. During off hours, we can still raid the mess hall for cereal, granola bars, ramen, tons of ice cream, and the refrigerated leftovers from whatever the most recent meal was.

Drew, the NBP’s 3rd Mate, at the helm
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  • ABs – I think of our 10 ABs (actually a mix of ABs, OSs, QMEDs and one Wiper) as the ship’s “worker bees”: Rolly, Ogie, Fredor and the rest are all Filipino, and get the often thankless task of, well, doing whatever else needs to be done: hauling cargo and hauling lines, mopping floors, washing dishes and assisting in the underworld workings of the lower decks. They seem to be a tightly-woven team who know each other well; we chat in the hallways, but I’ve not seen much social mixing between the ABs and any of the other groups, except in the TV lounge, where everyone’s equally addicted to the marathon Sherlock viewings (US version – surprisingly watchable).

Then there’s the Lockheed Martin/ASC team. That’s what I’m part of. ASC is responsible for providing direct support to the scientists – basically everything they need once the ECO folks have gotten them to the area of interest. Sean has a handy heuristic for which part of the ASC alphabet soup of ITs, ETs, MTs and MLTs is responsible for what:

  • If it’s big and heavy, ask one of the two MTs, the marine techs.
  • If it’s small and breakable, you probably need an ET; that would be Sheldon and Barry our electronics techs.
  • If it’s squishy, the MLT – Marine Lab Tech John Betz is your guy.
  • If you can’t actually touch it, it’s likely a problem for the ITs – an information tech like me and Sean.

Rounding out the ASC team is our MPC (Marine Projects Coordinator) Ken, who works with the Captain and the Chief Scientist to coordinate our activities.

Barry is our senior ET

Then there are the scientists themselves, but this has gotten long enough already, so I think I’d better call it a wrap. More later!

One response to “Icebergs and Penguins and Seals, Oh My!

  1. Pingback: Day to Day at Sea | David Pablo Cohn·

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