Sunrise, Sunset

Given that it’s winter in the Antarctic, you’d expect there to be something like three and a half minutes of sun each day, right? Well, that’s what I expected, but here at the tip of the peninsula, we’re not even quite grazing the Antarctic Circle. So even at mid-winter, the sun does rise. A bit. Today it officially rose at 6:01 a.m. and set at 3:45, giving us almost nine hours of nominal sunlight. Of course, how much of that light makes it to the surface is a different question, as the winter weather here tends to be a bit dodgy. Except on those rare days when it’s glorious. We haven’t had one of those days yet, but today was the closest we’ve gotten.

Working night shift, from midnight to noon, I actually get more hours of “day” than folks doing the noon to midnight shift, especially because I tend to stack my additional waking hours after work, in the nominal afternoon. I say “nominal” because the convention seems to be to treat morning, noon and night as relative definitions: you wish a good morning to someone coming on shift and good night to them when they’re going off, regardless of the actual clock time.

“Grease ice”, a fluid, shimmering nascent form of sea ice, in Admiralty Bay

Today was blissfully a quiet morning in the ELab – by two hours into my shift I’d finished reconfiguring the virtual machines we were swapping in, upgrading the firmware on our backup fleet broadband modem, run the daily processing scripts and caught up on email. I actually found myself (knock on steel) bored. Which, I must add, is a lovely feeling after the crazy first week underway. Don’t worry, I wasn’t bored bored – I don’t get that kind of bored easily. I just found myself looking for more things to do. Actually did a little bit of coding, trying to see if I could cobble together some image processing software I had on my laptop to differentiate ice from open water in image captures from the bridge cam (note to my more geeky friends: I know nothing of image processing; if you’ve got something like this in Python or Octave, don’t be shy – it would be an enormous help to the NOAA folks to have this running on surface ships down here).

But you get the idea; the point for me is that I now have the impression – possibly mistaken – that I understand, to a first-order approximation, how to do my basic daily job, as long as things aren’t breaking.

Between bits of ineffectual coding, I made my usual rounds, popping up onto the bridge to say hi to Drew (he’s got helm from midnight to 4 a.m. and noon to 4 p.m.) and stopping by the Dry Lab to see what crazy things they’ve just hauled up. They’re doing net tows day and night, so there’s always something fun to see. Today there’s a fun collection of little orange gastropods and hyperactive amphipods in addition to the usual ginormous buckets of krill. With the amount of krill we’re finding, it sort of feels like we ought to be singing the Monty Python “Spam Song” with the word “krill” swapped in place of the celebrated meat food product.

But this morning there are all sorts of things to make biologist go “Waoooow – cool!” My favorite is a chaetognath – a crazy transparent squirmy thing – that had been pulled up during a post-prandial swim. He’s just swallowed a T. mac whole, and you still see the little guy intact inside him, bug eyes and all. “T. mac” is the gangsta name for Thysanoessa macrura, and “googley bug-eyes on fragile stalks” is apparently the defining characteristic of the species. As Adrian, our purveyor of quotable offhand remarks, explains, “You can always tell you’ve got a lot of T. mac in your sample if there’s eyeball soup at the bottom of the bucket.”

We don’t have windows on my side of the ship, but at some point around 5:00 I happen to peer out the portholes in the Dry Lab and see that we were navigating the mouth of Admiralty Bay to a glorious, glorious sunrise. We don’t get enough actual sun to (briefly) discern a big round ball of fire in space until afternoon, but what a show it is right now: red, orange and yellow light over the pink shadow on snow, reflected as blues and purples in the mottled grease ice of the bay. Freakishly cold by wimpy California boy standards, but I stay out there with frozen fingers and shot until my battery dies.

We’re in Admiralty for two reasons: science and support. We need to anchor in a shallow, relatively still place to calibrate some bathymetry equipment, but we also have a pallet of freshies – fruits and vegetables – to drop off for the Polish Arctowski Station on one of the inlets in the bay. Arctowski is a small base, and they hadn’t seen fresh food since February. Our research team also owes them a favor or two: during summer months, NOAA scientists at the even smaller (and ironically named) Copacabana base one inlet over are welcomed at Arctowski for hot showers and “social activities”.

The Poles have apparently had a good evening the night before, so we churn around the bay for a little before they’re able to muster a Zodiac to come out and pick up the goods. There’s a brief exchange of hospitality over the side of the boat – folks here have chipped in a few special gifts like a hard drive of music and movies and a couple pounds of spare Peet’s coffee beans – and Alec lowers the goods from our starboard crane. These encounters seem to be a well-developed ritual in the Antarctic: Betz, our hardcore MLT, has worn shorts for the occasion and Tom, ever the showman, has mustered a tuxedo to preside over the honors.

The rest of us watch from the helo deck, taking photos and shivering one story above the action. And by now the sun’s really, truly (sort of) come out, at least enough to make shadows, which is the best we’ve seen since we pulled out of Punta Arenas last week. We take more obligatory photos, wave the Poles off and, wimps that we are, scamper back to the warm comfort of the ship’s interior.

[By now it’s 2:00 and I’m well past my shift.
There’s laundry to fold and a bit of writing to catch up on, but really, it’s
coming up on bedtime and I’m well ready for it. Tomorrow will be another day]

Your author, trying his best to look all rugged and Antarctican

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