Just Another Day at the Bottom of The World

Somewhere off to starboard in the darkness lies King George Bay. When I let my eyes adjust to the night, I can make out a pale ghost of the island, glacial cliffs dropping precipitously into the sea, beckoning, threatening. From the comfort of “the porch” it seems almost dreamlike, and I can stand here with my mug of tea, trying to pick out features as casually as if I were at a starwatching party in my backyard.

We’ve made our way back into the protection of the South Shetlands to have another try at setting up some calibration equipment for future research teams. So much of what we’re doing depends on inferring what’s under the water from the reflected signals we send down, so it’s important to have some ground truth to use as reference. Ground truth for this particular calibration will be to a two-inch spherical target made out of unobtainium or such that gets suspended beneath the boat by fishing line. We (meaning someone other than me) know the acoustic properties of the ball, so bouncing the multi-band sonar off it allows us (again, someone who isn’t me) to tune the fiddly bits of the transducers to make sure what we (yeah, yeah) think looks like a two-inch metal sphere at 20 fathoms really is one.

The trick is that to do this calibration, we (includes me, this time) need the boat to be motionless, with the engines off. Motionless is easy to do, but not with the engines off; the only way to get that is to anchor somewhere and, as mariners of the previous century lamented, anchoring is non-trivial in the vicinity of Antarctica. Strong currents prevail, and where the bottom is shallow enough, it’s usually too rocky for an anchor to have much purchase.

That’s where King George Bay comes in – a hundred years of nautical trial and error discovered a sandy bottom 27 fathoms down at the west end of the bay, just north of the Twin Pinnacles and the (apparently distinctive) Lion’s Rump. But Captain doesn’t want to try getting in so close to land in the dark, so we’re holding station, turning circles out here until sunrise.

This is our second try at calibration – you may remember me writing about our excursion into Admiralty Bay to get it done last week. But the wind was up, and there was too much ice blowing for us to hold station; rather than sitting it out to wait for better conditions, Christian and Tony opted to get on with The Science and come back after we’d done a few more grid points.

There’s a different rhythm on the ship when we’re waiting. Running the grid, we’ve got maybe an hour or two between stations while the zoo folks sort and classify the critters from the last stop. Once the GPS tells us we’re at the next point, we hold position for 20 or so minutes while Tom or Alec drop a CTD and haul it back up (I wrote about those in a previous post, I think – a sensor pod for measuring conductivity, temperature and depth, surrounded by a big array of PVC tubes that capture seawater samples at various points on the way up). Once the CTD is stowed, folks head to the back deck to deploy the net, which we tow slowly for about 10 minutes at depth to get an idea of who/what’s living there. As soon as the net’s up, samples go to zoo lab for sorting, and we’re on our way to the next station. Wash, rinse and repeat for two twelve-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.

But the waiting seems to have left people a little disoriented. A darts tournament has materialized in the 02 Lounge, accompanied by some sort of thumping bass dance tracks from someone’s portable speakers. The NY Times crosswords in the lab are falling at a frightening rate, and Barry’s had to dig into his archive of old Sunday puzzles to keep up. Others have scurried away to corners for more solitary pursuits: catching up on long-overdue email, or non-electronic reading.

My routine seems like the only one that hasn’t changed much: I run the dailies and reboot the ship’s wifi when it locks up (a couple of times a day, at least). Restock the printers and helped Emilio recover a doc lost in the bowels of Windows Tempfile hell. My one bit of excitement was Carla needing to find a procedure for chemically detecting urea in sea water. Going to Google with our daily 15MB quota gives 7 clicks at most, not counting trying to actually download any results (I knew the web was bloated, but 2MB per query?!? I mean – really!). First click was behind a pay wall tease, but I nailed it on the second try with a mostly-legible scan of a 1969 Naval Research Report (NRC#2663): The Spectrophotometric Determination of Urea in Natural Waters with Hypochlorite and Phenol. Download, print and handoff (“Excuse me Ma’am, I think this is the report you’re looking for”) to a squee of happiness – yeah, that’s what I live for – and I still had enough quota left to check XKCD and Gunnerkrig Court. Felt like a total websearch ninja, I’ll tell you.

Tom and Carla are amazed at my ninja web search skills

I’ve even done a bit of coding – first I’ve tried in about two years. Lots of the software running our data acquisition systems has comments like “Quick and messy hack – fix ASAP!” – dated 1995. Sure, it works, but there’s fertile ground to get my hands dirty.

Overall, it’s been a good couple of days – the crazy oscillations of getting started have tapered off and, our pre-dawn lull aside, everyone seems to have found their groove. Assuming the anchor holds and the wind doesn’t pick up, we’ll be on our way by late morning, running the grid, dropping CTDs and towing nets by afternoon. Just another day on an Antarctic icebreaker in the dead of winter.

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