Goan to Antarctica....

Goan scientist Helga do Rosario Gomes is en route to the icy continent, and is keeping her blog of the journey...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

In the Times of India (Goa Plus supplement)

This article along with a couple of pictures appeared in the Times of India (Goa Plus Supplement) on Friday, 16th December 2005.

A Goan in Antarctica
by Helga do Rosario Gomes

Novices in the intricate world of US scientific funding, my husband Joaquim Goes and I set out on what for us was a big adventure - a trip to Washington DC to attend a workshop on the US Antarctic Program and learn about the complex mechanisms that govern getting dollars out of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the biggest supporter of Antarctic research.

Little did we know that this trip would take us into a magical world of icebergs that resemble ruined castles, penguins that look you in the eye, 24 hours of blinding light, ice parties as well as the nastiest of storms and the most brutal of temperatures! With the largesse of the NSF we have just finished a three-year program where we along with scientists from five organizations in the USA, studied the impact of Ultraviolet radiation on marine biota in Antarctic waters.

In one of the biggest man-made ecological disasters ever, humans have pumped chemicals such as Chlorofluoro carbons used in refrigerants into the stratosphere destroying the blanket of ozone that envelopes our earth and absorbs harmful UV radiation. The largest of these ozone holes is located over the Antarctic. As a consequence people in the Southern hemisphere are at risk to skin cancers and the marine food chain in the Antarctic is susceptible to irreversible damage.

For three years we have taken the NSF's finest ice breaker, the Nathaniel Palmer to the Ross Sea, hacked through miles and miles of the thickest of ice and researched into various aspects of this problem - DNA damage from UV radiation, production of noxious green house gases, winds and turbulence and the loss of food to marine life. We visited McMurdo, the US base camp which in summer houses almost 2500 people and supports another camp much further south as well as a neutrino detector, the Ice Cube buried deep into the ice.

We watched from the library of the Crary lab, one of the most well equipped laboratories with a spectacular view of snow capped mountains, as helicopters constantly ferried scientists and engineers into the remotest of the Dry Valleys. And of course we spent time at the three bars, the one shop that has everything and even tried to get free haircuts! But most of all on a visit to British explorer Scott's almost intact hut, we had a glimpse into the world of courageous explorers whose passion for finding new worlds surpassed all else. With trappings of high technology we digitized their half eaten seals and sheep carcasses, tins of powered chocolate and biscuits, their clothes and tools.

Our return trip on a US Air Force plane was uncomfortable and we nearly lost our expensive equipment which almost got swallowed by ice floes. Everyday is an adventure.

Interested in more information?
Check out Helga's illustrated online diary (or blog) at http://goantoantarctica.blogspot.com.
Helga do Rosario Gomes and Joaquim Goes are researchers at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, USA.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Time to wrap up the show!

We are almost home! As the ship rolls and pitches, and waves crash on our deck everyone is packing furiously. Many are green with sea sickness but the Raytheon techs are cracking the whip. Everything has to be dismantled, packed in huge craters, labeled, and the labs cleaned. The rules and regulations are astounding. The paper work would frustrate even an Indian bureaucrat.

Every tick of radioactivity has to be accounted for in a spreadsheet that does not want to be saved. Every chemical waste has to be gotten rid of correctly and every chemical inspected. The interns have a great time removing the white paper lining that covers the tables which they had fixed so enthusiastically just a month ago.

Over the weeks they have been scribbling on this paper, practicing their names in the Devnagiri script with Joaquim as their calligraphy tutor!

The Irish pub has sent word that there will be a barbeque for us once again. My report on what went on at that barbeque will be my last!

How we celebrated the Day of the Cups

We are heading home with the accompanying crashing, banging and ice breaking.

On the last day of science, we sample the deep waters – up to 3000 meters. Accompanying this deep cast is the traditional Day of Cups – a tradition which like Thanksgiving and Christmas starts off with a lot of excitement and preparation and ends with leaving people deflated and with stuff they don’t know what to do with.

Let me start with the CTD, the darling of oceanographers.

Photo (on right): The CTD, carrying the cups down into the deep.

A huge circular frame is wired with sensors that measure Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (hence CTD) and the frame is lowered via a winch. The sensors send back data profiles to the ship's computers giving the scientists an idea of the structure of the water column that they will be sampling.

Attached to the frame are huge tube-like structures of PVC with lids on both sides.

When the CTD is launched all the lids are left open but as it descends they can be triggered through computer controls to close at discreet depths. In doing so we are able to collect water from a particular depth with the least bit of disturbance.

When the CTD comes to the surface everyone rushes to bleed it -- this is the place where egos clash and greed for water surfaces. It gets ugly especially when people haven't slept in days.

As we all know pressure in the water column increases by one atmosphere for every 10 meters which is not a big deal until on the Day of Cups. On this day every scientist equipped with an assortment of markers spends hours painting the polystyrene cups with colorful designs for their family and friends.

The Day of the Cups on the Nathaniel Palmer dawned with a raid on the stationery closet and an attack on Lorenzo, the chef who holds the polystyrene cups. Dormant cubists, surrealists and pointillists rose to the occasion as did patriots with flags on their cups.

Photo: Preparing the cups for the deep.

The cups were placed in a mesh bag and tied to the bottom of the CTD.

Yes you have guessed it! When the cups reach lung bursting pressures they shrink into little sake cups and along with it shrinks your art work and the poem to your girlfriend. It’s hard to tell which is greater -- the pressure to be creative or the pressure of the water column.

Two hours later, when the CTD returned, many had a fine set of shrunken cups but few knew what to do with them. Joaquim's cup said Antarctica-Goa and had coconut trees on it which the pressure had transformed into tiny hairy spiders.

Photo: Goa cup.

My cup from last year holds Canadian coins which I often find in my change. Someday when it's full I plan to visit Canada and buy a lucky Goanetter a beer.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Stripping in front of Immigration officers

Photo: The Hercules plane that ferried us back to NZ.
Of course nothing is simple when it involves Antarctica.

When you fly from or to McMurdo it is mandatory that you wear certain articles of clothing in case your plane is forced to land in the ice. These are the heaviest and most cumbersome of pieces that were issued to us in Christchurch and include our parkas, ski pants, gigantic boots that almost toppled me over and the ugliest of mittens called bears' claws as they look just so.

You also have to pack your own survival hand luggage. Checking in means that you need to show up at the counter a day in advance wearing all the mandatory stuff.

Then you and your luggage get weighed together!

Shame on the man or woman who exceeds the quota for really there is no way of knowing if you are overweight or a bad packer. In this milieu both are bad.

The next day we were driven by Joaquim's roommate to the 'airport' which is actually a thick slab of ice where planes land and take off. It took us more than an hour of driving through fields of ice in huge Terra buses which if the ice cracks, can stay afloat.

Joaquim's roommate and our driver turned out to be an anthropologist who had infiltrated the McMurdo world as kitchen boy-driver to research how this community lives and functions.

We landed at the airport well aware that our wait would be long and our waiting room tiny. Many decide to play Frisbee to stay warm -- others just huddled around.

After more than two hours our plane arrived -- a huge C5 US Air Force plane not C141 as I had previously written. Although we had heard about the discomforts of this flight we were not prepared for what we saw.

A helicopter was stuck right where our feet should have been and the seats were simple hammocks.

After all these are planes that move troops and relief supplies. Our flight crew were air force personnel and they were good! They almost lifted me and stuck me between two huge geologists who I knew had to have been camping in the Dry Valleys because of their malodorous socks.

After our 'steward' set me down, he harnessed me with several belts all attached to various parts of the hammock -- there was no away I could escape. I was stuck in the middle with hundreds of passengers, my hand luggage on my lap and my heaviest gear on me! That's when all my dormant phobias rose to the surface in unison and I thought I was going to either die or scream.

Joaquim and Smelly Socks relieved me off my jacket and I felt much better until I saw that I was right next to the men's toilet -- a bucket with a curtain around it. Apparently the women's privy was better but how could I even get there?

Then a package sailed past me -- the stewards were distributing food by tossing it from afar. I don't blame them -- the aisles were full of feet and bags. My knees were locked with those of a lady zoologist!

When the stewards had to get somewhere, they just jumped over our feet with all of us cheering and clapping! The noise from the engines was deafening. Five hours later we landed in Christchurch which was at the peak of its summer.

It was impossible to stay a minute longer in those clothes. One lady participant stripped to her leggings right in front of the immigration officer. As an Indian raised to respect immigration officers, I waited until I had gone through Customs.

Fish mail

Photo, left: Orcas dancing in the wake of the Palmer.

A common dinner topic when we can hear ourselves speak is to compare this trip with last year’s trip. This makes the rookies very unhappy and they tend to roll their eyes like I used to when my father would narrate his WWII stories. They go, “Is it going to be the orca whale story or the fish mail story?”

The former is a real sore topic because this year although we have seen an abundance of marine life, the orcas eluded us. Last year they put on a big show for us. As our ship cut into the thick ice, a huge school of orcas popped their heads out of the cracked ice.

At one time seven of them popped right near our ship and spouted arcs of water. This was a much better show than the one by young women in the Olympic synchronous swimming events especially because the orca’s noses were not plugged!

But the fish mail is a better story. I thought I should share it on this last day of science.

Last year as we were heading towards the pole we saw a small fishing vessel sailing in our wake. It was from New Zealand, and the captain was hoping to push deeper south by sailing in the swath we cut into the thick ice.

In doing so the fishermen were saving on gas and forging deeper south to richer fishing grounds than are usually within their reach. Being a small fishing boat it had no ice breaking capacity.

Well at some point, they decided they had enough fish and would give us some. A little rubber dingy brought us nine huge Patagonia tooth fish or Chilean sea bass which in the US is frightfully expensive.

While the transaction was going on, some of our young women commented that the young fishermen were sizing them with their binoculars, a futile exercise I thought as everyone is clad in the same attire.

But these were no ordinary boys! The next morning as the cook cut the fish he found a plastic bag with a letter in the belly of the fish. The letter, from one of the young fishermen pleaded with any respectable young lady to correspond with him via email!

He had been at sea for very long and missed the young women from the remote islands of New Zealand where he came from. A young liberal arts student volunteered to reply but she tended to be a bit facetious and made remarks like “Did you see me on the deck? I was in a red jacket!”

Everyone has a red jacket!

We asked her to be nicer and she was! Everyday the fish mail was stuck on the notice board and it made for interesting reading. This went on for a while with other young men begging for their own fish pals.

But then the young man cut his finger very badly while filleting some fish and and that ended the fish mail.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

McMurdo where our soft bellies give us away

Photo: McMurdo Station

Last year when sighted we McMurdo for the first time the Americans said it reminded them of an old mining town. The small hills were a dark red brown and some of the buildings were made of corrugated sheets.

We docked the Nathaniel Palmer at what looked like a harbor only to the Captain. To me it looked like we had slid on a slab of ice.

McMurdo doesn't have a single plant and you are not allowed to bring any either. A scientist got in trouble because his wife sent him an autumn leaf from their garden!

When trucks transported us to our spartan dorms we saw that the place was teeming with people. It was the peak of summer which is when Raytheon transports almost 2500 people to the station.

Engineers, carpenters, welders, scientists, cooks and helicopter pilots -- they all fly in from Christchurch. Later I heard there is a pecking order with lady pilots at the top!

Everyone eats at a giant mess hall and the food is very good and free. Salad bars, sandwich counters and a large buffet with hot food. It's a great place to people watch and these are no ordinary people! Everyone sports several earrings and long hair is de rigueur for both sexes as are worn to the bone overalls.

It's a major faux pas to wear anything new as we soon found out.

We also found out that although we had weathered the scariest of storms, severe isolation and -50oC temperatures, we were still considered soft as we rode a fancy ship.

Real men (and women) dropped from helicopters into the horrendous Dry Valleys and camped for days in tents, cooked their own food and never showered. They lugged their own equipment and moved around on snow mobiles looking for meteors.

As we walked around we noticed that a few wore green jackets unlike the rest of the unwashed masses in red. These were the lords of the South Pole, many of who worked at the neutrino detector Ice Cube, which is embedded deep into the pole.

The US also has a station right at the pole which holds 300 people.

With our inferiority complexes tucked at the back of our mind we set out to shop -- this can put anyone in a good mood. There is one shop at McMurdo and it holds everything -- alcohol, DVDs,
candy, and tons of T Shirts and sweatshirts for souvenirs. Everything has the penguin-Antarctic theme.

With shopping behind us we went in search of sprits. McMurdo has no restaurants (everyone eats at the mess) but it has three bars one of which claims sophistication by calling itself a wine bar.

Everything closes at 11 pm and when you step out you are hit by the blinding light and nothing to do! I peeped into a tiny chapel with probably the best view in the world -- vast expanses of whiteness and a range of almost perfect volcanic mountains.

A chaplain holds his mass and after that yoga enthusiasts trickle in for their class. Space is at a premium. We walk around and find a well stocked library and knitting group.

Photo: Scott's hut

A major sightseeing spot in McMurdo is Scott's hut. Scott, a British explorer would have been the first man to reach the South Pole but was beaten to it by a Norwegian named Amundsen. Scott and his group unfortunately perished on their way back. But his hut gives us a glimpse of the intrepid and courageous explorers whose passion for finding new worlds surpassed all else.

In the low hut we saw half eaten seals, carcasses of sheep from New Zealand, huge tins of powered chocolate and biscuits, their clothes and tools. Because the continent is so dry, these dead animals remain almost mummified. When we turned around and saw the monstrous Nathaniel Palmer with its hot showers and fancy gadgets we felt like wealthy tourists on a cruise liner!

Pretending to be locals we walk back up the hill for the next adventure that lay ahead of us. Returning to New Zealand in C-141 airplanes! We were cool or so we convinced ourselves!

Marie Curie's ghost haunts the MIXURS program

Nursing monstrous Pisco-induced hangovers, the scientists awaited the arrival of the helicopter from McMurdo. I am so glad that I did not touch that stuff.

Once again we were granted permission to go on the ice, but only after the helicopter had landed.

The helicopter showed up in the horizon so suddenly that no one could claim that they had spotted it first. Apparently it's a matter of prestige!

It landed on its skis and disrupted a group of Emperors but not for long. They soon turned up to inspect the helicopter. So did we for the perfect photo opportunity -- in the same orange jackets with the helicopter in the background and of course the Emperors around us.

To be honest last year's helicopter drop was much more dramatic. Yes, last year, we also ran out of radioactive material -- Marie Curie’s ghost haunts the MIXURS program.

Last year's helicopter was smaller and very fast and manned by two young women from the US Coast Guard. Because the helicopter had no skis they could not land on the ice so they circled the plane and then hovered for a few breath catching moments on it's side.

In those few minutes they dropped our package tied to a rope exactly at the foot of the waiting Raytheon Tech. It was all so precise and perfect that we were blowing flying kisses even when they were long gone!

The Nathaniel Palmer has a helo deck for helicopters to land but our horrible incubator tanks have been placed there.

We left the ice soon after that much to the disappointment of the interns who were harboring a tiny hope that we would be going to the McMurdo base. Last year we did and in my next entry I will tell you how 2500 people live on that base for almost six months. A hint -- very well!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Who are you wearing?

Standing almost four feet, the Emperor Penguin is a work of art.

Its beautiful white feathered breast shines in the Antarctic light like the most luminous of pearls. Its head and back are satin black but as this is haute couture; its black beak is interrupted with a dash of the sharpest of salmon pink. Because every fine outfit calls for the perfect accessory, the Emperor penguin sports a scarf around its neck which falls lightly on its pearly breast.

It's impossible for me to describe this scarf for every color in the sunset resides in it.

Thus clad the penguins strolled amongst us often in pairs. They would come real close, stare us in the eye, then raise their beaks to the sky and make guttural sounds. Someone claimed they were mating calls so perhaps they were trying to pick us up?

But after a while they would walk away bored.

At some point a few sporty participants started a soccer match -- Raytheon vs. the scientists. It was constantly interrupted by the Emperors, many of who waddled from real far just to spoil the game.

They would stand in the middle of the 'field' staring, making those sounds or just bobbing their heads. Later the scientists confessed that they were a welcome distraction for not everyone is as fit as the Raytheon techs.

Then the hot Philippine music was turned on and from afar, a group of Adelie penguins came running towards us in a line, their wings aflutter. The Adelies are much smaller than the Emperors and are dressed like New Yorkers -- sharp, well tailored black suits and white shirts.

Unfortunately their behavior doesn't match their sophisticated attire.

Adelies are the clown penguins -- they are small, walk funny and run towards you with their wings outstretched like long lost classmates. Of course just when you think you have been singled for special treatment they walk past you.

The rest of the party was fueled by Pisco and the YMCA song. The only can of beer that I managed to grab on my way out froze almost immediately and then tasted awful. But it did not bother me for I was in another world.

Light in the Antarctica assumes an enhanced luminosity because you get a double dose of it. Once when it hits the earth and the other when the ice reflects a large part of it. Add to this the mountains of jagged and shining pieces of ice and the penguins milling around and you have a party from which you do not want to return home at midnight.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Penguins and frogs

Photo: Partying with the penguins.

The brightest of sunshine prevailed on the day of the party.

A gangplank was lowered for us to set foot on the ice. We usually use the rope ladder which doesn't make for a dignified exit from the ship. Dinner was still in the galley.

The Raytheon techs demarcated one bad zone where the ice was thin by pouring some red drink around it! The Philippine crew brought out their karaoke machine with some real hot Philippine dance music. Last year I saw these guys in action - they can dance!

Photo: Ship parked in ice.

The much coveted beer was set up in the ice as was some real potent drink called Pisco from Chile. But as we disembarked everyone except a few diehard alcohol lovers lost interest in the much awaited chance to drink. For there almost within touching distance was a huge group of Emperor penguins watching us curiously.

They were probably going - What are these things? Members of a cult devoted to the worship of oranges?

We all wear special orange float jackets when we are outside and our ship is orange. Like the alcohol rule, the Marine Mammals Act at least with respect to penguins can be pretty convoluted. You can't touch a penguin nor can you go towards a penguin with even the intent to touch it. But a penguin that is protected but not governed by any treaty can walk towards you and if you are very lucky, bestow a peck on you.

Photo: Charming the Emperors.

Only researchers working with penguins have the permission to touch them. For the rest of the night the Emperors toyed with our hearts coming real close to us while we lay immobile and freezing on the ice, and just when we thought we would wake up as princes/princesses they would lose interest in us and walk away.

No one got a kiss - we all returned to the boat like the frogs we were.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

It's a dry ship

It's party time! We finish our work at the station and head close to McMurdo, the US permanent base camp which in summer holds almost 2500 people. Unlike last year we do not disembark and touch terra firma.

We want to be close to McMurdo so that a helicopter can bring in some of the chemicals and reagents that people either forgot or which did not make it on time in Christchurch.

It's mostly radioactive material from the USA that went through so many grueling Customs regulations that it landed late in NZ. So they have sent it off to McMurdo on one of the many flights operating from Christchurch to McMurdo.

The US generally uses Hercules C130 aircraft that have skis and can land on ice, to transport McMurdo workers, scientists, food and supplies and to bring back people, equipment and waste.

Last year we came back from McMurdo on these huge and very uncomfortable planes with our own waste already recycled and a helicopter stuck in the middle!!!!

The Antarctic Treaty is very strict about waste recycling. I met a guy from Michigan whose
only task was to process soil that had been contaminated with gasoline. Talk about a narrow field of specialization!

After much ice breaking, we reach close to McMurdo located on the Ross Island. We can see Mt Erebus with its wisps of volcanic activity and a few other beautiful mountains capped with snow.

The ship is completely embedded in the ice.

Everyone is looking forward to the next day and it's not because of the radioactive material that will be arriving for this means more work! We have been promised a 'spirited party'!

An unfortunate incident on the other ice breaker the 'Lawrence Gould' has led to the total ban of alcohol from any of National Science Foundation's research vessels.

There are currently eight versions of this incident floating around but the gist is that one very inebriated cruise participant returned from a big festa in Punta Arenas, Chile where the Gould usually docks, fell down the steps and because everyone was in some taverna in Punta Arenas no one came to his aid and he died.

In dying, he lay open the possibility of his family collecting millions in damages (although I do not think they did) and damned us to a voyage of Coke and orange juice.

But remember this is only on board the ship - if you manage to keep both your feet are off the gangway you can guzzle even lab grade alcohol provided you do not enter the ship until the breath analyzer says you are sober.

This sounds like a very clever way to circumvent a nuisance law until you realize that you might be have to wait for three hours in the ice literally cooling your heels until you are declared sober.