Goan to Antarctica....

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

Monday, November 28, 2005

The day we left Mother Ship

We are now in a spot that seems ideal for our work. Big sheets of ice surround us. The ship pushes and shovels around to give us enough free water to deploy our instruments.

All through the latter part of the journey, the two ice captains have not had the luxury of auto pilot. Every day they stand on the bridge trying to find the path of least resistance -- we often take a longer and more circuitous route just to avoid the very thick ice. Like a bulldozer we back up and then push again.

Vladimir, one of our two ice captains has spent the better part of his life on both poles with hi s favorite haunts being Siberia and the Antarctic! He swings his arms around like a conductor to point the best possible route but even though I try to figure out his 'plan' for us by watching his arms in conjunction with the terrain outside, it all looks the same to me!

Whiteness and brilliant sunshine.

Now that we have stopped, we take our first trip outside the ship in small rubber dinghies. It's a strange feeling to leave the mother ship which looks huge from our small boats. It also feels more real because we can touch the ice and water.

Unfortunately we can't touch the two curious Adelie penguins that come close to us because we will be slapped with a 10,000$ fine and attain pariah status with the funding agency. The penguins do everything to distract us from our work which is not much except to collect water in carboys.

We just want to be away from the ship and its metallic particles and of course we want to ride the cool looking Zodiac dinghies. The Adelies are at their cutest best, flapping their wings, raising their beaks high, flopping on their bellies and sliding around.

Some party pooper calls us back because we are wasting too much time playing with the penguins and they need to deploy other instruments like the Echo Sounder. This temperamental gadget gives us information on the magnitude of internal waves and bubbles all of which can transport phytoplankton in and out of the well lit waters.

Eco Sounders in plain language send a 'ping' of a certain frequency and then receive the signal back. This received signal or Echo changes on its way back through the water because of certain things in the water such as bubbles, particles or even fish.

Often shoals of fish are detected using Echo Sounders. Analysis and interpretation of the signal and the ability to filter other unwanted signals like ship generated turbulence can be a trying task as the two lady scientists from the Old Dominion University,Virginia are finding out!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

And you thought science was fun?

In search of greener pastures, we bulldoze through sheets and sheets of the thickest of ice... aided by ocean color satellite data that NASA sends us daily. We finally arrived at the perfect spot.

Sufficient phytoplankton to work with and pleasant temperatures that are kind to our incubators.

By the way, ocean color remote sensing, my other field of interest, provides us with daily maps of concentrations of phytoplankton in the world's oceans based on the amount of light that falls on the water and that is absorbed by phytoplankton.

We now start our experiments, so I guess a small description of our work is in order.

Phytoplankton, like terrestrial plants, are the only organisms that can photosynthesize or make their own food -- meaning that they can use carbon dioxide available in plenty both in the air and in water, sunlight and nutrients such as phosphate and nitrate to grow very quickly.

The rest of the food chain depends on the food produced by them.

The Southern Ocean which forms part of the Antarctic continent has plentiful of nutrients but its only in spring that light levels are adequate for photosynthesis to occur. When this happens massive blooms of phytoplankton occur all over the Southern ocean and provide a smorgasbord for the rest of the food chain.

In the early 'eighties, British scientists discovered that a suite of chemical compounds, the Chloro Fluoro chemicals (CFCs), then considered as 'wonder chemicals' because they did not react with anything, were in fact piling up in the stratosphere and breaking down the ozone layer that blankets our planet.

The ozone layer protects us from the sun's harmful radiation -- the Ultraviolet radiation. They observed and even won a Nobel for their work that every spring an increasingly larger ozone hole was developing in the Antarctic with a consequent increase in Ultraviolet light falling on the earth's surface, especially in the Southern hemisphere.

The Montreal Protocal banned the use of CFCs, but their damage still persists because they are very hard to get rid of and consequently every year the ozone hole increases over the Antarctic.

Check this site for ozone holes at http://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov It looms over us as I write this but, of course, I am not sitting on the deck with my laptop because I would die from the cold before the ultraviolet light got my DNA!!!

How this ultraviolet light impacts the marine life especially phytoplankton which form the basis of the food chain is the thrust of our program named MIXURS, or "Mixing and Ultraviolet Light in the Ross Sea."

Phytoplankton have no motion of their own so they depend on waves and other turbulence to keep them in the upper portion of the water column where there is light. But here is the Catch-22 for in positioning themselves in well lit zone, they are also vulnerable to DNA damage from ultraviolet light.

What kind of waves and turbulence is the upper well lit water column influenced by? Are they on time scales that allow phytoplankton to stay and photosynthesize without damage to their DNA?

Can they manage to repair the damage through built in mechanisms? If they are damaged what kind of damage is it and to which processes? These are some of the questions that we will try to answer on this third cruise in a series of three.

Photo above shows an ozone hole image for the earlier part of November over the Antarctic continent. The darker blue and purples are regions where the ozone layer is very thin.More information on the ozone hole can be found at http://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov/

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Incubators in the emergency ward

Freezing incubators

Photo: Freezing incubators
We reach the station full of plans and enthusiasm only to be met by a gray sky and temperatures dipping to almost -50oC. By nightfall the techs alert us to a major problem. The pumps that draw seawater into our huge Plexi glass incubators and thus maintain water temperatures are sucking ice and slush, and our incubators could freeze and break.

The entire contingent goes on hourly 'ice watch' duty. This means scraping ice off the huge tanks and keeping the water flowing. But the tanks are outside on the deck so it also means braving -50oC temperatures, nasty winds and hands in freezing water at 2 am.

Cruising next to an iceberg during incubator watch

Photo: Cruising next to an iceberg during incubator watch
I am totally useless – my arms aren’t strong enough to scrape the monstrous tanks some of which are standing 4 feet off the ground, my plumbing skills are nonexistent so I can't figure out which pipes to connect or disconnect. I am left holding a hair drier in my hand. Then I get hold of a butterfly net and sieve the large chunks of ice from the tank. At least now I look busy.

Everywhere I hear 'Get this one' or 'We are losing that one' -- its like being in an emergency ward after a disaster. Not even the emperor penguins dozing off on a floe can cheer the sleep-deprived scientists.

Watching over freezing incubators.

Photo: Watching over freezing incubators
By day, the sun melts a bit of the ice and we are given respite from 'ice watch'. No one can figure out what to do.

Then fortune smiles on us -– this station has no phytoplankton, the little photosynthetic organisms we are looking for. We are too early in the season. Phytoplankton need to be in the upper well lit portion of the water column so they can photosynthesize, grow and supply food to the rest of the food chain.

Midnight sun in Antarctica.

Photo: Midnight sun in Antarctica
With strong winds, the water is being churned and they are being buffeted all over the water column. It's not the best of situations when you are a microscopic creature with no motion of your own. We move on to greener pastures.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

All around... debris of ice

We headed towards what would be the first big station where we planned to stop and sample for eight sleep deprived and muscle aching days. On the way, we had to break through very thick ice.

The Nathaniel Palmer does this job by raising itself and then crashing back on the ice to break it. It's probably more complicated than that but that is how they explained it to me and it makes sense!

The cracks that the ship makes into the almost smooth sheets of ice stretch for miles and look like earthquake fissures. The noise from the breaking ice is unbearable like buildings collapsing all over us. You feel like the ship is going to break into two and you will be in the part that doesn't have the survival gear.

Conversation in the dining hall is monosyllabic. Seems like everyone is on a bad date! All around us is debris of ice, monster chunks which our ship has overturned and which harbor on their underside green, red and purple algae.

At other times we pass through rough and jagged pieces of ice strewn all over - I feel we are not on this planet. The horizon is almost invisible and the 24 hour blinding light scatters off the white ice and makes it look like we are under giant floodlights.

[Photo at the top shows chunks of ice with green algae on underside.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

There's a penguin on the portside

And then it happens -- bridge calls to say that there is a penguin on the portside. You can well imagine the ensuing chaos. Not only because of the immediacy of the situation but also because many are still unsure about the exact location of portside and starboard side and don't want to look dumb. (Photo: Adelie penguins hooting as our ship goes by.)

It's a wonder I wasn't injured in the stampede that followed. I made it to the heated bridge and there on what I always thought to be the STARBOARD side was the Emperor Penguin sitting all alone and surveying his icy domain.

In the afternoon sunlight his breast gleamed like the best of pearls. He stood about four feet, watching the large orange ship approaching him with the dignity of a Chieftain until it barreled towards him when he lost all poise, plunked himself on his bulging belly and slid off on the ice, his fat feet propelling him forward.

After that there were plenty of penguin sightings but no one was jaded yet.

Even more fun than the regal Emperors are the Adelie penguins which are much smaller than the Emperors. Wearing what look like black capes with cowls they waddle long distances on their little legs aided by occasional belly sliding.

A leisurely walk on the deck can find them scrambling away from the ship, their wings at odd angles to help them keep balance - their gait Chaplainesque. From a distance you can see long lines of these hooded creatures traversing vast distances to spots that look just like the ones they left behind.

But perhaps just to us humans in our expensive UV blocking sun glasses? Do the penguins have a purpose and does the leader of the pack know what he/she is doing? Well the answer to the first question is krill, a shrimp like organism and the sushi of penguins, fresh, nutritious and loaded with protein. They dive into the cold waters to feed on the plentiful of krill and small fish available during this time of the year.

The second question is for you to answer perhaps with the help of an incident that I witnessed from my cabin porthole. I woke up one morning to see a long line of Adelies waddling towards a thin stream of open water. The line was long and attracted a few stragglers with nothing to do but literally 'chill' on their floes. (Photo shows penguins marching towards the ship.)

I stood waiting for the inevitable mass dive into the water which can be quite amusing, but when the leader reached the edge of the stream, he slumped on the ice and went to sleep. The rest of the convey stood in line quizzically surveying the situation and then in one sweep of a unilateral decision went to sleep too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

On thin ice... with marine mammals

We ride the storm with aching calves and shattered glassware until five days later when we wake up battered and bruised to observe from the now safe decks, the largest of icebergs gleaming blue in the blinding sunlight.

It's a hugesquare chunk of ice with the sharpest of edges and the smoothest of sides. I could imagine it accommodating an entire housing colony.

Soon we find ourselves in thin ice and with it marine mammals.

Our young interns who are determined to save every mammal in the world, sight a mother seal and her pup. From then on, the bridge from where the captain and his cohorts navigate and keep vigil, phone us periodically with alerts on animal sightings. Oh the scramble that follows -- jackets, cameras and the dilemma of whether to go on the deck and see them from close but at freezing temperatures or to run up three fights of stairs to the heated bridge andsee them through the glass and from afar.

I often choose the latter. But the biggest sighting still eludes us -- penguins!

Some consider sighting their first penguin even more memorable than their first date. Determined to not leave it to chance, our interns spend their post dinner hours bundled in all of their issued clothing at the bow of the ship, until one confessed she that she had almost fallen asleep there.

They are hounded by email from an Antarctic veteran, Dean Paluski who posts his sightings every day. In addition to albatross, petrels and seals there is always a penguin on his list. He claims he sees them in the wee hours when all are asleep, so the interns counter by claiming to have seen a minke whale.

No one believes them except their mothers and their roommates far away at the University of New England who religiously read their blogs.

Monday, November 21, 2005

At 61oS... all hell broke loose

The cuteness of the port of Lyttelton with its picturesque cottages and bakeries selling pork pies belies the fact that once you leave its almost perfectly circular harbor, the waters pack a punch.

Our boat started pitching and rolling almost immediately and that wasn't fun for sea sickness prone oceanographers already primed with large concentrations of anti sea sickness medicines which really do you no good except send your heart racing or make you so sleepy you are no good for any work.

Some did swear by the small patches that they wore on their necks but I wonder. Fortunately for me, I have good sea legs which I like to think is because of my maiden voyage from Mombasa to Goa as a kid. Others scoff my tale but it makes for a good story which I occasionally embellish because I can remember nothing.

Our first days were spent bolting and tying down everything we had and attending a dozen safely drills and meetings. The worst one is the first fire drill when you lug your safety suit and other gear up three flights of stairs and then force yourself into the huge rubber thing that can only be accessed via the front zipper -- like a baby's suit.

Safety, Safety, Safety says a young lady Raytheon tech who stands no more than five feet but packs a lot of muscle. A few hours later she proceeds to almost kill me with a swinging door. Every working moment is spent tying down or bolting everything we had.

The rest of the time was spent labeling the drawers which from my experience no one will read or care about because we will be too busy. Oh well it's the mood of the moment.....

Then we hit 61oS where the Polar Front is roughly located and enter the South Sea and all hell broke loose. Cold and very strong winds blasted our ship which went totally out of control at least in my opinion. Cupboards flew open and stuff hit people - the labels surprisingly stayed. In the galley manned by a Cordon Bleu chef, getting a bowl of soup and taking it to your seat became a Herculean feat. Staying alive was getting tiring.

We were banned from going out as monster waves rode the decks. Glancing from the porthole was scary for it was water one moment when the waves raised the ship and gray skies the next when it was brought back. Everybody claimed to have seen the biggest wave and some had photos to prove it too. I have enclosed one. -- Helga

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Imagine running out of toothpaste in the Antarctic.

From Helga do Rosario Gomes... en route to Antarctica.

In a bargain that I struck with FN, I will be sending 'regular' postings to the Goanet regaling Goans with stories of my second trip to the Antarctic continent. In return, FN sends me the Goa News Bytes which I can’t do without.

Unfortunately I will have to rely heavily on prose to describe my experiences as well as the beauty of this continent, as Raytheon, the company that provides logistics and support to the US Polar Program has limited the amount of email and the size of pictures that we can send. I am allowed a paltry 75kb a day of incoming and outgoing mail.
If you are looking for photos please visit the blog of our interns Kerra Gearinger and Stacey Keith at www.une.edu there is an icon on the left. Two scientists Wade Jeffrey www.pensacolanewsjournal.com (there should be a link on the front page, otherwise you have to go to the 'life' section of the paper) and Dave Kieber www.esf.edu/antarctica are also keeping blogs primarily for school kids in their states.
FN thinks my blog will have all of you enthralled but I wonder! With temperatures often dipping to -50oC many must be thinking -- thank God’s it is her out there and not me.

To start from the very beginning, our long and very tiring journey from Portland, Maine brought us via Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand. A short ride deposited us in the picturesque port of Lyttelton from where most of the US Polar expeditions depart.

The Port of Lyttelton is almost perfect -- sitting in a circular crater and surrounded by volcanic hills dotted with neat cottages. The people are friendly and the pubs are busy.

All the pubs had signs welcoming us and the Irish one even had a barbeque for us! Yes we have big-time party animals in our group, one of who loves absinthe which is banned in the
USA! They forgot to do so in Little Lyttelton.

Our ship, the Nathaniel Palmer one of the most modern of ice breakers owned by the National Science Foundation is bustling with activity. For almost a week, we prepare for our trip and in the evenings explore Christchurch, its restaurants and do some last minute shopping. Imagine running out of toothpaste in the Antarctic.