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Antarctica 2012: A Geeky Cruise?


We have now been at sea for a few days and everyone is rapidly falling into routine. Breakfast, lunch and dinner act as anchor points around which all other plans hinge. There is a conference room with a good projector, so weekdays typically end in someone giving a presentation explaining their work to the other scientists. This is followed by a movie, chosen from requests placed upon a whiteboard in the mess hall. The presentations and movies, coupled with fantastic food and the onboard gym has made these early days feel a bit like a cruise. A wobbly and very geeky cruise.

There is currently a sign-up sheet going around betting on the date and time the first iceberg will be seen. To avoid later disputes the sheet specifically states it has to meet the scientific definition of an iceberg, and gives the bridge watch final discretion. The official time is taken at the moment the iceberg reaches 90 degrees off the bridge and is within the ship’s radius of spotlight illumination. I plan to bet as soon as I can get someone to break a larger bill, and will let you know both my bet and the outcome.

I just learned there is a special meal prepared in the kitchen for vegetarians, which is a very good thing. I had started to wonder if I would need to become a pescatarian to get my daily protein. Last night dinner consisted of filet mignon for the omnivores and pasta shells with tofu vegetable marinara for the vegetarians. I made my first ever latte on the cappuccino machine here, which turned out very good. I’ve uploaded a photo of it, as I am quite proud. I doubt I have a future as a barista, but I now have three coffee options instead of two. Christian and I drank a fair bit of coffee in Tasmania and were shocked to find that nobody offers, nor has heard of drip coffee. The baristas in Tasmania were very talented. They would quickly make any exotic coffee desired, including a few I hadn’t heard of, but a request for drip coffee promptly and repeatedly left a perplexed look on their faces. Christian and I hypothesized that the prevalence of tea with breakfast means few people actually make coffee at home. The abundance of breakfast tea aboard reinforces this hypothesis, and every training I attend includes at least a half dozen people sipping away contentedly at their tea.

We have received additional field training to prepare us for work on the ice. We completed radio and GPS, compasses, cold weather gear, rescue throw bag, and survival skill classes. There has been at least one past event of the ice breaking up around the ship, which threatened to strand voyagers on the sea ice. Everyone was successfully pulled aboard, but had to cross ice in conditions that were not ideal for safety. As a result we now take sleds onto the ice that contain survival gear. There is a particular alarm that sounds if the ice breaks up around the ship, warning voyagers to remain on the ice and to go to their survival sled. This provides the crew with time to secure the ship in another location or retrieve voyagers via helicopter.

We practiced setting up temporary shelters and lighting emergency stoves so we will be prepared in the case of this unlikely scenario.

I spent some time on the helideck taking pictures of albatross that have been following our ship. There are at least five birds following our ship, two large albatross, and some smaller birds I haven’t identified. I will upload a photo if I am able to take a decent one. Aside from being smaller and faster, they tend to keep a greater distance from the ship, so I will make no promises.

In addition to these many distractions I have done some ice research related work. I tested pressure sensors we use to measure the rate of water flow into holes we will drill in the ice, and verified each was able to communicate successfully with my computer. I have also started writing a program for early analysis of our data, and I hope to have it complete by the time we reach our first ice station.

Training, work, photo sessions, coffee, talks, bets, and the best that geek culture has to offer is not enough to distract me from thoughts of both ice and home. An inner faction has emerged that will remain unsatisfied until our boat is pointing North, but the rest of me is excited to continue my journey Southward. Conversations bristle with exciting visions of walking upon the frozen ocean. Pilot whales were spotted off our stern, and the South holds promise of seals and penguins. Nightly congregations now form on the helideck to look for glimpses of our ship’s namesake among the southern stars. Impatience makes the ice feel very far away, but the deck continues to pitch and roll, quietly remind me with each sway that the ice edge is steadily approaching.