Monday, 20 February 2017

Dr Frankenstein I presume?


This may sound like a funny thing to assert, but I’m not really sure that I believe in cricket anymore. I’ve been sailing since September of last year, but never has the world of cricket, supermarkets, graffiti, rain, Coffee Number 1 (shout out to Cardiff there) and Dorothy Perkins seemed so remote as this week. We’ve spent the last four days in a place that looks like the spitting image of the ice planet Hoth (if you don’t know what I mean- find someone as nerdy as me to explain it) and I’m struggling to believe that such diverse conditions can really exist on one planet. Admittedly the earth is a fairly big place but it is mind-blowing to believe that whilst I’m shrugging myself into a decidedly unattractive padded onesie to go outside and face temperatures of -20°C, somewhere people are playing cricket and going into supermarkets. So I’ve dealt with the incongruity by deciding that cricket does not exist. Already my world is a great deal better and I feel a significant lightening of my spirits!

It has been incredibly cold here. Enjoyably, mind boggling cold. At 0°C, the cold is almost refreshing. It’s novel and exciting. It brings a flush to the cheeks and you can wear jeans outside. At -20°C, going outside to take photos for ten minutes requires preparation. It requires quiet grunting and effort as thermals are hauled on, clothes layered on top of that, followed by a padded boiler suit, thick socks, boots, a buff, sunglasses, a hat and two layers of gloves. After all of these layers are applied I have the light agility and grace of the Michelin man, but fortuitously I’m well padded for when I ricochet off walls with my unaccustomedly large proportions!

I tested the warmth of my layers a few days ago when we flew the quadcopter from the deck of the JCR. The quadcopter is a fun little robot helicopter that is ostensibly used to take measurements of the ice in difficult conditions and is also useful for ice navigation. It also just happens to take fantastic aerial photographs. We had wonderfully bright and clear conditions a few days ago so we put the quadcopter up on her first flight. It was rather a tense mission as these toys are eye wateringly expensive but she was flown in style and came home without getting lost amongst all the icebergs or indeed getting dropped in the sea. Early on I inserted myself into the proceedings as “communications officer” which in practice meant that I took lots of photos and only intermittently stuck my hands in my armpits and bounced frantically up and down. It was -21°C and I feel that behaviour was entirely legitimate!
The Quadcopter returning home

The quadcopter looking a little bit like the Empire's Recon Droids on the ice planet Hoth


Flying quadcopters aside, we actually went into the ice a few days ago in the hopes of finding our biologists some seals to tag. Breaking ice is hypnotising to watch. Standing at the bow of the ship, there’s a constant rasping, rumbling noise as the ship shoulders aside smaller icebergs. They spin off like graceful waltzers, only coming to rest as the ship brushes past them. Occasional shudders run the length of the vessel as she hits the larger icebergs, backs up and then heaves into them again. The ice shows the strain, crumbles at the edges and then a large crack snakes its way the length of the sheet and the JCR thrusts her way through to the clearer water ahead. It’s mesmerising. In amongst the vast plates of ice that make up the pack are veritable mountains of ice. They look like the kind of thing that steely eyed people apply for permits to climb because “it’s there.” It’s an utterly bewitching landscape; ever changing, infinitely beautiful and deeply perilous.
Plates of ice in the Weddell Sea

Vast icebergs in the Weddell Sea


 Up until two days ago our efforts to tag seals had been foiled; wildlife is always uncooperative and sneaking up on weddell seals in a big red ice breaking ship is something of an art form. We finally found a seal that fit the bill two days ago. Our little friend was the right species, lying on an absolutely vast ice flow and most importantly didn’t show the same rude tendency to precipitately vanish into the water as soon as the JCR hove into view. Our seal taggers were winched onto the ice flow and then slunk their way towards their prey, stopping only to test the ground for crevasses full of snow that might tumble them into the icy water.
Getting winched onto the ice



Hauling the tagging supplies


The seal was thrilled by his visitors and promptly showed his open and trusting nature by rolling onto his back and waggling his flippers at them. Regrettably our scientists were most impolite and instead of waggling their flippers back, attached a small tracking device to him. This device is attached with glue and is designed to come off in the first moult next year. In the interim it should give us lots of information about weddell seal behaviours like feeding and mating and most importantly shouldn’t cause Martin the seal any distress. We’ve since tagged a further two seals and are hoping for a total of eight.
Our research contributor!


There was time for more philosophical discussions today. Some of our engineers were desirous of having the concept of kidney stones explained to them, so I drew a renal tract (kidneys, bladder etc) and explained how everything works. This just led us on to more questions about basic anatomy and more and more subpar drawings from myself. Never try to teach an engineer anatomy. I was eventually fixed with a bemused look, and told that actually it would be far more efficient to have two hearts and possibly some sort of acid rinse system to stop the kidneys from being bunged up by stones. Marsupial pouches and chlorophyll impregnated skin were also posited as ideas. He’s not quite certain of the details, but he thinks he can have a few ideas sketched out for me by next week. Ah. I guess that makes me Dr Frankenstein then?

 
And some Emperor Penguins! Just because you've been so lovely!
 
Aren't these guys great?



 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Ice breaking movies

Hello! I thought that I would give you all a special treat today and let you all watch some ice getting crunched. It's almost as satisfying as popping bubble wrap... It was a decidedly bracing -16°C whilst I was filming this and the wind chill made it feel a lot worse! I had thermal layers on, my clothes, my jacket, a hat, a scarf and my gloves and I still felt rather chilly.





video


Just so that you guys are aware, as we head further south (we're currently sitting at a very exciting 77deg South) we may start to lose comms as we lose our satellite link. So I promise, I haven't stopped blogging. I may just not be able to communicate!




Saturday, 11 February 2017

Gossip!


I came across a very interesting piece of gossip the other day. Now obviously this is top secret, so you mustn’t tell anyone. Apparently Bird Island, Signy and King Edward Point Stations used to have darts tournaments over the radio. But, and here’s the kicker, unbeknownst to all the competitors only two of the three stations actually possessed a darts board... Now I tell you this, not to encourage you to distrust all those who have spent time at KEP, Signy or Bird Island (although I certainly wouldn’t play poker with the little devils) but to simply admire the can-do attitude and chutzpah of the people on the bases. These proud men and women of the British Antarctic Survey were not to be foiled by the mere absence of a darts board and they improvised, they adapted and they overcame adversity. And only incidentally won the cup three years running...
So I thought it might be fun to consider times aboard the ship where we have improvised to get around a tricky situation. The delivery of a consignment of unshelled nuts, for example, led to one of our engineers creating what I like to call the “nut vice” which crushes the nuts between two plates. The results are somewhat lively with shards of shell pinging through the bar area like shrapnel, but the point is that we improvised and also learned a lot about the importance of safety goggles.  

 
The Nut Vice

Our chief engineer deeply enjoys weight lifting. So he requested that one of our motormen build him a weight rack. It looks quite a lot like something that might have been used by Laura Ingalls in “Little House on the Prairie” had she been keen on squatting- but it does the job. This is somewhat disturbing because it means that when I’m leading the circuits class (I know, what was I thinking?) the sessions are punctuated by a very burly man making the sort of noises that I normally associate with an obstetrics ward. But he’s happy and that’s the key thing.
Laura Ingalls-Wilder's Squat Rack

The reason for my madness in starting circuits classes up is that I thought it would force me to exercise. I can’t put up signs suggesting that everyone join me for an invigorating session of circuits every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then not show up myself. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking. I don’t even like having birthday parties in case no-one comes along, so you can imagine the terror that assails me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5.15. What if nobody comes? It’s a nail biter, I know. I was deeply unimpressed by our deck engineer who didn’t share that he used to be a personal trainer in the military until AFTER the first circuits class! However, as I’ve since stolen all his workout plans and used him as “my glamorous assistant” who demonstrates all the exercises, I can’t complain really.
And what is the JCR doing at the moment? We’re progressing further South; we crossed into the Antarctic Circle some days ago which means that I got a certificate (the Hermione Granger part of me is deeply happy) and that there are a lot of icebergs about.
I'm in Nerdvana

Icebergs!


We even got to 75°S which meant that I was one of the most southerly doctors employed by BAS; how’s that for latitude attitude! We saw our sister ship, the Shackleton, zipping about the other day- she’s planning on mooring at the edge of the ice shelf to make some deliveries to Halley. And we’re doing a number of CTDs whilst we progress on our merry way.

The Shackleton


CTD stands for conductivity, temperature and depth, which is by strange coincidence, exactly what it measures! Now, I’m not the best person to explain the wonderful world of CTD (that would be Chris on his blog “Chris’s Climate and Oceanography Blog”. Look it up- it’s funny and clever!) but it involves dropping a metal ring with several bottles welded to it, over the side. The bottle lids are triggered to ping off at different depths, which means that we can collect water from different levels of the ocean and then analyse it for things like dissolved gas or the presence of metals. Probes are also present on the metal ring and they measure the conductivity, temperature and depth of the
water around the device.

One of the things that I’m most excited by is the seal-bothering. Apparently one of our science groups wishes to tag seals. Seals on the whole, are less keen on tagging and so they tend to require a short trip off to sleepy land which is where things get slightly more complicated. Previously scientists used dart guns to shoot the seal with a tranquiliser and then tag it. However administering a successful dose of the tranquiliser is very dependent on seal weight which is rather tricky to guesstimate. So our intrepid scientists are going to try gassing the seals down. Please bear in mind that these are not cute, fluffy, little things, but rather fanged monsters that smell like dead fish and weigh a few ton, so asking it nicely to wear a mask smelling of sevofluorane (anaesthetic gas that smells like lilos) may not work. I have to admit to a slightly sadistic feeling of curiosity as to how well this is going to go... Joking aside, they seem to have a very good protocol worked out, so I’m sure that it will be fine.
Icebergs behind me- I feel this photo is like a proof of life!

I had cause to use my X-Ray machine in anger the other day. I tested it out on a few bits and bobs first of all. It’s proper, old fashioned radiography; I load my X-ray films into cassettes, shoot the X-ray and then develop the films in my dark room. Developing the films is pretty much the same process as photos used to require many years ago. There is a developer bath, a water rinse and then a fixer bath. The film has to spend the right amount of time in each tray so that the image is usable after it’s processed. And with X-ray films you only get one go at developing the image, so you’d better get it right on the first go! This was all incredibly fun even if my dark room does double as the surgery’s bathroom. If I want to develop films in there I have to turn the red light on (Roxanne) and stuff towels into the crack under the door so that daylight doesn’t get through and fog the film. And then because I can’t see my watch in the red light, I have to count “1 elephant, 2 elephant...” It takes a long time to get to five minutes. But despite that it was strangely addictive and I find that I’m quite curious to know what things look like on the inside. So if you’ll excuse me, I just need to irradiate my makeup bag...
 
*The part about the scallywags winning the darts championship cup three years running isn't entirely true. I don't even think there was a cup!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

How the Doctor got a Bird Island T-Shirt


Peat is more interesting than you’d think. Not only can it be used to flavour whiskey, but with a bit of ingenuity it can also tell us a lot about the world around us. One of the scientists, Angela Gallego-Sala, is particularly interested in what it can tell us about the carbon cycle. Peat represents plant matter which grew and then died in water saturated environments like wetlands or bogs. Whilst the plants were growing they trapped the energy of the sun and used it in conjunction with carbon dioxide to create glucose or sugar. This traps carbon inside the plant. Under normal circumstances, this carbon is returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when the plant dies and decays. In peatlands, things are slightly different. As the plant matter in peatlands decays, it does so in an environment which is saturated with water and thus starved of oxygen. The decomposition of the plant matter is therefore a lot slower and most of the carbon stays safely locked away in the partially decomposed plant matter.

This may all sound terrifically familiar to anyone interested in fossil fuels. And that’s because it’s pretty much the same stuff. Peat is just a few million years off turning into lignite coal. It’s still used as a fuel around the world. People in areas that are extremely low on trees have always tended to use peat to fuel fires instead. This is why Scottish and Irish whiskies have that distinctive smoky flavour; the malted barley used to make the spirit is dried over peat fires.

Peatlands are extremely efficient carbon sinks. Any carbon dioxide emitted by the decay of plant matter is used in photosynthesis by plants living at the surface. Peatlands tend to work as net-extractors of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Not only that, but they allow us a window back in time. Because the plant matter falls in layers and the deposition is very slow (peat layers form in millimetres each year), taking core samples of peat enables us to see what plants flourished thousands or hundreds of thousands of years ago. And we can also extrapolate what conditions might have been like at those times.

Angela’s research is attempting to outline certain aspects of climate that may impact on the carbon cycle- in particular wind speed. As winds move around the Southern Ocean they find little in the way of land masses to impede their progress. As such they pick up enormous amounts of sea spray and deposit it on any land masses that they encounter. This means that in times of greater wind speeds, more salty water is deposited on the land.

Angela’s team have noted that certain species of testate amoebae live in the peatlands. Different communities of amoebae will flourish at different levels of salinity. Core samples of the peat will therefore contain different communities of amoebae depending on how salty the peatland was when that layer of peat was being formed. This can then be carbon dated and we can work out what wind speeds would have been like at the time when the peat layer was formed. Why is this important? Well, when wind speeds and currents align, the southern ocean has a tendency to stop being a carbon sink and instead releases carbon into the atmosphere again. So if we can establish under what circumstances this is liable to happen, we can predict in future when we might lose the safety net which the southern ocean carbon sink provides.

This was a very long winded (but hopefully interesting) way of saying that Angela and her team will spend the next few months island hopping in the Sub-Antarctic islands. She’s working in conjunction with French, Russian and American scientists who are likewise attempting to map out the carbon cycle in the southern ocean. And all this meant that I got to visit Bird Island which is clearly the most important aspect of the whole thing! 
 
Bird Island
 Bird Island lies just off the North Western tip of South Georgia and has had a BAS research station there since 1957. It was spruced up a few years ago and now consists of about 3-4 buildings all in the tasteful muted green that BAS seems to like! It’s only accessible by sea and the jetty is in fairly shallow waters which meant that we had to approach in the Humbers (little power boats). I had been asked if I wouldn’t mind popping in to answer a few questions on medications (Bird Island does not get their own doc, you see, just a team of advanced first aiders) and first aid protocols. Trying my hardest to rein in a massive smirk, I said that it would be a hardship, but I would see what I could do. And despite the fact that I got into the world’s biggest boat suit which made me look a bit like a telly tubby mated with an astronaut, the day was a triumph!


We shot forward into a wall of low-lying cloud which eventually parted to expose the station and the bay in which it lives. The barks of seals filled the air, as did the reek of salty, fishy decomposition that impregnates the island! Our little boat dodged around floating rafts of kelp and rounded a rocky promontory on which seal pups crawled anxiously calling out for their mothers. Smooth and sleek adult seals jetted through the waters near the boat, hunting for prey in the grey-green waves. A photo at this point would have been wonderful but I regret that I was otherwise engaged in clinging on for dear life.
Fur seals frolicking in the water (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)


At the jetty, there was a massive welcome party. We were escorted towards the base and I was impressed by the nonchalance with which our hosts shooed the fur seals out of our way whilst the furries barked at us, exposing their questionable dental hygiene. These little charmers are quite aggressive during the mating season and seal bites are very liable to get infected. Even the pups seemed to learn grumpiness early on, with tiny little seals growling at me as I went past.
The welcoming party  (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)

Great teeth on a furry  (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)

We were given tea and cookies (chilli and chocolate cookies- absolutely amazing!) and then I cracked on with helping with the first aid stuff. But not before I’d issued the most important command “I don’t have much time. Quick, go get me a Bird Island t-shirt!” Must-Be-Branded.
Most important job achieved- a T-shirt! Excuse the smirk- I struggle with selfies!

It was great and the time passed all too quickly. But soon enough I had to scuttle back outside, along the metal walkway that the fur seals have decided to colonise and onto my little boat. Angela and her team were left behind to do their research and we bounced back along the crests of the waves to the ship. As we were winched up to the deck the sun came out, burning away the mists that covered the island. It was possible to see the birds that give the island its name, swarming about the cliff face and livening the air with their cries.  
Being winched aboard  (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)


Ak- the birds!





Thursday, 26 January 2017

Punta Arenas


Sorry about the little pause in blogging everyone; I had a very nice few days away from the ship when we arrived in Punta Arenas. It was absolutely glorious. I stayed in a hotel called La Yegua Loca (the Crazy Mare- make of that what you will) which was great. All the rooms seem to have been themed. Mine was “El Lechero” which means The Dairy and not “The Lecher” as my father rather unkindly suggested. It was all very tastefully decorated though, so rather than calling it cowboy kitsch I’m going to call it gaucho-chic and just say that it was wonderful to have an enormous double bed even if, after months at sea, I huddled in a corner of it and didn’t starfish as planned. I had a shower that I could use without handholds...Luxury indeed.
Gaucho chic or estancia style?

Our first evening in Punta Arenas was great. I went with a number of the scientists to the Sky Bar in Dreams hotel. The bar is several floors up in the hotel which means that it commands a beautiful view out to sea or over the city. The toilets were no exception to this; the wall of the cubicle was glass from floor to ceiling with a lovely view of down-town Punta Arenas. This led to the slightly anxious hope that the glass was definitely one-way only. Or it would have been an anxious thought, had I not just had a negroni and a White Russian and was therefore more amused by the fact that I had coined the phrase “a poo with a view.” I shared this with everyone and kept nudging them until they smiled gently and told me, “yes, it was very witty Helen.”
As to the White Russian, I have absolutely no idea how The Dude drank so many of them in the Big Lebowski because they are exceptionally sticky and sickly. But we followed that up with an amazing meal of steak and shell fish at a restaurant across the road and I retired for the night sated and giggling quietly to myself. The food in Punta Arenas was incredible. The galley staff do a wonderful job of preserving the veggies that we get on board so we do have fresh vegetables for a long time.  However, after two months at sea...suffice to say that this salsa thing that Chileans eat with bread at the start of every meal? Well the fresh tomato and garlic was like a poem on my tongue.
I inflicted my Spanish on a lot of people. Our first night in Punta, we were on our way out of the security gate at the port when an irate security guard began shouting at the scientists ahead of me. Regrettably he didn’t speak English and they didn’t speak Spanish, so things were getting a trifle fraught until I sauntered forwards, a devil-may-care smile on my lips and enquired “Hay una problema?”/Is there a problem? (I may have been slightly less cool than that. But hey, this is my version of events!)It turned out that our security guard, possibly after clocking our nationality, was requesting that we try not to return to the port completely trashed. I may have mis-translated at first- I thought he was telling us not to bring alcohol back to the ship which seemed like a reasonable thing to say in view of customs- but I worked out later that he really meant not to come back intoxicated. What a lovely reputation Brits abroad do have!
And it’s really just a shame that GCSE Spanish didn’t prepare me to have that conversation. I remember how to planchar mi ropa/to iron my clothes, but strangely no one ever taught me how to say “Honestly, we won’t come back trolleyed.” What a gap in my education. And to continue on this theme, I have never had to discuss ironing my clothes with a Spanish speaking person; I am morally at peace with being crumpled. However I do like a grilled steak, and the word “planchar” means both to iron and to grill which does make me wonder if Spanish speakers think that they are grilling their clothes or ironing their steaks.
Regardless, I had a wonderful time babbling in Spanish at the poor defenceless populace. Mostly they were very kind and tried not to be too visibly distressed by the way I was mangling their mother tongue. I don’t like to acknowledge defeat though, so even when the people I was speaking to could clearly speak English very well, I still insisted on using Spanish. To the slightly crazy point where if I had forgotten a word I chose to mime it rather than just give way and speak English. Yeah, I know. I’m strange.
I visited a Chilean cemetery which was oddly enjoyable. Lots of mausoleums in which to wait out eternity.  
Mausoleums in the cemetery

Peace in your tomb


And I trundled around the Silesian Museum of Patagonia which was like a homage to the taxidermists’ art. The first floor was filled with slightly unnerving glassy stares from stuffed Patagonian wildlife. But I wasn’t able to linger for long because I was chased along by an exceptionally noisy family who clearly failed to grasp the meaning of the word “silencio” on the walls. I contented myself by sighing heavily and glaring at them in a wonderfully English-passive-aggressive fashion. The lower floor of the museum is devoted to the natural history of Patagonia. The upper floors have some interesting information on the indigenous populations whose numbers were decimated by “first guns and then syphilis and tuberculosis.” Patagonia had gold and lots of animals with nice skins and so people flocked to Patagonia and the locals didn’t stand much of a chance.
In the days that followed I went for very nice walks, ate a huge amount of food and finally succumbed to the cold that one of the Rothera doctors so kindly bequeathed me when he hugged me goodbye. He is dead to me. (Only joking Tom!)
I ate a lot. Like, a very lot.

I then returned my snotty self to the ship and was made aware of just how lucky I am. Waiting for me were a few surprises; parcels from my Mum and Dad; chocolates from the deck engineer’s mum, Elizabeth; chocolates from Victoria’s Dad, and finally a massive parcel from Kerri, my buddy from the first cruise. Thank you very much to those kind people; it means a huge amount to me. It’s surprisingly hard each time a crew change happens and the people that I’ve grown to know get off the ship and head for home whilst I keep sailing. I wouldn’t change this for the world; this is my choice and it is a wonderful job. But to know that people were thinking of me meant a huge amount and I just wanted to say a very heartfelt thank you. Thank you.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Relief at Rothera


A month later than originally expected, and feeling a trifle beaten and battered, the James Clark Ross finally made her way to Rothera station. We arrived at Adelaide Island on the Tuesday of last week, one or two days after the science work had terminated and spent the day steaming with eager anticipation towards Rothera point. Despite the cold temperatures, wildlife was abundant in those waters and the humpback whales came to investigate us on several occasions. With almost depressing predictability, I was sat at the stern end of the ship admiring humpbacks gallivanting perhaps as little as a quarter of a mile away, when something from the bow end of the ship caught my attention. I looked along the side of the ship and spotted the humpbacks which had apparently been feeding happily just beneath the bow. Immediately they felt my eyes upon them, they became bashful and dove before resurfacing just out of camera range. Thanks guys. I was later told by the scientists that they’d all been happily watching the whales for about half an hour. People really like rubbing salt in the wildlife spotting wound!


An elusive humpback whale
 The arrival into Ryder Bay was spectacular. I went up onto the Monkey Island early (for me anyway) and just soaked in the views. I was surrounded by a ring of mountains that reached down to the grey-black waters of the bay. The mountains themselves were painted with pale blues and purples in the early morning light. Their peaks were wrapped with milky white clouds that lent the scene an otherworldly feeling.
Views in Ryder Bay


Our day was not to be as straight forward as a simple arrival and unloading however. Strong winds blowing at about 40 knots kept us off the berth and ultimately the decision was made to go a-hunting for a mooring that was somewhere in the bay instead. The mooring housed data recorders that had been making continuous observations for the last year and was firmly anchored to the sea bed. The ship traversed the bay, “pinging” the mooring and when we finally received a response, the mooring released and the data recorders floated up to the surface with a big colourful buoy. In practice things weren’t quite that straightforward and we had to criss-cross the bay several times, always with the nagging worry that our data might resurface somewhere awkward...like under an iceberg. Still, I wasn’t complaining and I spent several happy hours on the deck, liberally coated in a sticky film of suntan lotion and enjoying the feeling of warmth on my face.
Searching for our mooring amidst all the ice

It gave me a lot of time to focus on my camera work too. I’ve been concerned that so many of my photos look horribly washed out and I was wondering how to correct for the brightness of the light down here. I struggled manfully with the camera manual and harassed my fellow seafarers until someone kindly explained that dropping the ISO might help. Apparently the ISO tells the camera how sensitive it should be to light. In Antarctica the light is so very bright that actually it’s better if the ISO is very low indeed. Happiness has resulted and my next task is to grapple with something called “f-stop”. Not a clue what that is, but it sounds deeply impressive.
All this meandering around the bay gave me a wonderful chance to watch a Twin Otter plane flying in to Rothera. These planes are painted a bright shiny red and they provide a vital link to field stations further out in the continent. They're fitted with skis which means that they can land on ice and snow. The Dash 7 planes by contrast provide the air link between Rothera and airports in Chile and the Falklands. They're also capable of landing on the blue-ice runway at Sky-Blue station which is one of the remote field stations.
The Twin Otter plane

The wind finally dropped and we were able to moor up at Biscoe Wharf and begin the serious business of the relief. Or rather the station personnel and the sailors were. I just sprinted down the gangway and into a massive hug from Jen, my opposite number in Rothera. There was a lot of squealing- there are dogs in Punta Arenas that still feel their ears are ringing- and then I was taken on a tour around the station. No doubt at all, Rothera is a beautiful place. I feel that the view into Ryder Bay would go a long way to reconcile you to whatever the inconveniences of living in such a remote location might be!
The station itself has the interesting feeling of a building site mixed with a healthily austere campsite. The buildings seem to be predominantly painted a dull khaki green, with the windows picked out in red. My favourite building had to be Fuchs House where much of the equipment for field operations is stored. The tents, skis, sleeping bags, climbing gear, rescue equipment and field rations all live here. As does the climbing wall, a field library and a small impromptu cinema! My tour of the station complete, Jen took me on a walk around the coastline which led me up onto a promontory overlooking Biscoe Wharf. As she pointed out, we didn’t need to go far from the station to experience utter quiet. In some ways it was almost eerie as I gazed at the enormous icebergs; it felt as though nothing so vast should be so still and so quiet.
Rothera station






The following days were spent in a flurry of activity. I helped Jen with unloading the medical supplies and the supplies for the Rothera shop. It made me giggle quite a bit; it’s fairly surreal to be stock-taking with your mate in Antarctica! But as a result of my activities, I’m now branded from head to toe in Rothera gear. It’s just a mercy they didn’t sell Rothera knickers- although I may suggest it to BAS for next year! If only to see the look on their faces...
The high point was definitely being taken cross-country skiing. I’ve never done any sort of skiing before so this was very exciting. I bounded up the slope behind Jen, waving a hand merrily at her whenever she turned back to check how I was getting on. The instant she turned away I doubled over, wheezing and fighting frantically with my skis which seemed to have a desperate urge to spring from my grip and fling themselves back down the slope. But we made it eventually and I think my voice was only marginally more high-pitched than normal at the top... It was awesome. The most beautiful view I’ve ever had, and once I got used to the concept it was a bit like roller-blading. But with sticks. Regrettably I wasn’t quite as talented at coming down the slight slope on our way back to the station. I couldn’t really work out how to stop so I just settled for flinging myself on the ground. This did, as JK Rowling would say, arrest momentum but is probably not the elegant technique that experienced skiers use! Still, despite my technicolour bruises, I will definitely be doing that again. And how many people get to say that their first skiing lesson was in Antarctica?
Explorer poses

On my final day I walked up to Rothera point and looked out at the friendly bulk of the JCR tied up with the mass of the mountains behind. I then turned and regarded the memorials that lie on the promontory. They serve as a sobering reminder that even in the modern age, Antarctica is still fantastically remote. It would take less time to get someone down from the international space station than it would to try and rescue someone from the continent in the middle of winter.
Memorials at Rothera Point

And then that was it. We were pulling away from the wharf; off for further adventures. We’re now Punta Arenas bound and I’m very much looking forward to some pampering activities. Like a pedicure and a swim in a hotel pool...
This little Adelie desperately trying to get an entry into a seals only club...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Zombies and Lanternfish


A researcher in an American University recently published a paper stating that were the zombie apocalypse to arise, mankind would be overrun within 100 days. I feel that this raises way more questions than it answers. To begin with is the entirely serious question of what the mode of transmission is; are we talking zombie nibbles here or is droplet infection a concern? And do we presume a 100% infection rate on exposure? Is there a 100% rate of mortality? I’m not sure that even the sweating sickness boasted those stats. How soon after infection does zombie-dom start? All films and literature seem to indicate seroconversion within minutes; that would tend to limit the disease to one geographical area. Zombies are notoriously bad at catching flights. The final concern to be addressed is whether or not our zombs are super-speedy as in 28 Days Later, or if you can go out armed with a cricket bat to do your grocery shopping as in Shaun of the Dead. “Barbara, I ran it under a cold tap.”

In short, our American researcher has made some huge assumptions in order to generate that figure of 100 days. So my advice is to read this research with a pinch of salt when preparing for your very own zombie apocalypse.  But this did make me think that possibly I should talk about some of the research that is being done by scientists on our very own research vessel.

Recently I’ve been talking to Tracey Dornan about her myctophids. Otherwise known as lantern fish, for the light generating organs on their bodies, these fish are of particular interest because of the key position that they occupy in the Antarctic food web. They prey upon zooplankton and in turn are preyed upon by the seals and the penguins. Many people will tell you that the Antarctic food chain turns on a tiny, shrimp like organism called krill. The young krill feed on the algae that bloom under the sea ice. If the sea ice melts or shifts further out to sea, the krill either diminish in numbers or shift with the ice. This is a major problem for land based predators that rely on the krill; penguins and seals have their young on land and the worry is that as the krill numbers dwindle or move they may struggle. Enter the lanternfish. Recent studies have shown that lanternfish may be more numerous than was previously supposed and they may well be able to fill the niche previously occupied by the krill.
Lanternfish (the small things that look like ball bearings are the light organs!)


The other interesting aspect of the lanternfish is their role in the carbon cycle. Lanternfish come up to the surface in the night in order to feed on the zooplankton which live in the top strata of the water. Having fed, they then descend with their carbon load to the deeper waters that form their day-time home. The carbon-bearing material that they have consumed is then digested and respired in these deeper waters and the carbon is thus locked away into the deep ocean.

Tracey’s work looks at the use of acoustics to identify lanternfish in the water. Up until now, scientists have relied on trawling for fish and then picking over the catch to see what species predominate in the water. This is a corner stone of marine research and is necessary to ground truth acoustics (i.e. verify by another source) and to analyze marine community composition. However this can only ever give a snapshot in space and time.

 Acoustics refers to the process by which the ship generates a sound wave which is then bounced back to the ship by any surrounding bodies. It’s pretty much like an underwater echo. The theory is that different organism types produce a different acoustic return according to their typical density or size. And so it might be possible to infer what type of fish are out there over much larger areas without actually needing to pluck every single animal out of the water. Regrettably lanternfish are a challenge to identify with acoustics. When the fish are young some species have large swim bladders which are filled with air and therefore they have a strong acoustic signal. As they get older and bigger, their swim bladder shrinks. So although their size is greater and therefore their acoustic signal should be correspondingly bigger, it isn’t. Tracey’s work is to try and characterise the acoustic properties for the lanternfish that she has caught so that in future we can use the acoustic signal to recognise similar types of organisms in the water. Being able to spot these little guys in the water should mean that we can estimate their numbers more effectively and to see both if they will be able to fill vital niches in the Antarctic ecosystem and their role in the carbon cycle in the face of climate change.

Returning to the theme of today’s foray into academia, I have to consider my plans for any future apocalypses. Many years ago, after reading a glut of science fiction novels, my sister and I came up with the JONES MASTER PLAN FOR SURVIVAL. She will be raiding a library for books on farming whilst I do over a hospital for medical supplies. We will reconvene and, grabbing my parents en route, head for a lonely island with a windmill so that we can have electricity. We’re taking my parents because neither of us is quite brave enough to face the wrath of a zombie-mother. Regrettably I don’t think the plans were updated since we finished reading all that John Wyndham so frankly the boyfriends are likely to be left behind unless they’re present as the outbreak happens. This IS survival people. And no; I’m not telling you the name of our island. Get your own windmill!

 

*I promise; I’m not actually crazy. I don’t have a survival pack. Nor do I watch Bear Grylls/Ray Mears reality TV shows excessively.

**As I type we’re rounding Adelaide Island and heading for Rothera!
Icebergs

Icebergs off Adelaide Island

Adelaide Island filling the horizon