Wednesday, June 25, 2008
You can set it to + and use it with B!
(this all makes sense as long as you look at it and listen to this)
We generally use chunks of glacier ice that we pull out of the ocean for making drinks and things in the bar. On the deck outside the bar doors, we have a big tray with a couple hammers and ice picks, and whenever you want some ice for your drink or whatever, you go out and break off a few chunks.
Sea ice, of course, is salty, and generally cloudy or white, as it's just formed from frozen seawater. but the ice that falls off the glacier into the ocean is fresh, quite literally thousands of years old, and has been under many tons of pressure for that whole time. Which makes it perfectly clear, because there's no air bubbles or cracks in it, and also makes it last a lot longer in a drink. Or at least that's what they say. Really, I think people just like mixing drinks with thousand-year-old ice.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Boating time is from half an hour after sunrise to half an hour before sunset, and as long as the wind is under 20 knots. Unfortunetly, this time of year there's only a couple hours of sunlight, and the odds of the wind being under 20 knots during the middle of the day on on of our very few days off is pretty rare.
However, last saturday, all the planets aligned and someone did a good-weather dance, and we were able to get out for a spin. It was I, the electrician, one of the beakers, the admin person, and one of the logistics girls. I coordinated and orginized the whole thing as . . . well because I'm enthusiastic to the point of idiocy about getting to go boating. We drove around, took some pictures, and just enjoyed being out in the ocean and getting cold and wet.
Given that I was driving, I didn't get many chances to take pictures, and the few I got weren't very interesting. But some of the others snapped a few of me when we were out, and when I was picking the boats up out of the water with the boating coordinator.
Wow do I look like a dork.
When I go boating, I generally wear the following
-Thin socks (almost like dress socks)
-Chemical warmer stuck in between the thin and thick socks (can't have them directly on skin)
-Thick wool socks
-My (waterproof) boots
-skintight glove liner (basically a very thin stretchy glove)
-medium-thickness polyester glove liner
-insulated dish glove
-suit's hood (if it's windy)
-Would be nice if I had a mask, but the one they issued me has tinted lenses, and it's way too dim here this time of year for them.
-skintight long underwear
-thicker long underwear
-tight fleece tee-shirt
-long-sleeved slick undershirt (dunno what the material is, but it's slippery, which is good, prevents it from bunching up)
-long-sleeve thick-ish shirt/thin sweater
-possibly a Polar fleece (depending on how cold it is)
On top of all that I wear a full-body Mustang Suit, which is that bright orange thing that you see me wearing. They are AWESOME. They're really thick, wind and waterproof, and they're designed to float, so they act as a life preserver. And the padding is thick enough that when you slip and fall on your ass, it doesn't hurt. And they're surprisingly easy to move in, and have a lot of adjustability to create a good fit, I like them a lot. Some people wear just the Mustang coat, but I prefer the full-body ones.
One of the things you sometimes have to contend with when you're boating is "brash ice", which is a big stream or area of small chunks of floating ice. It's not a big deal, you just have to go really slowly (idle speed generally), and have a couple people leaning out over the bow with paddles to push the larger chunks out of the way. Which is what I and the beaker were doing in this picture (I'm on the left).
BTW, that little black smudge near the left edge of the picture at the foot of the glacier, right on the water? That's our station.
Unfortunetly, the wind started to pick up while we were out, so we had to head home. And given how unlikely it was that anyone would be going boating later in the day, I helped pick the boats up out of the water.
(I'm the guy still in the boat)
One person stays in the boat and holds it against the rocks with the engine to let everyone and their stuff out, and then one of the people who's jumped out grabs the bow line to help stabilize things. The person in the boat then backs off the rocks, and the skytrack guy extends the boom to the boat, so the person in the boat can reach up and clip the cradle lines onto the hook. Once the boat is clipped onto the skytrack, it's not going anywhere, so the guy in the boat gets the engine shut down and jumps out, so they can then lift the boat up and carry it to where ever they're going to put it.
And now, just some random pictures of me doing this stuff. I actually needed to help bring in two boats, because as long as there's any other boats out, the OSAR (Ocean Search And Rescue) boat #7 has to be in the water, prepped and ready to go in case of an emergency. So we needed to pull in our boat, and the OSAR boat. Pulling in two boats involved a lot of tricky jumping from boat to boat to get stern lines unhooked and untangled and things, but no one got pics of that.
Hrm, another photo where I look like a dork. Maybe I should admit that I almost always look like a dork. Whatever. The paddle on my lap was what I was using to try and push that chunk of ice out of the way so that I could get to the stern line rope to unhook the lines.
Unhooking the stern lines of the OSAR boat
Me maneuvering the OSAR boat in around the sea ice so it can be picked up by the Skytrack. That white rope going across the frame is the stern line, where we'll usually tie the boats off to if we're leaving them in the water.
Me climbing out of one of the boats after I'd finished hooking up the lift cradle, and shutting down and locking the engine. That's one of the beakers holding the bow line so that I can get out of the boat without dieing. (the eagle eyed of you will notice that I'm getting out of a different boat then the one I'm in in the other pictures)
That's the boating coordinator in the skytrack, letting us know where he's going to be putting the boat once he lifts it out of the water (so that we know where to stand with the guide lines)
Anyway, yeah, so that's rec boating. It's wet, it's cold, it's windy, bumpy, often seasickness-inducing, and totally awesome in all ways.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Friday, June 20, 2008
Apparently, I now own a suit.
I'm not sure exactly how, or why, but the network engineer who just left had brought a suit down with him that he'd had made for himself in the 80s. He's been in the USAP for like ten years, and had left this suit here over the years, and finally realized that he no longer fit into it.
By some absurd, freakish chance, it fits me perfectly.
My ex-GF back stateside looked at this photo and said that I look too rigid and uptight in it. My response is "Well, duh, it's a suit, you're supposed to be uptight and stiff and formal!"
Click the photo to go to my flickr page for a couple more pictures of me looking like a snotty British banker.
As I've said before, Palmer Station was built where it is because it's a hotbed of wildlife, most of it in the ocean. Most of the research done here is marine biology, although there is some atmospheric stuff. And to access all of this wildlife, we maintain a small fleet of zodiac inflatable boats.
First, a word about the boats; they're fAWESOME. And shockingly expensive. The ones that we have, the top-end Mark 5 boats with the hard floor and kevlar-reinforced tubes and stuff, are over $20,000 sans engine. But they're also very, very rugged, versitle, reliable and flexible (in the sense that they have so many uses). But after my experiences with them, I'd FAR rather own one of these, then own a small fiberglass-hulled boat of some sort. As an example, if a standard boat breaks loose from it's moorings and gets tossed against the rocks, like what happened to boat 99 a few weeks ago, it would be totally written off, destroyed and at the bottom of the ocean. That zodiac, that was crushed and half deflated that I posted pictures of? It's all fixed and back in service.
Anyway, here we use them for just about anything you could imagine needing them for. The main intention is of course so the beakers can go out to the islands around station and collect samples of penguin poop or whatever, or more recently, for Scuba diving.
I've mentioned Dive Tending in posts before, and basically what it involves is going along with the scuba divers and being "the guy that stays in the boat" while they dive. And yes, the water here is below freezing, and they wear heavy drysuits with thick underwear and fleeces, along with chemical warmers. As long as the weather cooperates, there's a dive almost every day, they're doing a lot of algee and coral and seaweed collections for sciency-type stuff.
A typical dive will consist of four people; two divers, both of whom are beakers, and two tenders; a beaker and a volunteer from the general station population. While the divers are getting suited up, the tenders will get the gear together and load it into the boat. We don't let the divers do any real work before the dive, as you can VERY easily get too hot and start sweating when you have the drysuits on, and that's a bad thing, as it means you'll be cold as hell when in the water.
Loading the boats is tricky, as there's no proper boat ramp, just an area where they've tried to move some rocks around to make it as accessible as possible. And given that these guys are diving in salt water, with very thick drysuits and lots of insulation, they need a LOT of weight to maintain neutral bouyency. Even using steel tanks, m Most of the guys wear at least 40lbs of weight on their belts, plus another few pounds on their ankles and wrists. So, for the record, hoisting a 45cu steel tank w/BCD and regulators over icy, uneven and jagged rocks with a powerful surge tugging at your ankles is quite a challenge sometimes.
Anyway, after everything's loaded onto the boat, the divers will come out, get in, and we head out. The first time I went out dive tending, as we were casting off, the beaker tender said "Hey Brendan, you wanna drive?" . . . . the fact that they even needed to ask astonished me. Driving the zodiacs is a BLAST, even moreso if the seas are choppy. You stand at the stern of the boat and hold onto the tiller with one hand (it's a twist throttle, like a motorcycle) and generally hold onto one of the ropes run along the side of the boat with the other, and . . . well, just hang on and try not to fall overboard.
Once you get to the dive site, we'll do a "leprechaun" (lep recon, Leopard Seal Recon), which consists of driving around a bit, making sure there's no leopard seals taking naps on any of the rocks nearby, and hoping that there's none in the water (other seal types we don't worry about). The divers will put on their tanks and BCDs (which they actually don't use as they inflate their drysuits to control bouyancy), their head gear, and then I and the other tender will have to put their gloves on for them (it's impossible for them to do themselves). They head down to between 80-120 feet, depending on the location, and will be down for anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes. During this time, I and the other tender just hang out in the boat, and follow the diver's bubbles around.
Once they surface, they'll take most of their gear off in the water, clipping it onto lines that we've tossed to them, so that we can haul it into the boat. Most of the time, they'll only do one dive, so then we head home, unload the boats, and help them carry in whatever samples they've pulled up. If the weather will be turning nasty later, or if we won't be using the boats for a couple days, we'll pick the boats up out of the water using one of the Skytracks.
Now, maybe I'm strange, but I think dive tending is awesome, I sign up for it at every chance I can possibly get. I can't fathom the people here (and they're in the majority) who refuse to go dive tending. I jump at every opportunity . . . although that's mainly because I like driving the zodiacs. And just generally being out in them, it's . . . hard to explain why it's so great. You're sitting in this little inflatable boat, the air is generally around 20f, water isn't much warmer then that, you've got no protection from the wind or sea spray, which is relentless if the seas are choppy. And the job basically can be summed up as "Carry heavy stuff from point A to B. Sit around being cold for an hour. Carry heavy stuff from point B to A", So by all definition, it should suck. But it's totally sweet.
On our days off, the boats are available for recreational use, assuming the weather cooperates. You have to have at least two people who've completed the Boating II class, and as long as the boating coordinator feels that you're not a complete idiot and are vaugly responsible, off you go. Sadly, most weekends so far have had winds that were much too strong for "rec boating".
This photo was snapped by the beaker tender last time we were out dive tending. The weather was . . . well, look at the picture. It was perfect. Once the divers were in the water and I had some time to sit and think, I had yet another "WTF . . . I'm in Antarctica" moments. If you'd told me a year ago that I'd be driving around the Antarctic Ocean in a zodiac, avoiding icebergs and brash ice while watching out for leopard seals, helping scientists scuba dive for coral samples amd watching the sun rise/set over a massive glacier, I'd have never believed you.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
For the love of god, view at full size)
Clear nights here are fairly rare, especially at this time of year. We're at the convergance of a few different ocean currents and weather patterns, so there's almost always some sort of clouds hanging around.
But a few nights ago, it was one such night, brilliantly clear and cold. And on nights like that, this is what the sky looks like. The whole sky. Horizon to horizon.
At around 11pm, I strapped on all my camera gear, bundled up in as much clothing as I could, snagged some chemical warmers for my boots from the divers, and took a walk to the east, up the side of the glacier.
I could try and describe what it was like, but nothing I say can do it justice. I could try and describe feeling like you're the only thing alive on the whole continent, of realizing just how small and insignificant you really are, this tiny black dot on an immense expanse of ice and snow. Of looking up and being slightly confused at the thin cloud that stretches across the whole sky and looks like it's behind the stars, then realizing that I was seeing the Milky Way for the first time in many years. I could try and describe the solitude of plodding along slowly up this massive plane of white, looking back and seeing off in the distance this little bubble of light, our station, a minuscule blip of civilization on this harsh continent.
But no count of my words could possibly bring to accurate fruition the experience in your minds. Whatever you're thinking it was like, multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere close.
So I do my best to try to capture the experience in pixels, and while you may look at the image and say it's neat, I promise you, it's far more incredible in real life.
Even so, I wasn't able to capture it as well as I'd liked. My only fast lens is the cheap 50mm f/1.8, and to really capture this place, I need something wider (especially on a crop-sensor camera), but my only wide lens is my 17-85 f/4-5.6, and even with 30 second exposures it wasn't capturing nearly enough light. And my hands and the camera started to get cold VERY quickly. Hiking up there I was fine, but standing around waiting for 15 second shutters gets you cold pretty quickly.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
This video was given to me by Chef Vova at the Ukrainian station, Vernadsky. I'm not sure exactly when it was taken, or who took it, but it was in the waters around their base.
Penguins aren't really afraid of people. During the summer here, you can walk through flocks of them, and sometimes they barely even acknowledge your presence. They've only had contact with humans for the past couple hundred years, not enough for them to instinctively fear us as predators. And now, they're a protected animal, so they've got nothing to fear from us.
Killer Whales, on the other hand, see penguins as lunch.
This is a time-lapse video taken a couple days ago after the Gould got back to Palmer after a short fishing trip, of it just coming in, tying up and offloading some crates of fish. It was put together by a guy here whom everyone just calls Waslo, for complicated reasons.
I am in the video, briefly. Just after the middle of the video, when one of the Skytracks picks up the Zodiac that's on the ground and puts it into the water, there's one guy in an orange suit helping to guide the boat with a rope, and I'm the one in the bright orange suit standing there watching, then sitting on the snow next to the water for a while while the divers get ready, and then leaving on the zodiac boat.
The credits are basically a huge line of inside jokes about Palmer Station and the people here. They called me what they call me because I sign up for dive tending at every single chance I get, and in the couple of months I've been here, I've been out dive tending more then anyone else.
Personally, I think the video would have been better with "Yakety Sax" (Benny Hill music), but the guy who made the video vetoed that idea.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Thursday, June 12, 2008
(And to think, some people actually have to ask why I came down here)
Remember that thing I said about the sunrises and sunsets lasting all day long? (Best viewed at full res) I'd like to mention that the above shot is not post-processed AT ALL. That image is directly off the camera, that's exactly what the sky looks like here. It really is that intense, as the air is fantastically clear so you don't get any atmospheric haze diluting the colors. (That and my camera kicks ass. And I actually read the manual and know how to use it. Sort of)
Anyway, last weekend, we took an overnight trip to Vernadsky, the Ukrainian station that's about 90 miles south of us. We left Palmer Station at around 4pm on Saturday, and got to Vernadsky at around 11:30am Sunday (Icebreakers aren't exactly built for speed) . The scenery on the way there was . . . something else entirely.
Yeah, that little black dot in the foreground? That's a whale. They were ALL OVER the place, eventually the ship slowed to a crawl to avoid accidentally hitting them or something.
Sadly, I had my camera's settings completely wrong when I took the above photo, it took a fair bit of post-processing to get it looking good, but it did leave it looking a little . . . grainy or blasted out, sort of.
And of course, the best for last . . .
Gentoo penguins, specifically. When we were zodiacing back from Vernadsky to the R/V Gould, this flock was running parallel to our zodiac for quite a ways, they seemed both curious and freaked out. I did what had to be the fastest lens change I've ever done (taking off my 17-85 and throwing on my 70-200) while sitting on the bow of the zodiac, trying not to fall overboard as we were bouncing all over the place at almost full throttle, following these guys as they were porpoising along.
Out of the hundred or so shots I took following these guys, those two shots above are the best, IMO. My camera's settings wern't QUITE right for the situation, as this was really one of those OMFG GET THE LENS ON AND POINT IT AT THEM AND PRESS THE BUTTON I DON'T HAVE TIME TO MESS WITH SETTINGS!!!!! Fortunetly, I wasn't that far off, although the ISO was higher then I would have liked and I was on the wrong focus mode.
I think these below are pretty cool, although not print-worthy.
Alright, sorry for the deluge of pictures, but hey, it's better then a rant. That's it for tonight, in the next couple days I'll get up pictures of the actual station itself, instead of all the neat stuff we saw going to and coming from the station.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Just a few weeks after I'd gotten down to the ice, I got word from back home that my grandfather was very ill. A few days later, he passed away. He'd battled Parkinson's for quite some time now, and while we all know these things are inevitable, it doesn't make them any easier.
While I'm sorry that I wasn't able to be there, I know that he'd be very proud of where I am and what I'm doing. He was in the Army and had been stationed in the Pacific at Guadalcanal during World War 2, and always had a bit of wanderlust/travel bug in him. Maybe those sort of things are hereditary.
So this photo is dedicated to him. So long, Poppa.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
If I had to make a list of everything that's suprised me on my travels down here, the quality of the food would have to be pretty high on the list. I was expecting a food quality somewhere between MREs and high-school cafeteria food. Boy, was I ever wrong.
The food is is GOOD. Like, really good. And there's so much of it! It's actually a problem. I'm a scrawny guy, always have been, used to eating only once a day out of shear laziness. And now I get here, where they're throwing hot meals at you five times a day!
Breakfast is from 6:30-8am, and consists of something baked, like french toast, or pancakes, or english muffins, or something like that. There will also always be something egg-related (scrambled, fried, etc), something potato-based (often hash browns or grits or a green/yellow peppers and potato scramble), as well as breakfast meats and a pile of various sorts of fresh fruits (which are abundant here, thanks to the monthly resupply). And of course, there's a ton of different cerals and bagels and breads for toast and coffees and teas and etc.
We'll have our first break at 10am, and often the cooks will make some sort of a coffee cake, or put out the leftovers from breakfast, or some smoothies and other snackfoods.
Lunch is Noon-1pm, and varies every day. Sometimes it's deli day, with a huge selection of cold cuts, cheeses, veggies, and everything else that could possibly go on a sandwich. Or they'll pre-make hot sandwiches of some sort, or have soups and stews, as well as salads and other rabbit food.
Second break is at 3pm, and again, they'll make some sort of snack foods, often fruit and veggie platters, or fresh breads and cheeses, etc.
Dinner is from 5:30-6:30, and again, is something wilding different every night. Few nights ago was mexican, so it was a make-your-own-tacos-and burritos, and recently we had tuna-noodle casserole, and last night was psudo-thanksgiving, with those two big turkeys, and mashed potatos, gravy, stuffing, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, etc.
I'd say the most problematic part of this whole thing is the deserts. Diane (our cook, in the picture) ran a bakery for a while, so every night, there's some sort of new cake, or pie, or zucchini bread, or a big pile of cupcakes sitting out.
And almost EVERYTHING is from scratch, hardly anything is frozen, it's all fresh (at least, right now it is, as the resupply got here last week). I mean, even the buckets of whipped cream served next to the giant tubs of ice cream is made from scratch.
In normal life, not Antarctica, you're always constrained by SOMETHING in relation to food. Either it's not very good, or it's too much of a pain in the butt, or it's too expensive, or there's not enough. But here? It's all there, it's zero-effort, it's all absurdly good, and it's all free.
Most of that is the advantage of being at Palmer Station, which at a maximum capacity of 40 people (and we're at around 38 now), can have much more varied, unique, and better food then South Pole (up to 300 people) or McMurdo (up to 1200 people).
There's downsides to such a small station, though. Like that there's no dedicated kitchen cleaners. So everyone, at least once a week, takes turns on GASH. Officially, GASH is a Navy term meaning "Gally And Scullery Help", but the more common translation here is "Garbage And Sh*t"
Every night, there's between 4-6 people on GASH duty, which basically involves cleaning the kitchen and dining area, helping with the pots and pans, sweeping, mopping, putting away leftovers, etc. Generally takes around an hour or so, depending on how many new people who haven't done it before are GASHing. I've been on GASHes where it takes upwards of two hours (like on cross-town dinners, where the ship's crew comes over to eat).
It's not too bad, though, because everyone, without exepetion, does it at least once a week, station manager included. And people do their best to liven it up, they always put on music, and sometimes with some, um, assistance. There's a group of guys here that do what they call "Tequila GASH". Which basically means that every time a song comes on that referances, or is about tequila, they do a shot.
It started to become clear that they might have a problem when they started stacking the playlists with every tequila-related song they could find, by the end having a whole playlist with only tequila songs on it. It got even worse when they started editing themselves into normal songs to make them tequila songs, such as:
"Wastin' away, again, in TEQUILAvill . . . looking for my lost shaker of TEQUILA"
"Bye, bye miss american pie, drove my chevy to the levy but the levy was dry, them good ol' boys were drinking TEQUILA and TEQUILA singing this 'ill be the day that I TEQUILA"
"Aaaaaaaand IIIIIIIIIIII, will always, loooooove yooooooooouuuuTEQUILA"
"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is TEQUILA, and she's buuuuuuying the stairway, to TEQUILA"
Lets just say that they normally run out of tequila well before they run out of songs, thankfully. But by the end, they're all usually quite hammered.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Okay, as much as I'd love to tell some amazing story about how I and some others were out boating, and we got attacked by a leopard seal, and the seal did this sort of damage to the boat before Chuck Norris and I fought it off with our bare hands and saved the lives of everyone, that would be a little bit of enhancement. Although reality isn't that much more boring.
For the last week or so, we've been getting POUNDED by storms, bringing with them some harsh winds, sustained wind speed of 40mph, gusts to 60mph. When this goes on for days at a time, the seas really get rough, and the swells were getting serious.
A few nights ago, sometime after 11pm, one of our Zodiac inflatable boats was ripped from it's mooring lines by the storm. The swells and wind were so strong that they ripped the line anchors out of the boat, and then the backup mooring lines snapped against the force.
We discovered it missing the next morning, and found the boat half a mile up the inlet, getting banged up against some rocks, flipped over, and half crushed/deflated. A couple of guys took one of the other zodiacs out and towed it back to shore, where we discovered that it was missing the secondary engine, and the boat box (the boat box is a watertight box that is kept in each boat, containing search & rescue gear, along with emergency stuff and navigation electronics).
One of the scientists and I took a couple of the SCUBA divers out in our remaining boat, and spent about an hour searching the area between where the boat was found and the dock. By almost dumb luck, we did find the missing engine, in about 30 feet of water. The divers attached a lift bag to the engine to get it to the surface, where the scientist and I were able to haul it into the boat. The boat box was found later in the day, floating about a quarter-mile out to sea.
In reality, the damage isn't as bad as it looks. Zodiacs are absurdly tough boats, we should be able to get this all fixed. It's got two of the five cells punctured, and some of the metal decking is bent up and the motor mount for the emergency engine is cracked in half, but the engines should be fine, as it wasn't running when it was submerged.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Then we decided that it all sucked, sold all our possessions, and moved to Antarctica.
Our power plant/ATV/heavy equipment/everything mechanic was previously a field mechanic for Caterpillar, specializing in power generation. Just for the record, those guys make BANK. He was working on, fixing and installing huge generators, some in the 2.5 Megawatt range, all over southern California. He was making a lot of money, living a very cush life in San Fran, had a nice truck and a track racing car, the works. Then he realized that a life with that much stuff sucked. So he got rid of all of it, and moved to the South Pole. Now he's here.
Our electrician had a job at a hospital. For an electrician, it's a cush as hell job. Pay and benifits were great, and working in a hospital, he got to work on and mess with a lot of very high-end and specialty equipment that's way more interesting then what most residential electricians will ever touch. He's a biker, had a couple of nice dual-sport bikes that he does long road trips on, living in a really nice house way up in the mountains of Vermont, living on 75 acres of heavy woodland. A truck, two bikes, big dog, etc etc etc. And then he realized that a life with all that stuff sucked. And moved down here.
They say that the first time you come to Antarctica, it's for the experience.
The second time, it's for the money.
And the third time, it's because you don't belong anywhere else.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
As everyone knows, the problem with being the photographer is that you never have any pictures of yourself. Fortunetly, enough other people were out taking pictures of the seal that I actually have pictures of me. So here you can see just how close I actually was to the elephant seal who's pictures I posted a few days ago.
The camera that I'm holding is a Canon 30D and a 70-200 f/2.8 L IS lens, with the 2x extender (making it effectively a 140-400 f/5.6)
This photo was taken by Jill, one of the beakers.