Friday, June 20, 2008

Dive tending

Dive tending, originally uploaded by tsaven.

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.

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