My alarm goes off at 11:30 but I of course hit the snooze button. The night was filled with the occasional jolt, the bone crunching sound of ice crumbling underneath the hull, the cricket chirping of the SONAR and the deafening bow thrusters that turn my small cabin into the insides of a Dyson vacuum. By now, this seems normal.
After jumping off the top bunk and changing I make my way down one set of stairs to the Galley for mid-rations or mid rats, the fourth meal of the day. With the ship on two 12 hour shifts we skip the traditional 3 meal a day approach. Tonight it’s chicken porridge, bacon, eggs, pasta, and turkey sandwiches; a good assortment for those of us just getting up and for the others getting ready for bed.
Time to work! My lab-mates have generously completed the 2 meter and 1 meter net tows and there are now buckets of zooplankton to sort. I grab my favorite forceps, a counter (a similar concept to the kind umpires use to keep count) and some upbeat tunes. We blast 80s pop and rock on a regular basis though the occasional interlude to the 90s and backstreet boys does occur. Spontaneous dance parties do occur.
Once the lab is all set we start identifying and counting. There are five different types of krill and numerous other critters to sort through. My favorite to find are the beautiful worms called tomopteris that swim in a graceful undulating slither. The shelled pteropods are cute too. They have dumbo ears that peek out of their whorl shaped shells that help them swim. We’ve even caught glittery fish with electric blue eyes and a jellyfish the size of a grapefruit. Mostly, it’s just krill and copepods, marine bugs with surprisingly long antennae.
It’s tea time. By 4 we’ve sorted and preserved our samples and the ship is en route to the next sampling station. The duration between mid rats and breakfast is a significant chunk of time without sustenance. Those of us on the night shift have created our very own snack break in the middle of the morning. We congregate in the galley. The snack changes daily. Yogurt and blueberries, saltines and peanut butter, toast and jam, hot chocolate, freshly baked cookies that appear on the counter if we are lucky. Rarely is tea consumed. The conversation is always loud and filled with laughter.
I usually hop up to the bridge to say hello to the mates and if I’m lucky see the sun rise. The majority of the ship contains port holes but the bridge has 180 degree windows. It is the best view on the ship. In the early hours we may even see an occasional emperor penguin, lost or curious this far North.
We begin the next round of sampling by 5 in the morning. Besides zooplankton net tows we also take light measurements using apparatus like an LISST that looks at the types of particles that are in the water. By particles I mean the types of algae, sediments and detritus that is suspended in the water column. We also use a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) apparatus that collects water at various depths. For a bit of fun we affectionately name each CTD. The names are always a tad colorful.
The scientists studying bacteria, trace metals, and phytoplankton use the water samples to determine what exists at various depths.
There is a saying that oceanography is just throwing really expensive gadgets over the side and hoping we bring them back up. Studying the ocean is difficult since humans are more suited for the oxygen and pressure levels above the sea surface than below. We do our best and are mostly successful, though I’ve heard the occasional horror story that ends in “whoops”.
It’s time for the net tows. We bundle up in very stylish bright, yellow, waterproof slicks, steel toed boots, hefty float coats and hard hats. Using a winch tethering system we lift the nets (first one then once the first comes back onboard the other) over the back of the ship and dip them into the water. Our smaller net reaches depths of about 300 meters, or a little less than three football fields below the surface. It takes about a half hour for the nets to reach the bottom and then come back up. If we are lucky they have been spared the stench of a recent phytoplankton bloom which dyes the water in our nets a lovely green brown. We are not always so lucky and must first filter the algae before we begin our sorting.
Work is interrupted by breakfast (my lunch). Eggs, bacon, oatmeal are standard but it is a surprise whether there are pancakes, French toast, donuts, or bagels.
Work resumes. Dance parties resume.
Lunch! Or is it dinner. The rest of the ship awakens. We have a communal meal and recount stories from the night to those who were asleep. If we saw something cool like killer whales we are met with sentiments of jealousy.
I am off shift. It is tradition to watch a movie at some point during the day. Recently I was introduced to The Gremlins. Apparently I led a deprived childhood though I wonder if I was better off for it. The kitchen scene itself is worthy of several sleepless nights.
Before bed I catch up with my new friends, send email, read or play an intense game of cribbage (the game of the boat). I usually make it back up to the bridge to grab some sunlight and watch the icebergs float by. When we are close to shore the mountains spring from the sea floor to the sky. The peaks average an altitude of 10,000 feet, a height I still fail to comprehend.
Bed time. I take a quick shower. By now power stance is second nature. Otherwise you end up wrapped in the shower curtain not knowing the difference between up or down.
I have been in Antarctica for a full month. While it has been an amazing time I am beginning to believe endless horizons filled with ice and penguins are the norm. I would love to hear from people from above the equator. Ask me questions and I will answer. Hope all is well.