Thursday 27 March 2014

Is there anyone out there?

If so I thought you might enjoy news from the most recent DIMES cruise. Check out Siobhan and Katy's blog at:



Wednesday 1 May 2013

Day 46: Farewell

A beautiful sunset is taking shape over Stanley Harbour. Salinity samples have been run, tracer blobs analysed. The glass wear has been cleaned and packed firmly away. The labs have been swept, surfaces cleared and data backed. Tomorrow we will fly home, fatigued, relieved and with an increasing sense of satisfaction and achievement.

As we sailed towards the the Falklands on Friday night. All work was called to a halt and a feast was put on by Hamish and the stewards. Officers wore their finest stripes and the rest of us tried not to look too shabby. After aperitifs and a fine meal - somehow fashioned from the last vestiges of the ships stores -the tracer team held an awards presentation. Xinfeng was congratulated for tireless sampling, Doctor John  for his medical grade precision and Pierre for muscular bottle transportation (he needed to beat Gwyn and Andrew to an arm wrestle to secure the title).  Yours truly was awarded the 'best dressed sampler award' for my full-body fluorescents-yellow rain gear. JB was notably disappointed as his 'dedication to cashmere jumpers' only got a special mention. Brian K was deservedly awarded the 'lifetime acheivment award for dedication to the tube and bottle. The awards where a bespoke combination of inflated rubber glove, pvc tubing and contorted coke can.

Pierre Crushes Andrew with a grin.

Masters of Ceremonies Siobhan (left) and Ben (right) pose with the fashion guru, the Old-rubber-hand, the CTD junky, Beefcake and the closet Vampire Doctor John.

The impression left by the Falklands was less bleak than when we arrived. A gentle run to Gipsy Cove the evening we arrived, found Gwyn Andrew and I looking out over tranquil sandy beach with golden evening hues warming the distant rocky landings. The old team of peak baggers: Andrew, Pierre, Paul and myself spent Sunday hiking up one of the Twin Sisters past Stanley. The day had more of the chill-breeze and silver-skies we expect at this latitude. The walk climaxed with a view across this Island. It was across these summits that British troops trudged to Stanley. Wasted shells, rusty machine gun tripods and decaying leather boots, not to mention numerous cordoned off mine fields, leave a clear fingerprint of this recent conflict.

Highlights of the trip - too numerous - I will not list them all. Scientifically, the surprisingly vast spread of the tracer blob will be the headline. The intense mixing due to breaking billows observed above a dense plume at the Scotia Ridge will no doubt motivate ongoing discussion and future experiments. In our memories, the visit of the Humpback and the glorious day on South Georgia will dearly rest. It is with unabashed sentimentality that I say this, but the strength of relationships forged and the unflinching good humour maintained by all throughout that will leave the greatest impression.

Until the next voyage
Yours truly
Jan Zika

From left: Marie-just-one-more-calibration-Jo, Floating-balls-Paul, Brian-let-me-tell-you-a-thing-or-two-about-pencils-K, Sean 'the fog maker', Jan-I-can't do that I've got a blog post to write...sorry-Zika, Andrew-3-figure-bar-tab-M, No-VMPs-today-James, 'I'm going downstairs to do salts I might be some time' Pierre, Andy-there-is-an-Alien-in-my-stomach-W, My-name-is-not-Gwen-Gwyn, Happy-with-a-rack-of-toast-Alex, Jean-God-Save-The-Queen-Baptiste, I-agree-with-James-John, 'What is a fart?' - Xinfeng, Brian-I-am-insecure-about- how-American-I-am-G, 'The Helmet is my Canvas' Ben, Duplicates-on-ten-Siobhan, My-name-is-not -Gwyn-Gwen and Phil 'The Polar Bear Hunter'

Friday 26 April 2013

Day 40: La Ultima Stazione!

This afternoon at 1pm we took the last-final-ultima CTD out of the water. Lucky Stazione 128. Epic.

From 5pm today science, sampling, tracer blob tracking and salinity calibration are all band. We are done. The festivities will be kicking off from 6pm and we'll roll into Stanley, no doubt bleary eyed, at 8am tomorrow. Then the packing, shipping, cleaning...and probably a bit of calibrating etc will begin its final throws.

It has been an incredibly successful voyage. Four significant cross sections of the deep ocean have been made. Moorings have been recovered. An unprecedented amount of data on mixing has been gathered by the VMP. We have observed the evolution of the blob for the fourth year and it has continued to suprise. Our one unfortunate occurrence was the sea-ice south of the Orkney Islands stopping us from retrieving Lamont's moorings. Any, way we got off better than Shackleton did when he had too much sea ice.

Well done everyone!

There will be a final sign off in a few days.


Photo: Still friends after 128 Stations. The mostly day CTD crew including (from front left): Paul, Doc John (from back right) Gwen, Siobhan, Gwyn, Andrew and Me.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Day 37: I can'ey do-it cap'n I've only got the power of 8,000 homes

One station from the end of the line, as we drank the last dregs of well mixed tracer blob from the Argentine Basin, the weather hits us. Winds over 50 knots. A growing sea. Foaming and mountainous. We can no longer drop CTDs. We could wait, bobbing and battered where we are. Better we make use of the time as the storm hits to begin the long steam home. We make a meager 5 knots into the wind. Walls of water crash over the bow. The ship goes from random walk generator to Martini shaker. Sleeping is boarder-line...if your bed has a boarder...if not...hold on.

Photo: It is fun to be in the bar and notice the windows being cleaned from the outside...and the inside if you don't hold onto your drink.

When a ship like this is in tough seas or trapped in thick ice, needless to say, it needs a lot of power. Yesterday the ship's third engineer, Mango (haven't figured out why he's called mango yet) took us on a tour of the ship's inner workings. It is difficult to imagine what lurks beneath. All we usually see are men popping up and down staircases and ladders wearing grease stained boiler suits. Are they greasing shackles? Shovelling coal?

Photo: Mango doing his best Mickey mouse impression.

The tour begins in the control centre. It feels and looks like a 1960's version of the future. Flashing lights, colour screens, countless dials and of buttons! There are large machines down here, very large. Just the rudder has 4 motors powering it's movement. The propeller shaft spins at the rear of the boat and is as thick as a large tree trunk. There are desalination chambers for our drinking water, and everything is powered by 4 huge engines, two 3 Megawatt and one 1 Megawatt, 8 Megawatts in total. Wondering what a Megawatt is? The former president of Indonesia? 1 Megawatt is enough to power about 1000 American homes. So the force we need to move through ice and keep us alive (and quite comfortable) could sustain a small town.

Photo: See, told you!

It is fascinating how much of the ship has been modified for science. Water and air are transported in oversized pipes to prevent vibration. Parts in contact with the sea are designed so that oil and water come in rather than out to prevent contamination. Special power supply to prevent surges and static. The ship has huge compressors for seismic surveys. These send out a shock and the reflection tells us about the sea bed and the earth below it. They used to do it with dynamite but Mango says they never let him play with them.

If all goes well we'll get to within day a day of Stanley on the 25th. We will then squeeze in a few more CTDs near the South American Continental Shelf. There's got to be some tracer in them there waters!


Sunday 21 April 2013

Day 35: Power for a small town of murderers

The voyage draws to its final week. We are across the 50S latitude.  We sit over a shallow hump 1500m down. To our north the sea plunges to 6km into the Argentine Basin. The circumpolar current surges beneath us once again. The cooler Antarctic Waters to the South twist and dance around the warm Atlantic waters. A tango of frontal interaction. Between the tosses and turns we search desperately for the blob of tracer. We only have a few opportunities left to taste the tracer before we steam to the Falklands.

Th Argentine Basin is deep. Six km down into the ocean means there is 6km of water above you. The pressure felt at that depth would be like having about 3,000 people walking all over. There would be the kids on top, the teenagers, the old fogies, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, the Neanderthals, the lot. Even a few large Dinosaurs and the bus they are all travelling in (if this doesn't make sense to you see the previous post on taking a bus with Genghis Kahn). To have a little fun with that sort of pressure, and to get a little memento of the voyage, Pierre got the scientist on board to decorate a polystyrene cup. He then attached the cup to the CTD before it went all the way to 6km.

Photo: Pierre's little Cup and it's original size.

To ease the tension of not finding much of the blob, a competition is proposed: who can guess how much we will find?  previous year's maximums have been around 1 and 0.5
(in Femto-Moles - 0.000000000000001 moles). This cruise it is barely above 0.15. Some have boldly predicted the tracer is centred up this way and we will catch it at around 0.5. Others are more pessimistic and predict there will be almost none. I am assuming the people who say higher are as right as the people who say lower. So my best guess is that we will find the blob at the same concentration we have all that's what I go for...I won't far I am right....

Photo: The 'tracer worm' showing what everyone guessed. (I won't gloat yet...)

Picking the peak tracer isn't the only game going around the ship. A game of 'Killers' has been instigated. Each player gets the name of another player. This is their mark. The mark must be found alone and the words 'your dead' uttered (preferably followed by an evil laugh). No witnesses.
The mark carried by the dead is passed on and the killer. They pursue their new mark and on the game goes...until only two are left. It may ease the monotony, but the tension could be cut with a dagger (to the back). Over a beer the first night of the competition, names are passed around with much laughter and comradeship. Within minutes-silence. No one wants to go to least not alone. Bladders become strained. By early morning countless dead...and only a few of us now stand...


Friday 19 April 2013

South Georgia, over the mountains and far away

We left our heroes standing looking dubiously at the peaks of South Georgia, unsure if they were worthy of tackling the legacy of Shackleton, even on a sunny day in April where the weather report contained nothing more sinister than 'Possible sideways snow blasting.  Light to variable.'.  Stirred by the accuracy of the UK weather forecasting system, nominally one of the reasons that such out of the way rocks as South Georgia were occupied in the first place, we squared our shoulders, kicked free of the seals gripping our shins, and pushed on up the steep slope leading from Grytviken into the foothills of the island.  

Grytviken Bay:  Pretty if you like that kind of thing. 

I have found that the word 'hill' is an extremely culturally dependent word.  In Tasmania, where Jan and I hail from, is considered perfectly acceptable to own a car with a faulty starter motor, as it is almost impossible to park it somewhere where roll starting down a substantial slope is out of the question.  In contrast, when I moved to Cambridge in the UK, I would often see panicked looks come across local's faces when I suggested sitting upstairs in the pub.  However, after being at sea for over a month where the most substantial climb you do daily is from the floor back up onto the barstool, the precipitous slopes of South Georgia looked formidable.  Puffing and rapidly shedding layers of wildly inappropriate Antarctic gear, our rapidly shrinking party arrived at our first stop, the dammed and picturesque Gull Lake sitting directly above Grytviken and Shackleton's dubiously oriented grave.  Wiping the sweat aside and peeling yet another ill applied layer of thermal underwear off, we peered squintingly into the sun at our destination, the peak of Mount Hodges.  Climbing up to the lake from Grytviken had seemingly brought the peak no closer at all, but had mysteriously magnified its height several times.  Several of the party began rummaging through their day packs and, feigning surprise at finding an absence of crampons and oxygen bottles, decided that Penguin River sounded like a much more appealing destination.  They paused briefly to innocuously gather the names of our next of kins and then shuffled off around the lake. 

Being made of sterner, and decidedly more dense stuff, Paul, Pierre, Jan and myself decided to press on, confident in our photocopied map that looked like it had been transcribed by a Parkinson's sufferer with a crayon and the third engineer's confident parting assertion that 'you can't miss the way up'.  In retrospect taking mountaineering advice from a man named Mango may have been unwise, but the day was sunny, we were young(ish) and what could possibly go wrong?  Fairly immediately something went wrong.  Our first goal after Gull Lake had been to find the glacier that ran down the south side of Mt Hodges and 'just stick to the right hand side of it'.  Glaciers are typically fairly intrusive bits of terrain, and not easily overlooked, but after searching through the bare, rocky valley we concluded that several million tonnes of ice were not to be found and that either we were a bit lost or Mango was substantially older than he looked.  Deciding on the latter we pushed up the valley looking for what remained of the glacial tongue after 150 years of global warming. 

Have you checked behind the couch? No glacier to be found.

As we trudged onwards we were increasingly aware that we were not gaining much height, but getting closer and closer to the peak.  Consequently the slopes leading from our valley floor up to the mountain on our right were getting steeper and steeper.  Jan's keen mathematical brain seized on this bit of geometry and suggested that it would make our life easier if we started climbing the ridge now, rather than wait for it to get even steeper further along the valley.  Nodding sagely and quietly wondering how we could get coauthor status on this geophysical insight, we all agreed and headed more or less directly up the steep rock strewn slope towards our goal. 

Moderately steep, and perfectly safe for trained professionals

Now, a quick physics lesson.  Objects, for example head sized rocks, gain energy the higher up they are raised.  This energy is called potential energy. Objects such as boulders perched on mountains have a lot of it. In general, objects, even stones of approximately skull size sitting at rest, want to get rid of this potential energy.  They usually do this by swapping their potential energy for kinetic, which is the energy of moving objects.  No one really knows why rocks feel compelled to do this, but on this slope they liked to do it as fast as possible, often with only the slightest of prodding to inspire them to take off to the distant valley floor.  Perhaps they read in the Geological Times that kinetic energy is the in thing this epoch? Or maybe it is just to, literally, keep up with that nice dolerite couple next door?  In any event noggin sized boulders were soon being liberally dislodged and leaping excitedly down to the valley below, bounding past the much less happy climbers at the rear.  By the time our man from the Alps, Pierre, decreed that 'Zis is not good.  Zees is quieet dangerous', we had gone too far and to go back down was probably more dangerous that continuing up.  Leaving a bit more room between us for the newly liberated rocks to enjoy their freedom, and wondering why BAS decreed hard hats essential for sampling water bottles but not mountaineering, we pressed onwards and upwards. 

Spectacular:  The view from Mt Hodges

As we stumbled past one last false crest, quietly cursing the venerable Mango's directions, we suddenly discovered that there wasn't any more up to climb.  We had reached the peak, and all around us we could see the magnificent panorama of South Georgia basking in the unexpected sunshine.  Deciding that simply standing on top of an exposed mountain on a Subantarctic island in Autumn wasn't a good enough reason to continue to ignore the blissfully warm sun, we tore the last of our beanies off.   Instead we donned shades and fumbled for the suncream needed at these latitudes thanks to the ongoing good work of chlorofluorocarbons in the ozone layer.  Giddy with the unexpected coincidence of both our survival and arrival at the correct destination we opened up our stashes of goodies and shared them out, even with Pierre who had decided that nine hours of mountain hiking didn't really warrant any supplies.  We noted that even here we could still hear the blood-thirsty cries of the seals in Grytviken, several km away and 600 m straight down. Their calls will no doubt haunt our waking dreams until our final days.      

Bloody tourists:  Andrew, Pierre, Jan and Paul.  Note the highly appropriate technical clothing.

After recording every angle of the vista in several gigapixels we engaged on the traditional argument of explorers who have achieved their destination; what the hell to do now?  Going against the obvious option of setting up an isolated township to spear whales, reducing their fat to an oil and selling this to make soap, we elected to avoid the horrible scree slope we came up.  Instead we would push on down the other face of the mountain and make our way back to the town from the opposite side we had left.  It couldn't be worse.  Right?

'I'm king of the world!'  Pierre was pushed to his well deserved doom immediately after.

In the end, and in defiance of all good storytelling convention, it actually wasn't worse.  We came down off the mountain in quick time, and soon were traipsing across the easy going lunar landscape on the valley leading down the far side of the mountain.  In these mountains not a single plant grows, and there is nothing really but rocks and small tarn lakes, formed from the snows of last winter and glaciers remembered only by misleadingly youthful ship's engineers.  Delirious with his first encounter with sunshine since moving to the United Kingdom, or possibly his choice of mountaingoing sweatpants, Jan decreed that it was time for a swim.  Paul and I declared him firmly insane and quickly moved to claim his chocolate rations, but Pierre was already down to his boxers and dancing towards the pond across the rocks.  Incidentally, as well as being loose and heavy, the rocks were also razor sharp.  Deciding that the epitaph of 'Men pour beer on national hero's grave, molest seals, freeze to death in alpine lake; Good riddance' was as good as any, Paul and I started carefully removing clothing too.  Soon all four of us stood on the waters edge, spongy and white after four weeks of living indoors on two desserts a day.  Then, like lemmings, we plunged into the water.  The photos below are probably a good enough description of how it felt.  



Invigorating is probably the most charitable way to put it.  Jan immediately christened the pool 'Spanner Lake' for its tightening effects.  Despite the water being, oddly enough, chest tighteningly, hand crushingly, cold, once we clambered out it was warm enough to simply drip dry.  We passed a fairly magical fifteen or so minutes regressing to our youths while we stood with the sun on our backs and skipped stones across the pond.  For a few moments the rest of the world felt very far away.  At some point, however, we realised that we were a bunch of thirty year old physicists standing on a mountain in our underwear. So we struggled into our clothes and set off down the hill again, all in great spirits and on adrenalin highs from our dunkings.  After a few wrong turns, notably where we forgivably mistook a vertical ravine for the path back to town, we made it down into the valley leading to Grytviken.  This was helpfully labelled in crayola on our geriatric maps as 'single scientist limit'.  This presumably means that lone scientists are allowed to wander that far from the base and people wouldn't have to look too far to find their bodies. 

Miaviken Bay.  The mud immediately ahead is the track.

Not yet suitably exhausted, Pierre and I struck off to Miaviken, a fjord to the north, while Paul and Jan decided that a trip to the post office in town was in order and headed back south.  They hadn't previously struck me as philatelists, but it's a perfectly valid lifestyle choice and one shouldn't judge.  Pierre and I enjoyed the change from mountains to grassy meadows and discovering that the seals of that cove were at least as unfriendly as those around Grytviken, but substantially larger as well as being masters of camouflage in the long grass.  

Things you don't want to step on in the long grass.  An Elephant seal no less.

As dusk began to fall we said goodbye to this beautiful, wild and amazing place and headed back to King Edward Point.  Here we were welcomed by the base locals with a roaring fire and barbecue.  On the menu were the poor introduced reindeer, who having somehow survived the seals for almost a century were now being removed from the island in the tastiest possible way.  The whole ship's compliment stood with our backs to the fire, listening to the growls of the seals from the darkness and reflecting on a day of opportunity well and truly seized. 

The RSS James Clark Ross tied up at the King Edward Point barbecue hut






Wednesday 17 April 2013

Day 32: All that way just to spell your name?

The scientist and crew are all very grateful to JB. He has managed to coordinate the cruise well so far. We have seen sea-ice, whales and South Georgia. Today he is attempting to cash in some of that kudos. He wants to fulfill a lifelong dream: to write his name in the ocean...

Photo 1: JB, hoping to write his name in ship track. Gwyn is dubious as to his motives.

Jesting aside (as Brian K would say), our  cruise track is changing quite significantly from our original plan. The reason (at least the one JB is sticking too) is that the tracer concentration is very low where we are. It is about one tenth the concentration it was this time last year. Back then it was clearly centred between South America and Antarctica. This time we are measuring the tailing end of the blob. It has slipped between our fingers into the Atlantic. (For those who remember the Squash/cordial analogy we are following it downstream and the taste is weak but getting stronger). We have 10 days North we will pursuit. The Fact that on JB's last cruise he drew a J shape and this time it will look like a B...coincidence?

Photo 2: We hope that this "B-line" will take us to the core of the blob. If not, it may be lost forever.

We will find the blob! Stay tuned