Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Days 42-45

After two days of mildly rough seas (but not as rough as I had hoped to witness) across the Drake Passage, we arrived in Stanley, Falklands, on the morning of March 7, 43 days after we had set sails. To stretch our sea legs, four of us decided to walk to Cape Pembroke lighthouse, which took us 6 hours back and forth.
The next day, we visited a remote penguins colony, accessible only by 4-wheel-drive vehicles. It was another amazing experience ! The penguins were not at all afraid of us, and we could approach them almost to arm-reach length :

A singular view : a Magellanic penguin in company of a sheep !

But the most beautiful ones were the King penguins :

An entire colony of them, with the adults feeding their chicks :

"Do you fancy a swim, darling ?"

"Brrr, no, the water is too cold !"

A Magellanic penguin was posing for a picture :

And some Gentoo penguins were gossiping...

Finally, a curious penguin came toward us. He chased after Kjersti, then bumped into Rich's legs and stayed there for a while, as if he was looking for some cuddling. I was shooting the scene with my camcorder, and kneeled down in case he would come toward me, which he finally did. I extended slowly my finger toward his head, and he approached his beak, and grabbed gently my finger ! He was not trying to hurt me, but was rather playing, like a cat gently biting your finger. It was a magic moment !

The next and last day, I did some shopping in Stanley and visited the local museum, but two cruise ships had arrived during the night and the town was flooded with tourists.
We left for the airport on the morning of March 10, and arrived in England this morning, after 16 hours of flight, thus ending the most amazing and enjoying cruise of my life, so far !
I was sad to say goodbye to my new friends, but I am glad to see again Marion and Margot very soon now !

Friday, March 6, 2009

Le floc

Les paroles de cette blague me sont venues en français.
Sorry for the non-french-speaking people !

Hep-la, M'sieur !

Papiers, si'ou plaît ?

OK, circulez !

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Days 40-41

We arrived in the South Orkney Islands on March 3rd. Despite the bad weather, the landscape was breathtaking, with mountains and icebergs competing for majesty.

The ship anchored near the Signy Island research station, and the next day the crew took us onshore aboard a zodiac. We were greated by a group of elephant seals peacefully sleeping together. They are not the most graceful animals on earth, especially when taking into account the smell and noise !

Then we went for a walk through the wildlife. First encounter with a fur seal, which walk on their flippers, like sea lions, my favorite animal when I was younger.

Then we litteraly walked among hundreds of them. It was an amazing feeling for me, an old dream realized !

While Helge was taking a picture of me next to the seals, I was keeping an eye on them...

... in case one would decide to attack ! The one below was aiming for me, and I did not wait any longer to run away after this shot...

... like my friend Helge !

We also walked among hundreds of penguins :

Chin-strap penguins :

Gentoo penguins :

The youngsters moulting :

The fur seals were ruling proudly over these turbulent penguins !

An elephant seal was trying to keep me from approaching him...

... but we finally became good friends !

Just as I was thinking I had seen almost everything interesting to see on that cruise, this walk through so many wild seals and penguins, living in their natural environment, almost devoid of human presence, made a strong impression on me. I almost came to regret having become a physical oceanographer making CTD casts on a ship rather than having become a biologist studying and living with these animals !...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Day 39

We have finally deployed the PIES today.
Mission accomplie !
Although it was not accomplished perfectly, since we did not deploy it where we had intended to, this is often what happens in field work... And we may even find amazing results where we deployed it, who knows ?

Below, John is rigging the PIES once again :

Then I programmed it to set up the sampling scheme and other parameters, while the others were installing the last mooring of the cruise. Finally, it was ready to go :

Tonight we do the last CTD section, for which I am fortunately not on watch, and tomorrow we start packing everything back into the containers, while the ship is heading to Signy Island. Then, we will have some free time to enjoy until the end of the cruise, hopefully...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Days 34-38

On February 27th, I did a CTD watch from 11 pm to 3 am. When waking up for lunch on the 28th, I got a first surprise on the white board near the mess :

En français s'il vous plaît !
Then at the end of the dinner, I got a second surprise : a birthday cake, made by the Halley cook !
Since reaching 30 years old is like a new birth, I got only 2 candles, like my daughter Margot.

I also got a red wine bottle from John, and opened the sparkling wine bottle I won at a game a week earlier. It was a very lively party this night, and definitively the most original place where I have ever celebrated my birthday !

Now it is my turn to make presents : below are a few pictures of icebergs and penguins taken over the past few days.

The one below looks like a giant puzzle :

During a CTD station, a Macaroni penguin swam next to the ship :

When dry, they have nice yellow crests over their eyes, but when wet the crests are pushed against their feathers on their head.
A chin-strap penguin also joined in :

And dived in search of food :

This is when we can really realize that penguins are birds, but flying under water rather than in the air :

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Days 31-33

The next day after our visit to Halley, the ship left the ice shelf to head back to the SASSI moorings line. We left the "winterers" behind, the Halley staff who are going to spend the winter there, who were waving goodbye... their friends on the ship, the Halley staff who are coming back with us to civilization.

Even the Emperor penguins came to say goodbye ! I wish them to survive the harsh winter conditions, and hope to see them again next year...

During the transit to the SASSI line, we prepared the equipment for the last mooring, and rigged the PIES (Pressure Inverted Echo Sounder, in white in the picture below) for deployment.

The next day we had reached the SASSI line, and started some CTD/ADCP stations to see where to deploy the last SASSI mooring. As the ship was sailing offshore, we lost sight of the ice shelf for good. I will miss the beauty of it, but hopefully next year I can see it again... The results were quite different from those obtained 3 weeks earlier, with the core of the westward surface current farther offshore. We decided to deploy the last mooring as deep as we could with the available cables, which was in 2600 m depth. The mooring was 2100 m long, its top end reaching 500 m depth, shallow enough for the top ADCP to measure currents up to the sea surface, but deep enough to avoid the instruments being smashed by passing icebergs. We started deploying the mooring around 9 pm, surrounded by complete darkness. It was the first time since we left the Falkland Islands that I saw a dark sky at night !

We finished deploying the mooring around midnight. We then resumed the CTD/ADCP stations to decide where to deploy the PIES. In the meantime I was running a set of tests on the PIES, to check it was working properly, but when checking the vacuum level inside the glass sphere containing the electronics of the instrument, I was horrified to see that there was almost no vacuum at all, contrary to what I had seen 3 weeks earlier ! We could not deploy the instrument in this condition. We had to reseal it first, but we needed a vacuum pump strong enough to make the required vacuum. We asked the ship's engineer whether we could use the ship's pumps, but he said it would not be feasible. We therefore decided to cancel the deployment. I went to bed at 5 am really disappointed. I slept until 3 pm, and checked the altimeter inside the glass sphere again, to find with amazement that the level was back to where it had been 3 weeks earlier ! The only explanation I could see was that because the PIES had been staying outside for some hours before deployment, the temperature inside had dropped, therefore since the volume was constant, the pressure must have dropped too (recall PV=nRT). Therefore the altimeter level had increased, but since at room temperature it was already close to the maximum value it could display, at below freezing temperatures the needle had rotated counterclockwise past the 0 mark, indicating a low altitude and therefore a weak vacuum !! But during the time I slept, the PIES was in the wet lab at 20 degrees Celcius, and the altimeter reading was back to its "normal" position. Very bad design !!! The PIES manufacturers confirmed by email that this is indeed what must have happened. So the PIES was working fine, and we would have deployed it if only I had not checked this damn gauge ! What a frustration... We decided we would deploy it anyway elsewhere, but we were now too far from the SASSI line to turn back, and in too deep water to deploy it now, so we will have to wait until we reach the South Orkney Islands to deploy it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day 30

Today we visited the English antarctic base Halley. Our shuttle consisted of a platform mounted on skis and pulled by a snowcat. The base was only 15 km away, but it took our shuttle about 50 minutes to complete the journey. With -16 degrees Celcius and a bit of wind, I was pretty cold when reaching the base !

The first sight we got of the base was a row of multi-colored containers. As the wind blows around the containers, the snow is removed along their sides, so they must be sufficiently spaced from each other to prevent them from falling in their neighbors holes. The trail we followed was marked with barrels every 50 m or so, reminding us that visibility can get very poor in bad weather conditions.

Finally there ! Paris was not indicated on the sign post. Ah, these British people...

Below is the main building where the living quarters are located. We ate lunch with the base crew there. Not as good as on the ship... But not too bad for such an isolated place !
The buildings are built on stilts to reduce snow accumulation due to wind transport, but the stilts must be extended every year to prevent the buildings from being buried under the falling snow anyway. Earlier versions of the base, the first one of which was built in 1956, were simple buildings built directly on the ice, but had to be abandoned and replaced every decade or so because they were buried and crushed by the snow.
Below is one of the science buildings. It is located about 200 m from the main building, but imagine having to walk there back and forth every day in the dark during winter with temperatures reaching down to -50 degrees ! Brrr...

Inside is the ozone lab, where they measure the ozone content of the air column above the base. It was there in 1985 that scientists first measured the ozone depletion of the Antarctic stratosphere, the famous ozone hole.

The present base, Halley V, is drifting westward with the ice shelf, and has already entered an unstable area which could suddenly detach and drift away as icebergs. Therefore, a new base will be installed further east around 2012. Some building modules (see below) have already been built and await their turn. They are designed with hydraulic stilts, which can be extended much more easily than the present stilts, and the stilts are mounted on skis so that the buildings will be relocatable, to maintain the base location despite the continuous ice flow motion (about 1-2 m per day).

We then returned to our ship, squeezing ourselves inside the snowcat to avoid freezing in the platform behind. We left some of the crew that will spend the whole winter there, isolated from the rest of the world for months... The rest of the crew joined us on the ship, and partied joyfully to celebrate the end of their work in this extreme environment.

Tomorrow the ship will sail away, and we are going to deploy our last SASSI mooring and our PIES.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Days 27-29

Finally, our work had to be stopped momentarily to dock the ship along the ice shelf (see picture below) near the Halley base for three days, in order to bring them supplies, take their wastes and the people that will not stay there for the austral winter. There are not enough cabins to have our own now, so I had to move into a new cabin which I am sharing with John. We took the opportunity to leave the ship and take a walk on the ice shelf, while the ship and Halley crew were loading and unloading equipment.

We walked from the sea ice in the creek where the ship was docked onto the ice shelf, where a little caboose was set for Halley people operations. The ice shelf is a flat expense of ice for miles and miles around...

It feels good to be able to stretch our legs !

During the walk, we saw a cute Adelie penguin. They are shorter than the Emperor penguins, with blue eyes.

Then he tried to take off to escape from an oncoming snow vehicle, but his wings don't work in the air !...

We also saw an Emperor penguin, who was watching scientists work on the poop deck of the ship. They were setting up the VMP to make repeated casts while the ship was docked, to obtain a time series of dissipation measurements.

Soon lots of friends joined in, to see what these strange human creatures were doing.

Their beautiful feathers were shining in the sun.

Two days have already past since the ship docked along the ice shelf. Tomorrow we are going to visit the Halley base ! And the ship will depart early the next day, for the second part of our work program.