12 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctica expedition 2006-07

Today is a smooth day on the seas. Last night got a bit rough with the ship taking some swells across its sides, causing the boat to roll quite a bit. The I-TASC crew are meeting in the ship’s library to start the tech planning. The Automatic Weather Station (AWS) looks really good, and the deployment plan looks also very interesting. None of us has experience with any of the electrical (solar), weather instruments, or HF radio components, but that’s just a challenge. Looks like we can do it. I am mostly concerned that we can get it installed in time. At least today First Born and Tom managed to get some of the sensors working with the weather data logging application.

Before lunch, I strolled up to the ‘monkey bridge’ which is at the very top of the ship and a good site for watching birds and looking for wildlife. Often there are albatross cruising behind and around the ship. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some when I spied a pod of Orca cruising past about 300 metres from the boat. They were beautiful. I think the pack numbered about 8 or 9. Before that, in the morning, the birdwatchers that stay most of their time on the monkey bridge had seen a humpback whale.

Today we also entered the ‘ferocious 50s’ (50 degrees latitude). It’s getting colder and there is a soft haze reducing visibility to about 1 km. Tomorrow we might see some icebergs, according to the ship’s crew. There is a really large one ahead of us, apparently. I think I will spend most of the days on the monkey deck to see what I can spy.

I am feeling quite used to the ship now and also feeling quite ‘normal’ after several days of hazy sea-induced giddiness. Consequently, I miss being in touch with people off the boat. The BGAN terminal we use mainly for uploading the website updates gives some limited contact, but I will try and make some calls in the next days from the ship’s (expensive) satellite phone.

Before lunch, I also had a good talk with Tom about why we are going to Antarctica. Tom feels very strongly that by having a presence at the base we can influence some of the technological choices that the base may make. The AWS might be a good model (for example) for showing how solar panels could power other equipment at the base, rather than SANAE using diesel for generating electricity. I think Tom is in a good situation to put these ideas forward and to possibly link the contacts he has with the solar panel developers to the SANAE people. It was good, however, also to hear that it might be that I-TASC focuses more on this kind of role than on establishing a new base on the continent. This sounds more interesting to me than the idea of establishing a stand-alone base. Although Tom is ideally suited to the task of influencing the decision-making processes for tech strategy in the areas of renewable energy etc, I am not sure on how many other people from the proposed I-TASC crews could fulfill this role.

10 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctica expedition 2006-07 – aboard SA Agulhas icebreaker

Curiously, the sea is more like a cocoon than I had ever expected. It places a buffer between yourself and everything else. The slight giddiness from the motion brings a persistent soft haze over every sense… everything appears soft and sponge-like. The world is also a lot further away than just the hard miles that separate us from any mainland or communications mainline. We are in a suspended moment, like forever waiting at the terminal for your flight, but a strange waiting lounge where there is no anticipation of where we are going, no motivation to turn back.

Sleep comes easily, and the gentle rocking of the ship is soothing. We haven’t yet experienced really hard seas and they still might come but so far the sea has definitely been kind to us.

onboard-10decToday we slept late and worked only a little together as the I-TASC crew. It was a day off as it is Sunday. I passed the ship’s bar and TV lounge before lunch to see a small group of 7 or 8 people using the space as a makeshift church. During the afternoon, I read more about Shackleton’s amazing journey in his own words. Unbelievable. They seemed to survive for almost 18 months with little more than we would throw away in a week. I learned some Dutch a bit later then met the crew for dinner. After dinner, we met with Pierre and tried getting connected to the net via a BGAN terminal. We squatted on a high deck and tried to find the satellite in the dark, windy and cold night. We soon had a good connection and we were able to put up the Interpolar and I-TASC websites easily.

I have been thinking a bit about the trip and why we are doing this. I am not sure if it’s a good or bad idea. Before leaving, I read about Captain Cook’s journeys and his search for the great southern continent. Cook’s story is a sad one because it appears he had a lot of goodwill for those people he met as the first European on many Pacific lands. However, what followed was exploitation and loss. The one land he never reached, and coincidentally or consequently, was not to follow this route, was Antarctica. He never reached the continent although he got further south than needed if he had been at a different longitude. It seems to me there is good reason not to go to Antarctica as the first of many that might follow the I-TASC theme. Do ‘we’ really need to be there? What are the concrete gains by our adventures onto one of the last unspoiled areas on the planet?