24 December 2006

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

Today most of our gear arrived. We can finally get to work on Christmas Eve and the eve of Tom’s birthday. Timing. So I scratched around a little bit, rewiring a microphone to be used for the FM station. It also looks like we have a room to use as a studio, which is great news.

If you celebrate Christmas, then good cheer to ya, and look after yourself.

lots of love from Antarctica


21 December 2006

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

Just 4 days to go, and it looks like we may spend our first full day on the continent of Antarctica on Christmas Day. As a child growing up in New Zealand, it struck me as odd that the Christmas songs always spoke about snow and sleighs and enjoying a white Christmas. New Zealand has Christmas in Summer, and the only thing white at that time of year is sand and pavlova. I wondered if I would ever see a white Christmas, and imagined what it would be like. I never quite thought it would be like this.

We are now parked at Penguin Bukta with the nose of the boat resting on the ice shelf. Looking along the giant wall, you see the rounded droopy overhangs giving the appearance of one long frozen tidal wave like the tsunami painted by Japanese painter Hokusai.

The bulldozing team are in their dozers on top of the shelf, digging a path so the ship can offload the gear. The shelf is too high for the boat’s crane to reach, so they have to cut a slope down through the ice to a level the crane can reach. It’s not safe work as there are dangerous overhangs in the cliffs . As recently as last year, they almost lost a few dozers when the shelf collapsed. We sit in the boat and wait and watch occasionally what is happening on the ice some 20 meters above us.

If you look down at the bow, you can see the shifting tones of turquoise and aqua of the shelf as it runs deeply below us. The gently rippling water shifts the light and color below us and it has something of the appearance of an aurora in the sea.

Some of the over-winter team have come aboard. It’s been weird these last days, we have noticed some new faces and kidded ourselves that SANAE must have some scary genetics lab deep in the hull of the boat where they manufacture new crew for the base. If so, then their experiments went a bit mad as the over-winter team look pretty wild. Long beards, hair all over the place, and did I imagine a slightly mad look in their eyes? I think possibly so… still, they are a weird sight to come across in the hallways after not having seen a new face for 2 weeks or so.

I have also met a chap on the boat that is a Linux geek. I am trying not to embarrass myself by talking Unix as a default conversation with him as I do enjoy software politics, and don’t want to scare anyone with my fanaticism. I think I see the same dark fear in his soul as he is a Slackware user, which is about as hardcore as you can get. I am sure that sometime while we are at the base we will degenerate our discussions into obscure file formats and OS wars to the exclusion of all. Als,o there is a guy Tom talked to that is interested in running the FM station I am to build as a
r a d i o q u a l i a project while at the base. He will be over-wintering and will run it through winter. The trick is to test the transmitter to see if it will get the 100 or so miles to Neumayer, as he is keen to broadcast to them. I don’t think it will do it, so we may have to fly in another transmitter.

After a slightly spicy meeting yesterday things seem to have settled down. Routine and knowing what the plan is (ie. the boat isn’t going anywhere for 3 days) helps reduce anxiety. It’s good things feel calmer as it’s a great team and temporary bumps, however predictable, are still frustrating. I am working on my slide shows; I think its a nice format… they aren’t finished but as soon as I get some bandwidth, I will upload them, probably after Christmas.

20 December 2006

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

So today was another limbo day. We are travelling towards Atka Butka and the plan is that we will dock there and build a ramp for offloading the gear. This has been the way of doing it in the past, but last year they had some dangerous slippages in the ice while offloading, and hence they look to Neumayer to offload this year. We will reach there tonight or early tomorrow morning and then it will take 2-3 days to bulldoze a ramp in the ice shelf. Once this is done, we will be taken by chopper off the boat and to SANAE. The decision was made today to keep us on the boat until the ramp is done as no one can work at the base until the gear arrives anyway. So it looks like it is very possible we will spend Christmas on the boat.

Meantime, more beautiful icebergs glide past. The sea here is very flat, and we have departed slightly from the ice shelf. The ice in the water seems to be just forming, and thin ice layers the top of the water in huge sheets. In other places the ice pack ice looks very soft and new. At times it looks like we are gliding effortlessly through a strange world of freshly picked giant cotton balls.

Tom and I just returned from trying an experiment with the wind sock (Zeppelin) that Tom and Amanda brought for the trip (thanks to Arnoud Traa for his essential advice on all things aural during the preparations for this trip). We placed two condenser mics in the Zeppelin, each facing 180 degrees away from the other. We want to try and get nice clear stereo recordings of the ship breaking some ice. I hung out from a small hole on the bow, holding the mic as close to the ice as I could as the ship broke its way through a large island of ice. I recorded a good few minutes of this and it sounded good so after dinner I will go out and record some more.

Earlier today we met as I-TASC and discussed the documentation strategies. I’m not so good at video but its best we all help each other, so I contributed to the discussions on what should be recorded and the creation of the shot lists. It was interesting, but I am more at home with still images and audio. I have been recording quite a bit of audio of the ship and taking a lot of photos, as I intend to make some audio slide shows (I like the format of slideshows on the web, and when combined with audio, it can be very low bandwidth and very evocative). I have experimented with two such slideshows for the trip and they are ok. I would like to try some more abstract combinations of images and sound to see what effect it has, so I will experiment more with the format. I don’t think we can upload any until we get to SANAE, so I will spend the next three days onboard preparing more.

In the meantime, First Born is sitting on the couch playing PSP (since he has run out of Sopranos), Reme (our cabin-mate from Zambia) is sitting next to First discussing VLF frequencies with his friend Zama, Amanda is sleeping in her cabin, and Tom and I just came in from recording ice breaking under the ship. It feels familiar, but I would like a change of scene. I think I will work a lot over the days before we leave the ship as it will help ward off cabin fever… I am missing talking to my friends in other countries, and I miss the luxury of casual communication with them. Hi to all if you are reading this… I hope to bring back some nice stories to share next time we meet…. miss ya all heaps. Have a warm drink for me 😉

19 December 2006

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

We woke up at 9am to find the ship parked on the pack ice. The helicopters had already gone to do a scout and we were waiting for their return. No one is really sure of what the plan was, and I have heard at least four versions of what’s going on. The stories differ from “I heard we are definitely leaving today by chopper for SANAE” to “we won’t even think about getting everyone off for another 3 or 4 days.” So there you go, if you ain’t the boss you don’t know what’s happening – such is the way with many parts of ship life, I have found. Limbo was better today however. We travelled quite a  distance looking for routes to Neumayer. Everyone was outside on the decks taking in all that was to offer. The day featured beautiful clear blue skies with fine lace-like clouds and a lot of variation in ice. At one point, ice cut into the horizon in huge mountainous shapes very similar to the stony red mountains seen in wild west movies. Other times, we approached large areas of pack ice where the pressure had caused ridges, outlining large (approx. 6m square), tightly packed, and irregularly shaped blocks of ice. The ridges formed miniature mountain ranges about 50cm high around each block. Other times, we moved through open water with small ice all around us and with the clean blue skies and water, clear, deep, blue. Here we could see the luminous blue keels of ice under each iceberg.

There is also a fair bit of wildlife around. Often on large blocks there are fresh footprints from penguins that have evaded the icebreaker, and we pass many Emperor Penguins that are very talented at ignoring us. They seem so bored with us, one could imagine they see icebreakers twice a day and three times on Sundays. There is a troop of Emperors off the port side. They slide forward on their stomachs in single file about 1 km from the ship. Occasionally one penguin stands up and the queue behind stalls momentarily as the standing penguin looks around and then awkwardly tilts forward until it falls over on its stomach and begins the slide forward again. There are a few Weddell seals around, but mostly its us and the penguins.

Later the helicopters did some investigation of the possible routes between our ship and Neumayer. At one stage we made a lot of ground with the Agulhas cutting through thick but soft ice. As I write this the ship is trying to do just this, forcing a passage to the base. The ship reverses about 100m and then ploughs full throttle into the ice, often rising a metre or so as it cuts through. The Agulhas makes about 10-20m each time. I think the base is several kilometers away. The issue here, is that as we cut forward, the ice is closing behind us, leaving the possibility we might get trapped.

…I just returned from checking out the stern and it appears we are indeed stuck. The ice has closed behind us and there is nothing but kilometers of ice ahead. The Agulhas is retreating a few metres at a time and then thrusting forward, making about 2 metres every 20 minutes. According to one of the crew, there is an issue with a thruster which doesn’t help. It seems we will continue this battle for the night. The open water is just 500m metres behind us but blocked by large pieces of ice we broke up on our way through. Additionally, the ice is too weak here to offload onto the ice…

…It’s after dinner now, and just before dinner there was an interesting 45 minutes when the ship tried to back out of the trail we had cut. The ship backed up as fast it could, pushing large pieces of broken ice backwards and to the side. When the ship could not move anymore, it would drift forward a few feet and blow water out of thrusters at the back of the boat. Some ice would then be shifted by the currents of the thrusters and the Agulhas would then try moving backwards again. This went on for about 30 minutes before the ship was in a clear pool and could then push more easily back to where we started. There is now a slight twilight and the ship is in open water making towards our plan B dock (Akta Bukta).

18 December 2006

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

We are at the footsteps of the continent. The walls of ice now are gigantic. Just four days ago a few meters of ice would be photographed at least a dozen times by the crew and passengers by the time it had floated down the length of the boat. Now we are spoilt for ice. Huge motionless icebergs surround us with sheer cliffs falling to the sea. Some have the appearance of being on fire as the strong winds whip the loose ice off the windward cliff edges in a grey smoky haze. Icebergs on fire off the shoulders of Neumayer. This afternoon we slowly crawled by a piece of ice the size of Waiheke Island. It is by no means the biggest iceberg here, but distance and size is hard to judge when measuring white cliffs against a white sea and light grey sky. We can only judge the size of the ice that comes close to the ship and these are impressive. I wonder if it was these chunks of the ice shelf that Cook referred to as ice islands.

It looks like we may have time to become quite familiar with these particular icebergs. Round and round we go at a crawl… 11 miles from Neumayer but there is no opening in the ice that we can go through. The sea is too deep to anchor, and the captain judges it better to be under our own power than to drift. So we crawl round and round in huge circles. We don’t know how long it will take; there has been mention that we could spend Christmas on the boat. No one wants this. The entire journey we have been amazed at how lucky we have been with the weather. We have faced no storms, and the pack ice was cleared early by swells only a few weeks before we arrived. By all counts, we arrived here at least 2 days ahead of schedule. Now it seems our 4500km journey will be stalled just 11 miles from home. As a result, I think everyone has gone a smidgen stir crazy. The bird counter looked a bit deranged as he has been sitting upstairs counting birds for 10 days to calculate approximate bird populations through the areas we have travelled. But now he is surrounded by birds and can’t count them, otherwise the results would be skewed as we are circling the same area.

The captain looks bored. I saw the ships doctor cleaning the keyboard of the library’s PC, muttering something about possible diseases one could catch through unhygienic computing. First Born has gone to sleep early (it’s 1920) to dream of trees. Outside my cabin door, Bob Marley is reassuring everyone that everything will be alright and I can hear the overly dramatic slapping of dominoes from the ship’s bar at the end of the corridor. In short, there is nothing to be done. The scientists calculate the possible research days they may lose, and the ship’s crew paint unnecessarily while they wait for the well-paid overtime hours they will work once docked. Everyone wants to get to shore.

In the meantime the I-TASC crew devises strategies to inform people of what we are doing and argues about whether the website jpg should show the feet of Ladimur or not. I think it would do us all good to put our feet on firm ground…

17 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctica Expedition 2006-07

Last night we sat in the bar and played cards. In the ship’s bar there are pictures of all the famous Antarctic voyages and landmarks. Mount Erebus exploding, the Endurance being crushed. For the first time, I feel a direct sense of where we are going, I feel a real sense of Antarctica as being a part of the world, whereas before, it was always somehow on the periphery to me. Now that I am here, I feel a strong connection, much stronger than I have felt before. As we are entering the geography of Antarctica, I feel Antarctica growing in my consciousness.

The icebergs are now only occasionally seen on the horizon and the pack ice surrounds us. Last night we played cards in the ship’s bar until late and then about 1am ventured out onto the front of the ship. It was clear light outside and it felt very much like we had entered a twilight zone. The ship came upon several large fields of pack ice while we were there and cut its way through. The ship usually slows to half speed within about 500m of the pack and then maintains a constant speed. The ship occasionally bumps up and down, similar to the shudders experienced when flying through air pockets, but usually the motion is smooth. In particularly thick ice, the ship stops completely. When this happens the ice broken by the bow cracks and turns by itself, tumbling in the water with eddies and currents as if there is a strong natural spring located beneath it. After a few minutes the boat then pushes forward again.

Often there are penguins and seals on the ice as we cut a path. The penguins usually run away when we get close, while the seals look lazily at us. Earlier we saw our first Emperor Penguin standing by itself on a lonely field of ice. It looked very solemn as it stood motionless with its back to us.

We filmed a lot of the ship’s movements through the pack and I took a lot of photos, but it’s hard to capture a feeling of this amazing contest between the boat and the ice. Watching a passage of broken ice open up in front of the bow, and marking a line that the boat then proceeds through, is a strange but beautiful sight that does not translate well to a still image or even video. We did manage to record some nice sound with two contact microphones attached to the hull. The cracking and hissing of the ice is clear in the recordings and I hope to use this sound in some short 1 minute audio docos I am working on.

Apparently we reach Neumayer today or early tomorrow morning. In preparation, we had a helicopter briefing and weigh-in. It is similar to the safety briefings given on commercial aircraft but perhaps a little more information as the safety equipment on board is a little more sophisticated. The chopper guys we have been seeing everyday and having the occasional drink with will now come to the fore and it looks like they are getting excited about finally doing what they came here to do. We are allowed a small bag on board for our flight to SANAE, which must contain enough to keep us going for three days while we wait for the rest of the equipment to arrive over land by the large caterpillar tractors.. I hope we can meet with I-TASC during the day and establish a recording protocol to reduce unwanted talking or bumping noises etc in the recordings.

14 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctic Expedition 2006-07

Yesterday we saw our first icebergs. They were spotted early in the morning but not by us. We didn’t see our first icebergs until about 1900. Then there were two large icebergs in the distance. After dinner, the I-TASC crew went to the bridge and spoke with the officer there. He showed us the radar where we could easily see many large pieces of ice. From the radar, we could look through the mist in the direction of the radar blips and search for the floating mountains.

I spoke with one of the officers and he was saying it’s not the big icebergs they are worried about. It’s the ‘growlers’ which cause problems. Growlers are smaller pieces of ice broken from icebergs, or the last remnants of a melting iceberg, which sit on or just below the surface. The officers are more concerned about seeing these so they can avoid hitting them. Big bergs can be easily seen and avoided but the little ones do not appear on the radar and must be spotted by eye. For this reason, there are constantly two people (not officers but paid crew) that sit on the bridge 24/7 (from yesterday) and look for ice. They have binoculars and if they see something they inform an officer.

The movement of the ice isn’t as easy to judge by eye as you might expect. The ship is constantly adjusting its course as the wind and swell push the boat slightly one way or another and the ship must constantly make adjustments for this. Hence nothing is static and points of reference are difficult to trust. Additionally, the movement of the ice can either be most influenced by the wind _or_ the current, depending on whether there is a larger surface area above or below the surface. Hence, the ice moves erratically and watching the trails on the radar you can see the plotted paths of some bergs seem to move against the general flow, making navigation by radar something less like using mapquest and more like a game of frogger….

I watched one episode of this interestedly. I could see on the radar there was an iceberg straight ahead of us. I could also see some growlers in our path. The growlers are difficult to spot as the sea is a bit rough, so there are white caps of foam everywhere. The growlers can most easily be seen by looking for constant white spots in the sea ahead – to my New Zealand eye they are reminiscent of how reefs appear from a distance, with a constant rolling whiteness amongst the waves. The officer was quietly having a cup of tea and the spotters saw the ice and called him on a small handheld radio. As they called him it was amazing to witness how quickly the visibility can change at sea. In less than one second, the visibility was cut from about 2km to about 500 meters – it was the outlying cloud moving in like a quick fade, and less than half a minute later the visibility was again about 2km. Also, once you know what to look for, you start seeing ice everywhere. A course was then set to avoid the iceberg ahead and we all watched as the growlers ran harmlessly past. The ship always tries to avoid the bergs by a mile or so as the trailing path of the icebergs often has growlers that have broken off.

I talked with the officer and he was saying that they do hit the growlers. Although no one really gives a straight answer as to how dangerous this is – I have had two good replies from different people, one said “you will definitely know you have hit one”, and the other said, “well, you will at least spill your coffee.” The officer I spoke with had once worked on a boat where the captain made the officer in charge pay a 6 pack of beer for any growler they hit that woke him while he slept. Apparently, it was a good method for improving growler avoidance.

The officer also explained to me, that as we go further into the belt of ice, the ship gets steered like a car going through an obstacle course. The ship can be turned in about 2 or 3 ship lengths so it is quite quick to respond and in the worst case they simply stop the boat.

The sea got up a lot last night and it seems we were rolling in every direction simultaneously. Sometimes the rolls were very marked. I couldn’t help but ponder the effectiveness of spotting growlers by eye in rough seas at night. Consequently, I didn’t get much sleep. It’s 09.50, I will now get a coffee and have a shower, then I will go berg spotting.

…its now about 1500 and I spent a good 1.5 hours after lunch on the monkey deck watching icebergs. We are apparently traversing a belt of ice and then we move into the pack ice. There is now ice everywhere. At one point I saw a thin white line on our horizon (about 4km), I thought it might be the oncoming pack ice but it was just a large collection of growlers floating together. The boat altered course about 5 degrees to avoid it and then came back once we passed. Right now, I think we are just on 60 degrees south. This afternoon we are going to discuss some ideas First Born has about documentation and read some of the tech manuals.

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?