Friday, March 07, 2008

Vessel - MV American Tern

The American Tern in McMurdo Sound.

Vessel. That is a term that we hear all season. For FNGs (f'n new guys), it doesn't mean that much. For OAEs (old Antarctic explorers - veterans), it means the end of a season. The vessel takes two to three months from its departure from Port Hueneme, CA to reach Littleton, NZ, clear customs, and finally reach us. When it arrives, it is carrying all of our supplies for an entire year. It is also how all of the materials for the new South Pole station were delivered to the continent before being flown to the Pole over the past few seasons.

Refrozen water near the ice pier.

This year the vessel was delayed a week or two because of storms and excessive ice flows on the way down from New Zealand. When it finally reached the ice channel, the icebreaker Oden guided it the rest of the way because the ice refreezes and thickens every night. Sometimes the normal ocean currents, tides, and winds break up the ice during the day, but they don't want to risk anything happening to the ship.

The water by the ice pier was strong enough to handle us throwing rocks at it.

There isn't enough room for the Oden to escort the American Tern all the way into the pier so the vessel has to do a little bit of ice breaking on its own. However, it isn't too much because the Oden was in a couple days before the vessel arrived to break it up. Visually, we had no idea how thick the frozen ice was. We couldn't break it with rocks, but didn't dare test it with human weight either.

The vessel breaks a flat layer of ice.

When the vessel approached the pier, it seemed like it was barely moving but it had no problem moving the ice out of the way. The best part was where the ice was perfectly flat. The vessel would lift the ice like it was a single bed sheet, (picture above - zoom in) that would drape over the breaking part of the bow, and then it would slowly fall away. I'm not sure the picture does the effect justice.

The ice wasn't all flat though. Some larger chunks simply had to be smashed out of the way and that was special in its own way too.

The vessel moves a large pice of ice.

As soon as the vessel is tied up, it is greeted by members of the Navy Cargo Handling and Port Group (NAVCHAPRG) who unload the vessel. The NAVCHAPS, as we call them, have a rough time of it. They come in at the end of the season when the community isn't as welcoming and are immediately thrown into working twelve hour days in temperatures that some of them have never experienced before. It can be shocking, but they handle it well. In fact, with a new leader this year, Michael, they unloaded the vessel faster than expected. They also do operations like this in the Middle East and anywhere else in the world where the US might need to unload cargo.

Some of you are more interested in the official ship information that pretty ice pictures, so we have something for you too. The MV American Tern is one of Military Sealift Command's seven Container Ships and is part of the twenty-eight ships in the Sealift Program. It is 521 feet long, drafts thirty-three feet, displaces 8,650 tons, can move at sixteen knots and carries a civilian crew complement of twenty-one. One of the more amazing things to me is that the ice pier is less than a football field from land and yet it can easily bring a ship in that drafts thirty-three feet. Growing up, we were regularly in harbors where that wasn’t true.

The MV American Tern approaches the pier.

The vessel offload took a week and wrapped up mid-February. Some of my friends left during offload because they weren't essential personnel. The first flights after offload were full of NAVCHAPs. As soon as they were gone, every one else started leaving in droves. From February 15th to the 22nd we moved almost a thousand people off the base and dropped our population from around 1,150 to 206. It was startling. Still is sometimes.

Yesterday was a brilliant day. I decided to run in the gym since I’ve been sick. It felt great. After work, I went to yoga and then headed out to open volleyball. Most of you haven’t had the privilege to play volleyball with me, but as good as I ever was at ultimate or soccer, I’m that bad at volleyball. When I showed up, I told them to put me on whichever team they wanted to make worse. That team promptly lost 15-2, I think and we had one extra person! It might not have been all me. Anyway, everyone was very welcoming and willing to coach me along. By the end of night, I managed to finally get a serve to stay in bounds and even got lucky enough to block a spike!

Because I played so late, I couldn't sleep until all the adrenaline left my system. That kept me up late enough to see my first dose of night in Antarctica! To say it was completely dark would be a lie, but it was dark enough. I'm calling it my first official night.

USNS Lawrence H. Gianella, skate skiing, and Kiwis are cooler

Just look at the nice clean fuel burning tanker coming to port in this pristine environment.

Talking about the Palmer got me in the mood to blog about our other ship visitors. On Monday, January 28th, we had our third ship of the season come in. This one was a fuel tanker, the USNS Lawrence H. Gianella. The tanker is a United States Military Sealift Command tanker which has been used as the tanker for McMurdo fuel supply a number of times. We unload the fuel over a few days. Over those few days we aren't allowed in the area because of the fuel lines that are strung across the hiking paths. It is hard for me to fathom that everything we need to stay warm for a year is on that one ship.

A rare chance when all three ships were in the sound.

Once the icebreaker comes in, it hangs around for most of the season to escort vessels into port. When the Gianella came in, it was the busiest the sound was all season. The Palmer just happened to be in the area for a research cruise which made for a grand total of three ships. It is hard to explain why, but people seemed excited that there was so much traffic going on in the sound. I guess maybe it just provided a little variety.

The Lawrence H. Gianella comes to port.

The Gianella came to port at a gorgeous time of day - just around midnight. It was cold, but there wasn't much wind. The lighting was simply amazing. The only bad part about a tie up at that time was that it was off work hours and I still had to make it to work on time the next day. Line handling is best in the middle of the day when it gets you out of work.

Parallel parking that made some cool effect in the still water.

The Oden had side thrusters (?) to make getting the ship tied up pretty easy. Unfortunately, the Gianella had to do it the old fashion way which was pretty much parallel parking. It took forever and I was not a fan because even though it was beautiful, it was also cold and I was tired. After they did get close enough, we still had to time them up and that ended up taking forever because the lines they kept throwing us kept snapping. They throw one small line tied to a large line. We pull the small line in and then put the big one on the giant cleat. The giant cleat has a different name, but I can't remember it. Anyway, when we pulled the small line, it would break.

Buried tie up wires.

One of the neat things about this ship, was it was the first one that was going to use the cleats on short instead of on the ice pier. It had to use them because it was a longer ship. We grabbed their lines and then attached to an eye in a wire cable that extended to the shore. It was then the ships job to pull that wire tight. Unfortunately, the wire cable had frozen under quite a bit of ice from last year so they had to pull on it pretty hard to get it to break out of the ice. In the corner of picture above, you can see two of the buried lines.

The stern of the Gianella, Mt. Discovery, and the Oden on a beautiful night.

Last night was fantastic. I went out for my first skate ski since Meg and Annie left. Nick, Candy, Jody, Dan, and I went. I was back to being the ugly duckling as it first learned to walk. It is weird. Sometimes, I can find the rhythm and nail it. Other times, I'm struggling not to duff it. It was Candy's first time on skate skis and she did way better than I did my first time. Kudos to her.

We are officially in the winter season so there are no shuttles running to catch a ride from. We aren't allowed to use government vehicles for recreational use so to get to where we can skate ski, we need to walk 2.25 miles to Scott Base and the transition. That eats up a lot of time if you are in a hurry. At Scott Base, we picked up Jody and Dan who are Kiwis that work over there. From there, they informed us we wouldn't be walking to the transition but would be taking an ATV 4 wheeler with a trailer the rest of the way. It wasn't far, but it made it go quicker. We skied and it was great. I didn't realized how much I had missed it. When we were done, they used their vehicle to take us half way home which included taking us up the the first monster hill. This past Sunday, I also saw Dan snowboarding with a partner using a snow machine. One of them would give the other a ride up the hill and then they'd switch. Amazing. The Kiwis have SO MUCH more freedom to recreate than we do. Maybe I need to apply to work over there . . .

Tomorrow, another ship post.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer

R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer at the Ice Pier at McMurdo Base.

At the end of the January, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer came to port. It is one of the two main vessels the NSF uses to conduct Antarctic research. It came back to port two days for a crewman to get his crushed finger looked at. I thought it would be a good time to post some pictures of the vessel. Unfortunately, as I'm looking through my photos I'm realizing that I don't really have any. I must have been distracted on our tour.

The engine room.

The Palmer was built in 1992. It has icebreaking capability and is 94 meters long. It was designed as a research vessel that can hold 37 scientists in addition to its 22 crewman. It can be at sea for 75-day missions. It was named after the American who first sighted Antarctica as a 21 year old commanding the Hero in 1820.

A wing of the bridge.

I managed to get on the Palmer twice. The first time, I thought I had a private tour lined up for Annie and me, but it fell through so we just guided ourselves on to the ship. If you look like you belong, you do. We didn't know where we were going, but it was fun to scatter around and explore. Later, I was given an actual tour by Lora. Fabulous lady, great tour guide, and hopefully boss one day. They had a lounge on the ship, library, galley, bridge, research labs, laundry, computer banks, etc. Pretty much anything you'd expect to be on a research vessel. The rooms were really small and usually two per room. That works well if your roommate is on the opposite 12 hour shift, but could be hard if you both had to be in there.

View out of the front bridge window.

The most impressive part of the ship was the gym, sauna, bridge, or crow's nest. It is a toss up. I just never thought such a well stocked gym would be on a research vessel or even the presence of a sauna. The bridge and crow's nests just offered spectacular views of the area.

The view from the crow's nest. Look how small that flag looks now.

The minimum contract you can do on the Palmer is three weeks, but I think some extend as long as fifteen. 12 hours a day and 7 days a week. You get worked to the bone and probably cold to bone too, but you also get a rare chance to see a lot more of the continent that if you are just stationed at McMurdo. The vessels also spend most of their time near the peninsula that is near Chile so I'd get to see an entirely different part of the continent. I'm hoping to snag one of these at some point, but I need to learn some more Linux server stuff first. That is one of my winter goals. However, since winter doesn't seem to be settling I'm not sure when I'll get to it.

I'm off to skate ski now. Have a great day wherever you are.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Which ever way the wind blows . . . (part 2)

Two posts ago, I put up a few pictures from Condition 2, borderline Condition 1, weather. When I left work that evening, the weather had blown itself out and it was gorgeous. I don't think it warmed up, but it felt like it because there was less of a wind chill. To put in perspective, I wanted to post some more pictures from that evening. This first is taken from the same spot that the picture labeled "Where did the big hill (Ob Hill) go?" was taken from two posts ago.

We found the base of the hill!

This is probably the first night that I've seen a real sunset. The other nights it was too late or I was feeling sick so I wanted to get to bed early. Either way, it was wonderful to see. I caught this on my way home after working in medical until 9:30pm. I was in medical helping them e-mail x-rays and pictures of an injury back to the states for review. Unfortunately, seeing this sunset and working in medical kept me from going to great party at the BFC. I just got distracted and forgot. What a surprise. It's been the story of my winter so far.

Telephones poles, telephone poles, everywhere, almost pretty in a sunset stare.

These last two pictures were taken FROM MY ROOM!! Have I mentioned how much I like my new room today? If not, I do. It's a single. It's almost really cozy. It has room for me to unpack the mountains of fabulous things that so many of you sent down (Thank you!). It has a great view to watch the sunset each night. This is just two pictures through the window pane last night. I could have opened the window, but I'm hoping to just share what I was looking at.

Sunset over the power plants and the Royal Society Range.

More sunset. This picture includes a box that Betty built in the bottom right corner that she was worried might have blown away due to poor workmanship.

I've started to talk to a bunch of you on the phone. It's great. I love it! Keep 'em coming and I'll be calling back too if you don't reach me. (Only the 800 number has voice mail on it.) It is so great to hear that you are doing well even if you happen to be falling asleep while we chat because I can hear things in your voice that don't carry through in an e-mail.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Ice Carpenters . . .

Ice carpenters should use ice hammers.

Before I came here, I never thought about the logistics of what it takes to support science and a base in Antarctica. I thought they might have a few carpenters to build stuff, but we don't have a few. We have a ton. Maybe 30(?) during the summer and they are fortunate enough to travel all over the continent. They go to every field site to help set it up before the grantees get there and then go out to break it down. GREAT job to see the continent. There may only be one or two other jobs that allow you to see more and you don't need to be an expert in carpentry because you can come down as a helper or an apprentice.

Perhaps the only requirement is to have a brain?

The carps are supposed to a great group. Based on the carp helper I knew the best, who I hope is reading this, I'm not sure how much they actually do. They have great parties, BBQs, build new games to play, and hang out after work. At Icestock, they run a hard coffee house, Sawbucks, to help keep people warm. Good folk and yes, they actually do work hard. This one carp helper though, I'm not so sure. Just kidding, Betty.

Sawbucks coffee house - once a year only at Ice Stock.

Nagel block (?) game: use an adz to hit to a nail into the wood. Safety goggles required.


Home made ping pong table.

One of my favorite things about the carp shop was the decorations. They had fun things all over the place. Some of the biggest ones were mounted high on the walls or on the ceiling.


More decorations.

Which ever way the wind blows . . .

Where did the big hill (Ob Hill) go?

Yikes!! Which ever way the wind blows, it is blowing hard.

"Be advised that our local McMurdo weather conditions are going in and out of Condition 1. It is not quite enough to call condition 1 but that could happen any time. Do limit your local travel. Observe the conditions in your location and if visibility is less then 100 ft stay put. Travel should be just what is absolutely necessary. " - E-mail from one of our station managers. Quick review of what Condition 1 means here.

Just across the street is the MCC where we say goodbye to everyone when they leave.

I got that e-mail after I'd be walking around all morning. It has been crazy windy all day and difficult to see. You could see close distances as long as your eyes weren't shut or watering from all the wind, snow, or dust blowing at them. If you could see fine, then the wind was still pushing you around and when I was walking into the wind I even had trouble breathing through my mouth. I'm not sure why. I think it has something to do with the pressure caused from the wind blowing. (Has anyone else experienced this? I described it to someone here and they didn't know what I was talking about.) I just had to turn my head around to get a breath. The snow you see might not even be falling snow. It is possible that it is just blowing snow that fell over the past couple days.

Our recycling dumpsters and dorms veiled in the blowing snow.

This weather is safe as long as nothing goes wrong, but you wouldn't want to have an accident on a day like today and get caught somewhere. One person was making sure their co-worker had an escort because they were working at a building at the far end of town. I'm not sure the pictures really do the weather justice, but they are all I have.

Welcome to winter weather. Some days it will be worse. Some days it will be better. It will always be Antarctica.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Antarctic sea life . . .

I'm going to try and blog everyday this week to get caught up. Too much good stuff is happening to make you guys wait for it. Today's blog is on our long closed fish tanks. They closed up because most of the scientists have gone home. We keep some of their projects running over the winter. The rest are just seasonal. A few are working in the Dry Valleys until April.

Our research fish tanks. Notice the giant tubs in the back.

The giant tubs on the left were used to hold a Notothenioid fish that they were using to study organic antifreeze. Those fish have an equilibrium freezing point of about -.7C which is substantially higher than that of sea water. However, these fish produce antifreeze glycoproteins (AFGPs) which allow them to live at temperatures colder than that. Some people believe that the reason that they don't freeze is they drink alcohol, which also freezes at a lower temperature than water. Just kidding.

Notothenioid fish - the drunk ones.

What set of fish tanks would be complete without a touch tank? I guess the scientists pull up some extras for us to look at. When they do, into the touch tank they go. Some look familiar. Some, I have never seen before in my life.

Our very own petting zoo.

Touch it. It won't bite.

Every once in a long while, they bring up something rare. Sometimes it is a giant Mawsoni fish, commonly known as the Antarctic cod that can weigh up to 300 pounds. I guess they used to eat those for Thanksgiving dinner some years. This year they didn't get one in time. However, they did get one later in the season. They also pulled up this octopus.

A fist sized octopus.

OK, that's it for the aquarium.

Our population is at 216 until mid-April. After that, we drop to 127-135. People are taking place in a wheels up bet because they don't think those numbers will stick. For the best, an entrant pulls a name out of a hat of someone who is supposed to winter over. If that person quits for any reason and leaves in April instead of August or October then the person who pulled their name will win the pot. $10 a head, 127 people. It could be lucrative, but I'm not playing. It feels like I'd be cheering for someone to fail.