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Written by Helen Bostock  (Marine Geologist, NIWA) . Additional answers provided by Courtney Derriman, Jill Scott and Mike Williams

Date: 16/2/2013
Location: 65.184442°S,143.517782°E
Weather: Cloudy, then clearing to a beautiful day
Sea State: calm, 10 knots of wind, very cold!

We have received a number of questions from students at Wellington East Girls’ College and Nelson College for Girls, which we will attempt to answer in this blog post.

Image: Common dolphin. [Adrian Bass]

Typical Day at Sea

The first question we were sent by the students at Wellington East Girls’ College was “what do you do in a typical day at sea?”

Courtney Derriman (MSc Student, Macquarie University, Sydney) endeavours to explain:

My day begins at 11:30pm. That’s right; I am one of the unfortunate souls that got landed with the night shift (12 hours from 12 am to 12 pm).  I swat at my alarm to make it be quiet and then attempt to roll out of my comfy, warm bunk – thankfully I scored the bottom bunk so there is limited risk of injury. It’s then up to the ‘mess’ (dining room) to have my breakfast just before midnight.  It’s shift changeover time, so we catch up with those working during the day to work out where we are in the voyage plan.

I check my emails (my only link to the outside world) and then hopefully there is some work for me to do. Yesterday morning it was a plankton tow, so I got all dressed up in my various layers to go outside. It’s cold and snowing, and it takes about two hours to finish and clean up after the two tows.

And then, smoko time! Not that I smoke, but it is back to the mess for a cup of tea – desperately required to warm up my hands – while others such as Helen are on to their second or third breakfast for the day.

While most of the other people on my shift are involved with the CTD that is currently being deployed, I don’t have that much to do. I read for a while or watch TV until I feel like I should probably be doing something else (the guilt is killer). I update my data sheets, which are in multiple locations: like the majority of the scientists I am paranoid about losing six weeks’ worth of data. While we are on a 12 hour shift, we are not working 12 hours solidly and there is some down time between stations.

6:30am comes and it’s breakfast time (or in our case more like lunch), then back outside again to start filtering some seawater in the hopes of getting diatoms, a type of phytoplankton. The cold waters of the Antarctic are so nutrient rich that diatoms are abundant and the filters quickly begin to clog; I get out my book and wait patiently for gravity and the pump to get the job done. Then I label everything and move on to the next task.

Thankfully, it is now nearly midday and lunch time (or dinner for the night shift). With my twelve hour shift over it’s time for a shower.

Having a shower is not as easy as you think. When it is rough it is very hard to hold on to the rail in the shower and wash without falling over when the ship rolls. While we don’t have to cook and wash the dishes (thanks to Kim and Kris the cooks and Gemma the steward), we do have to make our beds and do our own washing.

I try to unwind by watching a movie or reading a book, and climb in to bed around 3pm, so I can do it all over again tomorrow.  At first trying to get my eight hours sleep at that time of day was impossible, but as week two of our voyage comes to a close, it is beginning to feel normal. Nothing exhaustion and a pair of ear plugs can’t overcome!

Food glorious food….

After mentions of the fantastic food on board, we were not surprised that we got a question about food from the Wellington East Girls College students: “What was it like for the cooks having to plan what food to take for a 6 week trip?”

RV Tangaroa cook Kim. [Jill Scott]

Jill Scott (IT support, NIWA) went to the kitchen to find out more.

The kitchen crew for this voyage consist of two cooks, Kim Ashby and Kris Solly, who work long and hard to ensure that three large meals and numerous snacks are provided for the crew and scientists every day. Being a 24/7 ship means they also leave plenty of food in the fridge for the midnight shift to eat in the early hours of the morning.

The third member of their team is Gemma Charlett, the Steward.  She assists in the mess with continual dishes and cleaning up after meals, as well as general helping, washing and cleaning around the communal areas of the ship.

So, how do the cooks plan and order the food for the six week voyage?

Chief Cook Kim Ashby started cooking on the Tangaroa 10 years ago – with 5 Antarctic voyages already under her belt she is very experienced in cooking and catering for a 6 week voyage.  When she finds out how many people will be going on the voyage, her first step is to work out how much food will be used each day. She needs to allow for any special dietary requests for vegetarians or those on a gluten- or lactose-free diet, and the gender balance as men generally eat a lot more than women. It’s then a quick calculation to multiply everything by the number of days we are at sea for, and voilà, Kim has her shopping list and the food is ordered. During mobilisation the crew spend an afternoon loading up the storage, chiller and freezer….

The day-to-day menus are then planned on a weekly basis during the voyage. With 3 vegetarians and one vegan on this voyage, Kim has tried to ensure there are plenty of salads.

RV Tangaroa’s kitchen. [Jill Scott]

According to Kim, the fresh food will last right till we get back to Wellington. The chiller is filled with boxes and boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. By the time we are on the homeward stretch we will still be eating carrots, kumara, pumpkins, potatoes and cabbages. The iceberg lettuces have been bagged and amazingly we will still be eating them too. While bits will go ‘yucky’, we eat the good bits.  There are also lots of frozen veggies to supplement the meals.

Are there any challenges in cooking at sea?

Says Kim: While it is lovely on a calm day, rough conditions can make it quite challenging to continue to produce the same high quality meals.  However the kitchen has been modified to keep the pots on the stove and they are always on the alert to watch out for hazards in the rough. For example, there are bars on the stove to stop the pots from moving around in the roughest of conditions, and they use high pans etc.

A day in the life of a cook

RV Tangaroa cook Kris. [Jill Scott]

Kris Solly is enjoying his first Antarctic trip on the RV Tangaroa. As well as assisting Kim in the kitchen, he contributes to keeping up morale on the voyage, collaborating with Gemma to play the odd practical joke on the unsuspecting scientists and crew.

His impression of Antarctica to date is “Cool!”

Kris’s day starts at 5am with preparations for breakfast to be served at 7am. By 8am he has cooked breakfast, made some goodies and fresh bread for morning tea and prepared the vegetables for lunch. Work continues in the kitchen assisting Kim where he can. After serving lunch, he has a bit of a break and returns between 2:30 and 3pm to start preparations for dinner, making salads and cooking vegetables. He manages to fit in two half-hour workouts in the gym each day, while we are eating lunch and then before bed, and in the rest of his spare time he plays a few games.

RV Tangaroa’s chiller. [Jill Scott]

What happens to all the food waste?

According to Gemma, once we are in Antarctic waters (south of 60°S), all food waste is stored in a large, heavy blue box called a dolav (a large bin) that sits out on the deck aft of the kitchen and is returned to Wellington for disposal. Gemma is responsible for emptying the food bin after each meal.  She is on her first voyage to the ice and discovered that it is not quite as easy in the Antarctic conditions.

Gemma has to suit up to go outside, traversing the deck in the cold, windy and sometimes rough and bleak conditions. Even taking the lid off the dolav can be challenging. She will often wait and choose the right moment, waiting for the wind to die down a bit.

Have you noticed any changes now we are in Antarctic waters?

Says Gemma: “Yes. I used to hate going into chiller and freezer. Now they feel quite warm!”

 

Questions from Nelson College for Girls

1. Isabella: Are the conditions onboard, such as seasickness and cramped conditions, detrimental to the efficiency of the scientists’ mental capacity when conducting experiments?

I don’t think that anyone functions at 100% while they are at sea as all the motion (sea sickness), noise, and lack of sleep make for non-ideal conditions.  Most of the work we are doing is fairly routine, though, so even though we don’t feel our best we can still get our work done.

2. Yulan: What is the hardest part of working (doing science – my words) in Antarctica and why?

The hardest part is probably the funding and logistics.

Once you are in Antarctica, the most difficult problem that makes doing science hard is the cold temperatures. The low temperatures affect the gear, for example icing up mechanical equipment, water freezing in instruments, expanding and potentially breaking them, and batteries generally don’t like the cold.

We also have to make sure we have everything we can possibly need for the voyage as there is no chance to run out to buy stuff along the way that we have forgotten.

3. Unnamed: Do you ever get sick of seeing sea?

Currently the icebergs and sea ice are very cool. But the sea is constantly changing and even when you are a long way out to sea you usually see birds. The sunsets and sunrises can be spectacular.

4. Caitlin: How do you pick where and how far apart you put your devices?

It is a balance between time and the type, and scale, of information that you need to answer your question. So it varies all the time…

On the transit south our stations were roughly 30 nautical miles (55 km) apart – every half a degree of latitude. While on the Antarctic continental shelf, which is shallower (<1000 m), the stations are around 10 km or less apart, as they take less time and the ocean processes are smaller in scale.

5. Shannon: Where does your septic tank empty?

South of 60°S nothing can be thrown overboard. So we just have to store it and take it all back to Wellington. North of 60°S treated greywater can be discharged in to the ocean.

6. Is the boat noisy? Is there a captain constantly driving the ship? Even at night?

Yes the boat is noisy, and because it is so expensive to run a ship we work 24/7 to make the most of the time we have. The captain and 2 officers (or mates) take it in turns to drive the ship, working 4 hour shifts. The scientists and the other crew work 12 hours shifts.

7. Ella: Do weather conditions ever affect your experiments?

Weather plays a large role in our experiments. Currently the sea ice is affecting where we can go in the Mertz Polynya (see the blog post on sea ice, and future blog posts). But in general on research voyages, if the wind gets too strong, and the sea conditions too bad, then it is dangerous to deploy our instruments. Some instruments can only be deployed in really calm weather, while others can be used in reasonably rough conditions.

8. Michelle and Hannah: How do you get chosen to take part in this voyage?

If you are a student, it is studying the right subjects. Then you need to do a postgraduate degree and pick the right supervisor (usually someone who knows someone who knows someone). You also have to be willing to learn and do anything!

Otherwise, for many of us it is part of our job and we go on voyages fairly regularly. Many of the technicians go to sea a couple of times a year and have been to Antarctica many times.

9. Do you have to take the whole supply of freshwater for the trip with you from NZ?

No. We have two distillation plants, which boil and condense water to make freshwater, and one reverse osmosis plant to make fresh water from sea water. Occasionally we get told we need to take short showers and go easy on the water supply as it doesn’t always keep up with demand.

10. Tiana: Does the temperature vary much in Antarctica?

In this region of Antarctica it gets as cold as -30°C in the winter and about 0 in the summer. This morning the air temperature was -8°C, while the ocean is warmer at only -1.5°C. We have had quite a few snow flurries over the last few days, despite its being the middle of summer.

11. Nikita and Clare: Why are the surface waters constantly being checked for CO2 and plankton?

The surface waters vary due to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the temperature of the ocean, the amount of biological productivity, and the windiness (which results in waves).

The oceans buffer the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, reducing the effects of climate change. But CO2 also reacts with the water and forms carbonic acid, which reduces the pH, a process called ocean acidification. There will be a blog post about this later.

12. Does the condition of the surface water indicate the health of the rest of the ocean?

The surface waters change rapidly, and these changes are transported down into the deep waters (especially in the Southern Ocean). So yes, in some ways the surface waters tell us how the rest of the ocean is going to change.

However, higher pressures, lower temperatures, and slower circulation mean that the deeper waters are quite different and also need to be studied.

13. How expensive is the continuous plankton recorder to build and run?

They are about $40,000 to build, but they are pretty robust and last a long time. The CPR is usually run opportunistically on research voyages, and also on other ships like fishing vessels. So in theory there is minimal cost to actually collecting the plankton as the ships are already going out to sea.

The largest cost is employing the technical experts to analyse the silks and count the plankton, as this is very time consuming.

13. On the map of NZ showing the undersea floor, what are the river- like forms?

These are large canyons – or underwater rivers. They sometimes form just offshore from large onshore rivers. They form when sea level is lower and the rivers continue out to the edge of the continental shelf. Others form because of underwater landslides, while for others we have no idea why they have formed.

They are not all active – some are very old features that formed a long time ago.

14. Is it true that after a long sea voyage you become seasick from the lack of sea motion?

Yes, this is true. I personally struggle more with land sickness when I get off the ship than with sea sickness at the start of a voyage.

When I get back on land the stairs feel like they are moving under me for the first few days, and I have fallen over in the shower my first night back home on solid ground.

Wildlife

And finally, another question from Wellington East Girls’ College students asks “Have you seen much wildlife on the voyage?”

After being escorted out of Wellington Harbour by a pod of dolphins, we have only seen a few sea birds during most of the transit – although there was a rumour that someone spotted a penguin swimming when we were east of Macquarie Island.

Over the last few days, as we have been approaching the Antarctic Shelf, there has been an increase in the abundance of wildlife. The bridge of the RV Tangaroa has been buzzing with scientists and crew with binoculars and cameras at the ready. Minke and humpback whales have been spotted from a long distance, with some curious ones coming up close to the ship (and recorded on the whale record sheets in the bridge). But yesterday when we first encountered the sea ice we got the complete tourist experience.

We have also discovered that we have a talented wildlife photographer on board, Dr Adrian Bass (also masquerading as a chemist). So I will let his photos tell the rest of the story.

Orca. [Adrian Bass]

Bird. [Adrian Bass]

Seal. [Adrian Bass]

Birds. [Adrian Bass]