Report 2: Are we there yet?

The first iceberg
The first iceberg
The first CTD to be deployed

Steve Nicol, Voyage Leader

We’ve been at sea for a week now and routines are beginning to be established. As we approach the first sampling site more and more people are adjusting to being on shiftwork. The wee hours of the morning used to be the peaceful preserve of a small but dedicated group huddling in the instrument room but now a wander around the ship at three in the morning (I am told) will reveal a whole tribe of industrious individuals engaged in work or other activities to keep them awake such as eating, exercising, eating, arcane discussions (often involving the topic of handcuffs) and eating. By Wednesday when we start the oceanographic sampling in earnest we will have almost all of the scientific party on shift work which means that the point density per unit time drops and it is only at meal times that anything like the whole ship’s company comes together. This makes it very difficult to schedule activities for the few hours of recreation time that fall between meals, sleep and work and it is now that the creativity of our Party Organising Officer (POO), Sarah, becomes most tested. To date we have enjoyed a quiz night which gave all aboard the opportunity to publicly air their ignorance and an iceberg sweepstake which went up only minutes before the first iceberg was sighted. But wait, there's more. Suggested activities have included salsa dancing with a genuine Colombian instructor, hackey sack on the helideck if it is ever clement enough to venture outside, stretching/flexibility lessons which have led to a certain amount of speculation and viewing of the first 23 episodes of “Desperate Housewives” which has led to even more, unfounded, speculation.

Over the last week we have had a mix of weather. The first few days out of Fremantle were remarkably easy on us so many people were able to settle in to life on the ship – although we have had our fair share of reasonably undulating conditions more recently which sent many people scurrying back to their cabins. The latest meteorological forecasts are quite remarkable in their accuracy so Scotty, the Captain, can plot a course that weaves between low pressure systems and allows us to reach our destination as quickly and as comfortably as possible. We can also plan our activities several days in advance knowing that the projected conditions are something we can bank on.

The trip down has not all been sleeping and eating, however. We have been deploying a number of instruments as we go and have been setting our equipment and the ship up to undertake a long and hopefully unbroken period of research. All the laboratories are now fully functional with the exception of the wet lab which still has a number of large oceanographic buoys occupying prime real estate. These buoys get set loose into the ship's wake every degree of latitude and then begin their journey around the Southern Ocean diving to depth, then rising to the surface every so often to report their position and the recorded water properties. We have also been towing a continuous plankton recorder (CPR) behind the ship to record the different oceanic communities that we are passing through. The ship's sensors are also recording atmospheric and oceanographic data as we sail so we can determine when we cross the major oceanic barriers such as the Polar Front – which we did yesterday indicating that we are in the real Southern Ocean now, not in some oceanographic abstraction. Also recording as we sail are the whale and seabird observation teams though neither have had too much joy so far in a wide blue and rather featureless ocean. Now that we have crossed the Polar Front things should start to pick up.

We had a single stop along the route to test the apparatus that will be deployed from the ship when we are on station including the main oceanographic instrument – the CTD which records the properties of the water as it is lowered up to 4 km into the ocean, and assorted nets, water samplers and underwater gizmos which will allow us to definitively characterise a large chunk of the Southern Ocean. All tests went well so we are looking forward to beginning to use the instrument suite to collect real data. Once we begin work early on Wednesday morning we will be flat out 24 hours a day for essentially the next 7 weeks with only a short break at Mawson station in mid February. Sleeping on the way home may well be as easy, or easier, than on the way down.