Report 13: Beyond Mawson

Imojen requests another sample from Paul
Imojen requests another sample from Paul (Photo: Steve Nicol)
Oceanographic data plot

Steve Nicol, Voyage Leader

It seems like a long time ago that we left Mawson yet it is only 3 days. This is not because we have been particularly busy but maybe because we have not. Our trick of heading south rather than north at the start of Transect 8 appears to have paid off and we completed the line today after experiencing little more than an awkward rolling swell rather than the 45 kt winds we might have faced had we headed due north on Tuesday.

The sun even came out yesterday which resulted in a number of smiling faces venturing out into the open air – we have seen precious little sunshine out in the open ocean all voyage. As the sun twinkled on the ocean surface humpback whales frolicked around the ship stealing the krill out of the mouth of our trawl and prompting calls for intervention from some of the less politically astute on the krill research team. Other than this interlude, the transect passed much without note, and with few krill, as people either settled back into ship-based life or braced themselves for the last two sampling transects, the first of which begins tonight.

Making sense of the spectacular mound of data that we are collecting is not going to be easy and there have been meetings aboard this week to stimulate discussion on what patterns any of us might think we are seeing. A survey of this type is really like a giant jigsaw puzzle and it will be difficult to make head or tail of it until it is complete. Additionally, some of the critical data will not be available until after the voyage when the samples have been analysed. None the less, it is still possible to tease out some features from the raw information that is already available. The oceanographic team are leading the charge by producing large numbers of plots of both vertical and horizontal sections of a wide range of properties, some of which are comprehensible. Some datasets are so large that processing them for later analysis is hugely time consuming. Toby is fond of pointing out that the echosounders are producing four metric pings of data every second and so far his computer has captured every one of the 15.5 million returns from a reluctant ocean which explains why it is now suffering form a bad case of electronic constipation.

There is a push to get as much data out and available as soon as possible and this has meant long hours measuring krill on a rolling ship, countless eons filtering seawater or listening to interminable Grateful Dead CDs and pretending that they are the elusive song of the Southern minke whale. Capturing the essence of all this morass of information and synthesising it for public consumption becomes important as the voyage enters its final phase of sampling and a call for one or two short paragraphs describing key findings that would be of general interest generated a range of responses. These ranged from five pages of florid explanation of why it was premature to release any findings at this point in time, through to pages of detail that would floor an expert – and I even got one or two short paragraphs describing key findings that would be of general interest.

Strange psychologies take over at about this point in a long voyage and few are immune from behaviour that is amusing or entertaining – but most of which is downright irritating. This is the point at which homicide often appears as an eminently reasonable response to a spilled coffee, and the gregarious become reclusive whilst the wallflowers bloom. Conversations take on an Alice in Wonderland quality and the most mundane aside can develop into a serious discussion. For example, an animated discussion developed on the bridge as the ship sailed through some of the world's most devastatingly beautiful scenery and the proponents earnestly argued the taxonomic difference between a cookie and a biscuit, totally oblivious to the sparkling sun playing on the icebergs passing nearby and the flocks of animated birds fluttering over the dappled water. Suddenly the conversation spread like a bushfire to encompass the etymology of chips, French fries, crisps and nachos – and in a prodigious logical leap, to the defining features of apple crumble and the appropriate filling for pies. Luckily, at this point the Captain closed the bridge…