South Pacific Update #2

Here is the next installment of the email updates I sent out to friends and family while on my research cruise in the South Pacific. Unfortunately I never did write a final one which would have included my time in port in Valparaiso, Chile (4 straight nights of benders without being sick!) and then my travels to Patagonia which was full of mountains, guanacos, rheas, condors, foxes, meadows and excellent Chilean beer. And an epic 9 hour plane delay which left me only about 14 hours to see Santiago before flying home to Reed and his huge beard.

The 3 months spent at home were nice and relaxing, saw lots of friends and then started planning for my next adventure!

I wrote a nice long email a few days ago but managed to erase it
instead of send it out, very frustrating. I will do my best to
recreate it. Hump day (the halfway point) of both the cruise and my
trip was on Sunday. I had begun to think that perhaps there would
never be enough for another update during the trip, as each day
really does run into the next out here. My schedule is routine and
the work is pretty repetitive. Seriously, seeing a bird out the
porthole next to where I sit in the lab was the most exciting thing
that had happened in about a week. It was the first real sign of life
I had seen since leaving French Polynesia 3 weeks ago. It didn’t hang
out long enough for me to identify it other than likely a shearwater
or albatross. I’ve seen a few more since then. We passed a few
hundred nautical miles south of Easter Island recently, so that may
be why I’ve seen more in the last few days. Not much now between here
and Chile, though we will be passing close to Robinson Crusoe Island a
few days before we make port. I’m still having a good time – the
people are great to work and talk with, I advanced to the next round
of the cribbage tournament, and things are going very smoothly – but
it’s amazing how much this all feels like the same day over and over
again, like in the movie Groundhog Day. People try to break up the
monotony with things like skirt day (I didn’t bring one so wore a
sarong I bought in Tahiti instead) and the hallway between the galley
and the main lab gets a new designation every few days. First it was
the compliment corridor where you were supposed to compliment people
as you passed them, then it became the high five hallway, then the
punchline passageway, where you just delivered the punchline of a
joke without any of the context. Perhaps indicative of the hump day
blues we all went through, it was most recently the Silent Street
where we were directed to “Pass your coworkers without looking up or
acknowledging them, everyone wins!”
Anyway, the events of a few
nights ago broke up the routine. For a little background, I’m on a
CLIVAR cruise, which studies CLImate VARiation, doing transects
through oceans all over the world on a regular basis to compare the
data between oceans and across decades. Pretty much everyone on board
analyzes water samples, which we collect with a CTD. This is a metal
frame with 36 pvc bottles attached that are tripped closed at
pre-determined depths by a computer on the ship. There are also all
kinds of other instruments attached to the CTD that detect
temperature, pressure, salinity, etc. When brought back on board, the
10 liters of water in each bottle is from a certain depth and is
sampled by about 10 different groups of people who all study it for a
different purpose. We launch it over the starboard side of the boat
using an A-frame, and the CTD is attached to a huge spool of wire
through which all communications between the ship and the CTD run.
During deployment, the crew member who controls the winch got
distracted; after removing the slack from the line he didn’t stop
reeling in wire. The CTD, which was still strapped down to a metal
cart on the deck, lifted up a few feet in the air before the tension
on the wire was enough to snap the wire and send the CTD crashing
back down. Drew, the restech (basically deck operations boss) was
standing on the side of the CTD at the time and was very lucky to be
able to hold on and not end up over the side of the ship. No one was
hit with the recoiling wire, and luckily no one was in the hottub at
the time as it’s located directly behind the spool of wire. I had
gone in once while the CTD was deployed but was too paranoid about
the wire snapping that I couldn’t relax and decided never to go in
again while it was deployed; now I see it was a justified fear.
Everyone was shaken up but fine and the techs were able to bend the
metal frame back into shape and repair and reattach the wire. All in
all, it was about a 5 hour delay which is just fine, considering what
could have happened.
This happened a few hours before the end of my
shift and I was sure it would be the most interesting thing that
happened all week and maybe even all cruise. I was wrong; it wasn’t
even the most interesting thing to happen before I went to bed. After
shift, Angie (a UW grad student who I actually met at the hostel in
Tahiti before the cruise) and I went up to the bow to look at stars
and have girl time. My giddiness at seeing the southern sky with zero
light pollution has not subsided; Orion hogs the western sky but is
all I recognize, Mars is out, and the milky way is just obscene.
While discussing various boy-related topics, we saw a few shooting
stars. There was one, however, that was different. I had a clear view
of it, but Angie’s back was to it. It was the brightest thing I’ve
ever seen in the night sky – by far. And I had time to consider it,
deem it the most amazing meteor I’d ever seen, decide not to try to
point it out to Angie as there was no way it would still be there by
the time she turned around, have it continue, tell Angie after all,
and then we watched it together as it faded and then exploded into a
huge ball of green light and then trail off towards the water. The
whole thing probably lasted 12-15 seconds, which is epic for a
shooting star. Angie and I began to worry that maybe it was actually
a flare set off from a boat in trouble nearby so we walked up to the
bridge to see if they had seen it too. Indeed they had, and their
immediate reaction was that it was a flare as well, but had decided
that it was in fact a meteor with something called a bow shock, which
is when the air surrounding a meteor fills up with gases that actually
precede the object itself into Earth’s atmosphere and light up in a
similar chemical reaction as the Northern Lights. Pretty cool. After
all the excitement and amazement subsided, however, I realized that I
had not made a wish on it, oops.
The weather had been absolutely amazing. Today is just ridiculous, it’s
like Lake Pacific out my
porthole right now, smooth and virtually no swells or wind at all. We
have just over 2 weeks left and are still running slightly ahead of
schedule, so hopefully everything will continue to be
straightforward. We have a fire drill once a week and practice
something new each time (which seems kind of a silly way to do things
to me). Last week we learned how to operate an AED (automatic
something defibrillator). I had no idea that they talk to you, in a
calm but firm voice; it’s kind of awesome. And apparently if the
patient has a hairy chest it will tell you to give them a quick trim
before proceeding. Today we shot off flares from the stern, it was
totally awesome. In my down time I mix worthwhile pursuits such as
working out and writing with trivial distractions like True Blood and
Mad Men episodes; it works well as long as I keep them balanced. We’re
without internet for a few more days as we change from the Pacific to
Atlantic satellite, or some such IT reason. They log in to some
expensive satellite a few times a day to communicate our location
back to San Diego, and they also send and receive emails from this
account at that time. We’re on Central time now, though most of the
research is logged in GMT. Still have fresh fruit and salad, the cooks are
miracle workers. Haven’t caught any more fish, though yesterday Drew did
hook an enormous marlin, it had to have been about 7 feet long and just a
beautiful and powerful creature. He let it go though, which made me happy.

I’ve decided to travel to the south of Chile to see Patagonia and Tierra
del Fuego once I’m on vacation. I have about a week so will have to fly
there (it’s a 30+ hour bus ride each way) and hop around a bit, but from
what I’ve read it’s absolutely spectacular mountain and glaciers landscape
where hopefully I’ll see penguins, rheas, guanacos and Andean condors.
Really looking forward to that, and then to getting back to San Diego on
Feb. 22.