For the first time in the last 13 hours the electronic plane icon that has been flying across the digital screen in front of seat 41C on this United Airlines international jumbo jet is traveling above land. We are flying over a small island chain to the northeast of Australia as I type this; the capital of Port Vila is marked with a white dot. Prior to this the plane on this screen flew over nothing but vast Pacific Ocean. We land in a few hours in Sydney. It’s my first trip to Australia, and a short one at about 2-hours before I catch a flight to Christchurch, NZ where the R/V Araon will be docked.
Getting to Antarctica takes a long time.
Three flights totaling ~20 hours of flying time across four airports and three countries, and that’s just to get to New Zealand. From there I’ll board the KOPRI ship the R/V Araon for a ~9 day sail to the Ross Sea. In a world where I can transit continents in a day, that it takes over a week to reach Antarctica is both satisfying and daunting. It really is that far away, but it’s Antarctica… shouldn’t it take a long time to get there?
I don’t have a lot to report yet. The days leading up to the trip ended with a flurry of activity. Equipment had to be shipped, driven, and then flown around the world. An early evening training session with PMEL’s Matt Fowler got me up to speed on what’s expected of me, what I’ll actually be doing on the ship, and why the expedition is happening at all.
The cruise is multi-purpose; resupplying the Korean Antarctic Base – Jang Bogo Station – is one of the expedition tasks. As is collecting valuable data on conditions near the Dragovski Ice Tongue, and recovering various instruments deployed last year to study seismic activity in the region. But my role is to recover an Ocean Bottom Hydrophone, or OBH for short, from approximately ~1000m (3300 ft) beneath the cold ocean waves for the Pacific Marine Ecology Lab (PMEL). PMEL and KOPRI are working together to improve our knowledge of ice dynamics in the Southern Ocean.
The seemingly impossible recovery task is accomplished by chirping. We’ll be using something called an acoustic release. What that means is I have a piece of equipment on the deck of the ship with an acoustic element that gets slung overboard to ‘chirp’ into the water. The right chirp, at the right frequency, and the right timing, will wake up an element built into the hydrophone on the ocean bottom. If it hears the right signal, it chirps back a predictable reply. It’s all very charming to hear, and slightly more technical than I’m describing but as Matt said when he was training me on it “it’s technician proof”. Once contact is made with the hydrophone, and I confirm that the signal it’s responding is in fact our own, I can send a release command that will theoretically release the hydrophone from it’s bottom mooring allowing it to float to the surface of the water (should take 5-20 minutes, Matt tells me).
It all sounds fairly straightforward and I’m assured that the technology is sound. Will it work? I don’t know yet, it should. But it’s going to take me another 9 days to get to the Ross Sea, so you’ll have to standby while I get off of this plane, onto another one, then into a taxi, and onto a ship, then sail south south south. This may take a while.
-Your Antarctic Correspondent-