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15 February, 2000

Learning The Ropes

It is now Monday the fifteenth, three in the afternoon New Zealand time, which I think makes it nine o'clock Sunday night Maine time. As I type this I can feel the ship begin to move, as we set sail from McMurdo. Things are just getting geared up for the next 45 days. We had a meeting this morning and everybody got a chance to say what they were doing. There are some interesting projects. One women is collecting samples of sea water in various places and at various depths, which will be sent back to be analyzed for tritium and helium isotopes. These are left over from atmospheric bomb tests of the fifties and the sixties, and their presence in the water is a clue to ocean circulation. Another group is doing a census of seals: Weddell, Ross, Crabeater, and Leopard. Still another group from the University of Alaska is looking carefully at the sea ice and the snow on it. Their observations are going to be compared to those taken by a new satellite, so that the future observations of the satellite will be more understandable. Of course there are also the principal two projects on the cruise. One is to map the bottom of the Amundsen Sea, since nobody has really done this, and the other is to look at the depth and movement of various water masses in our cruise area. More about these two in subsequent journal entries.

Six hours later. I had to stop writing the above because it was time for assorted orientations and trainings. First we learned what to do in the event of an emergency on the ship. We got on survival suits and climbed into the covered motor life boats. Each holds 76 people and enough food and water for a couple of weeks. I wouldn't want to be in one of them for two weeks with 76 people, but it would be better than swimming! We also got a lecture on some of the rules aboard ship. These include commonsense ones like keeping noise down when people are sleeping, and others like the seat reserved for the captain in the galley.

After the lifeboat survival training we had an introductory session in ping editing. There is an electronic system mounted on the ship called SeaBeam. It is designed to draw a topographic, that is three dimensional, picture of the bottom as the boat passes over it. It's pretty complicated, involving 120 hydrophones mounted on the bottom of the ship, and some fancy computer programming. It draws a nice map, but still requires that the raw data, the "pings", be looked at one by one on a computer screen, and edited. The pings appear as a series of five or six horizontal lines. Using the computer mouse, you cut out portions of the lines that just don't look correct. If the water is rough, or the ship is breaking ice, or someone drops a large wrench in the engine room, or a whale or school of fish swim by, then you'll get false data. The human brain is still the best for sorting this out. Each person is expected to do some ping editing each day, after learning the method.

A third training session was in safety in and around the stern deck, or fantail of the ship. It's a dangerous place to work because there's lots of heavy equipment there, winches, core weights, cranes, etc. Also, there is an open section in the deck railing to allow heavy things to be put over the side and brought back again, and if you are not careful, you can fall overboard into the cold blue-green water. That would mean drowning or freezing to death, whichever came first. Because of this, anyone working on the stern must wear a flotation jacket, and if you are within ten feet or so of the open place you have to wear a safety harness with a rope which ties you to the ship.

We're also getting divided up into watches. Half of us will work midnight to noon, and the rest noon to midnight. Those on duty are responsible for making sure all equipment is working properly, helping with whatever coring or other work is going on, and recording a variety of data such as depth, and the ship's speed and direction.

Right now, the ship has stopped, the winches are working, and the first CTD cast is happening. I'll explain more about this later. I'll also try later to make a word picture or two of the incredible scenery around the ship. Vast, empty, majestic cold spaces., with "never trail or track.."

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