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17 March, 2000

I Saw It With My Own Eyes

74 22 s, 104 37 w

Midway between Canisteo Peninsula and Thwaites Glacier Tongue, northwest of Pine Island Glacier

Temp 3.8 C (25 F), 8 knot (9 mph) NW wind

Barometer 985 mb and rising

On CTD station, in open water next to large field of brash ice

Tonight at last there are a few stars out. Through occasional holes in the overcast I see the Southern Cross, and then moments later the two pointer stars. The clouds are thin, and I can see the top edges of them lit up in greenish light, either by the nearly full moon or the Aurora Australis, I'm not sure which. I go into the bridge and watch the spotlights probe the dark ice free sea ahead. My eyes have no references for depth or shape, not even snowflakes swirling in the beams. Suddenly I see what looks like a vertical white spotted wall in the darkness ahead. As we steam towards it, it seems to get taller, until it fills up half our view. It looks taller than the ship. The whole scene is right out of a Star Trek episode. Then I glance over to the radar screen and the picture makes sense again. We're approaching a loose field of white brash and growler ice. The ship sails harmlessly into and through the wall, with occasional thuds as we hit the larger pieces.

Later the moon sets, and is partially visible for a short time. It casts its light on the mist and the icebergs, and for a brief time there is an unworldly landscape in blue and white. Snow petrels glide continuously about the ship, skimming the wake for food brought to the surface in the turbulence of the propellers. Once in a while the birds flash through the spotlights. I have work to do, but hate to take my eyes off the world around the ship.

Out on the dark part of the bridge deck I watch the stars again. The Nathaniel B. Palmer has a tall mast amidships for lights and antennas. You can see the steel mast +in one of the pictures with my March 16 journal entry. As I look up, all I see are the stars and this mast. All of a sudden, the whole star field starts slowly turning around the mast. Perhaps I'm not getting enough sleep! But then I realize the cause; the ship has slowly and smoothly altered course. The stars are stationary, the mast is moving.

Optical illusions are fun and they show how dependent the brain is on some sort of familiar object in the visual field. Without some reference, be it a seal, a Zodiac or a penguin in the distance, the brain simply can't make sense of what the eyes are seeing. This has been my trouble since I got to Antarctica, and is the same difficulty early explorers mention. When I look at scenery, it is very difficult to judge distances, or even tell snowfields from sky. I often have to stare for a few moments to understand what I see. Things do make better sense than they did the first few days, though.

The work of the Nathaniel B. Palmer, and my small part in it, goes on seven days a week, twenty four hours each day. Last night we cored three times, mapped several hundred square kilometers of bottom, did three CTDs, an ice station, and seal observations. Because of the depth of 1500 m (4920 ft.), it takes almost an hour for the corer to reach bottom and come back up. After it's on the surface, we have another one to two hours of sampling, labeling, storage and cleanup to do. It is repetitive but crucial work. The cores we are gathering will be examined in labs over the next few years. A lost or unclear label makes a sample useless for scientific purposes. We are exploring the deeply gouged out glacial trough where 15,000 years ago (and probably more recently) massive ice streams from the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers merged to flow towards the continental shelf edge. The SeaBeam keeps painting underwater hills and canyons for us, a mile below. We fill in empty places on the blank chart, but know many will remain blank when we leave. Some places are covered with ice to thick for the Nathaniel B. Palmer; we won't have time for others. It will be a long time before the waters around Antarctica are thoroughly mapped, and longer still before the land hidden under the ice cap is known.

Now that we are two thirds of the way through our exploration, many aboard are starting to think of home. I know I am.

There is still much ahead of us, though, two more weeks at sea. There is more work here, then transit of the Bellingshausen Sea, the trip up the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, a visit to Palmer Station, the Drake Passage, the Straits of Magellan, and Puentas Arenas. I'm looking forward to all of it.

Sally Mathieu tests samples for chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) with a gas chromatograph. I'll tell you about her and her lab mate Synte Peacock and the work they are doing in another entry.

The noon sun peaks through a hole in the clouds. It never gets very high in the sky here.

It's hard to keep up appearances at four in the morning. My watchmates Jesse Johnson (left) and Dan Naber work on a Kasten core.

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