15 February, 2004
Most of the time when we are collecting data we are in open water far from the ice shelf. Today we spent most of the morning slaloming around bergs and picking the route through the thinnest sea ice as we did our seismic survey in the vicinity of the ice edge. Close to the ice edge means miles rather than tens of miles, which is the norm.
At these distances, it is far more likely to see marine mammals within sight of the ship. When the air guns for the seismic are operating, we have a safety zone that is roughly the length of two football fields. Seals can enter the zone lounging on an ice flow. Pods of Orcas can simply show up from under the ice right in front of the ship.
This morning was a busy time for whale sightings. Jerome Hall and the bridge observed a pod of about 40 whales about a mile off the bow. They swam in formation from port to starboard, seemingly oblivious to the ship, as they appeared to meander along the ice edge from flow to flow. From that time on, we knew it would be a busy day. Twice the guns were stopped as whales entered the safety radius. We would wait 20 minutes once they left the area before we started firing again. The ship continues to move at 4.5 knots at that time, so nearly 2 nautical miles of seismic data were lost, but that is a compromise that the scientists are willing to make to share the Antarctic seas with its marine mammals.
Sometimes they come so close to the ship, it is as if they treat us a big orange and yellow berg. Whenever the observers see marine mammals, people flock to the portholes and bridge to get a look. A record of each sighting is also kept whether the animal is in the safety radius or not. The record includes the time and location of sighting, and the type of marine mammal observed. Observers work one-hour shifts, and rotate every three hours when we are doing seismic work.
Along the ice edge, freshly formed sea ice locked in the ice flows and small bergy bits. Small colonies of penguins were scattered about on the flows. Twice we were fortunate enough to see large groups of penguins running single file from one small crack in the ice to the other. They looked like they were playing follow the leader, but the route the leader chose only seemed to confuse the followers. They waddled along, sometimes slipping, but always looking ahead to the penguin in front of them. Maybe that was why they were taking such a crazy route; the leader may have been looking for someone to follow.
Plans are being made to have all the data backed up so that the scientists can take it with them to continue their analysis and at some point publish the results of their efforts here for other geologists, geophysicists and citizen scientists as well. The Antarctic is a fascinating place. Working with the geophysics on this cruise, I have learned an incredible amount about their science from our discussions and just listening in to conversations and problems solving sessions. This is a very eclectic group with a wide range of interests. I have had the opportunity to learn about marine biology, history, geography and literature through spontaneous discussions prompted by events of the day. It is a twenty-four hour classroom with each of us alternating between the role of student and teacher throughout the day.
One of the other big projects that have been going on is the final cataloging of rock samples from the dredges that have been conducted during the cruise. Sam Mukasa and Jill VanTongeren have been labeling, bagging, recording and boxing each sample for shipment back to the University of Michigan. They will have many boxes and hundreds of pounds of samples that will go first to New Zealand then on to the states. Some of the rocks will be kept at a repository here for reference by other geologists working in Antarctica in the future. It will be interesting to find out what the chemical analysis of these rocks by Sam, Jill and other future geologist will tell us about the seamounts and volcanoes in the Ross Sea.
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