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Musings from the Southern Ocean and Antarctica

Ahoy there Land Lubbers.

Well, here we are, half-way through the voyage. To date, it's been kind of emotional. One wonders what the next four and a half weeks will bring. Every time I think I'm utterly exhausted and cannot possibly face another 12 hour day (7 days a week for 10 weeks, but who's counting?) we turn around and head down toward the continent, where the big southern girl has a billion amazing sights to show you. Sometimes it's hard to go to bed for fear of missing yet another beautiful iceberg or seal. However, once you get to bed, the almost 24 hours of sunlight and the constant ship's motion certainly cures any sleepiness you may have. If that isn't a subtle enough hint, I'd like to declare I haven't slept more than 5-6 hours a night for almost 6 weeks. And it kind of shows.

So, let me tell you a little about life on the Aurora Australis. You must surely all know what she looks like by now. Big and orange with a rounded bottom for icebreaking (and maximum rolling in even the calmest of seas). She has a crew of 23, 20 merchant seamen and three cooks. There's Sue, one of the stewards, but I'm sure she doesn't mind being called a seaman. AA's a research vessel, so she's decked out with labs and instrumentation rooms. Out the back is the trawl deck, where the nets and buoys are cast from. It's not a very pleasant place to be and thankfully there's a mezzanine level that looks over the trawl deck where you can watch in relative dryness. In big seas, and this week I've seen what a big sea looks like, the trawl deck is covered by waves. It's science, 24-7 on here, and since the voyage is costing several million dollars, there's really no excuse to stand around scratching your arse. This voyage is focused on a number of research questions, namely concerned with krill biomass estimation and ecosystem processes coupled with oceanography, phytoplankton, hydrochemistry, seabirds and, everyone's favourite charismatic megafauna, the whales. I'm part of Team Acoustics, but more of that later. Steve Nicol, the voyage leader, writes a bi-weekly diary on the AAD website which details the scientific programme in much better detail than I can, so I won’t bore you with it here.

The food is pretty damn good, although there's way too much of it. Unfortunately, certain items of fresh food have been disappearing. It was the bananas after 10 days, the grapes after about 2 weeks. The watermelon and pineapple finished about two weeks ago, along with the yoghurt. The fruit loaf finished on the weekend, along with the last of the lettuce. The final apple was eaten today, and the last box of oranges has been put out. I've been told the Special K breakie cereal is next. Have mercy. Fear not, the bacon rashers and chocolate biscuits will last us all the way. Marvellous for a vegetarian who has sworn off chocolate until her pisser of a thesis is submitted. Marvellous. I was told to expect to put on about 2-7 kgs over the duration of the voyage. True to form, I think I may surpass expectations.

After a long and proud history of alcohol abuse and debauchery upon the good ship Aurora Australis, this was the first dry voyage. The bar, down on F deck (lowest level), now accommodates yoga classes and trivia nights. It's covered in pictures and mementoes of a thousand parties and it's a truly sad spectacle to look over them with a can of Solo in your hand. All the seasoned expeditioners are fast to comment on how subdued and antisocial this voyage is. It is the sailors, however, that complain the longest and loudest about the no-alcohol policy, but more on them later. A fun day was had on Australia Day when a good proportion of the male scientists shaved their heads for Camp Quality. Around $4,000 was raised. We even had a BBQ out on the helideck and, fortunately, the weather was a rather mild -1 degrees C, with only a few knots of wind. Thankfully, with Mawson now on the radar, many a thirst will be quenched come this Sunday morning, but, again, more on that later.

The stresses of the lack of alcohol and fattness pales in comparison when you idly gaze out the nearest porthole to be treated with a perfectly framed picture of the sun setting on an iceberg and the odd snow petrel or albatross zooming past, right on cue. When you find yourself taking it all for granted, a hump back whale will poke its head up out of the water of the port side as if to say howdy. It all becomes exponentially more beautiful as we head further south towards the continent and into the sea ice. On the bottom of the first leg, we'd stopped to do a CTD (salt Concentration, Temperature and Depth sensor) just a couple of nautical miles off the first of the sea ice. After climbing onto the Monkey Isle (big platform above the bridge, dunno why it's called that), you could see a gleaming white layer on the horizon, like some sort of face off between boat and ice. It was exhilarating to head into it. The best sights are in the sea ice. Further south on the first leg, again stopped for a CTD, a dense fog was sitting in the still early morning. Above the hum of the engines you could hear an Adelie penguin voicing his disgust at this big, stinking orange whale, echoing in the mist. The morning was so still, you could even hear the splash he made when he dove into the water. Later that day, we were icebreaking further south. It was a brilliant blue sunny day, the icebergs were massive - kilometres in diameter. The whole ship was in high spirits, up on the bridge and out of the decks. Crowded House was playing on the stereo in the wheel house. I will never hear Crowded House again and not think of that day. When you see sea ice close up, you can see that they're criss-crossed with penguin tracks. Everywhere you look too, not just the occasional piece of ice. This place is seething with life, both above and below the water. The first time I saw the continent proper, somebody had to point it out to me. It appeared, for all the world, to be a low pinkish cloud on the horizon. What I was looking at was some peninsula with an obscure Russian name. The land rises quickly from the sea and it's easy to see how Antarctica rises more than 5 kms above sea level in some places.

A few days ago, we were treated to the worst weather of the voyage. Fifty knot winds, -33 degree C wind chill, 5 metre swell, horizontal snow. This explains the dog-leg on transect six, as we were pushed way off course. The storm hit right at the bottom of transect six, but because of the sea ice, the sea remained relatively low. It was a tad surreal watching the monitor flash 50 knots wind speeds, and feeling the calmest of seas beneath. Apparently the swell lags behind the wind and we soon felt its fury a few hours later when we'd left the sea ice. This little storm saw my sea legs kneecapped from beneath me and sent me staggering around in a 48 hour Avomine fuelled blur. That stuff just obliterates your IQ. As somebody who can get carsick whilst being behind the wheel or nauseous on the No.19 Sydney Road tram, thinking I could handle 5 metre swell with consummate ease, who was I kidding? But all was not lost, not least of all my lunch or my teeth enamel. Thank the Lord for the drugs.

Strange things happen to your body down here, other than coming back all fatty-boom-bah. For starters, the air is ultra dry. You can imagine what this does to your skin, eyes and sinuses. On the up side, the laundry dries in no time. A little side effect of an ultra dry environment is the static. Shocks 100 times a day. Again, the silver lining is that it has straightened my hair, which I usually pay $50 for. Lovely. And let's not forget the big hole in the ozone layer. It's entirely too easy to fry your retinas, even wearing special Division issue high UV sunglasses (that are a bit too easy to scratch for my liking). Last, but not least, let me not forget to tell you about the copious amounts of snot your nose produces to counteract dry sinuses.

I've developed a number of predilections, namely for ‘Desperate Housewives’ re-runs, the MSG goodness of Cheds biscuits and tales of Japanese brothels. Ahhhh, sailors, bless their little orange Hard Yakka coveralls. Is there anything they haven't seen, drank, punched or fornicated with?

I've taken many many pictures and I'm going to make you all look at them until your eyeballs liquefy and dribble out onto your cheeks. Well, maybe not, but that's how your eyeballs feel after taking pictures on a sunny day down here. And I have had to come to the realisation I am no Ken Duncan. You can't imagine the photography equipment that's on board. Funnily enough, the biggest most impressive cameras and lenses all seem to belong to males, aged between 28 and 40. Got to wonder what they're compensating for. If I made the mistake of standing still for long enough, I'd probably find out.

On the topic of desperate, female starved blokes, we will get to Mawson this coming Sunday. Mawson is the western-most of the Australian Antarctic stations and, apparently, completely superfluous to needs. Other than a cosmic ray project that nobody at the Division is really all that interested in, virtually no science goes on there. It contains a whole heap of tradesmen (I'd use the PC word 'tradespeople' here, but chicks are kind of rare) that maintain the buildings because it's cheaper than removing them entirely, which they would have to do if they closed the station. Mawson has been a big cross on the ship's calendar as it represents two things, solid ground and alcohol. Officially, however, it's where the hydroacoustics calibrations will take place. Sound travels differently in waters of different temperatures and we will be repeating calibrations that we did in Port Arthur in late November. A few weeks ago, the rumour on the decks was that Mawson was now not importing any more alcohol and there wouldn't be any available when our voyage got there. Oh the horror. Well, apparently the true reason such a alcohol drought was advertised was to throw the crew of a Russian ship, the Vasily, off the scent (which left yesterday for Hobart) and that Mawson was stockpiling for our voyage. And why you ask? This ship is full of women. In fact, this voyage has the highest participation of women ever. Mind you, that's still only 21 chicks to around 65 guys. Regardless, Mawson is still very much looking forward to entertaining the ladies. I swear this is all true. Alas (thankfully?), I'm in the calibration team and our priority is to finish up in 48 hours, with a bit of sightseeing if time permits. They're forecasting (as much as you can forecast in Antarctica) 80 knot winds at Mawson over the next couple of days. Naturally, I'm not pinning my hopes on getting off the boat. That leaves what is likely to be a very Pope-esque kissing of the concrete on Macquarie Dock back in Hobart come March 14.

Oh oh, I was just taking a break from writing this emailing by gazing out a porthole and about half a km off starboard I spied some spray. Sure enough, it was a pod of whales, not sure what sort. Thar she blooows! It's outrageous really, seeing the most amazing things just by randomly choosing to look out a window at the right time. Anyway, where was I?

Ok, so what is it exactly that I'm working on? I've been employed as a statistician to help calculate the total biomass of krill (Euphausia superba) in these here parts. Antarctica represents the largest relatively untouched fishery in the world. The total population of krill represents the largest biomass of any animal species on the planet. It is largely fished for aquaculture food, but also for human consumption in relatively small amounts. USA, UK, Russia, Japan and Australia all throw a lot of money towards ensuring the sustainable management of the krill fisheries. So, enter Team Acoustics! There are a bloody lot of krill and it's a bloody big survey area. In the days of old, they would sample krill using nets. Now, thankfully, echosounders are used to detect krill (and lots of other stuff) in the water column. You all know what a Fish Finder does? It pulses sound waves below a boat, which reflect off fish and travel back up to the boat to tell you there's good fishing below. So, take the Fish Finder and soup it up a bit, add some differential equations and you have the science of hydroacoustics. We travel around in transects detecting the presence of krill, multiply it up to the total area of the survey and, hey presto, the total biomass of krill. Yeah, it's a little more involved than that, but it's 11pm and that's as techy as I get right now. As an example of what I do, specifically, this week I've been writing a computer programme that calculates the geometry of sound reflecting off a 3D model of a krill. I even have to model how sound waves combine after hitting individual segments of the krill's tail. Ick, what am I doing talking work in my off-shift time?!? It's a bit of a love-hate relationship at the best of times.

So it's Mawson on Sunday, Davis in a couple of weeks, then back to Hobart on March 14th, in 4 weeks. Time has flown, as you can imagine. But what exactly will be returning to Hobart in a month's time? Nobody can expect me to return the same person that left Fremantle in early January. In all my life, I couldn't have imagined a more beautiful and terrifying place than this. I'm addicted to this place and to this job. I can only hope that the AAD will renew my contract at some time in the future. Can I return to normal, everyday life? Naturally, I have no choice on that, but I reckon it might take a bit of adjustment. It was pretty damn easy to slot into life on here. All your meals cooked for you. Surrounded by a suite of people not unlike yourself in education, goals and dreams. You don't have to buy anything, pay for anything. You just get up, eat and work, then back to bed. All the problems of the world were left back home.

Right now I can hear the noises of the trawl gantry and the hum of the engines. This ship is never silent. Although I wont sleep much tonight, I probably should at least give it a go. At least it's still tonight. Trying to sleep in a swell can be really bad for your health - I saw stars one night when a particularly sharp roll flung me across the bed and into a nearby cupboard. Hope I've given some insight into life on the Aurora Australis. My apologies for being so slack with emailing. After 12 hours of looking at a computer screen, it's hard to find the energy to put fingers to keyboard again. I'm thinking of you all in your hot summer, particularly when I'm standing outside taking not particularly good pictures, suffering an icecream headache and getting snot on my gloves.

Cheerio, Nat