Mud, Glorious Mud: Getting My Sea Legs During a Week at Sea in Antarctica


Watching the men at work on the freezing, rain-whipped deck below, the scientists gathered at the back of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) ship RRS James Clark Ross yell "Yes!" and "Great!" If they were Americans, they'd be exchanging high-fives. We've pulled up another nice, long core of gooey, gray mud from the antarctic sea floor--a relief after our first couple of days off the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula were plagued by a winch that wouldn't work and a corer that kept breaking down. But now everything's fixed, and we're getting good cores that will help reveal the history of the ice sheet that last covered this bay.

I've joined the first leg of this BAS geological cruise from 12 to 20 February as a reporter for Science magazine. Since we headed south from the Falkland Islands, I've had a crash course in both geology and life at sea. First came the ship part: getting used to everything being bolted down, close quarters with the same few dozen people, and, of course, the constant rocking and motion. I was seasick across the notoriously rough Drake Passage in spite of the seasickness patch behind my ear. This meant lots of lying down and struggling to eat and talk to people.

Thankfully, after 4 days I walked down a corridor without grabbing the walls and realized that I'd got my sea legs. (Seasickness is not trivial, apparently: One ship officer told me about a grad student who spent every day in bed 'dribbling into a bucket' and finally had to be let off on land because he was so dehydrated. His Ph.D. plans were over, the officer says.)

Once I felt better, I had a chance to see what was going on. The 20-or-so-member team, a mix of British scientists, grad students, and postdocs, is split up into two 12-hour shifts: from noon to midnight, and from midnight to noon (the so-called night watch). Two paleobiologists (including Claire Allen are collecting seawater samples every 20 minutes and filtering out the diatoms (algae with silica shells). Other team members are stationed in front of a computer that's displaying data from swath bathymetry, an instrument on the ship's underside that is mapping the ocean floor.

We need to make the most of our time because this is very expensive science. The lead scientist, Cambridge glaciologist Julian Dowdeswell, will pay £11,000 ($16,500) per day for the 6.5 days he has the ship. He is also paying £45,000 ($67,500) for the work of a British Geological Survey crew that's doing the coring. The pressure to make the most of a cruise--despite bad weather and equipment glitches--can make for a tense atmosphere, I'm told. One officer recalls an utterly miserable cruise with three principal investigators (PIs) who had no clear plan and spent the entire time bickering about what to do when.

Fortunately our cruise seems to be well-coordinated and relatively relaxed. After a few days of mapping, we get to the nitty-gritty: collecting 1-to-6-meter-long plugs of sediment, or mud. This task the geological survey team does by lowering a huge, orange, spiderlike corer into the water, then driving it into the sea floor and pulling it back up. Grad students and postdocs don raingear and go on deck to cut the cores into sections. Each core takes about 1.5 hours to complete, after which we move a few miles to take another.

When equipment breaks down, Julian and Carol Pudsey, the BAS co-PIs, pore over their bathymetry map and scramble to adjust their plans. ("Time is money," Julian keeps muttering.) It's slow, monotonous work. And because we're about 75 miles offshore, there's no scenery, just overcast skies and choppy seas. (Just like the North Sea, the geologists tell me gloomily.) We all get excited and bring out our cameras whenever we spot an iceberg or a whale.

It's a relief when we make a stop at Rothera, the main BAS station on the peninsula, where we at last see the jagged mountains, glaciers, penguins, and seals we've all been waiting for. And although the cruise will continue, I'm happy to step off onto dry land. I've learned that going to sea as a scientist is not exactly a pleasure cruise--it's mostly hard work mixed with boredom. Besides, I'm ready for a good night's sleep in a bed that doesn't rock.

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