Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two Weeks at the Bottom of the World

Greetings, ye land lubbers!

Well, it's been two weeks, so it's time for a blog update.

After setting sail (ok, it's not a sailboat, but you understand), it took us a few days to pass by the lower parts of New Zealand. These were wonderful days of relaxation and enjoyment. During those happy times, I often reflected upon my good fortune, in securing this excellent job, while sitting on the warm, peaceful decks watching the sun rise, or set.

Once we passed New Zealand, the winds and waves of the open sea struck us, and everything changed in a rapid free-fall descent into the gaping maw of Hell itself. A ice-cold, watery, constantly moving roller-coaster Hell.

I got seasick. I knew this was coming, so I'd prepared for it. I'd brought several different brands of motion sickness medicine, and the on-board doctor had some others for me to try.

I suppose if I'd been in a car going over a few miles of winding road, or in a plane experiencing a few hours of choppy weather, or even spent a whole day at an amusement park, these medicines would have been sufficient to restore my equilibrium. But I was in a ship at sea, in a storm that lasted most of a week!

Yes, it was a storm. Probably most of my experienced shipmates thought it was a minor sqall, but to me it was the very wrath of God poured out. I'm not sure what he was angry about, but I must've done something!

I took a few pictures of the waves while it was still ok to go outside, but they fail to capture the immense terror of the roaring ocean. Some of the waves were high enough to strike the highest decks of the ship. At one point I saw a wave roll over the drill floor (that's the low deck between the poop and forecastle decks) and completely cover it, making it appear for a moment that the ship had split in two. The official report was that the waves reached 40 feet in height. For days, they struck the ship, sounding like bombs going off -- sounding like the ship was coming apart around my ears, as I lay either in my bunk, or in the ship's little hospital, or at times on whatever couch was nearest, or even the floor.

Eventually the storm abated, and calm weather came again. I'm told that we can expect to pass back through high seas and winds again on our return trip to Tasmania, but I'm hopeful that by that time I'll have my "sea legs" and it won't be as bad. We did have a few hours of bad weather one day last week, and I didn't feel anything, so there's reason to hope.

Once we arrived at our first drill site, the real work began. We drill out length after 9-meter length of core from beneath the ocean floor. Currently we're drilling at a depth of about 3 miles below the surface of the ocean (that's three miles below our ship), and about half a mile beneath the sea floor. I'm told we might be here a few more days yet, and get to a depth close to 2 miles beneath the sea floor. Pretty amazing. The hard-packed sediment we're bringing up has been sitting (mostly) undisturbed for 30 million years or so, and now we're mucking around in it, subjecting it to intense light, x-rays, gamma radiation, and all sorts of other tests and experiements. I put my eye to a telescope and looked at little foraminifer shells that drifted to the ocean floor 15 million years ago.

Once we finish at our present site, we'll be heading back to another site that was supposed to be our first, but was surrounded by huge icebergs. We're hoping it will be accessible now. After that, there's a site near the mainland of Antarctica that should offer some beautiful scenery.

That's it for now! Until next time!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Update on my Seagoing Adventures

Greetings land-dwellers!

Today is our last day in port. Tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM we set sail for Antarctica!

I've been hearing some scary predictions about the weather for our transit from New Zealand to Antarctica: gale-force winds and very high seas. I talked to the doctor today and he's prepared to take care of me should I have problems with motion-sickness. They're telling everyone to secure everything -- anything free to move, will move!

I've spent the last few days -- since Jan 4th -- helping with the unloading and loading of the ship. It's been VERY exhausting work! Unloading core samples and trash and other stuff from the previous expedition, and loading all the stuff we need for this one. We've got everything imaginable that one might need for a two-month trip to Antarctica. The ship and all it's lifeboats could all sink, and I'd still be able to survive in my full-body survival suit.

I've been given a developer's laptop, with all the software development tools the IODP uses, and access to their source code. When I'm not directly employed as a Core Technician (and not sleeping), I'll be learning the ropes and experimenting with the tools and projects. I may even get a chance to fix a bug or two while I'm out here.

The people here are all very nice, and great to talk to! Some of my favorite times of the day are mealtimes, when I can sit down with some of the scientists or other IODP people and learn what they do, what they're hoping to accomplish on this mission, or just talk about where they're from or what interests them. There are about 25 or so scientists on board, and just about every one of them is from a different country. Then there are the lab techs, crew people and so on, who are also from all over. It's very cool!

I attended a meeting with the scientists this morning, and they talked a lot about what they are hoping to accomplish. A lot of it went way over my head, but one thing I found interesting is that some scientist somewhere has made a prediction based on some theories that he's proposed, and we will be doing some experiments to either validate or falsify his predictions. Kind of like when Einstein predicted, based on his relativity theory, the precise way light would bend around a star, which was later verified when telescopes were invented that were powerful enough to see the effect directly.

There is a ton -- actually several tons -- of cool scientific equipment on board. Just the little bit I've learned about that so far has my mind spinning.

I'm really excited, and somewhat scared, about leaving port in the morning. Well, it's not the leaving port, but the high winds and waves that has me scared. I'm pretty sure I'm gonna get seasick. The ship's doctor is ready to help though. He's got several kinds of meds for me to try, and says I shouldn't worry.

Keep checking back here in the days and weeks to come for more updates! Also, you can search YouTube for "IODP 318" (that's our expedition number) or maybe "IODP Wilkes Land" for videos. The videographer says he plans to release an update on YouTube every week. They should be fun and interesting, and you might catch a glimpse of me now and then!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

My Day in Wellington, NZ

Greetings once again to all y’all out there in the blogosphere.


I spent the whole day today (Sun., Jan. 3) in Wellington, New Zealand.  After eating my free breakfast that came with my room, I decided to visit two places: Weta Studios, and the Te Papa Museum (which someone on the plane last night had told me about).


So I went out of my hotel, hailed a cab – ok, the cab driver was just sitting there waiting for a rider, so I didn’t have to “hail” anyone, but I would have! – and told the driver to take me to the Weta Studio.  Turns out you can’t really go into the studio itself, but they have a little mini-museum and gift shop called “Weta Cave”.  The driver took me there.  I gawked at all kinds of LOTR-related stuff.  A life-sized statue of Gollum was awfully cool.  Lots and lots of exorbitantly priced figures, toys, etc.  A new comic book soon to become a movie caught my attention, and I wanted to buy an issue, until I found out that a single copy of the comic went for $15.00!  Since I can still remember when a comic book cost 25 cents, I wasn’t about to pay that.


I took tons of pictures there, of course.  It started raining while I was there, so I had the friendly cashier call a cab for me so I wouldn’t have to walk around looking for one.  The Weta Studios are in a very nondescript-looking residential neighborhood, and there’s a Christian school right across the street. 


To be honest, the highlight of the Weta Cave visit for me wasn’t the LOTR stuff (although that was really great).  The place was mostly filled with stuff having to do with a movie they’re working on now about some kind of retro-futuristic scientist/adventurer and his hot-chick sidekick.  I wasn’t very interested in all that, since I’d never heard of it, but the place was full of that.  The coolest thing there was the stuff related to the Halo movie that never got made.  They had some life-size Covenant weapons on display that were very cool (see picture above), and some as-yet-unreleased statuary that is going to be available later this year featuring the Halo characters.  If I had about $1000 to spend, I’d definitely have spent it on a couple of pre-orders for statues of the Master Chief and Arbiter, and one of the Master Chief attacking a Flood character.


They also had the actual gigantic pistol prop that Hellboy used in the movie, and lots and lots of other cool stuff.


After visiting Weta, I went to the Te Papa Museum, which is a huge place, showcasing native New Zealand art and history, and lots of really cool stuff.  Lots of interesting information about how New Zealand was settled by Europeans and what it was like there in ancient times.  One interesting thing that made me grin was a huge wall-size animated view of how the continents formed.  I’ve seen something like it before of course (but smaller) – how the continents broke apart millions of years ago through the shifting of the tectonic plates or whatever.  As the display showed the continents breaking apart, a voiceover was talking about “our land”, and “our country”, and I was unconsciously focused on North America when the display started fading out and a section of land in the southern part of Australia was highlighted.  I confess I was confused for a moment.  What’s going on?  The North American continent just sort of scrolled off the edge of the screen as the Island of New Zealand became the focus of the presentation.  It made me smile.  I’m so provincial!


They also have the complete skeleton of a giant squid on display.  I didn’t know squids had skeletons (thought they were like octopuses – octopi?), but there it was.  And a functional station wagon made entirely of corrugated roof material.  It got very windy while I was there, and I was almost blown over a few times as I walked back to hotel.


For the first time, I met someone else involved with the IODP expedition on the elevator today.  He wasn’t one of the software engineers, and to be honest, I didn’t even understand what his function on the ship was.  Some kind of assistant to one of the scientists I think.  When I got back to my room, I found an old email with the name of one of the software engineers and left a message for his room for him to call me later.


Tomorrow morning at 8:00 am a bus comes to the hotel to take us to the ship.  I’m very excited, but I also wish I had more time to spend in Wellington!  It’s so beautiful here, and I’d like to rent a car and drive out to see some of the countryside I could see from the airplane.

A quick update from Wellington, New Zealand before I leave to explore the city

Greetings from New Zealand everyone!

I’m in the James Cook Hotel Grand Chancellor in Wellington, New Zealand.  Room 2009, if you want to call!

New Zealand was magnificently beautiful from the air, but here in the middle of the city it feels a lot like Seattle – only with different details.  The people drive on the wrong side of the road.  Everything’s closed on weekends for some reason (at 7 pm last night – a Saturday – nothing was open.  No restaurants, no shopping, nothing!)

If you walk out of my hotel, straight down to the water, there’s a nice little spot called Lambton Quay.  It’s not exactly a resort beach – there are loading docks and big cranes on either side.  But it’s nice.  I’ve included a panoramic picture I took (with my new camera).  I sat there with my legs dangling into the water for an hour or so last night just reading and watching the light fade as the sun set behind me.

Unfortunately it’s been overcast so I still haven’t gotten a glimpse of those strange and wonderful southern-hemisphere stars that I’ve never seen before.  I’m excited about that.  Hopefully it won’t be overcast tonight.  Down near the pole I think the sun will never set, so this may be my last chance to see the stars for two months!

Keep checking back, faithful readers!  More to come!

Thoughts on the flight from LA to Aukland, NZ

Greetings once again to all who read this.

I’m currently sitting in row 57K on a gigantic  (two stories!!) plane over the wide ocean.  Ocean is all I can see out my window, right to the horizon.  This is a 12 hour flight, so I’ve been sleeping (got a whole row to myself, so I can stretch out!), and watching movies (The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Hurt Locker), and reading (starting The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman).  According to my laptop’s clock, it’s 8:37 AM, so I’ve been on the plane now for 9 hours.  3 hours left.

Of the two movies I watched tonight, I liked The Hurt Locker better, even though Pelham 123 was a bit more entertaining, because it felt like (can’t really say whether it really was) a realistic depiction of military life, and it made me think about Josiah, even though he’s in the Marines, and these were Army guys, and Josiah isn’t in Iraq.  Anyway, it’s a story that makes you both proud to be an American, and sad that young people have to go through such things.

The movies are free.  Every seat-back has a video player, and a remote control built into the arm rest.  There are a ton of movies and TV shows you can watch, in several languages.  Every 15-20 minutes or so, a smiling flight attendant pokes a tray in my direction filled with snacks, which so far have been nothing but dried fruit, fruit juice, and apples.  These Qantas people eat healthy!

The book – The Accidental Time Machine – caught my attention in the bookstore this morning, because (1) it’s by Joe Haldeman, who wrote The Forever War, which is one of the best sci-fi novels ever, and because it’s about time travel, which is always entertaining (I just finished Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt a few weeks ago.  A fun read.)  So far all I can say is it’s caught my attention.  Im in chapter 3.

Oh, I forgot to mention New Years!  Midnight passed tonight just as we were taking off from LA, and it was a bit of a letdown.  A few people throughout the plane did a countdown, and there was a smattering of applause, and that was all I heard about it.  Sadly, no free beer or champagne.  As we took off, I saw a couple of fireworks from the air, and tried to get my camera and take a picture, but by the time I fished it out of the bag, we were over the ocean, and I couldn’t see anything.

It’s starting to dawn on me now that this is really going to happen.  In a few days, I’m going to board a ship and sail to Antarctica.  I’m going to live aboard a tiny ship down near the south pole for two months.  Honestly, at every step up to now a big part of me has been waiting for something to happen to spoil this.  There’s still part of me saying that I’ll get turned back at customs, or that the expedition will get cancelled at the last moment.  It’s that cynical, jaded part of me that’s grown so loud over the years.  Nothing really cool can happen to me.  I sit in a cubicle working on software I only marginally care about – if that much.  I don’t go sailing to cool places, doing amazing things.  Surely this is all some cruel joke God is playing – he’s gonna hold out a carrot, but when I go to take it, it’ll disappear, or be rotten.

Really, aren’t all carrots rotten to some extent, here on Earth?  It’s true: they are.  This job will have a shovel, like all jobs.  I’ve got to remember that, but still, a brighter, more youthful and idealistic part of me that’s been stifled for many years is starting to perk up again, and I’m glad to hear from him again.  Once he gets a taste of that salt air, he’s gonna be harder to ignore.