Friday, October 13, 2017

Team Work Makes the Dream Work!

From left to right: Chief Scientist Tahlia (as Luna Lovegood), Lelethu (Hogwarts Express), Melissa (birthday girl), Caitlin (dementor), and Mark (Hagrid).

Personalities within a science party can make or break a cruise. The five of us on this trip worked together very well and became great friends. There was a lot of down time as the ship performed its resupply and turnover missions. What could have been boring or even tedious was made magical due to our close bond. My birthday came during one of these down periods, and the team made the most of it. They threw me a surprise Harry-Potter themed party, complete with costumes and themed drinks. I make a big deal out of birthdays, but this one will hold a special place in my heart forever.

Before all going our separate ways when we got back to land (though the other 4 all live in Cape Town), we got together to take 'album cover' photos on the back deck. Dressed in the matching gear that the ship distributes to all scientists, we assembled for the photo shoot. Everyone had ideas for poses, and we had a lot of fun doing it. I will treasure this experience, and these pictures. I am so grateful to Tahlia, Lelethu, Caitlin, and Mark for the last 5 weeks - for their help when we had work to do, and their company throughout. #blessed

Olympians versus Titans

The launch of 'Olympians.'

Two SOCCOM floats were adopted by Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They are named 'Titans' and 'Olympians' after the team names the sixth grade students chose for themselves after studying mythology.
Titans being tested in port. Cape Town's famous
Table Mountain in the background.2

The two floats were deployed in very different areas. Titans was launched during the run south we did after dropping off the turnover team at Gough Island. Three weeks later, Olympians was deployed about halfway between Tristan da Cunha and Cape Town.

Both are working great and have been sending profiles of data collected from their many sensors. You can follow them as they drift, and send back data every 10 days.
Follow this link. Titans is float #12723 and Olympians is #12733.

Underway Science

Lelethu and the pCO2 system in the underway lab onboard Agulhas II.

There is constant scientific analysis going on aboard Agulhas II, even when all the scientists are in bed. The ship has a pump that delivers surface seawater to the underway lab, where it is analyzed by machines that only need minimal attention (at least when it's working correctly!). Lelethu Nohayi, a technician from CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), was in charge of the pCO2 system on this cruise. It measures the difference between carbon dioxide concentrations in the ocean versus the air just above the surface.
The 'wet box' (behind Lelethu in the above picture) recreates the air-sea interface using seawater pumped up from the bottom of the ship, about 5 meters below the surface, and air pumped in from the front of the bridge, which is uncontaminated by the ship's exhaust. The 'dry box' (on the left) consists of all the electronic components necessary for the measurements. 
Data can be collected constantly, and the pump was run every time the ship was underway. Lelethu also took samples that will be analyzed back in a shore-based lab in Stellenbosch that will be used to calibrate the system. pCO2 data has been collected all over the world by research vessels since the 1950s. This cruise will add to that important data set

Full Moon Deployment

Float Freddy Cougar ready for deployment.

Apologies for the late post. After the ship filled up again with passengers from Tristan da Cunha, internet bandwidth was hard to come by. We have now returned to Cape Town, South Africa and I am enjoying the small comforts I've had to do without for 5 weeks. Lightning fast internet and being able to decide what to eat are the biggest ones.

A SOCCOM float was deployed soon after we departed Tristan on our transit back to Cape Town. Probably the loveliest deployment of the cruise, it took place in calm weather, under the full moon.

Float 'Freddy Cougar' was adopted by Melvin Krepps Middle School in East Windsor, New Jersey and named after their mascot. I considered drawing a mash-up of a cougar and Freddy Krueger, but quickly decided it was beyond my very limited artistic abilities.

Perhaps you've heard the phrase 'fair winds and following seas.' It's what you say to sailors to wish them a safe voyage. While much more important to sailing ships, even a ship like Agulhas II benefits from good weather. On this particular night, we indeed had a following sea, which means that the surface current and swells are moving in the same direction as the ship. Before we stopped for the deployment, the ship was making nearly 14 knots with much less effort than usual.

However, a SOCCOM float need to be lowered into the water with the swell moving away from the ship, so that it does not get banged into the hull or run over. So in this case, the ship had to turn around in order to deploy the float. This is not without its own risk though, as after the deployment takes place, the ship has to turn around again in order to continue on its way home. With a good crew, like that which we had on Agulhas, it just takes some planning. The maneuver was performed successfully, and Freddy Cougar is hard at work!

Myself and the bosun's crew deployed the float in smooth conditions.

Microplastics in the Ocean

Caitlin collected surface samples using a bucket on a rope.
You can see the CTD A-frame deployed in the background.

Caitlin Kelly was onboard Agulhas II for the entire cruise collecting surface water samples for a microplastics study. The professor in charge of the project, Dr. Peter Ryan, was also on the ship, but was part of the turnover crew that went to Gough Island for a few weeks. He has been studying the effects of plastic on seabirds since his master’s project in the 1980s.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is probably something you've heard about before, and it's in the news more and more with the discovery of huge "garbage patches" around the world. Tiny pieces of plastic (microplastics) can be found in the surface waters of oceans all over the planet. 

The group came onboard with a vacuum filtration rig, but one of the glass components got broken in the first few days when we experienced bad weather. Not willing to sacrifice the opportunity to collect data, the team reverted to the low-tech approach developed on the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition by SAEON (South African Environmental Observation Network) biologist, Dr Tommy Bornman. Caitlin collected samples using a bucket on a rope, and then filtered that water through a 25 micron mesh filter using plastic cartons held together with duct tape.
Filter with fibers and particles clearly visible.

I was amazed that with my own eyes, no magnification, I could see fibers and colored particles on the filters after just 10 liters of water had been run through them. But it's perhaps not too surprising, because we were traveling through the edge of the South Atlantic gyre, where floating plastics and other debris accumulates. The filters will be analyzed by a lab in Italy, which uses a micro-FTIR spectrometer to pinpoint the type of material. 

Caitlin processed each sample by pouring the water
into a carton. The filter was held in place by the cap. 

Talking with Peter Ryan over dinner one night, I learned more about the huge threat that plastic poses our oceans. Since it does not biodegrade, most of the plastic ever made is still on the planet (unless it is incinerated or converted into fuel). Plastics slowly degrade through UV exposure and are battered into tiny pieces and distributed by surface currents. Some plastics are more dense than seawater and sink fairly quickly. Less dense plastics also sink once they become fouled with algae, barnacles, bacteria, etc. Which suggests that plastic ends up on the ocean floor, where it is harder to quantify and study. If you've ever been snorkeling, you've probably seen some trash tangled up in coral or floating by.

I have never been on a cruise with microplastic sampling, and it was interesting to see it in person. But also disheartening. Here we were in some of the most remote areas on the planet, and still surrounded by negative human impact. Understanding the distribution of microplastics is an important step to acknowledging the impact, and will hopefully lead to protections and a change in our behavior.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Helicopter Operations

The crew prepares for a flight.

The ship is filling back up again with passengers as we head into our final week of the cruise. We picked up last year’s Gough Island science team and turnover staff and are now back at Tristan de Cunha. For the previous two weeks, the five ship-based scientists have pretty much had the place to ourselves. Other than the ship's crew, there are twelve men that make up the helicopter crew who have been onboard the whole time. They did not get to join us during the unique down-time us scientists got on both Tristan and Gough Islands (see previous posts). Instead, they were busy shuttling passengers and cargo between the ship and the islands.
A container is flown to Gough Island.

There are two identical helicopters stored in the hangar on level 5, and they have flown both on this trip, though only one at a time. They are used for both scientific and logistic purposes. Containers full of supplies are brought out from the ship's hold and connected to a quick release device hanging down from the helicopter (see picture at left). At least one of the helicopter crew members are on the ground to ensure the containers are set down safely, and then the pilot presses a button to release the cargo. The process is reversed when bringing empty containers back to the ship.

It’s a very cool operation to watch from the sixth floor lounge, which has a bank of windows from which you can see the helicopter’s approach. It hovers over the deck in the space between the ship’s bridge and forward crane. Conditions have to be just right in order to safely conduct these operations, and the ship often moves to position the wind most favorably.

Flights were also taken to survey other areas of the island, and to drop scientists off at otherwise inaccessible areas. This turnover cruise is one of only a few times all year that a helicopter is available on each of these islands. A few trips were also taken when we were off-shore of Nightingale Island in order to supply the scientists who will live there for the next six months.

The crew are a friendly bunch of guys, ready to chat over meals; it's like having a bunch of uncles and cousins onboard. Many of them have visited the lab and I got a tour of the hangar and helicopter in return. Apparently over the course of this five week cruise, they will be in the air for a total of 20 hours. At first, this might not sound like much, but each run only takes a few minutes. Not to mention that during the days the ship is near the islands, the helicopter crew is basically always on call, as they need to take advantage of any good weather window. As you can see in the picture at the bottom of the page, there’s a GPS screen on the dashboard, just like in a car. In this case, it shows trip after trip between the ship and the base on Gough Island, as well as a few longer trips to other areas.
The twelve members of the Ultimate Heli team.
While waiting to get back to science operations, I've spent some time in the hangar observing maintenance, as well as the start up and shut down procedures. The blades can be rotated so that all four are in line with the body of the helicopter, so it takes up less space. Before each flight, the helicopter is rolled out onto the flight deck and engineers move the blades into position (see top photo). Fuel is added, the doors are put on, and a whole checklist of other operations are performed. On the cargo runs, one pilot, one co-pilot, and an engineers acting as a spotter are in the helicopter. Three men are dressed in fire gear and standing ready on the flight deck in case of emergency.
Many of the crew members have worked all over the world, often in remote areas. Even compared to their standards, a trip like this, to the most remote islands on Earth, must be something special. It takes the whole team to get the job done, and these guys really seem to enjoy the challenge.

Engineer Phillip spots for landing on Gough Island.
Agulhas II in the background.

Gough base as seen from the helicopter. Note the GPS on the dash.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Day on Gough Island

The ship's doctor and ship-based science party pose with Agulhas II during our outing to Gough Island.  
Earlier this week, I got to spend 24 hours on Gough Island, one of the most remote places on Earth. Inhabited by a team of scientists year-round, the Agulhas II is in charge of turnover. The ship brings out a new batch of birders, biologists, ecologists, and members of the South African weather service, who will spend the next year living and working on the island. There's a 2-3 week turnover period where the previous year's team trains the new one. Also on the island during this time are staff from the weather service, public works department, and other government agencies who have maintenance projects to conduct. At the end of the change-out period, last year's team and the turnover staff return to the ship. A fishing vessel or two will stop at Gough Island during the year before Agulhas returns, but that's about it. 
Gotta love a good Jurassic Park reference.

The science party was invited over to Gough Island this week for the turnover party. Everyone there has been working nonstop since we dropped them off before continuing with our ship-based science a few weeks ago. After a ceremony and speeches, we were treated to a feast, tables and tables of delicious food. Festivities went into the wee hours of the morning. The five of us ship-based scientists slept on mattresses on the floor of the movie room like it was a slumber party. The next morning we went for a hike. I did a mild walk to Seal Beach, while some of the others went on a 7-hour quest up the mountain looking for a wandering albatross nest (which they found). Appropriately enough, at Seal Beach I saw fur seals, lounging on warm rocks and swimming in a large tidepool. The nearby rocks were covered in nesting rockhopper penguins. For over an hour I just watched them, their facial fringe flapping in the wind. They inhabit rocks much farther from the waterline than I expected, and watching them make their way across boulders was both impressive and amusing. 

Yellow-nosed albatross on its nest.

There are many other bird species who nest on the island. During the hike, we saw multiple yellow-nosed albatross nests and could hear great shearwaters calling from their burrows all around us. On the cliffs, sooty albatross (my favorite) were gathered. I also saw dozens of Gough moorhen around the base. An endemic species (only found on Gough Island), the moorhens are related to a South American species that somehow ended up far from home. It's one of only two land bird species, the other being a bunting that I unfortunately didn't see. 

The ship has been hanging around Gough Island since we returned onboard. The helicopter teams move crates back onboard whenever the weather allows, and the crew also transferred fuel from the ship to the island's tanks. When there's no work going on involving the ship, it moves to a protected area out of the wind. Gough Island is absolutely gorgeous, with amazing rock formations and water falls. I consider myself very lucky to be one of very few people to ever see this beautiful place.
The protected side of the island, with the ship's bow in the fore-ground.
The helicopters land containers in the yellow circle.

Waterfalls along the coast of Gough Island.

A beautiful day for a hike on Gough Island.