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Coring Calamities, Part 2

There is a small antechamber on the aft of the Main Deck, a landing really for the stairs leading down to bowels of the ship, those mysterious, noisy places the engineers and oilers disappear to between meals, which most of us have never seen. Here, I slip out of my sneakers and into my rubber steel-toed boots and grab my PPE (personal protection equipment) before hauling open the heavy door to a space called the aquarium room.

It’s nearly 1 AM, and we have been waiting patiently for the megacorer to complete its roundtrip journey for the last three hours, the time it takes to reach the seafloor currently 3,970+ meters below and return. While some have been watching a movie—The Life Aquatic, amusingly enough—others have decided to get a couple of hours’ sleep. I have been reading in the dry lab, watching the megacorer’s progress on the TV monitor. I have seen the tension on the cable wildly vacillate as the megacorer lowered, reached the bottom, and climbed toward the surface. I have experienced a number of these deployments onscreen by now and have grown to find this jagged red line both illuminating and strangely riveting.

In the aquarium room, Marty is already suiting up in foul weather gear. Colin soon shuffles in in his pajama pants and sleepily dons his florescent orange waterproof overalls. There is some rolling to the ship, but a month into our voyage, most of it spent in these seas intrepid sailors have long-called the Screaming Sixties and the Furious Fifties, I am used to it. I brace, staying loose at the knees, to balance with the ship’s motion then zip and buckle my red flotation jacket, which is not only warm but keeps the wearer afloat in the unlikely event they fall in. It also has a ring designed to clip to a tether line—to ensure those who work near the edge of the deck won’t fall in. Mark and Frankie soon wander in, looking solemn, weary, but alert with anticipation. Everyone is tired and wary; our attempts to core deep-sea sediment have been frustrating, verging on futile at times. Having observed the wildly swinging tension on the cable over the last three hours, I’m concerned we’ll face yet another maddening conclusion tonight.

Our first unsuccessful coring attempt of the evening. The marine technicians use ropes and poles to steady the swinging megacorer before lowering it to the surface.

It’s our second attempt with the megacorer this evening—the first being unsuccessful—and the sea state has deteriorated further during the night, the wind rising to 30 knots with even stronger gusts. Joe, one of marine technicians on duty, sees me suiting up as she passes through to the aft deck. “Marlo, we’re getting a lot of wash on deck. I need you to be very careful and aware while you’re out there.”

“Got it,” I assure her. I understand she wants me well out of the way, and I have no intention of being anywhere near where they’re working, planning to stay well back under cover. For the last three hours, I have watched the waves washing onto the deck. Things will be swinging around, the ship pitching and rolling. The marine techs will need to make split-second decisions and move fast. Everyone will be hyper-focused on the job at hand.

It’s not until Mark opens the watertight door onto the aft deck that I see the true nature of the sea state. The deck is awash, water sloshing against the wall and stairs to the helideck. Beyond the orange glow of the lights on the A-frame appear first pitch-black sky then sea—mountainous sea, water piling high and sweeping by in great whitecapped peaks—before the stern lurches toward the sky again. It’s only then I realize how much the deck beneath our feet is moving.

Anticipating this journey for the last three years, I have been very excited but nervous when I thought of the whole “going to sea” aspect. In the days after I first boarded the RV/IB N.B. Palmer, I peppered my fellow voyagers, the captain, and mates with questions about what it would be like when we hit rougher seas. How big might they be? What would it feel like? What are the biggest seas you’ve sailed in? What I wasn’t saying, but what they all seemed to understand was, “Will it be dangerous? Is my anxiety valid?” I applied my seasickness patch (incorrectly, at first, and then with deleterious effects upon my vision) and anticipated the fear I would feel when we hit our first storm. Granted, the seas last night—perhaps around the forecast 15 feet—were nothing compared to what the Southern Ocean can offer. I am yet to experience a really big storm at sea, and perhaps the weather will be kinder to us than it has been to our attempts at coring. But all I felt last night was wonder and thrill and “What fun!” What else would I rather be doing on a Saturday night—or rather the wee small hours of Sunday—than standing on the heaving deck of an icebreaker in the black night of the middle of nowhere?

Those out on deck are under cover, as we’re supposed to be while the winch is running, protected from the cable lest in snap under such high and unpredictable tension. There’s a sudden flurry of activity as the monitor shows the megacorer has almost completed its journey, the payout of the cable now at less than 200 meters. The marine technicians are ready with ropes and poles, tools to hook and steady the swinging megacorer as it lifts, dripping, from the sea.

And then it rises, a deluge pouring from its tubes. It’s a bad sign, but one we are accustomed to seeing. Again, but for a small amount of mud in one, the tubes are full of water.

The marine techs communicate with the winch operator via hand signal and radio, hauling on the ropes in concert with each other, and soon the corer is safely on deck. The science team swoops in to check more closely and examine the small amount of mud the megacorer has captured in one of its twelve tubes.

Becky holds it in her rubber-gloved hands, rolling it between her fingers, and I ask if I can touch it. My hands are bare, the mud cold, finely grained, slightly gritty, odorless. It’s classic diatomaceous mud, pale brown in color, like partially melted coffee ice cream. It’s perfect, but there is simply not enough of it.

Becky and Christina examine the small amount of mud the megacorer has returned.

The turbulence of the water has stymied our efforts once more. Perhaps, when it first hit the seafloor, yanked up and down in tossing seas, the megacorer’s tubes were triggered and closed before they had a chance to sink into the mud. Becky laments that we could not start coring sooner before the sea state deteriorated. The faces of the science team register disappointment then wry smiles of resignation. Christina shrugs. “We’ll just try again,” she says.

And they do. They send down the jumbo gravity corer, a single-tubed coring device with heavy lead plates at its top, designed to increase its weight and push it deep into the mud. But when the corer returns several hours later, it’s clear it has overshot its mark—it has sunk too deep, causing some of the precious mud to ooze out of the top of the tube. It’s these top layers Becky’s team are most interested in, as the primary goal is to compare modern water column conditions to the most recent surface sediments recording them.

This morning, after catching up on sleep, we are still waiting on weather. By mid-afternoon, the marine technicians are ready to send down yet another type of gravity core. They are deploying it off the starboard A-frame, a smaller A-frame on the right-hand side of the aft deck. This puts the operation closer to the center of the ship and protects it from the dramatic pitch that the stern experiences with each wave. The folks on the bridge will keep the ship steady in a direction such that the cable will be in the lee of the ship, better protected from wind and waves. There are still waves and lurches, but they are subdued relative to what the bow and stern witness.

Marine technicians deploy the gravity corer from the starboard A-frame.

It is evening when the gravity core returns…

Becky peers inside the top of the tube to see if we have mud, while Mark, Marty, and Pat wait with anticipation.

…Success! The long tube is full of diatomaceous mud, undisturbed, intact, a sample so good that we soon send the gravity corer down again. The combination of using different equipment off the more protected starboard A-frame and the current sea state have provided the right conditions for retrieving the sediment we need.

Mark’s smile of success.

The team is elated. We cannot control the weather and waves, only work with the conditions they impose upon us and be resilient, tireless, determined. Such is the nature of doing science in the Southern Ocean, a place which has so much to tell us, a place whose story—past and future—impacts humanity and civilization in the most profound ways, unseen or unnoticed by most of us.

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