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Dispatches Departure Week 01 Week 02 Week 03 Week 04 Week 05 Week 06 Return

Week 01
Dispatch 02  |  Dispatch 03  |  Dispatch 04  |  Dispatch 05
Dispatch 02

Nationalgeographic.com field producer Mark Christmas.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



April 24, 2001

Latitude: 52° 25’ 89” S
Longitude: 68° 47’ 47” W

We’re on our way. We left the dock at 0900 hours and have been heading east through the Strait of Magellan. It’s a mild and sunny day. The sea is calm with light winds. With a good following current we are making 15.5 knots at times. There was a rainbow framing Punta Arenas, Chile, this morning—very pretty. Maybe a good omen.

We had a safety meeting in which emergency procedures were reviewed. We will have an emergency drill once a week. When the alarm sounds, we are to go to our cabins, grab our survival suit, and then proceed to our muster station. The survival suits are clumsy to get in, and once inside, everyone looks like an overgrown orange inflatable doll. Then we head to the lifeboats. The lifeboats are covered and self-righting.

This is a busy time for everyone. The BIOMAPER group tested to see if interference from other pieces of equipment on board would cause problems with the operation of BIOMAPER. There is no interference. We transferred three people to the pilot boat when the pilot who led us through the Strait was picked up. WHOI engineers Terry Hammar and Bob McCabe and HTI engineer Sam Johnson were helping install and test BIOMAPER and will now head home.

We’ve not yet started the science watches. They will begin when we reach our first science station in three or four days. Chief Scientist Peter Wiebe instructed everyone to “get your sea legs.” This will become very important when we reach the unprotected waters of the Drake Passage. Before we left port, the message board had a note on it saying “Seasickness is very unpleasant. Please take proper precautions.” This being my first time at sea, I heeded the warning.

The routine of ship life is becoming more familiar. Breakfast at 0730, lunch at 1130, dinner at 1730 and midrats (midnight rations) at 2330. Coffee, juice, soda, fruit, cookies, and popcorn are available 24 hours a day.

Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I hope to join Ari Friedlaender and look for penguins, seals, and dolphins. Ari is from Duke University and is here to observe whales for the International Whaling Commission. I’ll let you know what we find.

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 03

Scott Gallager, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), prepares his research equipment. In the background is Mark Dennett, also of WHOI.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



April 25, 2001

Latitude: 55° 59’ 845” S
Longitude: 65° 10’ 946” W

Temperature: 4.7° C (40° F)

Wind: From the south at 24 knots

Seas: Gentle swell, no whitecaps.

The weather and seas today were wonderfully cooperative. After a very smooth passage through the Strait of Magellan and the Strait de la Maire, we are now in the Drake Passage. We’re heading into the area of the Drake Passage that is not protected by islands to the west. Things could get interesting now.

Ari Friendlaender, from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), saw some Magellanic penguins and hourglass dolphins yesterday. Today he observed Commerson dolphins. Ari is here to count whales for the IWC. He also hopes to take some whale tissue samples for analysis. Ari uses a crossbow with a specialized tip to get the tissue samples.

Chris Ribic and Erik Chapman spent time on the bridge identifying seabirds. They saw gray-headed albatrosses, black browed albatrosses, wandering albatross, Antarctic fulmars, Cape petrels, white chinned petrels, greater shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, and fairy prions. They have not yet begun their recording of the numbers and types of birds. That will begin after we have crossed the Drake Passage. I can pick out three of these birds now thanks to the patience of Chris and Erik.

Marine Technician (MT) Jessie Doren led a deck safety class on the working deck. The working deck is the aft portion of the main deck from which BIOMAPER and other pieces of equipment are deployed. The safety basics: never go on deck alone, wear a float coat or a float suit, wear a hard hat, be extremely aware of your surroundings as there are heavy winch cables under tension, and don’t be on deck unless you are part of the working team.

Systems are still being tested. The BIOMAPER group is busy trying to locate the source of noise affecting their video signal. The SeaRover ROV had its buoyancy adjusted before we left the dock in Punta Arenas. The 1-meter MOCNESS has been fitted with a new strobe system.

Tomorrow afternoon, we should pass the 200 mile territorial boundary of Argentina and begin testing the sonobuoys used to listen for whales. We’ll also deploy the CTD. The mood among the crew is very upbeat. Three days ago we were acquaintances—now we’re shipmates.

Check back tomorrow to see how the sonobuoy and CTD test went and I’ll introduce some of the other team members.

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 04

Waves reached 13 to 20 feet, driven by winds of between 35 and 45 knots.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



April 26, 2001

Latitude: 61° 12’ 432” S
Longitude: 66° 26’ 152” W

Temperature: 1.3° C (34° F)

Wind Chill: -21.6° C (7° F)

Wind: From the southwest at 5 knots

Seas: 5 to 8 feet

What a difference a day makes. Things did indeed get interesting. The day started out calm enough—5-knot winds, 5- to 8-foot seas. Sun peeking through the clouds. Before we knew it, the seas were running between 13 and 20 feet, winds were 35 knots sustained with gusts up to 45 knots. The boat was rocking and rolling.

Taking the stairs between decks, one was at times almost weightless. The mess hall seemed emptier than usual as people stayed in their cabins feeling a bit seasick. I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t suffer seasickness, although the movement of the ship was especially painful for me as I had injured my ribs during the emergency muster call on the first night we spent on the Palmer. I was in the top bunk, roused from a deep sleep and jumped from the bunk (not fully aware of where I was or what was going on). I landed on either the bunk below or the desk in the cabin. My rib is either broken or deeply bruised.

The ship was not a beehive of activity today. The heavy seas may have contributed to the lowered level of activity. Labs continued to be set up. The CTD cast was canceled because of heavy weather. The CTD group deployed XBT—expendable bathythermic probes. They measure the temperature characteristics of the water column.

To my surprise, the temperature in these waters rises the deeper you get. The XBT is connected by an extremely thin wire, no bigger than a piece of fine dental floss, to a line which sends the signal to the main dry lab. The information is recorded instantly. After the XBT has relayed its data the cable is cut. More XBTs are planned for tomorrow.

A sonobuoy was deployed, and possibly recorded some whale vocalizations. Catherine Berchok will apply filters to the recordings to aid in interpretation. The sonobuoy has a hydrophone which drops to a specified depth and is connected by a wire to the transmitter which remains at the surface. Catherine will drop a sonobuoy tomorrow and one again at our first survey site, which we should reach on Sunday.

Everyone is trying to adjust sleep schedules to match watch schedules. We begin watches at the survey stations. We’re planning to rendezvous with the Laurence M. Gould at Palmer Station in Antarctica to exchange cargo.

Check back to see if there are any interesting results from the XBT casts.

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 05

A fur seal at Palmer Station takes a mid-morning nap.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



April 28, 2001

Latitude: 64° 46’ 251” S
Longitude: 64° 03’ 252” W

Temperature: -1.5° C (29° F)

Wind Chill: -6.1° C (21° F)

Seas: 2 to 4 feet

Yesterday was spent deploying XBTs at 10 nautical mile intervals while we completed crossing the Drake Passage. From the data collected, Eileen Hofmann was able to identify three parts of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. They were the Polar Front (like a weather front on land, a front is where a warm and a cold mass meet), the Southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current Front, and the southern boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

An interesting discovery was what could be either a meander or a warm core ring. (This may be difficult to describe without using my hands, but here goes!) At the Polar Front, warm water to the north meets cold water to the south. A warm water meander occurs when there is an incursion of warm water into the cold water. That can develop into a warm core ring when it breaks off entirely from the warm current. It becomes a ring of warm water entrapped in the cold. The ring can be 200 kilometers in diameter and extend to a depth of 300 to 400 meters in the water column. It will dissipate within six weeks or so, and as it does, it releases nutrients and phytoplanktons and serves to exchange properties between the warm and the cold currents.

More XBTs will be deployed on our return trip. The data collected from those deployments along with the data from the Gould’s crossing will give us additional information on this event.

The RV Palmer cruised through the Palmer Archipelago to Anvers Island, the home of Palmer Station. The sun was just rising, coloring the mountains and the glaciers a soft pink and red. We saw some small bits of ice calve as we cruised. We were there to exchange cargo with the Laurence M. Gould. The Gould was tied up at the dock and the Palmer, having a deeper draft, dropped anchor just offshore.

This also gave me an opportunity to visit Dr. David Bunker, the station doctor, to have my rib looked at. We took a Zodiac to shore. On the way in, we could see a Zodiac full of divers across the way and went over to say hello. It was Jose Torres and his group getting some cold water dive time.

Jose is the chief scientist of the Gould and will be diving as part of the process studies later in the cruise. I know the dry suits are supposed to be great for keeping one warm but they sure looked cold to me. Dr. Bunker looked at my rib, confirmed it to be a fracture with no evidence of dislocation, and I returned to the ship. On the way to the Zodiac, Dr. Bunker showed me some fur seals laying in rocks next to the station. They looked very comfortable and took little notice of me.

We set out for our first survey site. About 3 miles out from Palmer Station, Ari Friedlaender spotted 3 humpback whales and one minke whale. Quite a beautiful evening as we headed out.

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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