Starry, starry night ….

Milky-Way-Over-the-Sea-by-Jerónimo-Jesús-Losada

Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 7

On the journey back north, to Mauritius – the worst and best weather of the trip, birthdays and the night the stars left me speechless.

After all the excitement amid the icebergs, we began the northward leg of our journey – one that would take us from oh-so-close-to-Antarctica, back to sunny, tropical Mauritius. This leg definitely started off with a bang – we ran into terrible weather right at the beginning, loosing 4 days of sampling. The sea was so rough, no one was allowed onto the decks. By ‘rough seas’ I mean the kinds you see on National Geographic shows about terrible weather.

Take a group of young scientists, put them in a ship that’s equipped to collect them some samples, set them off on a course to a relatively poorly studied area to collect data and samples, they’re likely to be a tired but happy lot. Now take the sampling out of the equation. There’s a lot of ways things could go (good and bad). In our case, it was overall – a good thing. We relaxed, watched movies (some good, some terrible), had a party or two and even had an impromptu Holi celebration.

Eventually, the seas calmed and we resumed our work. The weather was pleasant enough and it was safe enough and for us to spend our free time up on the monkey deck, often to watch the sun set and the stars steal the show. Usually we only needed a light jacket and a muffler, maybe. I remember a lot of those evenings up there, particularly those spent with just the girls; but there’s one that gets the distinction of a night I will never forget. It happened about halfway through our northward journey.

Having just stepped from a brightly lit passageway into an unlit upper deck, I didn’t realize what I was seeing at first. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark and all the same, wondered what the deal with the sky was. Then it hit me – the vaguely glowing streak of a ‘cloud’ across an otherwise moonless, almost starless sky was actually millions of stars themselves! Imagine a pale lustrous gossamer river meandering lazily through the middle of a brown-black sky, over an inky black sea. Imagine a child left with black felt paper and silver sparkle glue in a dark room. Imagine a rush of cold, crisp air going straight to your lungs. Imagine Van Gogh. What the storyteller in me describes so rhapsodically, the scientist in me will simply explain to be an arm of the milky way, blazing a jagged arc across the sky. The rush of realization and wonder, for all its intensity, lasted only a few minutes. Soon, the moon appeared and its second-hand glow, outshone the stars. And to think I went up there to watch the moon rise.

It was smooth sailing to Mauritius, with the air getting warmer each day. The albatrosses and petrels became rare sights and eventually disappeared. Our evenings out on the monkey deck were then spent in regular clothes, sans the jackets, sweaters and mufflers. There’s a set of pictures taken late on the night before we reached Port Louis – with everyone (and I mean everyone) relaxing and laughing up there. All eagerly but privately looking forward to setting foot on land after 45 days at sea.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.“

– Douglas Adams

Title from the song “Vincent” by Don McLean & the painting “La noche estrellada/Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. Image: Milky Way Over the Sea. Credit: Jerónimo Jesús Losada

Sixty six south, eighteen below

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Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 6

Days amid icebergs – in the lowest latitudes and lowest temperatures

The crisp cold air of the high 50’s turned colder and damp, as we inched further into the Antarctic waters. A faint snow began to fall one night, and a sloppy sort of brief snow fight ensued. The next morning, we had crossed beyond the region of snowfall but were delighted to find the entire deck covered in a few inches of soft snow – a small floating winter wonderland in the early morning light.

The first icebergs were spotted, as vague white ‘somethings’ in the horizon – which when approached, turned into mammoth floating flat-topped islands of ice. As that day wore on, we sailed into waters packed with these gigantic, breathtaking, blindingly white icebergs that were all around the ship. Most were the typical table-like flat topped ones that were clearly calved from the glaciers of Antarctica. But there were the funny shaped ones too – that were a very cool (no pun intended) subject  for playing “Oooh, that one looks like…”. In places, there were floating rivers of bergy bits – pieced of all shapes and sizes chipped off from large icebergs. Last but not the least, there was the bizarre pancake ice – small rounded pieces of flat ice, formed by the piling up of freshly formed ice flakes.

The thrill and excitement of being amongst the icebergs of the Antarctic was quiet profound. I was in awe of the fact that very few men and women would have crossed this far south on this longitude (in the Indian Ocean sector) – only to be humbled by the realization that most people to come so far, like the Challenger and Cook expeditioners, had done so on ships, built of wood and run by sails or steam.

We approximated the 66th latitude south of the equator before turning west and moving along the shoreline of Antarctica, which was by then only a few miles away. As a result of bitter winds, the air temperature dropped as far down as –18 degrees C, which qualifies as ‘just a nip in the air’ around these parts. Some seals and penguins were spotted.

I got my precious few samples of marine benthos from this general area. They included sea lilies, sea spiders, brittle stars and worms – whose photographs, I unfortunately cannot post in my personal blog as of now. Here are some awesome pictures of icebergs though:

From one ocean to the next…

boo!!

Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 5

 On crossing the 60th latitude – from the Indian Ocean to the Southern Ocean…

As we bounded ever southward across the higher 50s and edged closer to this seemingly (but not actually) arbitrary border between the Indian and Southern Ocean, there came a point when the weather changed for the better.

Seemingly arbitrary border?

So, are there clearly defined ‘imaginary lines’ that mark the oceans, just like countries on land? Yes. In the case of the Southern or Antarctic Ocean, the ‘existence’ of this ocean itself has been ‘disputed’ in the past (between 1953 & 2000, the great Southern Ocean ‘didn’t exist’). Today, the authority on such matters acknowledges the existence of this fifth ocean and place its boundary at the 60th latitude south of the equator.

Is the water in one ocean really different from the water on the other side of such a boundary? Sometimes. In the case of the Antarctic Ocean, some scientists believe that its ‘boundary’ should be defined as the Antarctic Convergence Zone, associated with the ACC (i.e. the west wind drift). But this is not a very dependable definition of a border, because the boundaries of the convergence and current vary with latitude and with season.

When crossing a vast expanse of open water, can you actually tell when you’ve passed from one Ocean or Sea into the next? Whether the border between the Indian and Southern ocean be defined by current or by a latitude, cross it we did; and there was a perceivable change in the sea and weather somewhere in the higher 50’s. Over a period of two days, the clouds, wind and rain pulled away from around us and the air turned crispy cold. The sea seemed to have lost interest in tossing the ship abound and in its calm state, it took on a brilliant shade of crisp, crystalline blue.

At long last, we arrived at our designated sampling site at the 60th latitude south, that is, the place where the Indian Ocean ‘ends’ and the Southern Ocean ‘begins’. The now abundant sunlight falling on the clear, cold and dense waters of this high latitude created a truly dazzling sight. The awesomeness of this remarkable ‘waypoint’ was punctuated by the arrival of two visitors, who were as unlikely as they were remarkable –

Two fully grown humpback whales!! They announced their arrival by nonchalantly spouting up a few feet away from the stationary ship. Around the ship they remained for hours – possibly exercising curiosity about this newly arrived strange floating contraption. For fear of many things – our equipment and safety among others, our sampling activities were suspended during this time. Watching these gentle giants swim around us lazily will probably remain, for many of us, one of the most amazing things we would ever experience.

Thus, after a respectably rough rite of passage to enter the Antarctic Ocean, this was a grand welcome as anyone could expect! We had finally arrived!!

In the realm of the west wind drift

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Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 4

Roaring 40’s & Furious 50’s: monotonous work, broken by a temperamental sea

The design of the ship on which we sailed was either deliberately or accidentally ingenious. Our labs, mess and common room were on the same level as the main working deck; which itself was only a few meters above the water level. This allowed for the most dramatic views of an insolent sea, while we crossed over that part of the globe where the west wind and the ACC are most powerful: the infamous 40’s and 50’s. Looking out of any of these rooms or standing outside (which we didn’t do very often), all you saw was a swell or two, which were high enough that you could see nothing beyond.  Sometimes it rained, sometimes we crossed thick fogs; but two things that were constant during the period were the clouds and the colour – the permanently overcast sky and the sea were always slate gray. We often spotted the Southern Ocean’s most famous birds, the albatrosses and petrels lazily riding on the swells. They softened the images of the violent sea with their presence and their apparent indifference to the sea state.

As if the ‘normal’ sea state wasn’t depressing enough, several times in these 10 days, we got caught in ‘bad’ weather. The winds reached howling point (which explained the term ‘roaring 40’s’), making the rain blow sideways instead of falling down, the foaming sea frequently washed over the working deck – port side to starboard, starboard to port and sometimes, it swept in from the stern. As such, the sea state in such times was classified as ‘cyclonic’. To us, this meant we were not to step out onto the working deck and therefore couldn’t collect our precious samples – just when we were getting used to our sampling routine.

The other consequence of the turn in sea state was that inside the ship, anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor would either fall over, roll away and/or break. In the labs, we tied down everything we could and in some people were so enthusiastic about securing their equipments that some parts of the lab looked like a rope factory had exploded there.

This would not be the worst sea condition we would face during this trip but it lasted a long time, and I doubt we could have endured the dreariness it for much longer.

Who are these people?

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Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 3

30’s Latitude:  Impressions of fellow passengers

As things stood when we sailed out of Port Louis, I was only familiar with two other people in the entire ship – the two people from my own institute. I knew next to nothing about the other passengers on the ship – be it the Indian Scientific contingent or the Russian Officers and crew.

There were 23 Indians in all – 7 women and 16 men, which included two service engineers for all our equipment, plus the extremely hardworking deck hand, cook and cook’s assistant. I spent most of the first week trying to learn the names – particularly of the guys. Terrible as I am with names and faces – I was quiet certain that at least 4 of them were impossible to tell apart. Within a week of starting our work in full swing, I had reversed my opinion altogether. Aside from being very different from each other, the men were all amicable, gallant and a whole lot of fun!

The Russians, meanwhile, were a polite and jolly lot who mostly kept to themselves. On quiet nights, when the ship was stationary for scientific sampling, many of them would come out with their fishing poles to catch calamari (squids are friggin’ huge in this part of the world). The contest between the chief cook and the captain to see who caught more calamaris was no secret. Not surprisingly, many of them were big fans of hindi movies – and when asked who their favorite actor was, most of them would pipe “Raj Kapoor!”

The women on this ship were something of a conundrum – particularly the Indians. I’m not trying to defame my own kind, but I’ve never been with a group of more than 5 women below 30 in a confined area for such a long time without one or more of the following creep into the group dynamic – jealousy, annoyance, crankiness, touchiness, spite etc. (I myself have never shied away from any of this when the occasion called for it. No sir!) And of course, where there are girls forming cliques, the men must take sides. But, this time around, all seven of us got along ridiculously well! Any crankiness was forgotten within a day – and coming to think of it, this is probably what made the trip as breezy and memorable as it was. I remember some days further into the trip when we girls would just hole up in one of our tiny cabins watching Love Actually or some (other) sappy chick-flick and sigh away the time.

The Russian women were something else altogether. For starts, I’d never seen women crew members on ships before. On this ship, all housekeeping staff were of women. One of the stewards, Larissa was so old and so bossy, she constantly reminded me of my grandmother (except for the smoking, of course). Our work was sometimes so hectic that we would barely have time to put or cabins right and there would be piles of wet clothes just lying in a corner – messing up the carpet. Larissa didn’t find it necessary to be polite to us, in matters of cleanliness. Thankfully, her admonishments about the state of our cabins mostly went over our heads because they were in fluent Russian. I remember this one morning, though when me and El got a good telling-off. We had worked all through the very cold night and had just dumped our soaking wet Helly-Hansen suits on the sofa and crashed in bed. We awoke to Larissa vaccuming and muttering away. When she was done and we had abandoned hope of going back to sleep, she scolded us some more, in Russian, before yelling “TWO WOMENS!” in English and gesturing angrily at our cabin. I think what she meant was “I’ve never seen two women live like such big slobs before!” It was at times like this that Larissa reminded me most of my grandmother. Poor as her English was, Larissa was a big fan of Hindi movies and music. One of the guys once told me, he woke up one morning to hear Larissa vacuuming his cabin, dancing to and singing “Murr-murr-ke na dake, murr-murr-ke!”*

As we were all getting comfortable with each other and the ship, there was a fairly dramatic change taking place outside, as we inched closer to the . The sky and air that had been clear when we set out had become a dreary gray, within the first 10 days. We would frequently sail into thick fogs, which limited our visibility greatly. The winds got stronger and the air cold, but the sea was still calm, in retrospect. We spotted some of our first whales of this trip in those first 10 days, but thanks to the fog, we lost sight of them almost as soon as we they were spotted.

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 * To wake up in a Russian ship in the middle of the Antarctic Ocean, with a 70-something year old Russian woman vacuuming the floor and singing an old Raj Kapoor song – I guess things couldn’t get more random than this.

Adventure is a state of mind

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Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 2

Wind directions, projectile vomit, humungous swells and trepidation

“The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.”

That’s just Samuel Coleridge’s way of telling us that his ship was going south – and I’ve always loved it. And in our case, the sun did come up, upon our left, right out of the sea.

When you travel on land, there’s a defined set of landmarks – an old, gnarled tree or an impressive chain of mountains, or geographic features to orient you. At sea, your best indicator is the rising and setting sun, and of course the stars (if you know how to read them!). The land has characters which show you the way, and assure you you’re headed in the right direction, while the sea, it would seem, has nothing. This isn’t strictly true – a seasoned sailor will tell you that all seas have character. For instance, the Arabian Sea is ‘predictable’ – with terrible winds, rain and swells during the monsoon and mirror-calm waters in the winter; while the only thing you can predict about the Bay of Bengal, is the unpredictability. The part of the world ocean that I’m writing about is the southern part of the Indian Ocean and the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean. If you accessed a map of the world, you will see that the latter is the only belt of water that goes all the way around the world, without being blocked be a landmass. It is a connecting link between the three largest oceans in the world and a constant east flowing Antarctic Circumpolar current (ACC) helps keep the water in all the oceans well mixed. The ACC is also known as the ‘West wind drift’, which isn’t just a romantic name either – like most other surface currents in the world, it is generated and driven directly by the constant movement of the air above it. To put it simply, winds which are strong enough and last long enough over a body of water will drag the water below with them, in that direction (such circulation is called ‘wind driven circulation’ – clever, eh?). The ACC is a strong current, driven by strong winds and neither is hindered by landmasses, which usually to make them less ‘awesome’.

So anyway, all there strong winds and strong currents build up very powerful weather phenomenon around the Antarctic continent, so much so that beyond the 40 Degree Latitude, each belt has a ‘fancy’ name – and if you’re travelling south from the equator, you pass the roaring forties, the furious fifties and the shrieking sixties, before ultimately reaching Antarctica. It was these infamous latitudes that I had unwittingly agreed to cross, in the name of science and adventure.

We weren’t at the scary part yet, though. Over our first few days, the weather was nothing but fair, while we sailed south from Mauritius (at about 20 South). The winds were strong nonetheless and the swells were more ‘robust’ than what I’m used to. I got an unforgettable demonstration of the wind force on the very first day, when some of us went up to the bow of the ship, despite some not yet having strong sea legs. One member (whose identity I shall withhold) suddenly had to throw up and so he ran up to side, about 12 feet ahead of me and was vomiting in the most dignified manner possible. The wind, meanwhile was so strong that portions of the projectiles which were going into sea got blown away in the opposite direction – up, over the head of the project-er and back aft and then all over my t-shirt. (I couldn’t possibly make something like this up, folks). So much for science and adventure.

That evening, one of the members (not the projectile vomiting one) wanted to go up on the monkey deck (the deck above the Wheelhouse, where the ship was steered), to set up some of his equipment – and he dragged me and one other person along – just for ‘company’. (I think he was afraid he’d slip off the stairs and fall into the sea before fun really began). This is what I wrote in my Journal about my trip to the Monkey Deck (pasted here, without editing):

Watching the vessel cut through the high swells from up top made me, for a fraction of a second think, “Ah! Excitement! This is what it’s all about, in the end – the thrill!” Only a fraction of a second though. Then the dread of what lay ahead and the longing to go back to land came sweeping back.

The sense of foreboding that we had during those first few days at sea was significant. But within the week we had started our work, in full force – and it became our primary concern to be able to work properly at all times. This took most of the dread off, I guess; and by the time the real fun began and we were really getting tossed around – we were no longer scared, just awed.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

- Mark Twain

Right, Where are we going…?

Clicked the day before leaving for the Southern Ocean Expedition

  Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 1

Kochi-Goa-Mauritius, by land and air, boarding the ship and freaking out.

It all happened surprisingly suddenly. I mean, when I took up my first “job” as a Junior Research Fellow at a research institute in Kochi, my boss had told me it was a possibility. But still, it was quiet overwhelming when he called me and told me that I was going to the Antarctic Ocean. The ‘surprise’ element probably had something to do with the fact that we were to leave during the first week of February and I got this call on the 31st of December.

 These are the specifics: Me and two of my colleagues were to participate in the Third Indian Expedition to the Southern Ocean (or the Antarctic Ocean) which was being organized by the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), Goa between February and April, 2009. We were to board a Russian research vessel named Akademik Boris Petrov at Mauritius and sail roughly south, to study the intricacies of the Antarctic Ocean by collecting data and/or samples along the way and then sail back to Mauritius again.

 After some frantic shopping for everything from a humungous wheely suitcase to a dozen pairs of socks (as Dumbledore once said “One can never have enough socks…“) and a small truck full of plastic containers for our samples and other boring “science stuff”, we were ready – atleast as ready as we’d ever be for a trip like this. Any misgivings we had about taking off into high seas, on a modest sized ship and staying there for two months were…………. well, we just put it in a small box, locked it up and shoved it in the back of our mind (atleast, that’s what I did).

 In the first week of February, we boarded a train to Goa. Once there, we were put up at a nice swanky hotel and over the next 2 days, we met the other members and (in my case, vaguely) caught their names and scientific interests.

More specifics: There would be 7 women and 20 men in the scientific contingent, along with the ship’s Russian Officers and crew.

 Two days after we reached Goa, we were given a nice Farewell Party by our Hosts – and were packed off on a series of plane rides – from Goa to Mumbai and thence to Mauritius, via Dubai. Some 20 hours later, we finally landed on an Island that can only be described as a tropical paradise. There was no time to see much of it, though – most of what we saw was during the bus ride from the Seewoosagar Ramgoolam Airport to the docks of Port Louis, where our ship awaited. She was a modest thing, painted white, with her name painted on her in confusing Russian alphabet. I discovered that for the next  months, I would live with El in a modest sized cabin, furnished with a small table and narrow sofa, a comfortable looking bunk bed, a tiny refridgerator (in went the chocolates and my grandmothers pickles!) a small wash basin with a mirror above it, and some cupboards for our clothes. The fact that this was a cabin about 20 ft. x 6 ft. and didn’t have an attached bathroom is considered irrelevant – because that’s just how things are on ships packed to capacity!

The evening of the next day, after the sun had set on the tiny tropical Island, and the town of Port Louis was lit up in twinkling lights, we set sail – out into the forbidding winds and seas of the south Indian and Southern Ocean. Little did we know then that we would neither sight another ship nor land and that we wouldn’t encounter a human soul other than the ones on our ship for 45 days.

 Was I scared – Yeah!!

Was I excited – Heck, Yeah!!