Monday, 20 February 2017

Dr Frankenstein I presume?

This may sound like a funny thing to assert, but I’m not really sure that I believe in cricket anymore. I’ve been sailing since September of last year, but never has the world of cricket, supermarkets, graffiti, rain, Coffee Number 1 (shout out to Cardiff there) and Dorothy Perkins seemed so remote as this week. We’ve spent the last four days in a place that looks like the spitting image of the ice planet Hoth (if you don’t know what I mean- find someone as nerdy as me to explain it) and I’m struggling to believe that such diverse conditions can really exist on one planet. Admittedly the earth is a fairly big place but it is mind-blowing to believe that whilst I’m shrugging myself into a decidedly unattractive padded onesie to go outside and face temperatures of -20°C, somewhere people are playing cricket and going into supermarkets. So I’ve dealt with the incongruity by deciding that cricket does not exist. Already my world is a great deal better and I feel a significant lightening of my spirits!

It has been incredibly cold here. Enjoyably, mind boggling cold. At 0°C, the cold is almost refreshing. It’s novel and exciting. It brings a flush to the cheeks and you can wear jeans outside. At -20°C, going outside to take photos for ten minutes requires preparation. It requires quiet grunting and effort as thermals are hauled on, clothes layered on top of that, followed by a padded boiler suit, thick socks, boots, a buff, sunglasses, a hat and two layers of gloves. After all of these layers are applied I have the light agility and grace of the Michelin man, but fortuitously I’m well padded for when I ricochet off walls with my unaccustomedly large proportions!

I tested the warmth of my layers a few days ago when we flew the quadcopter from the deck of the JCR. The quadcopter is a fun little robot helicopter that is ostensibly used to take measurements of the ice in difficult conditions and is also useful for ice navigation. It also just happens to take fantastic aerial photographs. We had wonderfully bright and clear conditions a few days ago so we put the quadcopter up on her first flight. It was rather a tense mission as these toys are eye wateringly expensive but she was flown in style and came home without getting lost amongst all the icebergs or indeed getting dropped in the sea. Early on I inserted myself into the proceedings as “communications officer” which in practice meant that I took lots of photos and only intermittently stuck my hands in my armpits and bounced frantically up and down. It was -21°C and I feel that behaviour was entirely legitimate!
The Quadcopter returning home

The quadcopter looking a little bit like the Empire's Recon Droids on the ice planet Hoth

Flying quadcopters aside, we actually went into the ice a few days ago in the hopes of finding our biologists some seals to tag. Breaking ice is hypnotising to watch. Standing at the bow of the ship, there’s a constant rasping, rumbling noise as the ship shoulders aside smaller icebergs. They spin off like graceful waltzers, only coming to rest as the ship brushes past them. Occasional shudders run the length of the vessel as she hits the larger icebergs, backs up and then heaves into them again. The ice shows the strain, crumbles at the edges and then a large crack snakes its way the length of the sheet and the JCR thrusts her way through to the clearer water ahead. It’s mesmerising. In amongst the vast plates of ice that make up the pack are veritable mountains of ice. They look like the kind of thing that steely eyed people apply for permits to climb because “it’s there.” It’s an utterly bewitching landscape; ever changing, infinitely beautiful and deeply perilous.
Plates of ice in the Weddell Sea

Vast icebergs in the Weddell Sea

 Up until two days ago our efforts to tag seals had been foiled; wildlife is always uncooperative and sneaking up on weddell seals in a big red ice breaking ship is something of an art form. We finally found a seal that fit the bill two days ago. Our little friend was the right species, lying on an absolutely vast ice flow and most importantly didn’t show the same rude tendency to precipitately vanish into the water as soon as the JCR hove into view. Our seal taggers were winched onto the ice flow and then slunk their way towards their prey, stopping only to test the ground for crevasses full of snow that might tumble them into the icy water.
Getting winched onto the ice

Hauling the tagging supplies

The seal was thrilled by his visitors and promptly showed his open and trusting nature by rolling onto his back and waggling his flippers at them. Regrettably our scientists were most impolite and instead of waggling their flippers back, attached a small tracking device to him. This device is attached with glue and is designed to come off in the first moult next year. In the interim it should give us lots of information about weddell seal behaviours like feeding and mating and most importantly shouldn’t cause Martin the seal any distress. We’ve since tagged a further two seals and are hoping for a total of eight.
Our research contributor!

There was time for more philosophical discussions today. Some of our engineers were desirous of having the concept of kidney stones explained to them, so I drew a renal tract (kidneys, bladder etc) and explained how everything works. This just led us on to more questions about basic anatomy and more and more subpar drawings from myself. Never try to teach an engineer anatomy. I was eventually fixed with a bemused look, and told that actually it would be far more efficient to have two hearts and possibly some sort of acid rinse system to stop the kidneys from being bunged up by stones. Marsupial pouches and chlorophyll impregnated skin were also posited as ideas. He’s not quite certain of the details, but he thinks he can have a few ideas sketched out for me by next week. Ah. I guess that makes me Dr Frankenstein then?

And some Emperor Penguins! Just because you've been so lovely!
Aren't these guys great?


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