Heading South: Birmingham, AL to Punta Arenas, Chile

SantiagoAirportAfter spending a couple of days of figuring out what I will need for the next four and a half months and how to make it fit into two duffle bags, I found myself excitedly sitting inside my screen door with all my gear when Chuck and Maggie showed up to start the caravan to the airport.

Once we had everything loaded we headed to UAB to gather the rest of the gang. The group leaving from Birmingham (February 9) consists of Chuck, Maggie, Kevin and myself. Jim and his wife helped us coordinate our transit the airport from UAB. As you can imagine, four people with two 50 lb duffle bags, it gets crowded quickly.

Everyone gets to take two duffle bags, but it isn't just all warm clothes. In fact, only one bag each contains personal gear. The second duffle bag is generally dedicated to science gear. In this case, science gear includes everything from dive gear to supplies for our experiments for use at Palmer Station.

Transited to the BirminghaJimmyOfficem airport without a hitch and had smooth flight to Atlanta, where we met up with Kate. Kate just completed an awesome class in Mexico that concentrated on PAM fluorometry (there will be lots more on that later, as it plays a big part in this project). To fly into Atlanta last night, she had to leave the class a couple of days early.

The flight from Atlanta to Santiago, Chile was 9 hours and 35 minutes. Phew, it's a long flight! However, we were in good company. We met up with Bill Fraser, whose research group studies the bird species found around Palmer Station.

Upon arrival in Santiago we connected with Jimmy. Jimmy has been working with the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) for about 30 years. He greets us at immigration and helps guide us through any possible bumps that may come up in the process of making our connecting flights. After a long and mostly sleepless night, it is a relief to have a friendly face greet us.

ClothingIssueAnother four hour southerly flight took us to Punta Arenas. Baggage claim had a big surprise for me: one of my former laboratory students from UAB!! She and her family were going backpacking around Torres del Paine, Chile. But first, they overnighted at the same hotel in Punta Arenas as we did. It's a small world!

After a restful night's sleep our group walked through a cool morning drizzle to a warehouse at the port get our extremely cold weather or ECW gear. ASC, the science support contractors, supply everyone who works in the USAP with clothing for use in Antarctica. We get issued everything from hats, gloves, and neck gators to long underwear, work pants, and boots. Paul made sure we got everything we need for our season at Palmer.

RubbingToeNext stop, the Plaza des Armas square with the prominent Ferdinand Magellan monument. Rubbing the big toe of one of the indigenous Fuegans also depicted on the monument is said to ensure a safe and calm crossing of the Drake Passage. Everyone heading south takes the time to rub the toe and hope it works. We are currently passing smoothly through the Straits of Magellan. Check back later to see if rubbing the toe helped ensure a smooth crossing for UAB!

I'm Back in the Dry Suit Again

Quarry2013aEver get a song stuck in your head that you had not thought about or even heard for years?? That is what happened to me the other day as I was sitting on a wood planked dock at Alabama Blue Water. My black finned feet were dangling in the quarry waters as the twangy tones of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, drifted into my head.   “I’m back in the saddle again” is how the legendary vocalist sang it but the little singer between my ears substituted drysuit for saddle. That little singer must not have known all the lyrics as broken record-like just that line was sung over and over again….

I did not share news of a cranial concert with my companions. I wanted my trusted side-kick and partner Julie to prepare for our inaugural drysuit dive of the season unbridled of distractions. This was the first time since last year at Palmer Station that we had used our Antarctic dive gear and during the interim months some of the equipment had undergone an annual repair or cleaning. Better to find out in Alabama that some critical piece of gear needs further attention. Fellow team members Chuck and Kate had done a similar gear check dive in the quarry a few weeks ago. Everything was fine so Julie and I expected no problems. Who would have thought a croning cowboy would be my biggest concern.

Julie and I were not alone at the quarry on the cool but sunny day. Just as in Antarctica, our dive team consists of a pair of divers and a pair of tenders who assist or tend to the divers. Today our tenders were seasoned and trusted Chuck and novice but clearly willing and demonstrably- able Kevin. This will be Kevin’s first trip to Antarctica and his first trip to the quarry as tender in training was yet another new experience for him on his growing list of firsts.

As Julie and I went through the very familiar dive prep ritual Chuck explained each step to Kevin. With plans to become a diver himself, Kevin was already keen to learn the basic gear issues and to recognize gear problems and solve them.   Drysuit diving includes a couple extra items on the check list. It is much nicer and more comfortable for a tender-in-training to learn the ropes and nuances in a milder climate.

Probably the most important pre-dive assistance the tenders provide is gloving the divers with the thick and tough rubber gloves the divers wear over the thick, wool or fleece gloves that keep the hands warm. The rubber gloves are what will keepKGlovesJQuarry2013b                 the divers hands dry so it is vital the glove positioned and secured properly by the tender. The procedure requires strong tender hands to stretch the tough rubber over the rigid cuff ring at the wrist of the drysuit arm. Also required is a tender tender with no sharp fingernails to tear the glove. Even a pinhole leak in a glove can mean a very cold handed, unhappy diver. 

Chuck demonstrated the gloving procedure on Julie’s right hand. Kevin then honed the procedure with Julie’s left then my right. His third gloving was the charm as he nailed (hole-free) my left hand with perfection! Julie and I eased ourselves into the water, did a final surface check to ensure all systems go, then gave the hand on head “ok” sign to topside tenders and slipped below.

Our dive plan was to mosey over to greener pastures – in this case – submerged beds of Chara a green aquatic plant that covers shallow areas of the quarry. Our quarry in the quarry was beyond, the deep hole. Meanwhile, back at the dock, Chuck explained to Kevin what the tender in Antarctica would do while the divers are down.

The edge of the hole loomed ahead of Julie and me, the steep rock facing angling sharply into darkness. We floated down the rock face the light dimming rapidly. Off to our right the long stiff suckered arms of a giant squid began to materialize through the fading light. Closer we swam to inspect, deeper and darker it was when I realized it of course was not a giant squid but a tree! What looked like arms directed at us were branches, the suckers were where smaller branches had been attached. Quarry2013cSimultaneously, Julie and I realized there might me a tangle of smaller branches just beyond our now very limited visibility. Getting hung up on a tree would make for a very unhappy diver so we turned around and moseyed back to clearer, greener pastures and eventually the smiling faces of our tenders. Mission accomplished partner Julie!

I am not sure when the cowboy concerto ended and to date through have been no encores. I am looking forward to soon being back in the drysuit again in wilds of Antarctica. So saddle up and come on along for the ride as our UAB team continues to investigate the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification in the waters around Palmer Station, Antarctica.