As we flew into Punta Arenas Chile in the late afternoon a familiar landscape greeted us. The elongated hills, called drumlins, were carved by the last ice sheet that covered Patagonia and are similar to drumlins found near Syracuse, NY and other parts of North America. But here we are in the southern tip of South America where the Strait of Magellan (mid foreground) divides the mainland from Tierra del Fuego (background). After traveling some 28 hours we were welcomed by sunny skies, a brisk wind, and the smiling face of our AGUNSA agents. AGUNSA is the logistic company that handles all our travel and cargo requirements in Chile. Without their gracious help we could not make our sojourn quite so easily. We left Syracuse some 28 hours before, yet we remain in the same time zone separated from our friends and family by over 100 degrees of latitude. It is late fall here in southern Chile and the beech trees upon the high hills surrounding Punta Arenas are tinged in orange and dark red with a powdering of fresh snow. In the next two days we will meet our ship mates, unpack our crates and begin the adjustment to a different way of life. We are tired but excited to embark on the most remote part of our journey.
While in port and before we sail we must get our cold weather clothing issued to us. The AGUNSA folks at the warehouse have a very efficient way of issuing our clothing and everyone must make sure the clots fit. Our first view of the Palmer was awe inspiring as it lay docked it dominated the scene next to the fishing vessels and other ships at the port. Word was that the Polarstern (the German polar research vessel was due in port the next day, but it never showed up). Everyone is excited helping set up the labs running into town to buy last minute items for the long sea voyage.
This has been a busy day and at the moment we are underway in the Strait of Magellan. While the science team has had two days (on board) preparing our lab space and equipment, the staff of Raytheon Polar Services and the Edison Chouest Offshore crew of the NB Palmer have been busy for nearly a week, turning the ship around from the last cruise (a technically challenging drilling campaign called SHALLDRIL) for our cruise to the NW Weddell Sea. The ice images, downloaded daily from satellites, show a daunting picture. With the onset of Antarctic winter the infamous Weddell Sea pack ice continues its inexorable march to the north. We will meet that ice before the week is out but for the next four days we face open sea across the Drake Passage. We have great faith in the NB Palmer and its crew, who are up to the challenge and have succeeded in such conditions many times in the past. On board as part of the science team are marine geologists, sedimentologists, oceanographers, paleontologists and students. We are well prepared and eager to bring our first data sets on line.
9:10 local time, at Latitude 58° 50' S, Longitude 60°
We had our first taste of the real Drake Passage during the last 24 hours. Most students are down for a while as the seas have been rough. While the Palmer is a steady vessel we did take some rolls and pitch that sent students from the watch stand to the bunk. At the moment we are collecting multibeam data across the Drake Passage of the Scotia Sea. The multibeam is a way of collecting water depth across a swath of the seafloor that is nearly 3 times the water depth. So here, where our depth is 3,000 meters we can collect a swath of bathymetric data that is nearly 10 km across. This is a much more effective way to map the seafloor than the old method of single beam echo sounding (the method we used last year on the LM Gould). We still have at least one more day of transit before we are in the ice of Antarctic Sound, the short strait between the northernmost tip of the Peninsula and the islands of Joinville, D'Urville, Dundee and Paule.
At 60 South!
By dinner time we had crossed the 60 degree latitude line and were officially in the Southern Ocean. The seas had subsided quite a bit to everyone's relief and we resumed our work in preparation for the science planned over the next week. As we crossed the Drake Passage all science parties were trained in the editing of multibeam data and in the details of watch standing. The later includes plotting our position, monitoring the status of a multitude of recording instruments, and serving as the command and control center for all science operations. We have had a rough crossing but being on the Palmer has made it less onerous than it might have been and we are all thankful for that. Saturday should see us in the ice of Antarctic Sound, where we will try to navigate the tightly packed multiyear floes that have jammed into the Erebus and Terror Gulf over the last month. Our way south into the Weddell Sea will not be an easy one but we remain confident in the capabilities of Captain Mike Watson, his crew, and the good ship NB Palmer.
As I write this we are at the southern end of the Prince Gustav Channel, that strip of water between the volcanic edifice of James Ross Island and the dissected crystalline rocks of the Antarctic Peninsula. We came through the channel during the night with little trouble despite a windy and ice choked entrance to the passage in Antarctic Sound (see photos) which we passed late last night (the 15th). We are cutting through thin new ice, just formed in the last several weeks, which poses little trouble for the Palmer but which plays havoc with our bottom imagery instruments which having their sensors on the hull of the vessel are continually interfered with by bits of ice washing under the hull. Thicker ice does not pose such a problem because it rides away being pushed by the bow rather than being swept underneath it. But our main objective for the day is to make way south to the Larsen B region which is still some 90 nm distant. We should be there by nightfall.
-- Commentary provided by Chief Scientist Eugene Domack