Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"Call me Ishmael."


Here I am again, blogging from my office in the warm San Diego.

My last words came during the transit back to land, after an incredible journey in the Southern Ocean. Remember the high seas? the volcano eruption? the penguins? Do you remember the excitement for the deployment of the SOCCOM floats? Oh boy, out there it’s always an excitement, isn’t it?

Well, I’m sure you all remember that we didn’t completed the whole mission (see previous posts) and, hence, I couldn’t deploy the remaining 4 floats. I left them on board of the RV Investigator, though, secure, out of any danger (thanks Tom Trull for the precious help!!!). I left them there, as they will be deployed in 2 following cruises.. The first voyage is happening right now, and you can follow its route here (and even plot some cool underway data!!).

So… BIG NEWS!!!

The plan is to deploy 2 SOCCOM floats inside a couple of eddies south of Tasmania (Australia), during the first cruise. And: the first of these floats has already been successfully deployed and has sent the first profiles!!!!! GREAT JOB to the team on the Investigator, in particular to Pete Strutton (from UTas; see the picture below) and Tom Trull (from CSIRO). And, with Pete’s help, I have a surprise for the JW Middle School of Princeton:


  Moby Dick the float waiting in the Van, before the deployment.. guarded by Pete Strutton

The students of the JW school named 6 of the floats they were supposed to be deployed on the cruise I was on. I think they will be very excited to see that, even if a bit later and in another location, their floats will still depart for their precious mission, no matter what. Moby Dick (or float #9631), named after Herman Melville’s masterpiece, has been deployed on March 31, 2016 at 147° 04.79E, 50° 23.23’S. Successfully it has already reported detailed oceanographic data to us, such as the following ones. Let’s hope Moby Dick the float will have a less dramatic life than Melville’s white whale and won’t have to battle against a fanatic captain.. ;-)


One of the first preliminary profiles of Moby Dick

If you wanna follow its life (and the the story of the many others that have been or will be deployed later) just check the SOCCOM website out!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Change of route

I love being here! (You can see how happy I am from the photo below ;-) )


Tom Holmes (UTAS/IMAS/ACE CRC) and I enjoying a sunset at the bow (photo credit: Pete Harmsen)

Working on a research vessel is never the same. We work in labs, in front of a computer, we sample waters or operate winches (not on this one, though). We are never still, constantly balancing our weight, carrying heavy stuff around, smashing wooden boxes with big hammers or karate-like kicks (lots of fun!), operating under rain or freezing wind. Working in the Southern Ocean means also breathtaking Auroras, majestic sunsets (like the one below), funny penguins, silent icebergs and great fun. But it's not just that (although it definitely is for a large part). Sailing on a boat, in general, is risky (remember what happened to my shipmates during the big roll of Jan 27? check it out on my blog if you missed it out) and tough, and one has to pay much more attention than usual when doing normal things, such as walking or carrying things. But here in the Southern Ocean we must take even more special care of ourselves, due to the distance from any land, any help (several days divided us from the closest city, while on the plateau). That means that if something happens.. well.. it can be really really dangerous. 


Stormy sunset

On some cruises (like this one) there might be a doctor, but despite their expertise and skills, there's only much they can do on a ship. Unfortunately, on this voyage a medical emergency occurred, and 10 days ago we had to depart from the plateau and started to make our way to the closest port (Fremantle, WA), which we would have reached in more than 1 week, while steaming at full speed. Fortunately, our shipmate's conditions stabilized since then, and consequently we changed our course first to Hobart, then decided to take the patient to the closest port (and hospital), in order to avoid any medical complications.


The patient is being transported to Albany (WA) on one of the lifeboats

I'm happy to say that the patient is now in good care and recovering well (my thoughts are with you, friend!!!!). We are now on our route to Hobart, which we should reach in 6 days or so (depending on the weather). For the moment, we are processing data, discussing future publications and collaborations and writing reports of the cruise. But also enjoying a bit of break outside on the foredeck, with some music, relaxing on a hammock, sunbathing (we're very close to the Australian coast, so it's very warm.. more than 35 deg C!).. or having a gym session (led by me, of course ;-) ). 

May this return be smooth and enjoyable for everyone!


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We couldn't complete our research projects, so no more of my planned SOCCOM floats will be deployed this time (but don't worry: we're already working on a future plan, and these floats won't miss their opportunity to dive in the Southern Ocean!! stay tuned for future updates ;-) ). But, my thought is that no matter how vital our job is, Life has always the priority.


 

A storm is building up in Western Australia. This (and others that are expected in the next days) might delay our return to Hobart..



Monday, February 15, 2016

Art in science.. science in art

A voyage like this wouldn't be so special if it wasn't for the people aboard. Today, my words are for the 3 amazing artists that I had the privilege to get to know, and who are teaching me how to create new perspectives to look at the world..

Annalise Rees is an Australian visual artist currently undertaking a PhD at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania. She has joined the Investigator as a voyage artist, opening up a dialogue between scientific and artistic research. Specifically, Annalise's research is exploring the use of drawing based methodologies used to describe and translate human interactions with and within unknown and unfamiliar maritime environments. She is also collaborating with fellow voyager, dancer/choreographer James Batchelor, working towards presenting a dance installation work in March 2017.

Annalise outside on the deck to capture the details of Mcdonald Island on paper

I find myself staring at her drawing.. she has this incredible skill in capturing THE moment, the bubbles streaming out from a wave, the bond between a glacier and a volcano, the motion of the crew working on the deck, the intense look of the first mate sitting on a chair.. If you wanna know Annalise's work, please visit her website www.annaliserees.com and her blog www.annaliserees.blogspot.com.au

This is also the first experience at sea for James Batchelor. He is a choreographer, dancer and filmmaker based in Canberra and Melbourne. He makes installations and performances using contemporary dance and other visual mediums as primary tools. He thinks about contemporary dance as a vast realm of physical and emotional possibility, a dance of the now, an awareness of the present and moving body (beautiful!!). He says that working with the contemporary is inherently an ever changing and evolving practice, which demands both a remarkable level of skill and patience. Over time, he says that particular curiosities emerge, leading to questions ("What am I looking at? What is the physical process? How does it work?…"), which he responds to through a physical process, developing movement and image. Through his performance, he aims to drive the curiosity of the audience and inspire others to ask the same questions. On this voyage, he thinks that the role of art is crucial in helping to express, translate and visualize in a  way that can be understood the scientific readings that through technology we can achieve. 

He looks very inspired by the environment.. sometimes you can see him dancing under the sun, on the bow, despite the freezing wind.. or flying like an albatross on the second level deck.. He happily agreed to give us stretching lessons these days, as working on a boat has the amazing skill of killing your back and legs.. Thank you James!!! For more info on this young talented artist, have a look at his website: www.james-batchelor.com.au


James Batchelor dancing on the deck (photo credit: Pete Harmsen)



With his smile and an always happy and enthusiastic personality, Pete Harmsen has never missed to diligently and passionately record the life aboard the RV Investigator. 

Me: "how are u Pete?". 
Pete: "I'm like a box of fluffy ducks"

:-) With his contagious happy spirit, I let him talk about his goals on the RV Investigator:

"When the MNF asked me if I would like to go to Heard island it took me a microsecond to say YES!! The chance to see Australia's highest mountain, two active volcanoes and the most remote place on the planet, deep in the Southern Ocean all sounded like a once in a lifetime adventure. The fact that we wouldn't actually step onto any land only slightly dampened my enthusiasm. The good ship RV Investigator, and its excellent crew have made for a very comfortable and efficient home away from home for all 60 of us. It is actually a little village, without a park or a pub. My task has been to document the science and supply media with imagery, both video and stills. There have been many blogs published, several newspaper articles, television stories and even the first ever television live cross from RV Investigator to ABC News24, broadcast nationwide. Our story about the eruption of Big Ben on Heard island attracted worldwide coverage and over 150,000 youtube views. We are also providing Discovery Channel in the USA with material for a feature story on their Daily Planet science program. All scientists have been very accommodating about having cameras on board documenting what they see as their day to day lives, but which to most of us is fascinating climate research in an unique and spectacular environment. The work they are doing here is vital to understanding and mitigating climate change. We need them and we need this work to continue, so the awareness I am providing through my images is a very worthwhile and rewarding assignment for me."
Wow!! 150,000 youtube views!! GO SCIENCE and GO PETE!!!! :-D If you're interested in Pete's work and contact, check his website out:  www.peteharmsen.com




 Chief Scientist Prof. Mike Coffin (left), IT support Hugh Barker (middle) and Pete Harmsen (right) during the "first ever television live cross from RV Investigator to ABC News24" (photo credit: Brett Muir)


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The other day I had my second lesson of art, where I got to draw a portrait of Annalise. I'm pretty impressed of how it went.. and how fast I drew. I think that, with the right guidance (and a good dose of stubbornness) one can learn to do basically anything. Maybe, we won't all be Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.. or Einstein. But surely we can learn how to express ourselves in many different forms, learn how to create something, interrogate nature and analyze its millions of different faces. Creativity apart, art is made of analytical observation and ability. And like anything else, it can be trained. Annalise and I had a very interesting conversation about how to represent something that we can observe, by first making it ours, inside us, and then convey it in a final product on a piece of paper or plaster or wood or whatever else. It was one of those conversations that can really open new doors of perception of the reality around us. I recognized that I often don't look carefully at the world around me. I mean, I'm deeply aware of whatever is around me and how it can affect me or the people sharing the same space (kind of training I got from living in a "troubled" suburb of Turin). But often I cannot describe an object or a person in details, once they are not in my visual. I just move on, to the next frame.

That made me think. 

I came up with the resolution that my work (and my personal life) would benefit if I could be more attent to the details of the space around me, at a more conscious level. For example, would I be able to describe the shape, the corners, the change of colors of the chair next to me? how shadow and light play a game to hide and reveal particulars? is the surface smooth? lucid? is there any particular smell I can smell? can I describe it? how does the object relate to the environment? to myself? ...These kind of thoughts. 

I guess that, as a scientist and an amateur photographer, the art of observing is already in me. But I think it resides at a deeper level, where the instinct reigns. Now I'd like to bring this on a more conscious level. I'm curious to see what will happen if I succeed on this exercise..

For the moment, I keep working, taking photos, drawing.. and exploring a new way to look at things:



Me, on my way to turn into a bat.



Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Of all the things I always wished to witness..

Sometimes, the best memory is what we keep in our heart.

This is one of those.

I must say that this voyage has offered a never-ending series of emotions and discoveries. Yes, sometimes the work gets very slow, as with the furious fifties that do their best to shake the boat and make any attempt to hold the position pretty useless, we cannot always sample water or rocks, but map the ocean floor and wait for a window of calmer weather.

But, this is also part of the beauty.. a reminder that we are just privileged guests, in an environment that takes any opportunity to show its power and explosive magnificence. 

So, today, as I was saying, is one of those moments for which no camera would do any justice to what I just witnessed. For the first time of my life, I saw an Aurora Australis! 

I think that in the rush to the bridge, I've waken up all the already asleep shipmates and the resting albatrosses and penguins.. till Antarctica!! 

At the bridge, there's no light at night, as it will interfere with the visibility outside. And coming from a bright room, it's always a bit of a challenge not to stumble on something or smash the face against one of the windows.. But as the eyes get used to the darkness, well.. that's the moment when the curtains of the theatre opens.. And like at the theatre (one of those super elegant, such as the Teatro Regio in Turin, for example), it's silent all around, and dark and still. People are breathless, waiting for that very first note, the very first light from the stage, their eyes searching in the infinite darkness..

Smoothly and in an elegant slow motion, the green lights from the Aurora defines the horizon in front of my eyes. 

And I stop with my mouth open and no breath left in my lungs.
 
Beneath, the waves rumble against the steel of the ship, splashing till level 2, while the wind roars furious outside. Some black clouds confound the shape of the Aurora and timid stars wait patiently behind, for their moment to shine.

The imagination cannot fully describe what I saw. And neither the words, I'm afraid..

I have no digital record of this, as I said.. but an unforgettable one nonetheless..


___________________________________________

It's 3:15AM now.. and I think I need some ice-cream before going to bed ;-)

 

Friday, February 5, 2016

"Under pressure"

I think it's time to talk a bit more about how we collect water samples, which we then analyze to reveal different properties of the water masses. We use what is called a "Conductivity Temperature Depth" rosette, or just CTD, like the one you see in the pictures below. The CTD carries a series of instruments and bottles mounted on a cylindric frame, and is attached to a wire, which enables us to receive data on real time and to deploy the instrument in the water.. and get it back. 


One of the CTD rosettes in the CTD room.


The bottles are deployed open in the water and closed at defined depths (wherever we think there's an interesting structure to sample). In the lab, which here is called "Operations room", we receive data of temperature, salinity (computed from the conductivity), depth (actually, it's pressure) and many other data, as many as the instruments we mount on the frame are (such as velocity, fluorescence, oxygen, etc.). As the CTD is lowered towards the ocean floor, we can create depth profiles for each type of data. Then, by looking at these data, we can define the depths at which we wanna collect the waters (and hence close the bottles) and guide the shipmate working as winch operator throughout the cast. 



During one of the CTD cast, Robin (on the right) and I (left) are checking the profiles, communicating with the winch operator to guide the activity and closing the bottles at desired depths.

During my shift I am responsible of the CTD operations. Honestly, I have a lot of fun, especially with the guys that drive the winch: they are very professional and very careful, but super funny and they never lack of making fun of my accent on the radio (apparently, it constantly shifts from sounding like french, italian or mexican..). There's just one moment that I find very stressful all the times, but fortunately I can share my stress with one of the engineers, who is responsible of all the instruments. The closer we are to the bottom of the ocean, the tenser we get. We have several instruments on board that can tell us what the expected maximum depth is at the location of the cast, but no such instruments are on the CTD. We only have a measure of the pressure at which the CTD is and we have an altimeter, which tells us how close we are to the bottom.. but it only starts to work when the CTD is at no more than 50 m from the bottom. Which is really really close. On the last 100 m, Nicole (the engineer) and I stare at the altimeter, waiting for it to kick in. This is when I wear my lucky ewok-beanie and I'm super concentrated. The thing is that we don't really wanna hit the bottom: things can crash and break, plus: it can also be dangerous. But we are a good team, and things are going really smooth. 


 

Anna and Jodi collecting samples from the CTD bottles


Jodi and me in the CTD room, to draw samples.


Once we finish the cast, more action begins! Some of us go into the CTD room to collect samples of water from the bottles, which will then be analysed for different properties: some samples will give us an indication of how much oxygen is dissolved at the different depths, some will inform us about the content of salt, or nutrients, bacteria, chlorophyll, helium (this has the longest and the most curious sampling method!), pH, carbon, etc.. Some analyses can be done on board, some have to wait to be back on land: for those which have to wait, we make sure to store the samples in some safe place on the ship.


Kendall's working on the analysis of some water samples, in the Hydrochemistry Lab.


Unfortunately we are not always able to do a CTD cast, as the weather doesn't allow it. But when we can, we basically have the chance to get data from the interior of the ocean!! If you think about it, each cast represents a tiny point in the whole vaste ocean, such as the profiles that the floats send us. But with more and more casts, we can map a larger portion of the ocean, we can have vertical sections of the ocean, that keeps us informed of what's happening not only close to the surface, but at depth as well, and track water masses in different parts of the ocean.

Uh!! And then you get to decorate and send polystyrene foam cups down with the CTD.. which, because of the pressure they are brought to, come up all super cute and tiny.. how cool is that?! :-)


A couple of my creations.. :) A Dalek (on the left) and an octopus wrapped around a float (right). For a comparison: the penguin on the background is about 10 cm tall.




Saturday, January 30, 2016

Eruption in style

Let's start with a special beauty: McDonald Island on a windy, clear sky day:


McDonald from distance

Not bad, uh? And what about a close-up.. with Mawson Peak of Big Ben mountain (on Heard Island) visible from distance?? There's a layer of mist below, which makes the mountain looks like floating in the air.. A bit like a "Castle in the sky", as one of the scientists commented ("Laputa: Castle in the Sky" is also one of my favorite anime from H. Miyazaki). And also: can you see that black line the runs diagonal from the peak of Big Ben? Well.. guess what.. that's lava!!! 


South-west side of McDonald island, with Mawson Peak visible in distance.


I feel, once again, privileged. Not many can say to have had the chance to see Big Ben in its beauty. Well.. I guess not many can say to have been here in these waters, either.. right? That makes me think: how many Italians have been here? :-) 

Heard Island has been discovered in 1833, or 1853, and has been visited only few times, as it's quite inhospitable. Lava and ice are the 2 players responsible for its morphology. Jodi Fox, our geologist aboard, teaches us that, despite Heard Island is just 44 km distant from the McDonald islands, it shows a very different type of lava and, hence, a different eruptive style.. as these things go. Heard's kind is smoky, with high plumes, but doesn't produce big explosions. McDonalds' eruptions, on the other hand, are more explosive. With its top at 2745 m, Big Ben is the second highest mountain of the Australian territory and Australia's only active volcano!

Having the chance to SEE Heard Island is rather rare. The weather here is really bad (I probably said that "few" times) and there's always a thick layer of fog and clouds surrounding the island. We've been mapping the bathymetry around McDonald Islands for many days now, and the weather allowed just few other research activities. But every now and then, when on the right side and at the right moment, Heard Island has been has gifted us with the vision of some of its features..


One of the glaciers on Heard Island (I forgot to ask Jodi which one..), diving into the ocean.


A "pretty good" day to get more details of the island..


One of the skills of a good researcher is patience.. I believe. And I think that this time this gifted us in a magical way…

Tonight, the call from the bridge: "Big Ben's erupting!"!!!!

We all know what happens next, right? Rush to get cameras, lenses, jackets, beanies, etc. and up to the bridge! And because this was more than sensational, we just ran outside, challenging the painful wind.. In between smiles and laughs and "I cannot believe what I'm seeing", we all had our chance to get some thousands pictures of the event.. (I had a really hard time choosing the photos to post). This is a taste of what was in front of our opened-wide eyes:


Heard Island in all its beauty!


Close-up of Big Ben.


Eruption of Big Ben with lava on the side.


As quick as it showed itself, Big Ben wrapped itself up in a thick cloud.. We all sent our goodbye and went back to our work.. with pure joy in our hearts.. and a memory to share.


Time to hide again..


 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Penguins rolls

It went like this: it's breakfast time for me (1pm, ish), a bowl of milk and cereal, particularly hot, in one hand and a coffee in the other. The boat rolls (a lot) and my eyes point to one of the portholes in the galley: water, water, water.. waves.. a gray huge silhouette of… what!? It can't be a wave THAT big! I run to the porthole (carefully, not to drop my precious meal on the floor) and.. here it is!! just behind that thick fog, McDonald Island! One of the most remote places on Earth is just in front of my eyes! Useless to say that I basically swallow the whole breakfast (not a great idea.. the temperature makes it more like lava, rather than milk), run downstairs to the Operations Room, get my camera (with my 3 lenses.. you never know if you have something close, something far.. or something wide) and 5 floors up to the bridge (now.. "run": the big swell made my inglorious run more like a series of fast fast steps alternated to reaaaaally slow ones). And that's what I see..




McDonald Island, view from the bridge

It's really something unexpectedly emotional to see land after almost 20 days of a 360 degrees view of ocean and sky, sky and ocean. A very dramatic view, in this case, as with its sharp profile, its dark volcanic rocks, fumes that emerge from several points, a fog that blends everything around in a monochromatic gray tone, waves that violently brakes against its figure, thousands penguins standing at the top of the mountains (seriously.. what are they doing there?!) and elephant seals fighting on the small beach (now, here I had to trust the others, as I couldn't really see them with my eyes).. McDonald Island looks like it's coming out from a fantasy book. At any moment, I expect to see a dragon emerging from one of those rocks ;-) The island has a volcanic origin. Satellite images show that it has doubled its size (!!) between 1980 and 2001, probably due to an eruption in 1997. And it might look very inhospitable to us, but no doubt it's the perfect home for many animals.


Thousands of penguins are at the top of the mountain! (they're very little on the picture.. just trust me: I saw them with the binoculars)

There are many many more seabirds, as little as storm petrels and as huge as wandering albatrosses. Groups of penguins and fur seals jump crazily through the big waves.. we wish we could see killer whales too. Penguins are incredibly fast, which made my photographic hobby particularly challenging. 


Few seals jumping in the waters in front of McDonald Island


A group of Macaroni penguins


Awww.. this is so cute!!


Ok, last photo of penguins!

We've been spending these last 3 days around the island, as the weather is pretty bad and we cannot safely stop to take any measurements. So, we've been mapping the seafloor around, looking for bubbles from the ocean floor to track any potential hydrothermal vents (not an easy task, I must say). We've been playing tennis table, watching movies (Captain Phillip was my favorite), eating an enormous quantity of cake, cookies, ice-cream, pudding. While the ocean on the shallow plateau continued to rage.

2 days ago, I was watching a movie with a group of us. All of a sudden, the roll of the ship became stronger and stronger: I made a fortress with a couple of couches, so I didn't really move much from my position. But it wasn't so still for the rest of them: people started sliding on the floor, with or without a couch or a chair. Sliding back and forth. At the beginning, it was pretty funny, I admit. Some were laughing by the incapability of being able to stand up for more than few seconds. 1, 2, 3 rolls and then.. BOOM! Everything went flying against the other side of the room: couches, chairs, tennis table, people! Fortunately nobody in the room got injured.
Plot of the roll of the ship: indicated in red is the vicious one.

The galley was a mess (pun intended ;-P ): we had pudding and raspberry jelly as dessert for dinner.. it was everywhere! Sadly one of us slipped on the floor and twisted her knee, but fortunately she's already recovering and nothing major happened. From the bridge, Pete, our video/photographer took an amazing picture of the roll (which you can see below)… before he went flying across the bridge, to then violently land with his nose on the desk :-( Fortunately again, no broken bones or nose, just a bad bruise. But we all got a very important lesson here: "one hand for the ship.. and with this weather, better keep two!".


Pete's shot during the roll, before he flew towards the desk (credit: Pete Harmsen, CSIRO/MNF)


One last thing: Happy Australia Day to all my Aussie friends! We had a lot of fun celebrating it here: BBQ, pavlova, flags everywhere, the Triple J 100 best songs. Love it!! :)