A community-wide email went around yesterday announcing “the underwater observation tube is open for the season.”
I had no idea such a thing existed, but as soon as I heard about it, I wanted in.
So I grabbed two of my roommates, got a radio and key from the firehouse and set off past Hut Point, a short distance onto the sea ice, to a diving hut.
The diving hut was about twice the size of the one I’d been in earlier in the day, while I was advancing Science. It had a large, water-filled dive hole and a heater. So, uhm, where’s the observation tube?
“It was back there. Didn’t you see it?” asked one of my roommates, who had assumed I made for the hut because I was cold.
I stuck my head back outside but all I saw was a pipe sticking a couple feet out of the ground. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the pipe had a lid on which had been stencilled “Ob Tube.”
As it turned out, the tube was occupied. When the guy climbed out, he gave us a couple tips, including to take our time and let our eyes adjust.
First one down? Oh, why not… I’ve already advanced science today, why not trailblaze my way down a tiny tube underneath a few meters of ice to the subzero waters of the Antarctic?
So down I went. The first 20 feet or so was down the narrow tube, with v-shaped metal rungs unevenly spaced. Then I had to take a big step down onto a rope ladder covering the last roughly eight or ten feet, into an octagonal, narrow chamber lined with thick windows. The final step down was onto an old wooden box that also functioned as your seat as you sat and observed what was nothing short of a wonderworld.
The observation tube had no lighting inside or out. The sea floor was illuminated only by the natural light filtering through several feet of sea ice, the underbelly of which ranged from chunky to crystalline. Everything was bathed in a surreal blue that was both murky and pale, faintly glowing, like elves traveling through the forest at night. Tiny fish and amphipods and jellyfish – so small that you could have fit two or three on a grain of rice – flitted past the windows.
As my eyes adjusted, I was able to see the topography, the sea floor sloping away from shore, the carpet of sponges and anemone swaying slightly in the current.
In the distance, I saw a large pale blob. It moved so slowly that I thought at first my eyes were fooling me. But eventually it glided past, at some distance… a jellyfish that must have been the size of a basketball.
The part of the tube where I was sitting was silent, but at the top, even though the lid was closed above me, I could hear the wind picking up and thrashing against the metal pipe. It was such a contrast, knowing that a few meters above me there was a harsh, freezing wind, and people, and bustle and things to do, like my laundry, languishing in a pile beside my bed, while where I sat all was a peaceful silence. I’m sure the two fish I saw fighting or mating or eating each other (it was hard to see in the dim light) found nothing peaceful about the moment, but that is another matter.
I’ll admit it. I had an Altered States moment. I completely lost track of time and the fact that I was sitting at the bottom of a tiny tube under subzero water and sea ice. My pulse dropped down to about 30. I felt I no longer needed oxygen or direct light or food and could quite happily spend eternity right where I was, watching the angel-like amphipods dance by.
So it was a shock when Mary Jane, one of my roommates, shoved open the lid and shouted down “Hey, you okay? Not to rush you or anything, but are you alright down there?”
I snapped back to the reality that I was in a tube underwater and under ice, and above me were waiting two roommates who hadn’t had the chance to experience it, not to mention laundry and cleaning and checking my email and Christmas shopping and brushing my teeth and…
I told her I’d be up in a few minutes. I just wanted to see the big jellyfish make its grand exit from my sight, fading into the deepening murk.
At last I stood up… later on I’d figure out I was down there for an hour (sorry, roomies). Up the rope ladder that swung wildly, then, my back against the hard metal tube and hands clutching the unevenly spaced, v-shaped rungs that stuck out awkwardly from the tube walls, I picked my foot up to find a hold on the lowest rung and… and.
Descending the metal rungs and ladder, I noticed it had been tight, and that the step down from bottom rung to rope ladder had been a big one. But I made it down. I’d make it up, right?
I had forgotten the dynamics of climbing a ladder. On the way down, your legs don’t bend as sharply. They don’t have to. On the way up, well, yeah, they do have to bend more, taking up more horizontal space. As it happens, my already long frame is unusually long from my hip to my knee. Much, much longer than the diameter of the tube. It was impossible to bend my leg enough to put my foot on the bottom rung. The sides of the tube, even at the bottom where it met the observation area, were completely smooth. No chance of finding an intermediary foothold there.
Now, I suppose most people my height who go down the tube are guys, and most guys, thanks to a different center of gravity and different musculature, can simply do a pull-up or two or ten to get up the rungs. And most women I know who are my height are, quite frankly, guy-shaped, with narrow bottoms and more upper body strength and mass. For whatever reason (I’m going with “genes”), I am exceedingly tall for a woman but very woman-shaped. My legs are my powerhouse.
Much like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I have arms largely for decorative purposes.
If you think the above is all a grand rationalization for why I got stuck in the observation tube, you would be correct.
I spent a good 15 minutes trying to get up onto that bottom metal rung. I tried a pull-up (ha! Even if I’d had some adrenaline-fueled burst of upper body strength, the rungs were unevenly stagger-spaced, meaning I had to do a one-armed pull-up which was even more ridiculous for me to attempt.). I considered taking my boots off to make my feet more flexible and hopefully monkey my way up. I tried sliding up the tube with my back.
I am happy to report that during this long period of frustration, I was never scared and never panicked. I thought it was, quite frankly, kind of funny. Because I am not a great fan of confined spaces and, yes, had a wee freak-out both times I had an MRI, I was proud of myself that I never had a moment of hesitation to get into the tube and slither my way down under ice into the Antarctic waters. And here I was, still awash in the enlightened experience of watching sea life, stuck in a dark, confined space.
Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
I knew my roommates would eventually come and check on me, and call the firehouse with the radio I’d left in the hut with my parka (there wasn’t enough room for a parka down there, plus it was well-insulated and not at all cold), that the firemen would come with some kind of rope or sling or proper ladder and haul me out, intact except for my shredded dignity.
So I waited. Struggling every few minutes in the dim hope that my legs had shortened, I waited with my back against the tube and my feet on the top of the rope ladder. I shouted a couple times but heard nothing and suspected they were (wisely) in the warming hut.
Then… I heard my roommate Natalie’s voice, somewhat irritated, telling someone, “No, we’re next. Our roommate is down there but she’s going to come up. Eventually.”
I shouted her name and she hauled open the lid. Five parka-lined faces stared down at me.
I explained my predicament.
“Tall people have to do pull-ups to get out. That’s what I heard,” said Natalie. The other four heads nodded.
Well, that’s all very nice and informative, but you might have mentioned that before I happily slunk down the rabbit-hole.
I explained that my T. Rex-like distribution of strength made a successful pull-up about as likely as Britney Spears winning the Nobel Prize for Physics. One of the faces staring down at me disappeared.
The remaining parka-heads shouted down suggestions, all of which I had tried. I was simply too long in the upper leg. It was an improbable pull-up or calling the firehouse.
The fifth parka-head returned. It was Mary Jane. “I got a rope.”
Bless her quick-thinking heart, she’d found an emergency rope in the warming hut. Looping it and throwing the looped end down, she talked the others, Natalie and three new arrivals who were, quite frankly, rather cranky and impatient, into hauling my sizeable ass up. Meanwhile, I tucked the rope under my butt and got ready to do an assisted pull-up. With a countdown and a grunt, I was suddenly standing on the lower rung with one foot. Success!
Mary Jane started another countdown, intent on rescuing me, but I shouted up that I didn’t need it. Once off the wiggling rope ladder and into the tube proper, I scampered up the remaining rungs in a matter of seconds. It was just that one long step from rope ladder to rung that had been impossible.
Back in the cold and the wind, I offered embarrassed thanks all around before retreating to the warming hut. Natalie and then Mary Jane went down next, while the other three strangers who’d helped haul me up stood beside me in the hut, muttering to each other that it was unfair they had to wait to go down and that some people shouldn’t go climbing down if they weren’t capable of getting back up on their own.
I hope they saw nothing down there but the reflection of their own black hearts.
Neither Natalie or Mary Jane spent more than a few minutes down there. I guess they were tired and irritated. I feel bad that I completely zoned out and took so much time and then, er, got stuck, but what can you do?
The tube isn’t open long, just during the period when we have both thick sea ice and 24-hour daylight. So I was glad I got to experience it, and that the actual time I spent down there was so magical. And now I know where to go when I want to bliss out in utter solitude and silence.
But next time I’m bringing some kind of self-belay rope.
And Now: Extra Bonus Content!
Just wanted to add a few random bits as well, since we’re so busy now that I don’t know how much online time I’ll have in the coming weeks. As most of my readers (both of you) are American, here’s a little assortment of easily digestible, non-partisan nuggets for you to munch on as you recover from Mid-Term Election Hysteria and its aftermath:
To Infinity And Beyond
Wednesday night after work three of us geared up, signed out a radio from the firehouse and set off for the Armitage Loop, which is not really a loop at all. Like the Kiwis, the folks who designed the hiking trails around McMurdo have a habit of calling C or U-shaped hikes “loops.” But nevermind. Armitage Loop is one of two trails that requires you to go with at least one other person and have a radio. It’s also got one of the shortest seasons of the whole trail network.
It was late (after 9 pm) and we were tired and the weather was a bit iffy, but we decided to do it anyway because Armitage is only open for a couple of months.
Because it is entirely on sea ice. It stretches around the base of Ob Hill all the way to Scott Base (the Kiwi base), a distance of about three miles.
Once we were away from McMurdo and out on the ice, thanks to gloomy weather, the world around us got eerie. The horizon lost definition and, even though it was very overcast, we had to put on our sunglasses. The light was so flat that it was difficult to see depth of any kind, even troughs and bumps in the snow beneath our feet. Everywhere you put your eyes, the bluish-white gloom seemed to stretch on infinitely, whether you were looking ahead along the trail or down at your feet.
If you have ever been about to pass out from shock and experienced that weird sense of color actively draining from your vision, you know what I mean.
We sort of stumbled about all the way to Scott Base and then took the road back. It was too cloudy to see much landscape, though we did see a bunch of Weddell seals near the Kiwi base, either waiting to pup or having just given birth. They were too far away for a good picture, especially in the strange, otherworldly light.
Holy Bathymetry, Batman!
The next time the weatherman is right, thank the hard-working seals of Antarctica. Well, okay, that may be a teensy bit of a stretch, but, despite what many a grad student might argue, the seals of Antarctica are the most underpaid workers of the global science world.
Last week’s Science Sunday lecture might just have been my favorite yet. It’s certainly in a three-way tie for the top with Paul Dayton’s jovial and passionate reminiscing and the dudes with the SealCams.
On Sunday, another seal researcher, Dan Costa, came armed and locked and fully loaded with state-of-the-art animation on top of a fascinating lecture. Costa has been blinging out seals for years, mostly on the Antarctic Peninsula (that snakey bit of land that almost touches Chile and no, is nowhere near here. Antarctica is bigger than the continental United States, after all). He and his team put time and depth sensors on the seals as well as, with the advance of technology, salinity and temperature monitors and other stuff.
Alas, no cameras.
But Costa’s research has yielded tons of information that’s important in a global way.
For starters, the animals he gets kitted out feed information back to satellites about water temperature and movement, and have been able to improve weather forecasting in the Antarctic region, which may not matter to you but is important for commercial and government vessels that would rather not be caught in a storm.
The seals are also helping us get better data about how the oceans are changing in salinity and temperature. The remote scientific floats used elsewhere in the world to record a lot of climate-related data simply can’t be used in Antarctica… for one, the circumpolar current forces them northward, kicking them out of the region where they’re supposed to be recording data. And, even if there was a way to keep them in the right spot, these floats work by sinking to collect data and rising to the surface to transmit the data to a satellite… not so easily done when there are meters of sea ice over you most of the year. The seals collect the same data and it gets sent to the satellites when they naturally pop up for air through breathing holes they carve in the ice (fun fact: Weddell seals’ teeth face outward so that they can bite their way through the ice to breathe).
Costa shared some of his research with a few scientists out of his field, including one involved with bathymetry (as I understand it, seafloor topography) who pointed out, er, this is embarrassing… the seals are diving below the ocean floor. Uhm.
They looked into it and realized the seals hadn’t developed some kind of mining operation as a sideline. Instead, the bathymetry of the Antarctic region has some serious flaws. Because it is so difficult (and expensive) to get ships down here to properly map the ocean floor, the data they’d had in the past was incomplete and a bit sketchy. Now, thanks to charting the seals’ dives, which tend to follow a specific pattern in terms of relation to the ocean floor, they’ve been able to create much more accurate three-dimensional bathymetry. Try topping that, Google Maps.
But wait, there’s more…
The seals have also helped scientists rethink how the entire circumpolar current works. They were puzzled (the scientists, not the seals) about certain species of seals that seem to stick to the edge of the continental shelf and not cover much territory. These seals remain healthy and clearly well-fed even though they seemed to be spending all their time in nutrient-poor areas. Using all the sensors they’d attached to the seals, they realized that the seals…
Oh wait, I need to back-up. There was just so much good information it’s hard not to get ahead of myself.
In Antarctica, just to be different, the deeper water is the warmer water, and the stuff with more nutrients in it, like fish and krill and other such nibbles. The colder water near the surface is comparatively nutrient-poor. There is a big current a long ways below the surface, just below the continental shelf edge, of that deeper, warmer, yummier water called, funny enough, Circumpolar Deep Water, or CDW.
Okay. So. Costa and his team realize the seals are hanging around the edge of the continental shelf and diving into valleys and troughs that are still technically on the continental shelf but are actually deep enough that the CDW is flowing up onto them, just enough to be delivering an all-you-can-eat sashimi buffet into their forward-facing-teethed little mouths. Sweet.
I know, all of this is probably giving you a headache. Here is a pretty picture to admire while your brain digests the above:
In addition to the information, only a portion of which I have mentioned (there was just so much), Costa had these incredible 3D animations of diving patterns that showed speed and depth and salinity and temperature, plus animated maps showing the annual sea ice growth and melt, other maps contrasting the territories of various species… it was a blur of fascinating and color-coded detail.
I guess you could say he blinded me with science.
What’s That, You Say? You Want More Science?
The day before the Science Sunday lecture (uh, that would be Saturday), I got to go on a tour of Crary Lab, where all the scientists collate and do things involving beaker tubes. My favorite part was the vulcanology wing. The actual Vulcans, ahem, are not here yet, but they come every year to study Mt. Erebus, which is one of only three volcanoes in the world to have an open lava lake. Yes, in the crater at the summit of Erebus is a seething, spewing pit of roiling molten lava.
The more I learn about Antarctica the more I like it.
Come on! I live between highly unstable sea ice and a giant seething, spewing pit of roiling molten lava! It doesn’t get better than that.
Anyway, both of the other open lava lake volcanos are apparently in highly politically unstable areas (uhm… Nevada? Sorry, I said I’d keep this non-partisan but I couldn’t resist), so Erebus is actually the safest one to study and vulcanologists come from all over the world to do just that. We got to touch (and, okay, caress and maybe fondle a bit, at least one of us did, ahem) rocks and lava bombs Erebus has coughed up over the years. The good news is that because the lake is constantly bubbling and burping and spewing, pressure never builds up enough to have a big eruption. Or so they tell us.
We also got to meet and talk to the main engineer for the SCINIs (pronounced “skinnys”), the remotely operated vehicles that are narrow enough to shoot down the smallest drill holes they make in the ice. They look like metal poster tubes and can be customized with all kinds of sensors, cameras and remotely operated claws. He said he was hoping to have an open house later in the year out at one of the sites where people could drive a SCINI for a while.
It goes without saying. I am so there. The only thing that could keep me away from it would be getting stuck in the Ob Tube again.