6 November 2004

Mike D. writing today

The Cursed Hole, the Dive that Wasn’t, Stacy’s Big Adventure (Part I), and the Return of the King

The plan for the day sounded pretty simple. But simple plans often turn out to be more complex than anticipated here in Antarctica. For example, Jennifer and I were charged with shuffling dive huts around on the sea ice in preparation for the day’s dives, then heading out to Hut Point to chainsaw out a dive hole and refuel the Hotsy and generator. We figured our tasks would take about an hour, after which we’d return to the station, suit up, then go diving. T’was not to be.

Jennifer checking us out of the station on the way out to the sea ice. We are required to check in and out with the station’s communication center each time we venture onto the sea ice. A missed call-in means a hand-slap at best, a full-scale search-and-rescue operation at worst.

We had no problems initially. Jennifer expertly hitched up one of our dive huts that we affectionately call the “tomato” (although I prefer the more appropriate moniker “the ladybug”), and deftly maneuvered it over the dive hole in Winter Quarters Bay for Stacy’s mid-morning dive.

We then moved another hut called the “Polar Haven” (a fabric shell with an aluminum skeleton) out to Hut Point in anticipation of our own mid-morning dive. So far, so good...

Hut Point, site of Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut, which was used as a base during the Heroic Age by Scott and Shackleton's parties. More recently, Dr. Paul Dayton - Antarctic researcher extraordinaire - installed a number of experiments here, which we planned to re-visit and re-image today with camera and video.

Setting up “camp” at Hut Point. This is our Summer vacation, Antarctic style. Note, however, that the generator is for running our hotsy instead of a TV and satellite dish, and the hotsy fills in for a barbecue.

Fun with chainsaws. After yanking on the starter cord 6,821 times, I finally managed to fire it up. The objective here was to cut out the ice above waterline in the hole that the hotsy has been melting for the past day, so that divers had enough room to enter and exit the water - while retaining a foothold on the ice and all of my limbs.

Carving a hole in ice with a sharp chainsaw is like using a hot fillet knife to cut butter. The key is to keep the chain moving to prevent freeze-up. To minimize pollution, we don’t use bar oil to lubricate the chain like you would under ordinary circumstances.

Just as I was thinking to myself that all of the salt water spraying into the innards of the saw just couldn’t be good for it, it sputtered and quit. The saw didn’t want to start up again, so we took it apart the first of 2,053 times. It turns out those sprockets on the bar tip freeze up pretty easily in sub-zero temperatures. Despite our best efforts, the saw continued to give us grief, then finally ceased to work altogether. Like the premise of “Gilligan’s Island”, our one-hour tour was quickly growing into a seemingly endless undertaking.

We raced back to base to get another saw in the Pisten Bully - if you consider 16 miles per hour “racing”, that is.

An hour later we had another chainsaw, and returned to Hut Point to finish the job. Despite the vehement assurances of the Keepers of the Power Tools that we wouldn’t have ANY trouble with the new saw, we still managed to have to take it apart 671 times before finally getting our hard-won hole. We refueled the hotsy and generator again to ensure that the hole was diveable in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Stacy was busy with her first “contamination dive” of the season. She’ll tell you all about it later, but in brief, she uses a full face mask with a surface-supplied air source and a rubber drysuit to collect samples in highly contaminated areas near the station (so no part of her skin is in contact with the water).

Stacy being prepped for diving by Rob Robbins. Surface-supply diving means that the diver goes down solo (although a standby diver is at the ready), but has a direct communication link to the surface.

Stacy mentally preparing for a dive in one of the most polluted, least desirable places in Antarctica.

Stacy’s dive went well, and we all met up for hot lunch in the galley – a treat since this was one of the few days that we’re not afield during lunchtime.

Our post-lunch endeavor was to sieve the sediment samples from the polluted area where Stacy dove this morning. Winter Quarters Bay is where tons of trash and toxic waste (like drums of oil, PCB-tainted material, heavy metals, etc.) has been dumped from 1955 until the 1980s, when the U.S. Antarctic Program began cleaning up its act. The smell in the lab during the sieving process harkened memories of similar aromas during excursions through heavily industrialized (=highly polluted) areas of Chicago, my old hometown.

FINALLY, after 2 days of trying to melt a hole in the 15 foot-thick ice at Hut Point, Jennifer and I gave it our blessing that it was good to go. Bob and Andrew got suited up to try it out. Andrew was the first to descend through the hole. Bob was about to jump in when Andrew surfaced with the bad news that the diameter of the hole at the bottom was a wee bit too tight to squeeze through. Doh!!! We de-suited Andrew and Bob, then set the Hotsy and generator going for yet another night of melting. The cursed hole would have to wait another day…

Ahhh…. Saturday night – our one night to relax without having to worry about staying out too late and being tardy for work the next morning (Woe be to anyone that shows up after 7:35 a.m. and has to face the wrath of Stacy). This being our one and only “free” night, I must say that I was slightly annoyed that the visiting Dive Control Board members called a meeting at 8 p.m. for the stated purpose or reviewing our dive computers. Nevertheless, I showed up promptly to the dive locker at 8:05, dive computer in hand. As I walked unsuspectingly in the door I was raucously greeted by a bunch of beverage-wielding party-goers yelling “surprise!!” I guess I must be getting more gullible with age… My birthday was officially YESTERDAY, but technically I was born 33 years ago today since we’re on the other side of the international dateline.

We had a good time shooting the breeze (which was gusting to over 30 knots outside, also - our first "Condition 2" weather), and I made out like a bandito with plenty of Elvis paraphernalia, including a pair of collector's edition Elvis sunglasses sent all the way from Alaska courtesy of Jim Saracco and Lisa Etherington . Thanks again everybody!

Daily weather stats: Maximum temperature: 12° F Minimum temp: +5° F Minimum windchill: -38° F Maximum wind gust: 33 knots

Photos by Mike Donnellan, Jennifer Fisher, and Andrew Thurber

Lets see the next day!