27 October 2004

Fly Day!

Well, today started just like yesterday. Our helo flight is scheduled to be cancelled at 8:45 but I am betting it's a go. The big difference is that today the weather looks great and an unexpected additional preparation day makes us feel like today will be a fly day. We stumble down the short hill to the helo hanger in our big bunny boots. Weighing ourselves always liberates complaints about the accuracy of the scale, now indicating as much as 40 lbs of unexpected mass. The additional burden can only be explained by our parkas, boots and flight helmets. After some paper work and a short walk to the pad the helitech helps us all get strapped into the big Bell 212 helo that will be our taxi today. After the pilot gets both engines run up and checked out we lift and hover about 20 feet away over another helitech. This one will clip a cable to a hook on the bottom of the helo. The 212 is the pickup truck of the antarctic helo fleet. It can lift a lot more weight then what will normally fit inside so as we fly today we will be dangling beneath us a 600 pound piece of equipment called a Hotsy. The Hotsy is a modified heated pressure washer. With it, some long hoses, a stainless steel coil called a stinger and about 20 hours of patience we can melt a dive hole in 15 foot thick ice.  

The Bell 212

The Hotsy


We fly low over the Ice Runway and continue on till we cross the dirty ice part of the Ross Ice Shelf. I have my camera ready because I expect it will soon come in handy. In my past life as a communications tech I have flown over this part of the continent precisely 3 times and each of those forays has rewarded me with rich memories. We have flown over the finger of dirty ice and are now traversing McMurdo Sound again. This part of the "annual" sea ice isn’t so annual. I am guessing it's been about 20 years since the last time there was open water beneath us. Antarctica's short summers still have a freeze-thaw cycle. So each year the sea ice doesn't break up and blow north melt water ponds form on the surface. These blue water ponds then refreeze, creating puddles in the white sea ice. When the next year's freeze-thaw cycle comes these bluer ice puddles act as lenses encouraging the water to melt again. From the air the result is endless acres of TidyBowl blue miniature ice skating rinks contrasted with pure white borders of snow. I click away as the sun glints from the rapidly passing scene. We are flying lower then the pilots would normally fly.  Most of us dove in the last 24 hours and therefore shouldn’t exceed 1000ft in altitude. The movie out the window makes us all smile.

The extinct cone of Mt. Discovery and some of the crystal blue melt pools

Kathy sits atop one of the upwelled melt pools

Three days ago Stacy, Rob and Mike chose the location for the dive hole. Then the blasters drilled a 5 inch hole and stuffed it full of explosives. The first charge breaks up the ice and the second shot is to clear the hole of the ice chunks. I have never been very close to a blasted hole before. From the helo my first impression is of two bomb craters. Strewn around are lots of ice chunks of waning size as the distance increases from the hole. The earphones crackle with a question from the pilot. "Where do you want me to set the Hotsy down?" I tell him as near the holes as possible. We hover for a brief moment as he positions then releases the external load. We then settle on to the ice about 100 meters away from the holes in a big white plume of snow.


Camp put-ins, especially short duration camps like this one, are a struggle between spending the time to set things up comfortably or realizing that you will be breaking down everything in less then 48 hours. Four mountaineering tents and a pyramid-shaped Scott tent are the main edifices in our camp. We worked through the morning, stopping to pump the little stoves that kept us full of warm drinks. After a short wrestling match with the chainsaw we made smoke and cut into the frozen brash ice that now sealed the blast holes. It's best to wait one day after blasting to allow the water to refreeze a little. This consolidates all the little chunks. The weather yesterday forced us to wait two days and the chunks were now almost a foot thick. Sawing, chopping and ice tonging saw us through to almost a 4 foot hole with only 3 hours expended. With a smaller window in the safety hole and the Hotsy melting  it larger the time to dive has come.

The Hotsy Stinger

Mt. Erebus and the Dailey Islands behind our camp


Chainsawing the hole


Finally ready for the first dive

Stacy and Andrew were first to dive. The Scott tent provided a windless moment for putting on the dive underwear and drysuits. A mere 10 minutes later with the open environment creating a sense of urgency both divers are sitting at the edge of the hole with straps and hoses flying. Each one has two dive tenders. The first problem is no pressure in Andrew's tank. Is it a real air problem or is the instrument lying? A few steps down the trouble shooting ladder it appears the pressure gauge is frozen. A new reg. fixes that with only a 3 min delay. The breeze isn't as bad when you're sitting down in the crater at the edge of the hole. Even if you're not in the crater it's only a slight breeze. The sun makes up for the wind chill. Next problem - no air at the suit inflator on Andrew's suit. Only a few moments later the suit is determined to be at fault. Another frozen implement. Jenn immediately offers up her suit. Back from the Scott tent 5 min later with everything working Andrew and Stacy slide into the water for a nice 39 minute dive in a spot where it is likely no man (or woman!) has dove before. 

A Pycongonid (sea spider) asking a question!

Just a few of the things we see under the ice. 

Click the image to see more detail

Hover on an image to learn more

A crack in the Ice above The soft coral Alcyonium antarcticum; the individual above has its polyps extended and the one below is contracted.
A large anemone, Isotealia antarctica. This brittle star (Ophiosparte gigas) might be a football fan.
With everything on the dive having gone well it's time to eat. Cold and water equate to ravenous appetites.  We sit around hugging our plastic ziploc baggies that hold the warm, precious and currently rehydrating contents of our evening meal. With names like Black Bart Chile, Santa Fe Beans and Rice, Sierra Chicken and Leonardo de Fettuccine we dream of  the scrumptious cuisine that awaits us. By the time the food seems to have achieved the right consistency it has cooled considerably. The first few bites live up to our hopes but half way through the meal it all seems too much like Top Raman noodles or Cup a Soup. Wasabi and chili paste bring it back into our interest; the raw hunger conquers and most of us eat two.

Mike trying to fix the stove

Explorations after dinner netted us many wonderful sights. The sun still sets for about 30 min now that we are this close to the TransAntarctic mountain range. The sun rise (30 minutes later) brings with it warmth and sleep.


Good night!




Lets see the next day!