Departure from Punta Arenas
After loading up on fuel we head out into the Strait of Magellan. It’s just past midnight and we see a decent number of stars over our heads. A few hours later the sun emerges over the snow-capped mountains of the Strait and we take in the breathtaking scenery. It’s the last land we will see for many weeks. In the evening we sail over the edge of the continental shelf and into the Southern Ocean.
I’ll be on the night shift for the next two months, so I try to get my body used to the idea of breakfast at midnight as soon as possible. At 3 am I finally manage to get out of bed and decide to start the day with some fresh air on deck. As the door closes behind me I am instantly surrounded by the roaring of the waves in the complete and utter darkness of the Southern Ocean. Except for our handful of navigation lights it is pitch black. I am afraid to move in case the floor is not where I thought it would be. The metal railing seems a laughable barrier between me and instant death. If you fall over board no one would see you, and the water is so cold you would die of hypothermia long before you’d drown. I’ve been at sea loads of times and like to think I can handle myself on boats but I’m not gonna lie: right now I am terrified.
My fears of an imminent death have diminished somewhat (this place is perfectly safe as long as you follow the instructions) and I now happily walk along whichever deck is open for a view of the waves. There is considerable excitement on day 2 when we see a cloud of water vapour being exhaled in the distance: a whale! It’s too far away to actually see the animal, but when I check my photos later, I notice the characteristic back and fin of a sperm whale. We hope there will be many more.
Day 6: first day on site
00:00 Shift crossover
Estimated time for the first core to come up on deck is 06:00. The jealous day shift hands out the final instructions as the night shift prepares to process the very first samples. We can’t wait to see what the sediments look like.
Anticipation is running high. There is an excited buzz while people locate bits of lab equipment, download the final references and run through sampling protocols one last time. Screens in every lab show live footage of the drilling deck and keep us updated with the progress of the drill pipe through the water. 500 meters to go before we hit the sea floor.
One more cookie break before madness begins. We try to enjoy our last few minutes of peace and quiet.
The core is on its way up! It still has 3000 meters of water to travel through so we run downstairs for a very quick lunch.
CORE ON DECK!!!
Where are the bowls? I can’t find my hard hat! Which one was my sample again? This stuff stinks! Where does it go? NOOOO the label machine is stuck! Help the software is not loading! I swear I left my bottle here 5 seconds ago, where is it? Why is the sediment so fluffy? And why are they filming me now???
Made it! Samples washed and in the oven without any major incidents, cores measured and ready to be split, and the diatom expert proudly announces an age estimate. We’ve got this.
Throughout the rest of our shift cores continue to come up roughly once an hour and we quickly settle into a routine. The initial manic rush evaporates and we start to appreciate the subtle colour changes in the sediment as the material becomes progressively older. By the end of the shift we feel as if we have done this all our lives. We do an extensive crossover with the day shift (‘don’t worry if the sediment looks fluffy; it’s just the diatoms, and the label machine works a charm if you print an empty label first’) and we roll into bed feeling exhausted but satisfied.