Sunday, 24 December 2017

Core on deck - Core on deck

Hey peeps!

I know, I know, I disappeared again, but I’ve got a good excuse; we got really busy, then we got rough seas and then we got really busy again. We finally arrived on our first site the day after my last post and we began drilling as soon as the equipment and the drillers were ready. So much excitement and exuberance as you can imagine! People gathered on every spot of deck that we were allowed to be while able to look at the operations. My curiosity and childhood tendency to like machines and how they work could not be contained. I spent hours watching how the drillers fitted the pipes, how they brought instruments, fixed them together, put them aside, brought a new bit to the floor, fixed that, brought the other bit and so on and so forth, it was like a choreography only greasier. Bob, or Bubba as everyone calls him, who is the toolpusher (which I think means the overseer) saw me standing there, taking photos and came over and offered to take me to the heart of the operations, the doghouse (oh yes that’s what they call it-Bubba brought me to doghouse – that’s for you Dave hahahaha). There I had him and Charlie, who operates the crane, to ask question after question about how things are done. And they were so willing to tell me and explain things to me! I can’t tell you how I appreciated this!  A few days later and after we finished logging the hole we drilled for the physical properties of the sediments below the seafloor, but without bringing any of it up, we were ready for the actual coring. Two hours I spent on deck watching how they put together the corer! This time it was Phil, a Scottish guy with a heavy Aberdeen accent, who is the toolpusher on the opposite shift, who spotted me on the railing, came over and just started telling me everything they were doing and what was happening next. I’m astonished and so happy that they just come and explain things without my even having to ask. I guess if someone is standing there watching them for two hours it must mean they are genuinely interested in the operation and appreciative of what these guys are doing for us. I just feel that I’ve been given this amazing opportunity and I want to suck up all the knowledge I can from it. Thank you Ireland and thank you GSI!

The corer was ready and went down to the seabed late that evening and the first core was not due on deck until the early morning hours, well into my bedtime. Do you think I went to bed? Do you think anyone went to bed? Nope! Lisa, our ALO (Laboratory Officer) said she hadn’t seen this many people waiting for a core ever before. Maybe it was the long transit that made everyone so eager, I don’t know. When a piece of core comes on deck, the driller announces it through the tanoy system and it’s heard through the entire ship, “Core on deck (long pause) Core on deck”. You can even hear it in the cabins, not as loud, but it’s coming through the walls. It’s a great sound! The core is then handed over to the technicians who cut it into 1.5m sections on the catwalk (area on deck just outside the core lab). Several measurements and samples need to be taken immediately on the spot before the core starts equilibrating to ambient temperature, before it starts oxidising and, if there is gas present, before it degases. Then the regular flow on the core in the lab begins, while the drillers drill deeper for the next segment. We can get either 9.5m or 5 m segments, depending on the types of sediments we expect to find. Obviously, when you drill for the longer segments you’ll finish faster but what if that is at the expense of the quality of your results? So you have to balance, getting good quality results but without using too much of the allocated time in one location. These are hard decisions that the chief scientists have to make.

Once we got the core, my work started in earnest and we’ve been busy ever since. In the meantime we got a couple of days of high waves which affected a lot of people even though by now we mostly have our sealegs, but they were high waves and it doesn’t help if you’re looking down a microscope or if you are looking at a computer screen. You might wonder, what happens if you get big waves? Do you continue coring and logging? How do you stay on the same spot when the seas are so rough? I’ll answer the latter question first; the ship has 12 thrusters, 12!!! Their job is to operate in concert to keep the ship in the same place, it’s computer-controlled, this is called dynamic positioning. So even if the sea is rough, JOIDES will stay put. So been moved from our spot is not a problem. But what becomes a problem is our heave, our going up and down, because you have to imagine, if you are drilling into the seafloor and you’ve laid out 200, 300, 400 m of pipe, you’re properly anchored to the seafloor, but the ship is going up and down against the drill pipe and that’s not good from some point onwards, so we had to pull out and wait for the sea state to calm down, then drill as fast as possible to the level below the seafloor we’d stopped. More lost time, more hard decisions for the chief scientists. But that is something any sea-going scientist knows well and contingency plans are always in place. By the way, now that we are in full work mode we’re all lit up, so no more stars… L

This is the amazing lab that I'm working in!!!

Enough with the science and engineering! What are you guys doing for Christmas? I bet you’re all home, eating mum’s and dad’s all delicious meals and cookies (μαμά θέλω μελομακάρονοοοοο). We are not stopping, we’ll keep working through but we are also planning to have a good time. I think I mentioned the last time that we have formed a choir, we have named ourselves the Creepy Choir (Creeping landslides… get it?). We’ve been rehearsing and rehearsing and this morning we gave our first performance, we went caroling to the engine room and to the Bridge and tonight after midnight we’re singing to the drill crew on the drill floor. Singing… that won’t be exactly singing as it’s very loud out there so we’re gonna have to shout!!! Then tomorrow, Christmas Day, we’re part of the Christmas show and singing the carols and other Christmas songs for everyone. We’ve messed with the lyrics of a few songs in a very nerdy kind of way that cracked us up every time we sang them in rehearsal so I hope we manage to keep a straight face for the show (or not, it’s all for fun, isn’t it?). The moment I’m mostly looking forward to is Silent Night; we will sing it in 12 languages (only the first verse), including Irish and Greek, and we sound great if I may say so myself. The guys have been amazing in trying to learn the Greek version and they are pronouncing it perfectly! The other languages are English, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Korean, Chinese, French and Maori! More on how Christmas goes on the next post!

One more thing, last night Dave and I gave a ship-to-shore interview for an Irish radio programme that is part of Newstalk and it’s about science, it’s called Futureproof and you can hear us here We are in the podcast called Stars, bizarre physics and Joides Resolution. If you don’t want to listen to the other bits scroll about 1/3 in, we are the middle of the three interviews. Doing a ship-to-shore interview can have its technological challenges. For example we couldn’t hear them very well and had to press the headset into my head, keep my eyes closed and concentrate very heard to hear the questions. But it worked out really well in the end. Only regret I have is we didn’t get the chance to mention that the Geological Survey of Ireland is the reason Dave and I are able to be here us they are funding us.

Right, so, after the shameless self-promotion I wish you all Happy Christmas! May Santa bring you everything your heart desires!

One of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen in my life (last night)

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Kia ora New Zealand!

We’ve been in transit for ten days now! This is epic by any standard! We’ve been steadily covering about 250nm daily and we had some 3500nm to get to our first site when we started, east of the north island of New Zealand. We are currently in the Tasman Sea and we feared it would be rough, but the weather has been really friendly to us and pushing us from behind, we’re doing really well and we are not feeling a thing. It was rough for a couple of days after we turned the southwest corner of Australia but it’s all been good since then.
You’d be surprised but we manage to fill our time even without having started operations yet. Everyone has their own work to do anyway, but we have a lot of meetings, within our respective groups (I’m in the Sedimentology group), we all had to start writing our reports and at least decide on the approach we would use for our work. This took a few days. Then we had to get training on some of the equipment and software. But, apart from all the serious work, we’ve been having a good time too; Clay is the Electrical Engineer on JR and he offered us lessons on making stuff! Stuff like getting sensors to respond and give us light or sound or turn a wheel when you hook them to a sensor of some sort. We’ve been playing with programming and boards and circuits and tiny little cables and Arduino is officially my new favourite word, say it, it rolls off the tongue, Arduino, Arduino, Arduino... I can keep going…

Besides Clay’s fabulous EE workshop we’ve been keeping fit. We formed a nice little group of fitness-minded people, which worked really well because it meant we dragged each other into the exercise. If you don’t you’ll end up sitting all day and while there are a lot of decks to go up and down from one place to another it’s not nearly enough. As a result we haven’t missed a single day of training since we boarded, even when the weather was not good, we did some form of exercise on a daily basis, whether it’s circuits on the deck by the lifeboats, yoga in the movie room, or weights in the gym. Unfortunately our group of six recently had to be dismantled as a few days ago we had to start going into our shifts (12 to 12, day shift and night shift), so the six became three and then there were two, me and Judith.
Don’t forget we’re preparing for Christmas too. Suffice to say that we’re doing it American style (this is an American ship). One morning after we started sailing, I woke up and walked through the conference room and a Christmas tree and boxes with decorations and a sign to help decorate were there. A (fake) fireplace, made of wood, cardboard and a monitor that shows a flame was also there. Garlands, bobbles, bunting appeared everywhere. More Christmas trees in every deck, small and big, and plans for the Christmas party are being made. I won’t reveal a lot yet, I’ll just say there will be singing, live singing, and carolling and I’m in it (as if I wouldn’t be)! Learning all the Christmas carols that I’ve heard in the movies!

Now I wish I could photograph the things I see when I walk on deck at night to share with everyone! My descriptions couldn’t possibly do them justice but I’ll try nevertheless. During transit we have very few lights on, so the minute you step outside it’s pitch black, you need a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to even take a step. But when they adjust can you imagine the sight?! Used as I am to the sky in the Northern Hemisphere it felt weird to look up and not recognise the constellations that my dad taught me when I was little, lying on the sand on our holidays. I turned this way and nothing, turned the other way and thankfully I saw Orion and then a little off next to it, the Pleiads. Good, I thought, at least I know those. Josh showed me the Southern Cross and the Pointers and then I downloaded a star map and I’m learning the rest. You must be able to see the meteorite shower that is happening these days, the Geminids. I read it’s a better spectacle if you’re in the northern hemisphere but we get a pretty good show of it here too. I saw a star slashing the sky last night. They are meant to reach their peak tomorrow night and I fully intend to spend the night on deck counting falling stars and making wishes, maybe one wish again and again. Is it more likely to come true if you repeat it multiple times? We also saw a moving speck of light and thought it might be the International Space Station. I later checked online the ISS position and it had indeed just passed above us! It would be a big mistake to not turn your eyes down too though, and look at the water as the bow thrusts through the ocean. Again you must let your eyes adjust to the darkness of the water and the greyness of the froth, but keep staring and the froth starts glowing blue, a mesmerising turquoise blue and little flushes pop up here and there; the more you look the more fluorescent it becomes. Bioluminescence is one of the most magical sights! Little organisms that glow when agitated, phytoplankton, specifically dinoflagellates if you want to be scientific (and we are scientific here, that’s what we’re about). But if you want to be poetic, artistic, and imaginative what I see is stars above and stars below, the galaxy in the sky and the blue glow in the water. I really wish you could see it!

Land ho! This morning we woke up to see land on the horizon, New Zealand is in front of us and by afternoon we were in the Cook Strait. My cousin asked for a map to show you where we are. Cuz, your wish is my command. We are the red circle, this is our current position as I’m writing this entry and you can see the rest of our way points. We have this display on many monitors around the ship with the weather and the programme of activities for the day. During the night we should be passing outside of Wellington (hey Suze!!!!) and then we’ll turn NE to head to our first site of investigation.

 And I'll leave you with the sunset behind the south island of New Zealand. Beautiful skyline!

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Meet the JOIDES Resolution

I have completely neglected updating the blog. All the new things to do, all the people to meet, all the things to learn. I wrote the following on the 2nd of December, just after coming on the ship but before leaving:
I’ve been in Australia now for over week, but have spent the largest part of it on a ship tied to the dock. JOIDES Resolution had a 5 day port call, for refuelling, restocking, etc. During the day we had meetings, introductions, tours to the labs and some parts of the ship, but there will be more tours later during our trip. In the evenings we were free to do whatever we wanted so I got to spend some more time in Fremantle. I must admit at the beginning I didn’t understand why so many people were so positive about Freo (local for Fremantle) but having spent some more time here now I see it. There are some nice restaurants, interesting shops and friendly people here. Bizarrely or surprisingly it was always busy. I first arrived here in the weekend so it made sense that it was bursting with life, but it was busy during the week too, and not just in the evenings. I don’t suppose they are all locals, apparently Perth-ians(?), Perthonians(?), Perthites(?), come here too. No, wait, perthite is a feldspar, perthite twinning that’s right… Hang on, does it take its name from Perth? Does anyone know? I digress, sorry J
By the fifth day everyone was eager to get started. There’s a few newbies among us and you can see it that they are a bit stressed, mostly because they don’t know how the sea will affect them and secondarily because they don’t know what to anticipate in terms of work. I can’t forget, will never forget the first time I was going on a research cruise and how I felt. It’s normal to be a bit scared, it’s so uncommon what we do, how can they not be apprehensive and worried? I remember how in awe of it all I was! I think I still am, particularly the moment we sail out of a port and I see the people on the dock watching us go, waving at us and I wonder what might they think of us…? I know I’d be jealous and I would be in awe of what those people on that ship are going out there to do. How many people around the world do what we do? Not to mention how legendary and historical Joides Resolution is which adds to my wonderment and dazzle! Thanks to Ireland and the opportunities it offers me I get to be the second or third Greek to come on this ship! I’ll be flying the Irish flag later on together with my other Irish buddy who’s onboard, Dave.
The plan was to sail on the 1st, that was yesterday. And while one could say we stuck to the schedule and left the dock, we haven’t actually gone far. New Zealand is introducing a new law that requires or vessels that enter their territorial waters to go on quarantine and they could keep them outside of Kiwi territory for as long as 10-14 days in order to clean their hulls and make sure they’re not introducing any invading species. So we decided to do this ourselves before leaving Australia as here it will take us 2 days, compared to the two weeks in NZ. Two weeks is our actual work program, in which case we would just be escorting the ship to NZ ready for the next expedition but not ours! The difference is that here it is done by a ship that can hose us down, whereas in NZ they bring divers (probably with toothbrushes judging by the time it takes them). Regardless, excitement rippled through the ship and everyone came out to Steal Beach (named so for being made of steal and hosting a couple of sun loungers hahahaha – people on ships are very inventive), which is on the deck above the Bridge, where we could see the land leave us and we could wave goodbye to the people on the dock.

The ship is A-mazing! It’s a drill ship, with a giant derrick (the drill rig) in the middle. It’s not a research ship like the ones I am used to and there is an enormous amount of personnel, crew and technicians. 

There are a lot of parts of the ship that we are simply not allowed on, particularly while coring and drilling for safety reasons. We will be taken there but as part of a tour. The labs are the stuff of dreams. I’ll post some pictures once the work starts and the instruments are operating. The cabins are quite spacious with bunk beds and shared by two people. For obvious reasons (my height) I took the lower bunk. There is a conference room where we are usually gathered and give talks, have meetings, conversations. But there is also a recreational lounge, with board games and books and even a guitar and a piano for anyone musically inclined. Next door to the lounge is the movie room, essentially a movie theatre with three sofas which also doubles as an exercise room for DVD workouts. I plan to go for yoga there. There is also a gym, very well equipped and unusually spacious. Most gyms I’ve seen on ships before are restricted in small rooms but this one is a joy to use and while we’ve been in port and at anchor I’ve visited it every day. When we are truly underway I don’t know how the sea state will be and how my body will react, but I’m hoping to be able to carry on. I’ve also found a nice little corner in the back of the microscopy room in the core lab, kind of hidden, where I’ve set up my laptop and I don’t get distracted or interrupted. Only Dave and Joshu know where to find me. Now you don’t realise just how hard it is to hide and isolate yourself in a ship, so really pleased with my find!

More soon, I promise!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

In Australia

Hey guys!

It looks like I'm resurrecting this blog, as I'm travelling again and I can't think of a more appropriate blog title than Aggie's Travels :)

New trip! Woop woop! Destination Western Australia, Perth to be more precise, Fremantle to be even more precise. Both situated on Swan River, Fremantle is the port, and sits on the mouth of the river, while Perth is a bit further upstream.

Reason for trip? Do I need a reason? Of course I need a reason! I'm joining the research vessel Joides Resolution (JR in short) for an international expedition that will take us to New Zealand! Ha! We're not staying in Australia :p

This is the Integrated Ocean Discovery Program (IODP in short), expedition 372. Click here for more details! You can follow us on facebook and on twitter using the #exp372.
IODP is a program with a very long history and any marine scientist worth their salt (pun intended) needs to go at least once. But it's not only marine scientists that join, geologists of any "denomination" come and many of them haven't been at sea before (which is really interesting that the first time they do it it's for 5 weeks!!!).

Now, before we get into the science and all the geeky stuff we get to do a bit of tourism, I got to spend a full day in Perth, a great city, albeit quite isolated, even from the rest of Australia. There are very strict immigration rules and what you are allowed to bring in. You have to declare everything, and nothing fresh, such as fruits or dairy is allowed in. You even have to declare whether the shoes you bring have been in rural areas and near lakes and such. They are very careful about contamination from foreign organisms.

I was in Perth on a Friday and it seemed like a very lively city with many well-dressed people having a good time, sitting outdoors having a good refreshment (beer mostly). I'm told that this is normal for a Friday but it's not like this every day. They also seem to have a good work-life balance, there is a certain laid back attitude here. I had a chat with my taxi driver who is a student at the university and drives the taxi in the weekends but made it very clear to me that if his friends contact him and tell him they're going for a drink, he'll drop what he's doing and go meet them. He's an absolute responsibility-phobe and he dreads having any pressure on himself, so he doesn't want a job that he has to work under anyone (he's doing a business degree...). I asked him if that's just him or if this is the culture and he said most people are like that. I don't entirely agree but I think they are doing something right. Now it was only one day I spend there so obviously it can't be a full picture, it's only a first impression.

Monument in honour of all sailors (male and female)!

 By the way, you are probably aware that it's the end of November and we're building up to Christmas! Well it's the same here only that they are transitioning from spring to summer, so you see all the decorations and people in flip flops and t-shirts. I saw a guy coming from the beach holding a bag with Santa and Ho Ho Ho written on. Here it's normal of course, but to me it looked like a dude in July holding a Christmas bag :p

I should say that the healthy lifestyle here is taken to a whole new level, and smoking is forbidden almost anywhere, even if it is outdoors. Bars and cafes don't allow smoking anywhere near their premises, but more bizarrely the city centre where all the shopping malls are and the streets are pedestrianised have non-smoking signs everywhere!

Yesterday I made my way to Fremantle where I met up with some of the people that will be on the cruise with me. I know a couple of people already but there will be a huge bunch of us and I don't know them, but I'll have many weeks to meet them. So, without wanting to be antisocial, I did not spend the day with them today. Instead I met with an old friend, a dear friend, that moved to Perth about 10 years ago and whom I haven't seen in some 9 years. Steve and I were office-mates during our PhD's in Southampton, from start to finish, 4 years of listening to each other and supporting each other. That bond doesn't go away, and we never lost touch, we've been emailing each other trying to catch up every so often. I finally made it to Perth so of course we've been planning to meet ever since I found our I was coming. He picked me up this morning and took me to the most amazing places along the north coast from Perth. I got to dip my feet in the Indian Ocean, saw all the shark fences as there are a lot of great white attacks here (so no I didn't swim mum) and then we went to a national park called Yanchep where I saw koalas and kangaroos! I saw koalas and kangaroos!!!!! I actually saw koalas and kangaroos!!!
See if you can find them! I couldn't see them at first, Steve had to work hard to get me to see them!

But he was a lot easier to spot, no zoom, we were really that close! Go any closer though and he can kick you so hard you'd end up in the hospital! 

After that we went to Lancelin, where there is a sea of giant dunes. It was windy as well and sand got everywhere! I think I'll be washing sand out of my ears for days! It was emotional to see Steve and we just kept staring at each other and saying "I can't believe you're here" and "I can't believe I'm here". For him it must be even weirder cause it's his home and my image doesn't quite fit here, so we just stared at each other and hugged. Saying goodbye is difficult. I hope it's not another 10 years until I see him again, but even if it is, with some people it doesn't how long a time passes it's like you never parted. And I'll leave it at that because I'm getting emotional.

Climbing the dune!

Tomorrow they're taking us to our new home, the ship. She arrived this morning after having done a 2-month cruise in the southwest of Australia. The current scientific party will be saying their goodbyes tomorrow as we swap. It looked a little bit choppy out there today so I expect some seasickness, but we're not sailing until Friday!

That's it for now, talk to you soon! Oh and feel free to leave comments and questions.