Well hello there. Over the next three months I'm going to be going from Japan to Australia and New Zealand... via 2 months spent on a big boat in the North Pacific. I'm part of the scientific team for IODP Expedition 324, which aims to sample deep basement rocks from a giant underwater volcanic-plateau called 'Shatsky Rise'. Should you be interested, you can follow what I'm up to here...

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Astronaut vs Samurai

It's the celebrity death match of the year.

East vs West
Past vs Future
Cardboard Vs Foam

Who will wins this battle of the titans?

Astronaut is winner!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

A dirty Pollywog no more

Avast ye landlubbers!

We be sailing past the first land, us salty shellbacks have clapped our weary eyes upon for many a month.

Pinipel and Barahun off the port side, with New Britain, that tropical beauty most rare, off the starboard bow!

I did indeed espy a lone salty coconut floating past this fine ship this very morn, perchance a wee umbrella and yella straw protruding from its hairy side.
A pina colada I did crave.

Townsville, that most salubrious and welcoming of ports, does await us within the week...
We be hoping they be keeping their beer cold and their menfolk hot, in anticipation of this great vessel's imminent arrival. Onwards, to Townsville!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Meet you in the middle

On a slightly less high-brow philosophical note; we're about to cross the equator and I'm really starting to wish I wasn't a lowly Pollywog...

By way of explanation, over the last week or so posters have started to appear in the hallways with overtones which range from the jovial:

(Our esteemed (and usually very pleasant and genial) captain pictured to the left

to the downright sinister:

Apparently it's a big deal crossing the equator at sea for the first time, and there seems to be this whole horrific initiation thing-doubtless inherited from old naval traditions- planned for Wednesday, where all the newbies are made to "pay due homage to King Neptune".
Until you cross you're known as a (lowly, pathetic, useless, squirming etc etc) "Pollywog", before hopefully being accepted into the order of the (mighty, all powerful, worshipful) "Shellbacks", after your ordeal.

Seriously guys, when you're at sea you've gotta amuse yourself somehow!

This is a pretty big event-week actually. We've got crossing day on Wednesday and Hallowe'en on Sunday, which is also incidentally Julie's 30th birthday.
Some of the yanks have been thinking about their costumes for months. I'm taking the more British approach of hmm-what-have-i-got-in-my-wardrobe-that's-clean-hmm-nothing-ok-i'll-just-wrap-myself-in-tin-foil-and-go-as-a-baked-potato-then.

So, yeah anyway, could get messy.

See you on the other side...


p.s. I've made it pretty clear that If anyone so much as looks at my hair with a sideways glance and a pair of clippers, I'll be throwing the first punch. Hopefully this has not drawn undue attention to me which..would...be......bad........oh dear...

Friday, 23 October 2009

A thousand million twinkling lights

You’ve never seen stars like it.
I’ve never seen stars like it.
It’s breathtaking.

We switched off most of the lights onboard for the transit, plunging the boat into inky blackness at night for the first time.
The whole sky from unseen watery horizon to horizon was a black sphere, stretching up infinitely into the cosmos, peppered with the glowing orbs of the brightest stars.
At first, just the familiar ones you occasionally see through the orange-stain of the city back home; The Plough, Orion’s belt, Cassiopeia and so on. But as your eyes adjust to the gloom and you stare ever deeper into the blackness, your familiar friends are joined by more and more points of light, appearing as if they were winking into existence for the very first time tonight.
Until the whole sky is aglow with them.

In the city, or most other places on land I’ve ever been, there’s just too much light-pollution to appreciate that stars have a unique shine of their own.
“Starlight” is just a trite expression without meaning.
But they really do glow.
On a dark, moonless night in the Pacific, you can start to pick out the top of the white-capped waves and the faintest hint of storm clouds in the far distance by the starlight alone. The heavens appearing to rock gently back and forth above you, until you grasp that it's not the sky moving but the boat riding the Ocean swell beneath you.

And every once in a while, a shooting star will streak across the sky leaving a trail of white burned on your retina.
A glorious final hurrah for a little piece of space rock, having spent an eternity spinning alone through the solar system before disappearing in a blaze of transient glory in our atmosphere.

As if I didn’t already feel tiny and insignificant enough floating in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, for the first time -peering into the depths of our Galaxy, which is after all, only one of millions of galaxies in the Universe- I realised how much we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Lord knows I’m not a religious person, but that was pretty transcendental.
I guess night-shift has its perks after all...


Sunday, 18 October 2009

Flora and fauna

The JR seems to have turned into a giant biological snowball, picking up cute little hitchhikers on its way south.

You've got to remember that apart from the occasional fishing boat or container ship, we’re the only solid thing within a 1500 mile radius out here, so we attract anything that’s looking for a meal or is too horribly lost and exhausted to fly any further.

Because we stay in the same spot for a few days while we’re drilling we become something of a transient atoll, offering food, shelter and (probably) entertainment to the many denizens of the Pacific we pass on our way. We throw our food leftovers overboard (after very carefully extracting all of the burnables/recyclables/anything not biodegradable or edible) which attracts lots of little fish looking for shelter and a quick snack.

Unfortunately for the little fish, word soon gets out about the bonanza and predatory Mahi Mahi are swiftly on the scene looking for a light meal… These guys are really cool looking though; up to a metre long, bluey green with electric-blue side fins and faces like a caved-in whale.

They’re hard to photograph well from the ship (this one was taken by Amber), but I’ll try and get a photo if one “commits suicide” and throws itself onto the deck, (fishing isn’t allowed on the JR in case one of the lines gets tangled in the propellers or the drill string…).

I feel sorry for the little flying fish, it seems like everybody wants to eat the poor things -in fact I’ll admit to being one of them. I’ve seen both Mahi Mahi and orange squid chasing them down and devouring them whole during my daily 2.30am fresh-air break from the lab.

We’ve had a permanent gang of big ocean-going birds circling the boat from the get-go. Huge brown things with razor sharp wings, gliding effortless just above the water. They get really active just as the sun’s coming up, swooping up and down in the pink glow as if to say “we made it through another night. Boo yeah!”

We also have our regular little visitors; the ever so cute but ever so stupid Storm Petrels.
These little guys are ocean-going too so they should be out here in the middle of the ocean I suppose, but unfortunately they seem to have a problem understanding that the JR is made of metal and is therefore quite hard
They regularly crash-land onto the deck at night, then sort of flollop about on their spindly little legs until someone take pity on them and throws them back overboard.

I found this little guy the other night looking truly pathetic, wobbling about on the smoking deck. So I picked him up, took him to the edge and threw him into the air (probably whilst yelling “fly my pretty, fly!” if I know myself at all).
Obviously about 6 seconds later, the wretched little thing did a full 180, swerved back towards the light, thumped into a wall and slid back down onto the deck.

So I tucked him up in the corner and left him to work it out by himself.
I ain’t no Florence Nightingale.

On a more cheerful note, apart from being a petrel-graveyard we’re also a floating oasis for any unfortunate passing land-creatures that really, really shouldn’t be out here. In our second week we even had a group of about 10 giant brown dragonflies, that surely belong in someone's pond and not out here in the big blue sea?

Our cutest little stowaways were blown in last week when we had a spot of bad weather though...
We were working away in the lab on the night shift, wind and rain howling all around, when there was this imperceptible little tap at the window.

Closer inspection revealed this poor bedraggled little ball of fluff looking through the window with some kind of workhouse-orphan-please-sir-may-i-have-some-more expression.


Even this grizzled old sea-dog’s heart was touched.

We discovered that there’s actually a flock of 10 of these little finches living on the boat now. Hoping around amidst the drilling equipment and the cargo boxes. If you sit on the top deck on a sunny day and squint a little bit, you can almost convince yourself you’re in a park.

I sort of imagine they’re like the characters from Lost. Crash landed onto a strange foreign island full of exotic beasts and uncomfortable social situations. Having to form a new society out of the ashes of the old one.

I think I might be cracking up actually.

Anyway, we also picked up a more spectacular guest the other day; some kind of big-ass heron!
You know, the tall spindly things you’d see standing in the Serpentine looking for little fishes in the shallows. Well that poor chap really shouldn’t be out here. Sure he’s got long legs but they’re definitely not 3600m long...

My sympathy dwindled somewhat when someone told me he’d found a source of food after all…. The little finches!
Poor little guys.
Survived the storm and the epic journey across the ocean, only to be laid low by a giant heron on a drilling boat. What are the odds? (This story get’s more Lost-like, the more I think about it actually. Hmm.)
So anyway we’re down to a flock of 7 and counting now.

Hopefully there’ll still be enough left on board once we get to Australia to start a new colony and cause an ecological disaster of biblical proportions.

If anyone asks… it was wasn’t us ok.


Friday, 16 October 2009

Over the hump and out of the grump

Ahoy shipmates!

It’s 3am on a Friday night. Perfect time for a quick blog!

-My last beer in Yokohama. It was so cold there were actually beautiful, tiny, ice crystals beginning to form in it… sigh.

We had our “hump day” party two weeks ago to mark getting over the mid-way “hump” of the expedition. (As someone, rather ambiguously, stated at the time: “It’s all downhill from here!” -which I guess you could interpret one of two ways).
It was actually really good fun and a chance to let off some steam.

Fyi I joined this party at 12.30am; 45 minutes after waking up for the day and 15 minutes after eating my “morning” muesli.
So to put this in context, it was a bit like rolling out of bed at 7.45am, eating breakfast at 8.15am and by 8.30am being at your office, stone-cold-sober, throwing shapes to Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys, and not stopping until 12.30pm… when you had to go back to work.
Interesting experience.

It’s the 6th week of the expedition now and we’re currently finishing up drilling at our very last site (Site U1350, on Ori Massif, Central High of Shatsky Rise - should you be terribly concerned by the details), where operations are supposed to stop for good in about 3 days time.

The first three sites had plenty of interesting sediments, which didn’t please the igneous guys all that much, but certainly kept the three little sedimentologists busy…

Basically my life has been reduced to this:

Laptop full of unfinished work: check.
Plastic tumbler full of super-sweet American cereal to get me through the night: check.

Then there’s the fact that in three days time “we turn into a carnival cruise liner!” (as our eminent chief scientist put it) with the beginning of our 2 week transit to Australia.
Wooooooo hoooooo!!

Hopefully this will be an opportunity for some. Much. Needed. Rest. And. Relaxation.

So I’m hoping there'll be time for hanging out with these guys:

And time for some of this:

-initial enthusiasm about life on the ocean waves during the transit, (all well and good until i realised i was lounging about 1m away from the massive radiation source that is the satellite uplink pod. doh).

and a chance to see some of these:

- a whale!

and more of this:

and less of these:

-even though some of them are really pretty…

So, wish me luck on the final push.