Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

Or the story of how engineering trumps science – big time

Writing this I am surrounded by Borgen Bay a landscape similar to what I imagine the fairy land of Terry Pratchetts queen of the elfs to look like. Glaciers softly sloping down to a mirror like sea sprinkled with icebergs and the stark whiteness of the land interrupted by the foreboding black ridges of an incredible high mountain range. Constant changes in light and weather combined with the incredible brightness of this place, play with your ability to perceive distance and size and constantly add new features to these strange and new surroundings. We sailed into the bay on a foggy and gloomy day causing a very eerie feeling as suddenly shifting windows in the fog revealed this new environment by bit, yet closed just as quickly as soon as the ship had moved past.

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Borgen Bay on arrival

We have fared considerably further south making the difference between Marion Cove on the tip of the peninsula (Banana belt!) and Borgen Bay clearly perceptible and I am starting to get an idea of what life for the next 18 months will look like. My friends and colleagues are also getting a view on what their next 18 months might be like…a Desha shaped hole at Christmas, on JCR and in Cambridge..)

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Face of glacier in Borgen Bay

We had left Marion Cove victorious 20h earlier and ahead of time having managed to complete all our sampling stations. However half way through our time there this did not seem likely let alone possible. This was mainly owing to one major piece of equipment failing – the multicorer from hell! During the cruise several major pieces of equipment are being deployed (e.g. Grabs – to take sediment and specimen samples from the bottom or CTDs to take water samples at different depth levels), each generally coming with their own dedicated team whose projects are centred around these specific type of samples. The main reason I was asked on this voyage was to provide a helping hand to the multicorer team. Generally, the multicorer is an ingenious piece of equipment featuring 12 (not any more!) hollow tubes (cores) set around two pieces of weight. When lowered to the seabed the weight will drive the cores into the sediment which will trigger the release of a catch causing the top of the cores to be closed, creating a vaccum within the cores which allows for the extraction of the sediment. Once the multicorer gets lifted up from the seabed another catch is released closing the cores on the bottom, allowing them to be safely returned throughout the water column to the ship. Just a bit of a shame if that trigger doesn’t work and all you get are empty cores that might have contained mud (repeatedly all fecking night long).

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Multicorer – in all its glory – being deployed. Photo Credit: K. Retallick

Because operating a ship in Antarctica is tremendously expensive, science time on board is precious and whenever we reach a sampling station, scientists work around the clock in shifts – having 24h of daylight means the transition between days becomes very quickly very blurred during these times and the only way to distinguish between both seems to be the abundance or lack of food. Multicoring fell within the graveyard shift. So after dinner at 8 o’clock I got ready for my first real science gig in Antarctica throwing on my sparkling brand new and very orange waterproofs and hard hat. Tumbling over each other like excited puppies under the supervision of a very patient engineer we got the multicorer ready for its first deployment. We were full of anticipation when it came back out of the water, the lab team ready to extract the mud cores and slice samples for various different projects into containers, and slightly underwhelmed when realising we only got three cores from this deployment (we need 15 each from a total of 5 stations). No matter however, we were all still full of energy and got the engineer on the case to have a quick look at why the closing mechanism didn’t trigger for some cores. Full of confidence that everything is fixable and was fixed the multicorer was cleaned and redeployed only to come up with absolutely no mud cores whatsoever, not even a teeny tiny one, nada. Clearly not having learned our lesson we continued our quest for mud with a constantly low success rate throughout the night. The multicorer seemed to sense the general shift in mood and whenever we were close to giving up would tease us with a full core or two, and like the fools we are we took this as a sign that things had arbitrarily turned around (yes even scientist find it hard to be reasonable when they really, really want something to happen). At 3 o’clock in the morning, when tiredness and disappointment had kicked in our engineer stepped in for some serious fixing. While he worked away, rounds of tea were brought around and the inexplicably muddy (where did it come from with all this lack of mud?) Aftdeck was cleaned. The rollercoaster of hope soared high as the multicorer successfully triggered on a dry run only to plunge into depths of despair when it –again – came up absolutely, completely empty after re-deployment. By this time we had used up all our allocated time for the night and there was nothing left to do but to go to sleep, dreaming of better days and leaving our engineer, who must have been almost crushed by the weight of our dreams and hopes we had pinned on him, to try and work out the problem.

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Short moments of rest during science time

Work on the devil’s own torture device continued and by the arrival of the second night the engineers declared that they thought there is a 50 % chance of it working. However, the first multicore was to go to a different team and it is remarkable how testy people can get over the potential of receiving a few slabs of mud (myself very much included). So when we got ready to deploy the multicorer the whole team assembled. Watching it come back up from the deep – the tension was palpable and was broken by an incredible cheer when we realised we had got 6 tubes of fresh, brilliant Antarctic mud. Having to give these precious cores away was difficult but we were sure the vicious circle was broken and we would just get the next ones. The multicorer – instrument of the demons, however, had different plans! As if exhausted from the effort of producing 6 good cores, it then proceeded to fail every single deployment. Very much aware that the definition of crazy is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome, we couldn’t help ourselves but do exactly that – surprisingly enough we were not successful. By 4 o’clock in the morning most of the team was asleep in the coffee room and again it was time to call it. We went to sleep knowing that we had failed and since we were leaving the next day that we would not get our samples.

I woke up the following morning feeling a bit dejected but, knowing that I will have no work to do during the day, decided to have a leisurely morning taking my time to get ready. As soon as I stepped out my cabin looking for my first jolt of peppermint tea I got confronted with a picture of the morning team holding fresh mud cores which, in a considerate, collegial manner, had been left in front of my door. Not believing my own eyes, I gave up every thought of minty refreshment and immediately went downstairs to the wet-lab. Here the early risers of the multicore team where assembled working away on the samples taken this morning. Our engineer – true polar hero that he is – had called the people responsible for producing this mechanical manifestation of pure evil (must have been costing quite a bit to ring Hell from Antarctica), while we were asleep and after having made clear to them that he is not just dabbling in engineering they came up with a workable solution (basically removing the over-engineered black heart of the multicorer).

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Morning team with all of the mud. Photo credit: K. Retallick

After this successful exorcism the multicorer is now reliably producing mud cores to our hearts content. This meant we had 6 hours to complete all the sampling we were meant to do during two 6-hour shifts. However, this is when the beauty of working within a team becomes apparent. All scientists assembled and came to help, crew members, including the captain rallied and facilitated us as much as was humanly possible. The winch lifting the multicorer never stood still, cores filled with mud were constantly brought to the lab, and the lab itself was a blur of orange (Scientist wearing PPE)

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A buzzing wet lab

and bit by bit every core was processed and all the sampling stations completed. While finishing the last core the James Clark Ross headed for the open sea, leaving Marion Cove behind and leaving us, covered in mud but very content and looking forward to a massive glass of wine!

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A very happy and tired Cambridge/Rothera team. Photo Credit: D. Goodger

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