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Two helicopters in a ship hangar.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Two Bell helicopters operated by PHI, Inc., are secured in a hangar aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer. This is only the second time in the ship's history that helicopters have operated from the vessel, which launched in 1992.

Setting sail

USAP science vessels prepare to leave on major expeditions

PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE — Visitors to Chile’s southernmost city are greeted by Punta Arenas’ famed blustery winds even before they reach the ground, as approaching airplanes rock back and forth like a baby’s cradle before a heavy landing on the runway.

A shipboard crane moves cargo onto the Gould.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A shipboard crane moves cargo onto the Gould.
People examine cargo aboard the Palmer.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Maria Vernet, Al Hickey and Mattias Cape, from bottom left clockwise, examine a boxed-up robot aboard the Palmer that is used for underwater exploration.
Dock worker waits to load food.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
An AGUNSA employee waits to load stacks of food aboard the Gould.

It’s summer time here in Punta Arenas, which means overcast skies and blustery winds. It’s also one of the busiest times of the year for the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site marine operations.

Both the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer and ARSV Laurence M. Gould External U.S. government site are parked at one of the port city’s piers, bow to stern. Men in hard hats work shipboard cranes ceaselessly to move cargo off the dock and onto the ships. The Gould is about two days from sailing as of Dec. 27, and stacks of food boxes sit on the dock on its starboard side.

The ship is preparing for its 18th cruise in support of the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research External Non-U.S. government site project, a 38-day oceanographic expedition to observe the ecological conditions along the west Antarctic Peninsula. It will sail a grid pattern 700 kilometers north to south and about 200 kilometers wide — an area undergoing rapid evolution from climate change.

The Palmer will be on the other side of the continent for a two-month cruise to explore the remains of the Larsen B Ice Shelf and the ecosystem that was uncovered when the ice shelf collapsed in 2002. The project is called the LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica.External Non-U.S. government site [See previous articles on the LARISSA project.]

The vessel will be at maximum capacity with 70 scientists, crew and support personnel. The deck is crowded with boxes of science cargo, including a remotely operated vehicle — a robot outfitted with various instruments to explore the cold, polar ocean — which its Belgian operators are now assembling and preparing near the stern.

Nearby, personnel secure two bee-colored helicopters squeezed into a hangar. This will be the first time in more than 10 years — and only the second time in the ship’s history — since scientists have used helicopters off the Palmer. The last time was during 1996-98 for the

Antarctic Environment and Southern Ocean Process Study (AESOPS), part of a larger effort to measure global ocean processes.

For LARISSA, the helicopters will fly scientists to sites on the ice shelf to install specially designed instruments to monitor the environment. They will also transport geologists to the peninsula for collecting rocks to help date the retreat of ice in the region.

Built in the early 1990s, the Bell helicopters look shiny new in their yellow and black paint, with thick chains and rope securing every conceivable point.

A view of the Gould and pier from the Palmer.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A view of the pier and Gould from the Palmer. At left is the RRS James Cook, a British Royal Research Ship.
Punta Arenas at twilight.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Twilight comes late to the southern city of Punta Arenas, about 10:30 p.m. or so at night.

One has been recently furbished, a three-month job that stripped the rotary aircraft to the bare bones, according to Randy Perrodin, a line mechanic with PHI, Inc. External Non-U.S. government site, the company contracted with the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site for helicopter services. The company operates several helicopters each austral summer at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site on the other side of the continent.

PHI personnel disassembled and shipped both helicopters from the United States in early October to ensure they would be in Punta Arenas before the Palmer sails on Jan. 2.

“We didn’t want to take any chances,” Perrodin said.

The NSF and the scientists have invested much time and money into the LARISSA program, an International Polar Year (IPY) External U.S. government site project originally scheduled to take place a year earlier. The IPY, a multinational science campaign focusing on research at the poles, officially ended in March 2009 but several larger projects like LARISSA are still ongoing.

Capt. Joe Borkowski, a bear of a Louisianan, said the Palmer has sailed in support of projects of similar magnitude over the years. He should know: Borkowski has been with the Palmer since it launched in 1992.

“It’s going to be a good one,” he said of the upcoming voyage.

But first, both ships must cross the Drake Passage, an infamously rough stretch of sea between the tips of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. At last report, on Dec. 29, the Drake was roaring and thrashing with 60-foot seas. 

Rather makes the plane ride into Punta Arenas sound like child’s play.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs