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All aboard

Gould makes countless crossings of Drake Passage in support of science


The dreaded Drake Passage was more like "Drake Lake" during an ocean transit that crossed from the old decade into a new one.

The ARSV Laurence M. Gould steamed its way on nearly becalmed waters for four days between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. The middle two days of the crossing are infamously rough because of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the world’s largest ocean current, which circles the continent completely unimpeded by land.

That unimpeded flow — combined with strong winds and various currents — helps produce some of the nastiest weather conditions on the planet if you find yourself rounding South America’s Cape Horn by sea in either direction. Sea swells of 20 feet are not uncommon. Forty-foot seas are not unheard of.

But crossing the Drake from Punta Arenas, Chile, is often a necessary evil for scientists who study the ecosystem along the Antarctic Peninsula.

In this case, the ship carried a full complement of scientists who work on one of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s most prestigious programs — the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Project (PAL LTER). The scientists have compiled a nearly 20-year record of the region’s climate, one of the fastest evolving in terms of warming and ecology. 

The early January crossing of the Drake was one of the smoothest Capt. Joe Abshire has experienced over the last five years he’s been aboard the research vessel, which the National Science Foundation (NSF) contracts to support scientific work here.

Abshire, a stick-thin and amiable man who comfortably chats with the scientists aboard his vessel, left a previous captain position to serve on the Gould. It took him three years to rise from third mate to his current position.

“It’s a nice job and it’s a unique job, and it’s one of the very few icebreakers in the world that’s privately owned,” he said of why he jumped ship in the Gulf of Mexico captaining oil supply vessels to work on the Gould.  

Many of the crew consider the Gould one of the plumiest assignments for Edison Chouest Offshore, Inc., which built the 230-foot-long, ice-strengthened ship in 1997. Third Mate Jerry Hoff is a captain in his own right who canceled his trip home to Chicago from the Gulf on Christmas Eve for a chance to serve aboard the ship.

“It’s a milestone for me,” Hoff said while staring down a few icebergs on the horizon. “It’s a chance of a lifetime.”

The workhorse of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), the Gould operates year-round. Its missions could be as simple as moving cargo and people between South America and the program’s research base at Palmer Station.

Or they could be extreme science cruises that last upwards of 60 days or more. On a recent assignment, the Gould and its 17-member crew shuttled nonstop from Palmer Station throughout the region, supporting two very different projects.

One involved Doug Nowacek, a scientist from Duke University who uses noninvasive methods to track whales in the ocean. The Gould served as one of the chase “vehicles” as the scientists deployed and recovered electronic tags from smaller Zodiac boats to study how much of the region’s shrimplike krill the humpbacks can devour in a single gulp.

It’s an important equation in the ecology of the region, as the krill are one of the keystone species in the food web, and scientists believe the humpback populations are bouncing back after whaling decimated their populations a century ago. That means there’s possibly another major predator competing the region’s limited — and possibly diminishing — food resources.

And whenever the whale scientists retired to Palmer Station, another group of researchers conducted fishing expeditions to capture Antarctic icefish for study — critters with unique characteristics that allow them to survive in the freezing waters here.

“That was an exceptionally, insanely productive cruise for Doug, but for us it was extremely difficult,” Abshire said.

“There was no down time for the vessel,” he added. “There were two separate support operations going on, with two separate agendas in two totally different areas. … [We] got it done and proved we could support two different cruises at once.”

Of course, the Gould’s crew isn’t the only team aboard the ship working 24-7.

In addition to a score of scientists or more aboard the ship this month, working 12-hour shifts, the NSF’s prime contractor, Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC), employs a half-dozen people to assist the researchers. They fix esoteric machines with bizarre acronyms for names and fabricate new pieces for instruments, such as metal frame for a net towed behind the ship that captures krill and other zooplankton in the water.

“The beginning of a cruise is very crazy for us because we have to fix or figure out how to get something running that might have been languishing in a warehouse for a year,” explained Jamee Johnson, the RPSC marine project coordinator on this cruise. The title means that she works with the NSF grantees and ship crew on the mission plan and coming up with contingencies when necessary.

“The interesting thing about working on the ships is that it’s always different. Every cruise you go out on you’re doing a different thing, depending on what scientists are studying,” said Johnson, who originally started working on fishing boats in the Northwest to help pay for college before dropping out of school and working full time in the industry.

In 2001, she went to the very landlocked interior of Antarctica to work at South Pole Station, before realizing the USAP had a marine science component. She’s now worked every PAL LTER cruise in the last eight years.

“What I really like about LTER is that this science group has worked together on this same plan and same grid for so long that they really have all of their business worked out before they get here,” she added.

Her team is a mix of veteran USAPers and recent additions to the program.

Tony D’Aoust — a rakish 44-year-old jack-of-all-trades who owns a fishing boat in Alaska — first worked in the Antarctic about 20 years ago on the Gould’s predecessor, the RV Polar Duke. He recently returned to the program’s marine department after nearly a 10-year hiatus. His job as the marine electronics technician is to figure out why part A on any given instrument isn’t playing nicely with part B.

“I have a knack for being able to trace out where the problem might be,” said D’Aoust after a marathon first 24 hours on the PAL LTER. “I make the computer talk to the instrument.”

And then there’s Chance Miller, a young marine technician — part deckhand, part machinist — who sports a tattered Popeye cap and biceps as thick as tree trunks. He’s been around the program for a short while, though has already done an eight-month stretch aboard the ship with only a brief break.

Quick with a joke, the burly Alaskan also dispenses Zen wisdom to a passenger feeling a little green around the gills as the Gould rolls in the first swells of the voyage after a two-day visit to Palmer Station.

“Just keep breathing,” he said. “Just breathe deeply.”

That’s not an easy task when you’re working nonstop on the Laurence M. Gould.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs