Mr. Fix It

In Antarctica there are many challenges that we face daily working on a ship, and in our case on a ship thousands of miles from the closest port and from our suppliers and labs. We work with what we bring, and if something does not make it to the ship or if something breaks while at sea, we try to be prepared with back-up parts. But it seems that we are able to continuously prove Murphy's Law and have items breaking and missing in numbers just more than the number of spares we carry, despite the care we take in trying to avoid and prevent such incidents.

Most of our break-downs are caused by the extremely harsh environment. We are now cruising in waters that are 90% ice covered, and the water that we analyze and that runs through our instruments has a temperature of 2° below the fresh water freezing point; furthermore, air temperature is -15°C and the wind chill gets to -40°C.

We often have problems with the electronic instruments that we deploy, and because of this we keep the two electronic technicians (ETs) on board, Sheldon Blakman and Victor Shen, very busy. It is amazing what these guys can do. In the past week they fixed the ship's antenna that receives satellite data for sea-surface temperature, ocean color, and ice distribution. They rebuilt battery packs for our instruments, they fixed—twice— the ship's gravitometer, and custom-built several cables to get some of our instruments to communicate with others and get power from the ship profiler. They comfortably opened and fixed several of our instruments without ever having worked on them before. Two of our sensors, a Fast Repetition Rate Fluorometer (FRRF) and a optical nitrate sensor (ISUS), needed to be mounted on the ship's water profiler system, and together we tried several configurations and spent significant amounts of time changing and tweaking the way we could get the instruments powered by the profiler and also to communicate with each other.

The fun part to me is the need to continuously improvise building and fixing our gear. On the ship there is a well-furnished carpentry and mechanical shop as well. These are run by the Marine Technicians (MTs), David Green, Jamee Johnson and Ben McKee. They are all experienced sailors and very accomplished in the arts of carpentry, welding, and mechanics. They can build almost anything out of whatever material is available on board. For the present cruise they built and or modified some of our incubators, shelving to latch down our glass water traps, and special cages and cradles to secure our instruments to the ship profiler.

Part of my job, and one of the aspects that keeps me happy pursuing this career, is the need to constantly try to solve problems, both scientific and technical. Endlessly facing challenges, and periodically succeeding, in addressing scientific questions and the logistical problems encountered in the quest give me great satisfaction, and the process, while often frustrating, is also often extremely rewarding.