Saturday, September 12, 2015

So there I was

So there I was, riding on the bow of an orange zodiac, holding onto the side with all my might, racing toward the mountainous shore of a fjord. I was wearing a drysuit, but the sea still managed to sting my face with frigid saltwater every few minutes. I was happy.

My group landed on a pebble-covered beach between two rocky hills. Above the high tide line, chunks of ice the size of milk crates were haphazardly strewn about. We were surrounded by steep terrain, so after emptying the boat of all our gear, we half-loaded the polar bear rifle. Just in case. I threw a metal quadrat frame over my shoulder, adjusted the neckline of my drysuit, and followed the group leader up and over one of the cliffs.

Sampling in the Kongsfjorden intertidal. Photo by Adrian Pop.
So there I was, making my way down a marble knoll, watching the waves and trying to gauge the texture of the ground through my neoprene booties. We needed one person to brace themselves in the knee-high water and hold the quadrat in place while others cleared the 0.25 m2 area of its flora and fauna, so of course I volunteered. I smashed one foot in a pile of kelp, set the other one on the rocky slope, and set about scraping the algae. We ended up having to pull most of the algae off with our hands, since the marble cliff had perpendicular angles that refused to cooperate with our scraper. We counted barnacles. We noted the presence of kelp just below our sampling spot.

Making our way back over the marble island, we found one more spot to sample. I wasn’t the deepest-standing one this time, but I still took my fair share of waves. When it came time to measure the width of the intertidal, I scooted as far down the slope as I dared, flung the end of the transect tape toward the nearest kelp, and yelled at my partners up-slope to measure quickly. I heard an “OK!” from behind me, pulled up the tape, and gathered my feet, just as a wave washed over my lap.

So there I was, gear in a pile, sampling complete, sipping warm water on the pebble beach and silently thanking the man who invented drysuits. We watched as the boat driver made circles in the fjord and his two remaining passengers fiddled with gear. We had some time, so we donned hoods, gloves, masks, and flippers, and decided to go for a snorkel.

Taking a break on the icy beach. Photo by Adrian Pop.
So there I was, face-down in frigid water, reminding myself to breathe through my mouth. I could feel a little water seeping in at my wrist, but honestly, it wasn’t as cold as I had expected. I was too busy watching the kelp, watching it sway back and forth in the waves. It leaned one way, and I could see a colony of hydroids underneath. It leaned the other way, and my view was filled with calcareous red algae. My head was barely even below the surface, but my mind was in a completely different world. Underwater, everything was calm, even lazy. I could feel cold water climbing up my arm, so I started swimming back to the beach. My companions followed, and a few minutes later, we were loading the boat again, heading back to the ship.

So there I was, feeling like a soggy marshmallow woman, embracing the wind on my face and the taste of salt in my mouth. As we approached the ship, we disturbed a flock of fulmars, and they flew all around and above our boat. Then we drew closer, and we could see the faint line of a fishing pole protruding from the side of the hull. Yes, another scientist was fishing, and I couldn't help but smile at his chosen pastime. Life is good at 79° N.

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