Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Labasa Install – 27 October

As soon as we arrived back in Suva, it was time to pack up for our trip the next morning to Labasa, a city in the northern part of Vanua Levu (the second largest island of Fiji). Compared to the Twin Otter, the plane we flew on to Vanua Levu was much larger – with something like 15 rows and 4 seats across. As soon as we arrived in Labasa, a relative of one of our colleagues in Suva brought us out to the place where we would install the station. The site is pretty far outside the city down a series of gravel and dirt roads, on land where kava is grown.

We had a large number of helpers – friends and family from the nearby village – so the installation went very quickly. Once again, our station has a great view of the surrounding hills. Because we had plenty of time at the end of the day, we were treated to another fantastic home-cooked meal at the family’s house and a couple of bowls of kava before we headed back into the city to our hotel.

Taveuni Install – 25 October

After a week of waiting for equipment, we finally installed our first seismometer at Taveuni, “the garden island” north of Viti Levu (the main island) and east of Vanua Levu (the second largest island). The flight we took to Taveuni was on a Twin Otter, which was the smallest plane I had ever been on. It was so small, we almost didn't get all of our equipment onto the plane. We flew at only about 6,000 feet and had a great view of the ocean and reef below us.

When we arrived at the island, we installed our temporary (broadband) station right next to a permanent (short period) station on government land. Having the station on government property next to an already installed station provides a little extra security for our equipment – the people who live there can keep an eye on the site. The only drawback to the installation was the large boulders of volcanic rock that we had to remove as we dug holes for the sensor and for the solar panel mounts. When we finished, we realized that the station we installed had a fantastic view of the ocean from the hill where we buried it.
Following the work, we were treated to a fantastic home-cooked meal: fish in coconut sauce, eggplant, taro and salad at the rest-house where we stayed. Later that night, we had a few bowls of kava with our very friendly host and some of his friends. From what I did see, the island is lush and very beautiful – lots of coconut and papaya trees. Unfortunately, we were not able to stay on Taveuni for very long – our flight was at 8 am the next morning.

The Components of a Seismic Station

Each of our stations require a seismometer which responds to vibrations in the Earth, a data-logger which turns the motion into a digital record and stores it onto a disk, a large battery to provide power to the equipment, and a solar panel to recharge the battery. If any of those components fail, then the station cannot continue to record data. So prior to traveling to the station sites, we test the equipment to make sure that it is working properly. In the field, the true challenge is doing everything quickly enough to finish before dark. Typically a temporary station like the ones we are building takes about 3 hours to complete – but frequently hang-ups occur (for instance - finicky equipment, rocky ground, broken tools, and bad weather are common problems we encounter).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

18 October

Today is our first day off in Fiji. We are still waiting for the instruments we shipped to get out of customs. During the past couple days, we drove all around Suva to buy hardware and other supplies. We also began to prepare the wooden mounts we will use for the stations' solar panels. Due to the original delay with our trans-Pacific flight and the delay in obtaining the seismometers due to public holidays here in Fiji, it seems as if the start of our (already) tight schedule will be pushed back by three days. Hopefully, we will still be able to install the nine seismometers on the islands within the remaining week and a half.

Despite the unfortunate set-backs, I am very much enjoying my first few days here. One of the highlights so far is 'Diwali' – the Indian festival of lights – on Saturday October 17th. From an outsider's perspective, this holiday has taught me that all people – no matter where they live – love fireworks. As I watched the fireworks being set off all around the city of Suva from the balcony of my hotel, I was reminded of my most recent 4th of July – spent in Great Falls, Montana. The only difference is that here I watched the fireworks explode over palm trees instead of rocks and dirt.

I am also really enjoying the food here in Fiji. I have big plans to eat as much fresh fish as I can before I go home to middle part of the country. For last night's dinner, we ate at the floating restaurant in the harbor. This was a real treat with the tasty selection of fresh fish and the perfect evening breeze coming in off of the water. As an added bonus, we enjoyed our meals while rocking back and forth on the water (just like old times). I tried kokoda, which a type of salad with tomatoes and walu (fish). Even though 'fish' doesn't normally spring to mind when I think 'salad', I will have to make sure that I get to eat kokoda at least once more before I leave Fiji – it was very tasty. Today, we went for a stroll through the garden park and the waterfront near the old Parliament building in Suva. We weren't the only ones taking advantage of the fabulous weather. A number of families, soccer players, pigeons and stray dogs were all hanging out there with us. Hope you enjoy the pictures, more to come later...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Celebrating the Sunsets

Due to popular demand, I've decided to put up a collection of my sunset pictures. About 1 hour before the sun sinks below the horizon, a small group of boat-dwellers and marine mammal personnel gather up on the whale-watching tower and enjoy the cool breeze of early evening. Most days, the sky is filled with puffy white clouds, which reflect beautiful shades of pink and orange as the sun disappears behind the ocean.

On the clear days, we wait in anticipation hoping to catch the flash of green just as the sun sets. I haven't seen the flash yet, although I have seen a faint green halo around the sun as it began to set. A couple of the guys claim that they saw this elusive flash a few days ago; and of course, they then tried to make us all horribly jealous. Although the sunrises I saw were beautiful, I think that I like the sunsets even better. I hope you enjoy the pictures!

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Night Sky

Since the moon isn't full anymore, the rest of the night sky is absolutely brilliant. On a clear night, there are thousands of stars littered across the sky. In the past week, I've seen some of the most amazing night skies of my life.

Since I switched from the night shift to the day shift, I was able to see the planet of Venus sinking to the west, an hour or so after sunset (~8-9 pm). Venus is only ever visible in the night sky just after sunset or just before sunrise, because it's closer to the sun than the Earth is. Unfortunately, the only time I was able to get a picture of it with my camera was shortly after sunset; compared to the sun, it is quite dim. This picture is from February 21st, and Venus is the dot in the top right of the picture (you have to look very hard to see it).

At first, the southern sky was so foreign to me that I didn't recognize any of the stars except those in the constellations of Orion and Canis Major - which can also be seen in the northern sky. But after some help from the guys on the bridge (and a neat navigation program on their computer), I've finally seen the Southern Cross that everyone mentions. Some other familiar favorites are the Pleiades, and the Big Dipper. I didn't even think that I would be able to see the Big Dipper in the southern hemisphere, but early in the morning, part of it is visible just above the northern horizon.

It really isn't easy to pick out constellations, because there are thousands of stars in the sky. After a while, I became content to just lay on the picnic table on the deck or on the ropes in front of the bridge and watch the stars sway back and forth with the rocking boat. With a cool breeze and the sound of the waves crashing against the bow, it's quite possibly the best way to end the day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Perfect Sunrises

One of the best parts about working from midnight to noon is that I have many chances to catch the sunrise. I think I have watched more sunrises in the past 3 weeks than I've seen in my entire life. And, as long as the sky isn't completely overcast, every sunrise is absolutely perfect. My favorite place to watch them is on the small piece of deck in front of the bridge, just behind the bow. A bunch of large, coiled ropes provide a pretty comfy seat, and the cool, humid breeze coming up over the bow is the best. If I wasn't so eager to watch the sun come up, I probably could take a pretty nice nap there.
I hope you enjoy these - I certainly did!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Arc Welding

I learned arc-welding from some of the guys on the boat (Bern and Brian)! They made me wear a really nasty leather coat, huge leather gloves, and of course the large welding mask. Despite all of this protective gear, a spark still burned a perfectly round hole in my shoe, which I discovered the next day. As a souvenir, I welded my name onto a steel plate. In order to make it actually look good (ha!), Brian rounded the edges of the plate and then polished it up really nicely. I now have a 2 pound steel plate that I need to fit into my max 50 lb. baggage somehow on the way home!
I really enjoyed learning how to weld, and I wish there was more scraps of steel around that I could ruin!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cyclone "Hettie"

We are in the southern hemisphere, so we are in the middle of their tropical storm season. As I mentioned, we managed to finish deploying the seismometers just as the waters were starting to get choppy. I was pretty alarmed when there was a cyclone warning issued for all the Tongan Islands and Fiji - this being my first ever tropical storm ever. Luckily the storm wasn't large, and it didn't actually reach cyclone status until well to the south of us. Besides the rocking of the boat and the fact that we couldn't start the air-guns until the seas became calmer, the whole ordeal wasn't bad at all; in fact, it was sort of fun.

While out on deck earlier with the OBSs, I was able to experience waves crashing over the side of the boat and drenching us; that was fun and exciting. Also, I've never had the experience of feeling like I was going to get tossed out of bed. It's like having a dream about falling, except when you wake up, you realize that the bed actually is falling out from beneath you. The bouncing up and down of the boat felt a lot like a trampoline, and it was my favorite part of the weather. My second favorite part was the crazy rolling of the boat (tipping from side to side). I suppose it really isn't cool for all the belongings on your desk to get thrown onto the floor; but for me, it was pretty exciting. In close third was the weird combination of pitch and roll, which suddenly gives the spinning-room sensation - so far, this brought me the closest to losing my lunch. Unfortunately, the seas became choppy before we were entirely used to being on a boat in the first place, so most people had difficulty sleeping and some became sick. Now that it's all over, and we're no longer sleep-deprived and crabby, I'm going to go ahead and say that the whole ordeal was pretty cool.

Ocean-Bottom Seismometers

One of the best parts of my time on the boat (so far) was deploying the 59 ocean-bottom seismometers (OBSs). These instruments measure vibrations in the Earth, which are created by "air-guns" towed behind the boat. The bursts from the guns shake the crust beneath the water and the vibration moves outwards through the crust in all directions to the array of seismometers. The signals recorded by our seismometers can show hotter regions, where seismic waves travel slower, and colder regions, where the waves move faster. For this reason, our work out here in the back-arc basin is meant to "see" any hot regions beneath the surface, as we would expect to see in an active back-arc basin.

In order to get all of this data, we first had to send all of these seismometers (OBSs) to the seafloor. Each OBS has a sensor (the actual seismometer part), a data recorder (which records the data as a digital signal), a heavy weight, and empty glass spheres surrounded by yellow plastic. When the instrument is deployed, the weight drags it down to the seafloor. Then when the experiment is over, a signal is sent to the OBS, telling it to release the weight. After that, the OBS rises back to the surface, where we collect it. The OBSs were built mostly ahead of time, so as we cruised over the sites for the instruments, we were able to carefully drop it into the water and continue onward. We finished this stage in about 2-3 days - fortunately before Cyclone "Hettie" came our way!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Tongan Arc and the Lau Basin

The Tongan island arc is a series of volcanoes west of the main islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. They form because one crustal tectonic plate (the Pacific plate) subducts - is forced or pushed - beneath the other plate (the Australian). The subducted Pacific plate then sinks into the earth (into a layer called the mantle). The more populated islands of Tonga, to the east are not volcanically active. The Lau Basin is directly to the west of the Tongan island arc, over a feature called a back-arc basin. In this area, the crust splits apart and forms new rock when material deeper down flows upward, melts and erupts at the surface.

This is the region where we are spending ~45 days dropping seismometers to the seafloor and sailing back and forth in a grid pattern to collect sonar, seismic, gravity, and magnetic data. All of these geophysical techniques will help to map both the surface of the seafloor (the bathymetry) and the structure of the crust and upper mantle (the top 10-20 km of the Earth).

Monday, February 2, 2009

Learning to walk

The first three of four days, I had a regimented schedule of eating something every 2-3 hours to avoid sea-sickness. At the same time, I was trying to bring myself onto my ship schedule (working midnight to noon). Despite trying the Dramamine thing, I agree with my friend Patrick who says that the only way to prevent sea-sickness is to keep your stomach full; thus the gluttony. This seemed to be the only thing that worked, and I was a little concerned that I was going to gain a lot of weight from eating so much. Fortunately, the need for food seems to be passing, and I'm now eating regular meals... although I can't seem to pass up the ice-cream that is readily available at all times in the mess!

Walking on the boat is an entirely different story. I'm already pretty clumsy on land - regularly walking into walls and doors. The first couple of days on a boat were about twenty times worse. Imagine trying to open a heavy door and walk through while carrying a cup of coffee on a boat swaying from side to side. Then imagine being as graceful as me, and that should give you an idea of why I keep finding new bruises all over my arms and legs. After about a week of walking into walls and getting squashed in doors, I am becoming more agile, or at least I'm not worried about falling down the stairs anymore. I'm hoping that I might have finally gotten these "sea-legs" that everyone talks about!

My home on the boat! Left: My room (I got a zebra-print comforter)!
Right: Our common room

Friday, January 30, 2009

Atata Island, Tonga

For 60 Tongan dollars (~30 USD), you can set up a trip to the Royal Sunset Resort on Atata Island. The scuba prices were pretty steep for Tonga, something like 300 T$ additional (150 USD) - which is more expensive than the place where I went diving in Fiji. So, we all decided to just hang out on the island and snorkel a little. In hindsight, this seemed to be the right decision, since the place wasn't very organized and as a beginner, I didn't have much confidence in the scuba gear.

There was a 45 minute boat ride in a small transport boat from the port in Nuku'alofa. When we arrived, we spent some time wandering around Atata Island. We walked part of the way through some forest on the island and most of the way on the beautiful beaches. On the opposite end of the island was a small village. We had plenty of time to swim before lunch, and after lunch we were taken by boat out to the reef near the island to go snorkeling.

The snorkeling was pretty neat, although the size of the reef there couldn't compare to the reef by the island I was at in Fiji. The one really interesting part of the snorkeling was the rows of giant clams beneath us. When I say giant, I mean 1 meter across; and I was actually nervous to swim above them. The snorkeling was a lot of fun, because the fish didn't swim away when I came over. My favorite was a group of turquoise fish that I spent a lot of time following. I also saw one of the giant clams start to close when a fish was poking at it. For a minute, I thought I was going to see the fish get eaten by the clam (I have no idea if clams actually do this), but the fish swam away before anything happened.
I would have been able to spend hours out by the reef, but we only had about 45 min to an hour, before we had to catch the boat back to Tonga. The worst part of the snorkeling was that I had to learn how to pull myself back into the little boat that had brought us out to the reef. Luckily no pictures exist illustrating exactly how horrible at this that I am!

One last side note is the "flying fox" which are all around Tonga. They are bats, but as you can see from the picture of this little guy, they are adorable!
The trip back to Nuku'alofa on the boat was great fun. The waves had picked up quite a bit, and the little boat kept jumping over the waves and slamming back down on the surface of the water. It was a little rough, but it was exciting! The day trip was about 4 hours long, so we had plenty of time to shower and rest before dinner on the main island.

Monday, January 26, 2009


In all, I spent 4 days on Tongatapu (the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga). On our arrival, we were greeted by rainy skies and thousands of coconut trees that cover the flat island. The port city where we were staying is Nuku'alofa, the capital city. Two other grad students from University of Hawaii and I stayed in the Waterfront Lodge. It was a small, but really great hotel! There's a nice restaurant on the 1st floor and about 12 rooms on the 2nd floor. All of the rooms have big balconies, hot water, and air-conditioning. It was a little expensive for Tonga (about 120 U.S. dollars/night), but split between the 3 of us, it was a great way to go.

We were unsure about how to amuse ourselves at first, so we decided to take a taxi to some small, obscure beach on the opposite side of the island. The road was well off the beaten path. And of course when we reached the beach, we were the only tourists there, there was a steady rain, and it was nothing like we expected. After swimming a while, I decided that it was really a cool beach! There was about 20 meters of actual sandy beach, the rest was covered in black corals. About 50 meters from the shore was a black reef that constantly had waves breaking over it. If it wasn't high tide, I would have swam out there and walked on the rocks. After swimming for about an hour in the rain, we decided that we were sufficiently cooled off. It was a great beach!

On the second day in Tonga we looked around town and checked out the market. The market was pretty neat: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and a section of handicrafts. The handicrafts were mostly all woven baskets, jewelry made from shells, patterned wall-hangings, and wood-carvings. It was a nice market, but a lot of the tables had the same goods, so I lost my excitement after the first few booths. In the nighttime, we went to a buffet at the Dateline Hotel, which was pretty tasty, despite being mostly meat. There was a live band playing, and after dinner, a local group of Tongans danced traditional Polynesian dances. All the dances were good - but there was a marked difference between the way the men and women danced. The women's movements were all smooth and flowing, but the men's were extremely energetic and aggressive. The best dance was a guy who twirled and flung around a torch that was flaming on both ends - I was really impressed.

On the third day we went to Atata Island (separate post), and on our last day, we boarded the boat and settled in. After becoming acquainted with the ship and clearing customs, we had one last night in Tonga. We went back to the restaurant in our hotel one last time and then met up with others from the boat at a really loud (and surprisingly cool) bar. Up until the final night, I didn't even know that loud, exciting bars existed on Tonga. Then we stumbled back to the port to sleep on the boat, waking up bright and early to leave port and watch the last bit of land fade away in the distance.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

South Sea Island, Fiji

For 200 Fijian dollars (roughly 150-170 USD), you can join a day trip to one of the islands just off the coast of Nadi, Fiji. I figured that I probably wouldn't be in Fiji much during my life, so I splurged. As a result, the day was one of the best days of my year (at least). After leaving the port at Denerau, we traveled about 15 minutes until we reached South Sea Island, which is a tiny beach island with a small resort on it. The island is surrounded by coral reef, and the company who owned the island had a semi-submersible boat with glass windows on the bottom walls. While I tried to take pictures, I don't think that I did the reef justice. It was really incredible.

The next part of the day I spent learning how to scuba dive (included in the price) with a beginner diver from New Zealand and our instructor. Since the reef surrounds the island, we were able to swim right to it from shore. We were both beginner divers, so the three of us stuck close to each other for the entire time, and we only dove to about 5-10 meters, although I was too afraid to look upwards towards the surface, so I can't really verify that. Once again, I'll just say that the experience was incredible, and I have learned that the only way to really see a reef is to be diving through it!

After lunch, I had plenty of time to kayak around the island and lay in the boat and relax. The best part about the kayaking was going through the waves (small as they were) out towards the ocean than laying in the boat as it got pushed slowly back to the shore of the island. I quickly decided that this was one of the best days ever - even before the snorkeling out above the reef and the sailing on a catamaran around the island. I thought the waves were fun in the kayak, but they were way better in the catamaran!

My only regret about the entire day is that despite being so diligent about putting sunblock on my shoulders and face, I forgot about my legs entirely. I have never burned my legs before. Don't worry mom, it's not a mistake I'll make again (hopefully).