24 February 1999
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research - NIWA
Greta Point, Wellington, New Zealand

Satellites and Squid

For the past five days, almost every waking hour has been focused in one way or another on the giant squid. We have thawed, we have measured, we have dissected, we have photographed and we have tried without all too much success, to wash the remnants of all these activities off of our bodies and clothes. Every once in a while when we get into a taxi cab, or find ourselves in a very small and painfully slow elevator, one of us invariably will turn to the others and smile, knowing full well that we all know what that means. We have all vowed that by the end of the week we will find ourselves a laundromat and have everything that has come within 10 feet of a squid thoroughly washed...several times if needed.

With all of this squid-focused activity of late, I have at times forgotten that my real job is that of an oceanographer , and one that more often uses satellites and computers to carry out my work, than the scalpels, formalin and measuring tape that have been of so much use this past week. However, today I had a chance to meet for the first time one of the many people whom I have "worked" with over the years but have never actually met. Science these days often involves collaborations with fellow scientists around the world and quite often, the only interaction that you may have with these colleagues is via electronic mail (e-mail).

One such colleague of mine, Dr. Richard Murphy of NIWA happens to be based at the Greta Point Laboratory and we met today and had a chance to actually discuss face-to-face, some of the projects that he is involved with. Both Richard and I work in a field called remote sensing, which can be broadly defined as learning about something without being in direct contact with it. In our case, the measurements we are interested in are those taken by earth observation satellites orbiting over 700 kilometers around the subject that we are interested in learning more about - Earth! You may think it is strange to try and study the earth and in our case, the oceans from space, however, there are many things that you can learn by taking a step back (in this case, a very, very large step back) from the thing you are studying. Once we begin the ocean-based part of this expedition off the waters of Kaikoura, I will be making daily measurements of ocean and atmospheric conditions and will write in more detail about the kind of research that can be done with satellites and why it is so important to try and understand what they can tell us about our world and its ability to support life as we know it.

Richard and I were joined in our discussions by Dr. Michael Uddstrom who is also a remote sensing scientist here at NIWA, and he was kind enough to offer to take me across the bay to visit the satellite receiving station that they operate. Michael drove me to the top of one of the tallest hills in the entire area and there, perched at the highest point were two enormous concrete water tanks. These tanks I learned are part of the Wellington water supply and therefore, are quite secure. Michael led me through a well locked gate and up a rather steep ladder until we stood on the cement roof at the very top of one of the tanks. In the center of this tank stood a bright white dome inside of which was their satellite receiving antenna.

The signals from at least three different satellites are received by this antenna and transmitted in real-time via a microwave link across the bay and directly to the NIWA lab where it is processed and made available to support a wide number of scientific projects. SeaWiFS (the Sea Viewing Wide Field of View Sensor) is one of the satellites that this station collects and it is the project that I work on at NASA.

In addition to being a terrific location to put an antenna, it was also a great place to get a wonderfully unobstructed view of the entire Wellington region. Holding my camera as steady as I could, I snapped a picture, turned around a bit, snapped another shot, turned a little more and continued this until I was back where I started from. Far in the distance I could even make out some of the mountain peaks on the South Island of New Zealand, which lies across Cook Straight from Wellington.

Later that evening, Ingrid, Clyde, Mike and I walked into town for dinner and along the way had a chance to enjoy the early evening activities along the bay. Just as we started our walk towards town, a couple of rowing teams passed by and their paths took them through the reflection of the sunset on the water.
A little later on we saw a very large group of swimmers starting off on what must have been a race of some sort because the waters around them were churning white with foam from all the flailing arms. In addition to the more modern cars that one is so familiar with, Wellington is also the home to many older British models, particularly the Morris. It seems as if I am not the only one in our group who appreciated seeing these cars, particularly that little yellow Morris station wagon.


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