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Pressure Chambers, Hard Helmet Diving, Whale Sharks and the Adventure Girl

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This year has been eventful to say the least. My time has been divided equally between a new job in the games industry, the scientific diving school, and a new very active and interesting relationship. Not to forget the novel that’s finally starting to take its final form.

Captain Garden Gnome says: "Full steam ahead and off to adventure! Where all the orion slave girls at?" Faffing around on the captain'c chair of maritime research vessel Aranda.

Captain Garden Gnome says: “Full steam ahead and off to adventure! Where all the orion slave girls at?” Faffing around on the captain’c chair of maritime research vessel Aranda.

This year start in a pretty intense way. First of all, a new relationship has kept me quite busy right from the beginning of January, but more of that later. On the school and work side the year began with a few intense weeks of research diver school, which was again mind blowingly interesting and fun.

First we had an one week refresher course about diving technique and related stuff, after which things got really nifty. It was followed by one week of shorter courses, where the most interesting part was the pressure chamber operation and testing. The idea was to get acquainted with how the pressure chambers work and get us to try out nitrogen narcosis in an controlled environment. We tested two chambers. One of them was a really small two person field model, where one person was sitting and the other one was lying on top of his legs, head on the other guy’s lap. The idea was that the person sitting could tend to the other person, who would be the patient.

A field model two person pressure chamber.

A field model two person pressure chamber.

Come into my crib - this is the hallway and the dining room and the lounge are to the right.

Welcome into my crib – this is the hallway and the dining room and the lounge are to the right.

The other chamber was an old navy one and could sit half a dozen people relatively comfortably. There we were supposed to go to “51 meters”, to six atmospheres of pressure, and then try doing some simple tasks under the quite heavy nitrogen narcosis – the same brain puzzles given to combat divers. The pumps started howling and the air got warmer as it got packed in, and one of our group started getting ear trouble at five atmospheres, so we didn’t go “deeper”. You could feel the air being viscous when you waved your hand around, and it was damn interesting to feel the effects of the nitrogen narcosis in a controlled way. I have been in those pressures under water, but there you are also cold, in the dark, carrying a ton of difficult equipment and navigating around some sharp pieces of rusty shipwreck, so it’s hard to tease the narcosis separate from other feelings of confusion. We didn’t have much time in the maximum depth, until the valves opened and the air temperature plummeted as the pressure fell. It was incredible feeling to have your head clear up just like that – like being three martini drunk and then puff, sober and shivering cold.

In a little hole in the ground lived Sméagol and friends!

In a little hole in the ground lived Sméagol and friends!

The episode also included the only two days that a actually annoyed me at the school. The first was a mandatory work safety card training, which was basically eight hours of some self-help hero talking about himself, and the other was “electrical work”, which was a 100€ spent in learning that electricity is dangerous and how to make an extension cord. I think I’ll take those hits, though, since most other stuff has been so awesome.

Hard Helmet Diving

An other extremely interesting module was the surface air gear training, which in practice meant hard helmets and umbilicals up to the surface. We did this in a nice, frisky -20C winter weather in the Ojamo mine lake. Umbilical is the bundle of tubes and wires that connects the diver to the surface station, which provides him with breathing and working gas, and it can also carry voice communications and video feed from a helmet cam, so everybody up the surface can laugh at it when you try to tie a bowline underwater eight times without succeeding. We tried out working with surface air with the full face masks we usually use, band masks and actual hard helmets – the only thing we skipped were the free flow helmets meant for hard construction work. I have to tell you that those damn helmets are heavy on the surface. Walking to the entry point I had to reserve one hand for just keeping my head up.

Brotherhood of Steel represent!

Brotherhood of Steel represent!

The hard helmet diving was an awesome experience, especially in those rather extreme circumstances of ice cover and cold. Before we got to the water, we had to break the ice in the entry point with a two-by-four, and at times with our asses. When you got up from the deep, there was already rime or a hair thin layer of ice on the surface. Diving with a helmet is probably closest I can get to being an astronaut. The mine lake has underwater work platforms, which used to hold mining equipment. There are pipelines and towers and workbenches for the construction divers to practice on. When you go down the steps to the lake and let go, first you sink down into the cyan waters and hit  a steep, rocky slope that goes down to the actual mine tunnels. When you look up, you can see the floating container and surface station above you and the umbilical snaking up, through the hole in the ice. Then it was just the matter of swimming to the work platforms.

The entry point was frozen in many mornings.

The entry point was frozen in many mornings.

I couldn’t resist taking my fins off and trying to hop around like an astronaut. I have watched a ton of spaceflight documentaries as a kid, and just for a lark I tried out the Moon walk bunnyhop – and it really worked! I was full of geekish glee, feeling like I hopping around an alien planet, doing massive low-G jumps from platform to platform, surrounded by weird rocky surface, the remains of some structures and a murky  cyan atmosphere. We did some practice with lift sacks, and the thing we lifted was a 70cm square block of concrete. I almost let it escape, and then landed it right on the edge of a platform so it was literally teetering over it. The thing with using lift sacks is that if you fill them just so, you can essentially make the item they’re attached to act like it’s weightless – horizontally. If you move it up without taking out some air from the lift bags, it gets lighter and wants to go higher. If you let it, it gets even lighter and wants to ascend even faster. The same in reverse when going down. When you are trying to control a concrete block of that size that just wants to dash around, it really hits home what kinds of weights you’re playing with.

Ice ice baby!

Ice ice baby!

Was it cold? Well, I was wearing wet gloves, so yeah. Every five minutes one of my fingers on each hand lost all feeling, starting from the pinky. When I got up to the surface, the gloves flash-froze to any metal object I touched, including the rails of the stairs that led up from the water. One of my pinkies really hurt after that week, which made me seriously wonder if I had managed to get decompression sickness – not impossible with the cold and the bad circulation. The first symptom is denying that you have one, so I didn’t go to the hospital for that, and the pain went away – frankly, probably I just sprained it when taking away the heavy equipment with fingers totally devoid of any feeling. Also, the diving wasn’t the coldest thing during that week – what was cold was standing outside minding the umbilical. You could totally surprise yourself by thinking “damn, I wish I could get down into the +2C water to warm up”.

The life support system in the surface station.

The life support system in the surface station.

Up in the floating container that was the surface station you could see the helmet camera footage of the divers.

Up in the floating container that was the surface station you could see the helmet camera footage of the divers.

Science Under Ice

In addition to that we had an ice diving course, where we went through the basics, most of which I already knew. The interesting part there was searching for a lost diver, which we practiced – of course tethered by ropes. Nevertheless, waiting under ice, trying to hack a hole in it with your knife and waiting for a rescuer whom you knew was coming was nerve wracking. Five minutes felt like a lifetime. Would I have the presence of mind to just stop and wait if my rope actually broke and I got lost – I don’t think so.

This is how diving looks like in Finland. Not for PADI training material purposes.

This is how diving looks like in Finland. Not for PADI training material purposes.

Our simulated measuring device, which we had to transport, set up, calibrate and pack up under ice.

Our simulated measuring device, which we had to transport, set up, calibrate and pack up under ice.

The most interesting part of that was the days of doing actual science under ice. We learned about how sea ice forms and acts, and what sorts of biology is going on under it in the winter and spring months. The ice was really thin and unreliable around the biological station we did the actual diving, and there were plenty of chances to fall through it. Our actual mission was to go and set up a mock measuring device under water, which in practice was a wonky tripod-thing with hanging glassware and tangly lines, plus to get a chlorophyll sample  from the bottom of the ice, where certain algae start growing as soon as there’s enough light. As a great addition we got to learn to drive an ATV and use it to transport our stuff in the snow.

Wroom wroom, motherfuckers!

Wroom wroom, motherfuckers!

Still, I think the most awesome part of that course was to dive to the shore under ice, and see where the rock and the crystal clear ice met each other. And then squeeze in there, start taking samples while really understanding the fact that there’s cold hard rock on one side of me, and 30-40 cm of ice above me, with a little bit of soft flesh in between.

Whale Sharks and Open Whiskey Bars

A part of the dive school was an ocean module, where the groups went to the high seas to do research, instead of just traipsing around our little brackish wading pool of the Baltic Sea. Some of the groups had gone to Norway or Britain, some to US, but this time we went to the Red Sea. This wasn’t a week of fun diving, though, since what we did was a survey of the coral reefs around Eilat. We had an introduction to corals, their biology and function, and our dives consisted of us crawling slowly over from an coral outcrop to outcrop, staring at them, counting polyp tentacles and writing data on our slates. This made our divemasters a bit baffled in the beginning, but they settled down pretty fast to just floating around and watching us work.

Identifying corals. "Yup, that's a coral."

Identifying corals. “Yup, that’s a coral.”

I simply loved this. In most of the other bio-dives in tropics the pace has always been a little bit too fast for me. I would’ve wanted to just stop and spend ten minutes looking through some coral outcrop properly, and now we only couldn’t but had to do exactly that.

When I closed my eyes in the evening, this is what I saw. Is the amount of tentacles divisible by six or eight...

When I closed my eyes in the evening, this is what I saw. Is the amount of tentacles divisible by six or eight…

The trip was also responsible for the single greatest moment of my diving history. I was floating upside down next to a coral counting tentacles, when a course mate grabbed me by the leg and shook me. He had a weird wide-eyed expression on his face, and through his mask I saw his eyes big as saucers. He kept pointing up, and I looked, wondering why he wanted me to look at that eight or nine meter long boat that was silhouetted against the surface. Say, the boat had a tail… A motherfucking whale shark that swam slowly and majestically right above us. Not all saw it, since our group’s other DM did the most dickish thing he possibly could, which was to totally abandon the group and start chasing the animal into the blue. Needless to say that half of the group wasn’t happy.

The first whale shark spotted. This picture in no way conveys the size and scale of that animal.

The first whale shark spotted. This picture in no way conveys the size and scale of that animal.

Although this was a study trip, there was some room for partying. Like crashing an open whiskey bar, which resulted in some late night skinny dipping / water polo in the hotel pool by parties undisclosed. Also, geocaching in Israel is a little bit more exciting than in Finland. At least I felt a tad bit nervous about messing around with small containers on the roadside close to the Egyptian border, late at night and in the light of a flashlight.

Navigation, Ice Woes and It Wouldn’t Be Research…

As for the other studies I managed to pass my coastal navigation exam, which I had to study for just by myself using the Finland’s navigation society’s materials, which can generously be described as pedacomical. We were supposed to have a boat handling course, but the ice situation got suddenly and surreally worse. At the time when people in the zoological station were usually out in the sea, there was at first 40 cm and then 58 cm of ice on the boat shore, which was apparently quite unprecedented.

Testing out our experiment set-up.

Testing out our experiment set-up.

Our previous course was actually us preparing to do our final exam of sorts in the scientific side, ie. planning and executing an actual study. We have a pretty interesting topic and we have our basic plans laid out, but yeah – simple things can turn massively difficult underwater. Our visit was mainly about testing our methodology and sampling equipment, which had the nasty habit of functioning perfectly well on the surface, but the parts losing all the friction under water and floating into different directions. This literally happened, and proved a great learning experience.

Katja's goldfish got a nasty case of diarrhea.

Katja’s goldfish got a nasty case of diarrhea.

I also managed to get an utterly horrible migraine attack, which generally happens once every two years. That day it coincided with coastal artillery on the next lot doing live round practice. Literally. At least I had the synaesthetic fun of seeing the indescribable pain explode into kaleidoscopic geometries every time they fired the big’un.

Seven divers, three days, the result. Well, that's one of two of our samples that's gone through our process.

Seven divers, three days, the result. Well, that’s one of two of our samples that’s gone through our process.

Getting It On With The Adventure Girl

As it happens, my wild feral bachelor days are over. They have been replaced with active, exiting and stimulating days with the Adventure Girl. As I hinted in the end of the previous blog post, I kindasorta met someone – or, rather, somebody awesome contacted me and asked me out to do interesting things. Heli and I went geocaching, to a gospel concert, to see Blade Runner as a film copy, to do wall climbing, get our archery on,  go for an art gallery and outdoor installation romp and a photoshoot, and go exploring some very restricted areas. And this was the first month.

A relaxing evening of medieval weaponry.

A relaxing evening of medieval weaponry.

Climbing up a tree in the cold and dark is a perfectly splendid way of spending a romantic Saturday night!

Climbing up a tree in the cold and dark is a perfectly splendid way of spending a romantic Saturday night!

Since then – boy hoo boy. Our first attempt at trying to spend a Sunday without doing anything at all crashed and burned at 4pm when we went “fuck it” and headed out to explore some abandoned railway tunnels. The second one  fared better, although I think we went to look for one geocache. But I think that’s as close as we can make it. Then there are the days of co-op gaming on a console, watching sci-fi and zombie stuff, and clubbing – and of course wall/rock climbing, which Heli is totally nuts for and which I’m picking up also, inching away my fear of heights one route at a time.

Going in to explore abandoned railway tunnel and a railyard.

Going in to explore abandoned railway tunnel and a railyard.

Adventure, exercise, art, culture, geekery and disgusting cuddling, more often than not in the span of one week. I find it extremely easy to tolerate this sort of thing. Head over heels, I tell you.

Rock climbing joined diving and caving as yet another hobby where you go to a place of staggering natural beauty to stare at someone's ass.

Rock climbing joined diving and caving as yet another hobby where I go to a place of staggering natural beauty to stare at someone’s ass. Well, some asses are nicer to stare at than others.

Here Comes The Sun

A couple of days ago I finished doing the corrections to the last content edit of my novel. Now a couple of read throughs, then it’s just the matter of language polish and the book will be out in the autumn. I’m enjoying my new day-job in the game industry a whole damn lot. It’s fun to leave for work in the morning and the work days are stimulating and interesting, which feels like a jackpot as work goes. On my birthday I dropped some other writing gigs, which leave me with some actual free time, and coincidentally my financial situation got much better at the same day after having had to scrape by for a year and a half. There’s a good chance I can actually start doing research diving / marine biology for money this summer, which goes to show that it’s never too late to fulfill the dream of the six year old yourself. Oh, and we have a new band project called Viihteen Uusi Aalto / The Advanced Entertainment Movement, and we’re going to publish 12 albums this year, plus Älymystö is going to do a Baltic mini-tour in the summer. I’m also being sucked into Roller Derby world and I’ve been volunteering as the first aid guy in a few bouts. In addition to all that, if everything goes as planned, I’ll be getting my name to three peer reviewed publications within a year – here’s to hoping. Ironically, while I was a researcher, I got none.

The dive school will eat most of my holidays and money for the rest of the year, but I don’t really care. My everyday life is extremely rewarding, interesting and happy. Damn. This kind of makes me think all of that hard work, self improvement, and generally trying, doing and persisting wasn’t for nought. This just may end up being the most awesome year of my adult life.

Climbing in trees looking for tupperware - well, keeps me off the streets.

Climbing in trees looking for tupperware.

Living on the edge!

Living on the edge!

Getting our beer faces on!

Getting our beer faces on!

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