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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

The Secret Lives of Scientists

Andrew Orr

When Argonne environmental analyst Andrew Orr wants to get away from it all, he thinks BIG.

In February 2015, Andrew took a 52-day trip partway around the world, sailing 6,000 miles on a 100-year-old tall ship. The vessel, which took off from Argentina, went on to Antarctica and then to Cape Town, South Africa, by way of South Georgia Island and Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. 

What do you do at Argonne?

AO: I analyze geographic and spatial data and make maps for environmental impact statements and atmospheric and climate modeling. When I first arrived at Argonne, I helped build a mapping tool that would allow individual states to determine the best locations in their state for clean energy technologies such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

What is your hobby?

AO: Travel and photography. I took about 7,000 still shots aboard the ship and about 1,800 video clips. 

How did you first hear about this trip?

AO: A few years ago, a former coworker took a trip on the same ship, Europa. It sails around the world throughout the year. Every winter — for us in the Northern Hemisphere — the ship sails to the Southern Hemisphere. My friend spent 22 days on the ship, which was not nearly long enough for her. To improve upon that, I chose the 52-day trip. 

Did you have much experience at sea?

AO: I never had any sailing training. At first, the crew breaks the group into three teams. Each team works a 4-hour shift and then has 8 hours off. When you are on watch, you get to steer the ship. You get to work the sails, go up in the rigging, go up to the top of the mast. There are actually two mandatory positions: watch and lookout. They always have two people on lookout while the ship is sailing.  

Did your prior knowledge of mapping come in handy?

AO: Yes, but only a bit. The crew taught us celestial navigation with a sextant. It is tough because it is cloudy almost all of the time so you never have a good view of the sky. 

What was the most memorable part of the trip?

AO: When we first arrived on land in Antarctic waters, we walked through a penguin colony. I was taking hundreds of pictures because it was my first time seeing penguins up close. I have loved them my entire life, so this was a dream come true. I know their main predator down there is the leopard seal, and I saw one actually eat a penguin. I was maybe 200 feet away. 

Anything else stand out?

AO: I was at the helm late one night somewhere in the Scotia Sea between South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula. I looked up and saw the Southern Cross, which is a recognizable constellation. I then spotted what was probably a large satellite in low orbit. It was incredible to be standing on a 100-year-old tall ship sailing in Antarctic waters and looking at a constellation as a manmade spacecraft passed by.  

You were sailing in some uniquely remote areas. How dark was it?

AO: There is no light other than the moon and stars. We saw only two other boats the whole trip. Several times I saw planets, really bright planets that would reflect off the sea.

Where there any scary moments? 

AO: Yes, definitely. We were sailing in the Drake Passage — between the Antarctic Peninsula and South America — when an intense storm arose with 27-foot high waves and winds stronger than 45 miles an hour. The Passage is one of the most dangerous waterways in the world, known for almost constant extreme weather. The crew did not let anyone on deck because we might fall overboard. I was worried, but the ship handed it well.  

Where will you go next?

AO: I would love to go to Patagonia at the southern end of South America. I am also interested in going north to the Arctic Circle, to the Svalbard set of islands midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. I’m hoping there is a tall ship that does that route at some point.