March 22, 2014 11:41:19 PM
WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- The scientists and support staff stationed on Amsterdam Island find professional value in being about as far away from the hubbub of humanity as it's possible to get. But this week, some of them wandered down to the southern Indian Ocean shoreline to look for the floating objects that could help explain the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The world, it seemed, had found them. Well, almost.
"There's little chance we'll see anything," said Eric Morbo, the island's administrator.
The 18 men and two women on the tiny island, along with the resident rockhopper penguins and elephant seals, are close neighbors to where the search is going on for the missing plane. But distance there is relative, measured in hundreds of miles.
The French outpost lies at the edge of a stretch of ocean where the winds and waves circle endlessly eastward around Antarctica, unhindered by land masses. The region is desolate in some ways, beautiful in others, and normally escapes notice by anyone except scientists, sailors and the occasional adventurer.
"You feel very alone here," said 25-year-old Vincent Lucaire, a graduate student from France.
It was a satellite image that brought searchers nearby, to a stretch of ocean about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth. Earlier this week, the satellite spotted two large objects, raising hopes among searchers they might find the plane that disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board. Malaysia and China said Saturday that another satellite also spotted an object in the area, about 75 miles south of the earlier sighting.
The weather has complicated the search, but an Australian crew making their second flight over the area in an AP-3C Orion on Saturday said it had improved. Of course, they said the first time was so bad there wasn't an empty barf bag on the plane.
This time, cloud cover forced them to fly at about 450 feet, rather than the 1,000-foot altitude they normally would have chosen. Not only did that reduce the amount of sea their eyes and their radar could scan, but the lack of sun made it impossible for sunlight to glint off any objects in the water. Gray sky and gray water seemed to blend in with each other.
The low flight path made for bumpy, unpredictable movement that felt at times like a theme-park ride, and was enough for some of the journalists on board to feel sick.
Because it took the plane more than four hours to reach the search area, its 13-member crew had only about two hours to search. The crew rotated spots every 20 to 30 minutes to focus on different spots of the ocean to keep their eyes fresh.
On this trip, the crew found nothing. Every day, they said, any wreckage will get a little tougher to find, with current, wind and other variables expanding the possibilities of where it might be.
Those variables were made clear by an experiment -- conducted east toward Tasmania but in the same current -- by Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Two people dropped identical buoys at the same time from either side of a research vessel, and within a few days the gap between the buoys had grown to more than one kilometer (0.6 miles).
Van Sebille describes the ocean there as similar to a massive river flowing eastward, only with 160 times as much water as all the world's rivers combined. The current moves at about a meter (yard) every second, but also curls and slows and doubles back in unpredictable ways, he said.
The weather, he said, tends to keep most boats away.
"Nobody goes there," he said. "There's hardly any shipping there. Big container ships don't like to go there." He said the real masters of the region are the albatrosses that can stay at sea for years, coming ashore only occasionally to breed at islands like Amsterdam.
Nestor Vargas, the owner of a shipping business who used to sail grain ships through the Indian Ocean, said the weather in the region will generally be mild at this time of year but will soon worsen.
"In May, June, July, that's when the rough sea comes and the high swells," he said. "If you are not used to it, you would be throwing up, even if you are a mariner."
New Zealand sailor Rob Salthouse, who has completed three round-the-world yacht races, has seen this stretch of ocean firsthand. He remembers waves towering above him as high as a three-story building.
"It's not until you're at the bottom of the swell that you realize how big and imposing they can be," he said.
"You're a long way from land or any safety," he said. "If you got stuck down there, it wouldn't be a nice thing."
Among the whales, seabirds and endless water, he said, there's also a sense the region remains unspoiled.
"It has a danger associated with it, but also a beauty that very few people in the world get to see."
The beauty has something of a price for those on Amsterdam Island, where the only way out is a boat that comes four times a year. There are two bicycles to ride, a soccer field and a slow Internet connection. And there's also the friction that sometimes develops within a group that has so little outside contact.
"It's not easy every day," said Morbo, "balancing the relations between the different groups."
But it's not all privation. Lucaire, the graduate student, said he had saute of veal and Tahitian fish for lunch Friday, followed by chocolate cake. When the boat does come, he said, it's always well provisioned.
It's a French thing, he explained.
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