Arts, Culture & Media

A Trans-Continental Island

For today's Geo Quiz we are searching for what you might call a trans-continental island. There are quite a few countries that span the borders between continents. One example is Turkey whose city of Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. But we're looking for an island in the southern Caribbean that sits just off the coast of Venezuela.

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The island lies outside the south Atlantic hurricane belt and from the Panama Canal it is a 2-3 day cruise to reach this island's main harbor at Willemstad.

The island of Curacao is the trans-continental island we were looking for in today's Geo Quiz.

Each year, thousands of ships use the Panama Canal as a shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.Amy Mayer recently recently caught a ride through the canal on a scientific-research vessel.

The ship is called the JOIDES Resolution. (JOIDES stands for Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling.) It stretches almost 500 feet long, and it is easy to spot among container ships and tankers because of its tall derrick and giant drill.

The ship cruises the world's oceans and drills into the sea floor to bring up columns of rock and mud. Geologists use that to understand the Earth's history.

"Every two months we go somewhere that nobody has ever been before, we touch the rocks that nobody has ever touched before," said Chieh Peng, who has worked on board for 20 years. "It's amazing."

I joined Peng and her colleagues in the Pacific as they approached the Panama Canal. They had been at sea for seven weeks, and this was no Carnival Cruise. Tiny cabins sleep two each, in bunk beds. Four people share each bathroom. There is no alcohol allowed on board.

We entered the canal at the Miraflores locks. Vehicles called mules connected to the ship with cables to guide us. The rising water in the locks raised the ship 85 feet as we headed toward the lake at the canal's center.

Through a heavy metal door, I found Thomas Gorgas in one of the labs. He said life on the ship can be intense. Crewmembers work 12-hour shifts with scientists who come from around the world.

"We sometimes jokingly say it's like a combination between a university, the United Nations, and a soccer team," he said. "Everyone has to play together."

When tensions rise, there is no escape. Two months at sea is a long time.

As the ship entered the final set of locks, which would lower us back to sea level on the Atlantic side, crewmembers emerged on deck. It was a beautiful day and a short respite from the relentless hours in the lab.

The crew could see land on both sides — in fact, you could practically leap to it — but they still could not get off. The ship would not dock until we got to Curacao, and that was three days away.

Heather Barnes, a Canadian who lives in England, has been sailing-two months on, two months off, since 2004. She said the time away from land can be monotonous. Exercise helps.

"A lot of people go to the gym," she said. "That's a major part of our life out here."

The windowless gym deep in the ship's lower levels has a treadmill, elliptical trainer, bikes, and free weights — and a flat-screen TV with huge speakers. But on this trip the treadmill was broken and Barnes had to run laps around the helipad, at 17 to the mile.

Barnes said as soon as she disembarked, there were two things she planned to do. "One is have a beer, and two is go for a run, on land."

As we docked in Curacao, the gangplank went down, and yellow umbrellas beckoned from a nearby bar.
The crewmembers traded their hardhats, long pants, and steel-toed boots for shorts and sandals. They were off for a beer — their first after two months at sea.