Neil’s V3 blog
After months of waiting and preparation, which included paperwork, training on scientific equipment and a medical examination, I had finally arrived in Hobart where in two day’s time I would be boarding the ship, the Aurora Australis bound for Mawson Station in Antarctica. For me, the journey to Hobart had been a long one, I had flown from Munich Airport to Singapore, before continuing onwards to Sydney and finally, Hobart. I arrived late Sunday evening and had pre-departure training early the next morning.
The training is compulsory who for all expeditioners who venture south and covers various aspects of the trip such health and safety, environmental issues and the risks associated with exposure in such a hostile environment. Did you know that under the worst weather conditions in Antarctica, any exposed skin can suffer from frostbite in under 2 minutes? We were also told stories about various accidents and close calls that had occurred on previous ventures down south. The one that remained with me involved an expeditioner who had ventured outside during a blizzard, he was attempting to make it to the toilet hut some 30m away, but had become disorientated under whiteout conditions and got lost. His fellow expeditioners had been unaware that he had left. They eventually realised that he was missing a few hours later, but were unable to form an immediate search party due to the severity of the blizzard outside. By the next day conditions had settled down and they were eventually able to commence a search. They found him curled up in a foetal position a few hundred meters from their shelter. At this point he was still alive, but was suffering from severe hypothermia and frostbite brought about from his exposure. Unfortunately, his conditions had detiorated to far and despite their efforts to save him, he eventually passed away.
The following day we sailed from Hobart at 11:30am (local time) under warm sunny conditions. My fellow expeditioners and I decided to take advantage of the good weather by relaxing outdoors on the upper decks, either sunbathing or watching the stunning Tasmanian coastline pass us by. I enjoyed being outside and feeling the warmth of the sun on skin knowing that in a few day’s time I would not have that luxury.
Aboard the ship I have two pieces of equipment to look after. The first is a Tekran Mercury Analyser, which we’re using to make observations of atmospheric mercury concentrations throughout the voyage. Observations of atmospheric mercury in southern-hemisphere are very limited, so the measurements are helping to provide some vital information regarding background levels over the southern-ocean and around the Antarctic continent. The second piece of equipment is MAX-DOAS, a passive spectrometer that uses both visible and UV radiation to provide a vertical profile aerosol particles and atmospheric trace gases. Looking after the equipment only takes up a couple of hours of my time each day, so I’ve offered my assistance with cleaning and launching weather balloons to the ARMs (Atmospheric Radiation Monitoring) technicians who have around 20 to 30 pieces of equipment on the top of the ship.
For the first couple of days at sea we were blessed with calm and pleasant conditions, with a light southerly breeze and waves of no more than 1-2 m. However, this wasn’t to last. Late Friday afternoon we entered a low-pressure system causing an increase in swell, wave and wind conditions. By Saturday the ship was being buffeted by large waves of 10-12m, turning any objects that hadn’t been secured into projectiles that were thrown across the cabin. Trying to sleep that night was an uncomfortable experience, to avoid ending up in a crumpled pile of limbs, pillow and doona on the floor I was forced to securely wedge myself into the corner of my bed between the mattress and wall. Somehow, I managed to survive this rough experience without feeling nauseous, although I’m not sure whether this down to pure luck or the sea-sickness tablets that I had been taking. By Sunday we had passed the low-pressure region and both wind and sea conditions had largely settled down.
The most efficient route from Hobart to Mawson involves the ship following a circular track which takes into account the curvature of the Earth and our increasingly Southern Latitude. After 8 days at sea the ship finally crossed the line of 60 degrees south. On-board ships this is celebrated by a ceremony whereby, anyone who is crossing this line for the first time is presented with a certificate from the ship’s captain. Our progress into the cooler Antarctic waters also heralded the sighting of ever greater numbers of Antarctic bird species, including Albatross and petrels, as well as a few whale sightings around the ship.
As we slowly progressed south the Aurora Australis’ crew announced that the ship would be having a raffle and encouraged people to nominate 10 minute timeslots for the sighting of the first iceberg bigger than the ship. The raffle was eventually won by the ship’s captain, perhaps suggesting that his years of experience may have provided an unfair advantage. For me the appearance of icebergs was quite exciting. Before this trip I had never seen an iceberg in person. The closest I had come was from watching the film “Titanic” and so I decided to brave the sub-zero conditions up on deck and maximise my time taking pictures of these colossal Icey beasts.
In preparation for our arrival in Antarctica we were subject to strict quarantine measures that are imposed by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). As a result, we were expected to thoroughly clean all of our personal gear, clothing and equipment to ensure that it was free from any seeds and soil that could introduce alien species into the sensitive Antarctic environment.
Up until this point our voyage had been proceeding according to plan, the ship had been making good progress and was currently 4 days ahead of schedule. However, this was not to last. The next day a spanner was thrown in the works with the news that the reverse osmosis (RO) plant at Davis Station had failed. The RO plant is responsible for providing Davis with enough fresh water to last throughout the winter. Without it operating, fresh water supplies at Davies were at risk of running out and so the ship was being diverted to provide additional fresh water.
Soon we were cruising amongst the pack-ice. For me this was quite exciting as I would finally get to see the ships ice-breaking abilities in action. Luckily for any would be photographers, the ships’ crew allowed expeditioners to stand up front at the bow of the ship where you are rewarded with a front row seat to the ship crashing its way through the ice. Ice breaking isn’t actually a result of the ship’s bow acting like a knife to cut through the ice. Instead, it’s a result of ships specially designed hull being lifted up on top of the ice by powerful engines and the ship’s own weight then splitting the ice and pushing it aside. The pack-ice also heralded the appearance of a variety of seals, including Leopard, Weddell and Crabeater seals resting lazily on the ice and raising their drowsy heads to watch as the ship cruised past. Apart from Orca (Killer Whales), Leopard Seals are one of the largest predators within the Antarctic food chain, so seeing them in the wild is a definite treat.
As the Antarctic mainland grew closer on the horizon, I finally saw my first wild Adelee penguins! I had of course seen penguins previously in the zoo, but nothing can prepare you for seeing them in the wild, running around on the pack-ice like comical little tuxedo wearing clowns. It’s so cool, this was the reason I wanted to come down Antarctica for years. Adelee penguins are completed naive though, I was watching them sit on the pack-ice in front of the ship as it bared down on them and they just stand and stare. It appears as though their brains can’t quite comprehend what they are seeing and I can just imagine them with their beaks hanging open mouthing “what!!!!!!!!” as this huge red ice-berg crashes towards them. They do eventually dive out of the way, and so no penguins were hurt during the voyage. At this point I was informed by one of my fellow expeditioners that penguins have the intelligence of a chicken, although I would like to give them a bit more credit…
We soon arrived at Davis and commenced our operations of topping up the stations supply of fresh water. At this point the Aurora Australis was anchored about 400m from the Antarctic mainland, but to the frustration of all expeditioners on-board we not have the opportunity to set foot on land and explore. After a couple of days we finally commenced on our original voyage. Two days later we arrived at Mawson, our ultimate destination. However, another spanner was about to be thrown in the works, with the news that Horseshoe harbour, where the ship was hoping to dock and commence resupply, was frozen over. It may seem ironic that an icebreaker is prevented from entering the harbour by a thin layer of ice, but the harbour is narrow and shallow and the ship can’t use its bow thrusters to properly move while amongst the ice. To enter the harbour under these conditions would risk the ship running aground. So resupply from the harbour was put on hold.