David Ellyard ANARE Club Representative VOYAGE 2, Aurora Australis, 2003 – 2004
David Ellyard in Antarctica
David Ellyard in Antarctica
Underway Monday 3 November
Well folks, I am aboard Aurora Australis and we are underway. We sailed from Hobart on Monday night at seven. Once we had cleared Bruny Island we turned onto a west south west course, on a direct track for Davis.
Day 1 Tuesday 4 November
It is after lunch on our first full day at sea. I have set myself up in a corner of the conference room which is quiet, especially now since it is deserted, apart from me. I now have the dictation software working reasonably well and so will be able to send longer e-mails from now on.
We are pushing southwest at a steady speed, with the boat pitching a little as we move into a westerly wind, but it is still relatively comfortable. I understand from the weatherman in my cabin that it will become rougher tomorrow night when we get a southerly blow. We are in the now locked onto a course for Davis, which we will pursue, all being well, for the next 11 days. That is okay for people like me who have jobs to do, but I think time will hang rather heavily on the hands of those for whom this trip is just the prelude to the year in Antarctica.
Lunch was very tasty, and it was hard to resist going back for a second helping. Prawns, smoked salmon, octopus and various salad goodies. But I was disciplined. There will be a challenge in the 10,000 steps a day, with only a limited the area to step out into and the weather a bit bumpy. I have mapped out a route back and forth through the helicopter deck, which is about 230 steps so I’ll have to retrace that many times to make up the number. But I will be a good boy about that too. Only light beer is available in the bar, which is open only after dinner for a couple of hours. I did not go there last night but probably will tonight. Two drinks maximum.
I have made a point of sitting and talking with different people at meals. Over lunch, I chatted with an American biologist and his Australian wife who are both on their way to Davis to study diseases among the skuas. He is good talent and I will probably use him for the program I am preparing for ABC Radio. I am trying to get a list of all the people on board and what their various jobs are to help sort out who I want to interview.
Have downloaded the pictures from yesterday from the camera, and tried e-mailing one or two of them which you may have received. The ones from the ship with all those streamers were a little disappointing, being a little blurred. Clearly I have not been holding the camera steady enough as I take the pictures. I must work on that.
I will close now, and get on with some other jobs. I need to finish putting all the e-mail addresses and transcribe my notes from my discussions with the physicist at the Division. Last night, I loaded the software for the mouse, which is much easier to use than a pointing device built in to the computer. It is an optical mouse and works on just about any sort of surface. I also loaded the software for burning CDs.
I won the sweep on the Cup!!
Day 2 Wednesday 5 November
Day 3 Thursday 6 November
The close of day three sees the Aurora Australis well into its 12 day voyage to Davis Base, which lies on the coastline of Antarctica roughly south of Pakistan. We are hardly rolling at all at the moment, the sun is shining and it is generally very pleasant. We have had some rough weather which this morning required the ship to stop so that some loose cargo could be secured.
I am travelling quite comfortably, with no sign of seasickness. The food is excellent and temptingly plentiful though the accommodation is crowded. I managed half an hour on deck and 2500 steps after lunch, with the plan to do the same after dinner.
There is plenty to do in the way of entertainment, though I am keeping busy with my various responsibilities, including signing people up to the ANARE Club, and getting ready to interview some of the scientists for a radio program and some articles. I suspect that life will be largely without incident for another week or so, by which time we should be seeing some icebergs. Once we reach Davis things will get very busy for about a week or 10 days before we start the return journey.
Nearing the end of day three, the weather has settled down after a stormy night which required us to heave to early this morning to secure some cargo.
Today I gave a talk and showed some pictures about life at Mawson 37 years ago. My talk on Mawson 1966 seemed to go down well, about 60 people came and listened attentively, though there were not many questions. I gave the Club a good plug and handed out membership forms. I have five back already and will work in various ways to secure the rest.
I am starting to bone up on the science projects at Davis for the radio program. There is a lot happening and I need to sort out the best stories and the best talent.
I am also trying to get out on deck several times a day for some exercise. I will be taking my evening constitutional directly I finish this note. It is time for dinner so I will close. We are now far enough west to have had to put the clocks back an hour last night.
Day 4 Friday 7 November
Day 4 at sea is coming to an end. The clocks have gone back another hour (back to Perth time), as we cross the below the Great Australian Bight. The seas have been quite moderate throughout the day, and I was able to have a good walk on deck in the early afternoon. But they have risen tonight, and become a bit bumpy, as I plan to go to bed.
I watched a couple of movies tonight with some others in the recreation room, but much of the day I kept busy with research and writing on science matters. I have begun to talk with some of the scientists who will be active at Davis and who I plan to use. I am sorting out four or five stories with most appeal from the several dozen possibilities. I also went to one of the briefings for expeditioners, which are now underway, this one being on environmental issues.
Apart from that things continue quietly. I am still comfortable, with no trace of seasickness, sleeping well. I have exchanged bunks with one of the other people in my cabin, and that has made plugging-in the breathing machine much easier. I plan to do some washing tomorrow, including pajamas and shirts. It is getting noticeably cooler, with the air temperature in the middle of today down to 5ï¿½.
We have only three or four emailings a day from the ship, inward and outward, so that makes for some delays in getting and giving responses.
Day 5 Saturday 8 November
Fifth full day at sea. Last night was very bumpy, with winds of reaching 45 knots and seas very rough. Everyone’s sleep was disturbed. In one cabin, the window seal broke briefly and water came in. Not a pleasant experience. It is calmer now with the winds down to 15 to 20 knots, but still quite a swell. It is after breakfast, and I will soon go on deck for my 2500 steps.
We are well south, below 51 degrees, so in the next day or so we will cross the Antarctic Convergence where we meet the colder waters from coming up the south. That’s when it will get noticeably colder. Soon after that we will see our first icebergs. There is a sweep running on this, with most people reckoning about Wednesday.
1130om : just back from an emergency muster drill, which I am told routinely happens on Saturdays. This involved going up to the helideck in full wet/cold gear and lifejackets and having our names checked off. We waited until all were accounted present and correct, then stood down. It took about half an hour.
Meanwhile the ship’s crew ran a simulated fire emergency. The scenario involved a fire in the hospital at the same time as a broken leg needed treatment.
Before the drill I managed 3000 steps on deck, about 12 laps of my course. This begins midway along the starboard side, runs aft then around the perimeter of the helideck, down the port side (which is out of the wind on our present course), and half was across to the starboard till blocked by a chain. Then back again to complete a lap.
The wind has dropped to around 15 knots so the seas are moderate. Just a few white caps. But a solid swell is running, so the ship rolls and pitches enough to make the route a series of ups and downs, each a few steps long. The ups are noticeably so, and the downs hasten the pace. With air temperature around 5 degrees, there is a chill in the wind.
Around us, the seas are bare to the horizon, other than for a few albatrosses in our wake, hanging and swooping above the waves with motionless wings. Astounding to watch and a subject for hopeful photographers. The sky carries a high light grey overcast, with some streaks of white and even of blue.
Even in these relatively easy conditions, it is sobering to think that these seas were sailed first in wooden sailing ships one tenth the size of the Aurora and maybe one hundredth the weight. How much more sobering now we have sampled the wilder weather and soon will sample the ice that bars the way south. Cook and his crew, Ross, Wilkes, Dumont Durville. What heroes.
Later: I was a bit tired after lunch, due I guess to last night’s disturbed sleep, so, my washing completed, I took a couple of hours nap. I then managed another good session on deck. My pedometer seems to be missing counts due, perhaps, to the unevenness of my tread on the moving deck, but it had still clocked up more than 7000 for the day by the time I had finished. Seas have picked up a little.
I have been told by one of the crew (who is finding me some dubbin for my boots) that the main engine is to be brought on line tonight as the bad weather is holding us back and we are falling behind schedule.
As of this afternoon, I have signed up 12 new Club members and had a couple of others check their membership status (it was OK). Not a bad result in two days I guess.
It is about 9.45 and I have just finished playing a few games of Scrabble with a couple of the boffins who will be Davis, and who I will be using in the radio programs.
I will go now and see if there is a movie playing, and then turn in.
Day 6 Sunday 9 November
Day 6 started with a bump as I was jolted awake and nearly out of bed at five in the morning with the ship rolling and pitching in heavy seas. At the time, the winds were over 45 knots and the waves reportedly up to 15 metres. That was about the time the barometer bottomed out as we passed a low-pressure centre to the south. I went up to the bridge after breakfast to take some photos of the ship’s bow ploughing into waves that still looked 10 metres high. The bow was frequently lost to sight beneath foam and spray. The sea surface was streaked with foam, with spray being torn from the wave crests.
Though the winds and seas have eased a little, the ship is still rolling a lot and it is hard to stay steady in my chair as I type this. From time to time, the ship booms and shudders from the impact of a wave, and if I am in bed everything vibrates for a few seconds. The portholes in the conference room, which is one deck below our cabins, are shut by metal covers, indicating that they are being assailed by the waves. Various bumps and clanks and groans reach our ears, and some whining of the wind, which continues from the west, just off our starboard bow. And behind those noises, the ubiquitous drone of the engines and the rattling of the walls.
We crossed the Antarctic Convergence during the night, so that the sea temperature, which was about 7 degrees at noon yesterday, is now about 3 degrees. This means we are within the border of Antarctica and the first icebergs will not be far away.
I restricted myself to cereal today at breakfast after indulging in some hot things the last couple of days. The food is temptingly good and plentiful, so it is hard to be disciplined. I am sticking to salads as much as I can, and to sea food which remains on the menu (various cooked fish, smoked salmon, oysters, prawns, octopus salad). It will be hard to get much exercise today, with the deck unsafe, I can still go up and down the internal stairs, though the view is not much.
My hunt for some dubbin (there being apparently no boot polish on board) has been successful, thanks to Sean in the ship’s store, though he had get it from the bosun. My boots have been revived and should hold out until Davis where polish will, I am assured, be available. I have to return the dubbin, this being, it seems, the only supply on board.
I talked for an hour this morning to Damien Murphy, one of the summer time physicists at Davis, about his work on the upper atmosphere. It is good science, and we worked out an angle which will make it relevant to listeners and readers. This afternoon I will talking to Anya Reading (a Yorkshire lass) about her geophysics work, which will be another good story. She spends much of her summer in the field around the edges of the Amery Ice Shelf, setting up and checking on a network of earthquake monitors in temperatures down to -35.
Later on this evening I ventured onto the deck, and did enough steps to bring the total for 5000 for the day. Most of those are up and down stairs or on a heaving deck and/or into the wind. So I expect they count more than when I am walking the dog.
I am having a very interesting time with the best still to come. I am keeping well and eagerly anticipating what still lies ahead.
Day 7 Monday 10 November
The two ends of today were rather different. This morning as yesterday; windy and bumpy, with most people shaken awake early if they got to sleep at all. Rain, overcast skies, foam streaked heaving seas, the Southern Ocean as nasty as we have seen it so far. No chance for a stroll around the deck. The need for self preservation made washing, shaving, dressing etc take half an hour.
Tonight (it is about 1900) still bit bumpy but endurably so, sun shining and the wind eased off. Through the porthole it looks great and I will wrap up and take my chances as soon as I finish this.
The art of Southern Ocean travel is the art of balance. It is now almost second nature to everyone. We accommodate almost without thinking to the shifting “lie of the land” beneath our feet as we walk. A few steps up, a few steps down or so it seems. Keep on the move and all is well. We are yet to see anyone really come to grief, even with a plate in each hand.
Standing still without support is another matter. The practiced or the confident can put their feet together and lean nonchalantly this way and that as required, sometimes 15 degrees from true. Others, like yours truly, less experienced or more cowardly, stand with feet apart, gripping the floor and bending the knees. Less graceful but no less effective.
Since I was here last, non-slip table mats have been invented, open weave rubber “runners” that enable most things to resist the temptation to slide as the ship heels. The cutlery may skid off the plate but the plate seems glued in place. I have such a one under my laptop as I write . I thrash about in my chair, (not as much as earlier in the day) but the machine is immoveable.
No further sign of icebergs since last night’s reported radar sighting. We have been pushing west today avoid bad weather so it may be a day or so before we dip far enough south to sight one.
Today I spent a lot of time writing. Sent a weekly catchup note to a lot of people, then yesterday’s bulletin. I then drafted two articles based on my chats with boffins yesterday. Have comments back on one of them already (mostly happy).
Enough for now. My walk awaits.
Day 8 Tuesday 11 November
I slept in for the first time today, even missed breakfast. For once I was not awakened early by the rolling of the ship. The weather is certainly better today. The wind has eased and the seas are just moderate, with whitecaps but no foam streaks or smoking wave crests. A substantial swell is arriving from a low somewhere, so the ship does roll but not evilly, and there are no thumps and shakes from burrowing into waves. The clouds are thin and lots of blue sky leaks through. I may have overslept because of last night’s excitement.
I was on my way to bed after a movie at around 11.30 and passed someone in the passage all rugged up as if they were going topside. “There is a great aurora on” he announced. I quickly dressed ready for a temperature around zero and a 30 knot wind and followed him up.
It was an amazing scene. I stood out of the wind with my back to the helicopter hanger doors, looking across the helideck which bucked up and down and left and right by up to 30 degrees in the swell. I was looking east into our wake.
For once the sky was clear. Stars were visible. Right behind us Orion was rising, standing even more on his head that he appears from Sydney since we are now 20 degrees further south. To the right, Sirius in the Big Dog and the stars of Argo sprawled across the sky.
The light of the stars was dimmed by a bright moon in the northeast, not far up but looking almost full, which puzzled me because it was nearly midnight. That too may have been a consequence of the latitude. The sun had set only two hours before.
The main event was going on in front of the stars and moon. The whole sky (or at least the half I could see) was filled with pale yellow-green light, hanging like curtains or shaped into beams or shafts that seemed to radiate from the zenith. An aurora was certainly “on”. People were lying on the deck in front of me to get the full picture.
The brightest beams were overhead, shafts of light like sunlight through a breaking cloud. More fancifully, they were reminiscent of artistic attempts to show some heavenly vision. I almost expected to hear angelic music. A long curtain hung across the sky to the north. I could see gentle movements and fluctuations in brightness, much more leisurely ebbs and flows than are conveyed by a movie. Low light levels necessitate long exposures and as a result the motion is speeded up dozens of times.
But the movement was still impressive, given that the lights were at least 100 km above our heads. It was also remarkable that we were right under the display even at our latitude (above 55 degrees south). It seems that the current unexpectedly vigorous activity of the Sun (which generates the aurora) has “expanded the auroral oval”, the ring shaped zone around the geomagnetic pole from which the aurora can be seen. We were being gifted with a display normally seen only much further south.
The show did not last long. I may have caught it at its brightest. Within ten minutes it was fading and losing definition, so with the cold biting I went back inside. Seeing the “southern lights” is one of the reasons people come to Antarctica. I can tick that one off already.
With the weather easing, onboard training has begun again. Today it was Navigation 101, reading distances and directions on a map, using a compass set a bearing, learning how to correct for the variation of the compass. This will help ensure safe travel over the 400 square km of rock exposed to the east of Davis Station (when we get there). Field huts are scattered over this region, a few hours walk apart among the fiords and hypersaline lakes (so salty they never freeze). I am looking forward to doing some walks.
I yarned today with another of my target boffins, biologist Garry Miller (from the US originally). He will be looking at diseases in skuas, the carrion and killing birds of the region. The concern is that these diseases, which are like those found in poultry, have been brought here by the human presence. Garry is not so sure and thinks migrating birds might have done it. I will be going out with him and his field assistant/wife Robyn (an Aussie) to nearby islands for recording.
After a few days dalliance to poor weather, we are pushing SW at a good speed, hoping to make up time. Current speed around 13 knots. We still have about five days of sailing, given good weather, which may get us near Davis by late Saturday. The ship will then need to cut a path through the fast ice as close as we can get. So landing on Sunday looks the best bet.
The met man says the weather should stay generous for the next couple of days, with seas mostly moderate. That will be welcome. I have had enough shaking up. We have now penetrated far enough south (below 55 degrees) for the worst of the polar front weather to be behind us.
It is 8.30 in the evening and I have just sat down at the computer after a really good hit out on deck. With the weather settled, little wind and not much swell, I was very comfortable walking and just kept going, finally hitting the magic 10000 in one go of 90 minutes. I am a bit tired but I handled it quite easily, so I’m rather pleased with myself. Given the poor weather we have had I felt I needed to seize the opportunity for some exercise. I hope to do 10000 again tomorrow but in two bursts.
I continue to talk with the scientists and draft copy. Today it was Gary Miller on skuas. During our departure, amidst the streamers, I spoke briefly to Patty Lucas, AAD PR office, who was on the dock, and I will be sending her a note in a minute to see that she is happy with what I am doing, and what her requirements are.
Weekly linen change tomorrow, and I have booked myself for the tour of the engine room. Later in the day, another session on navigation, this time about Global Positioning Systems.
Day 9 Wednesday 12 November
This morning woke with a mist over the sea, or so it seemed. Closer inspection though the porthole showed it be snow, not heavy but blowing about and enough to cut visibility to what seemed a few hundred metres, but was probably a lot more. Another sign we nearing our target, though it is still four days or so away. As one wag said “The Club Med phase is over. Now it gets serious”. When I last looked at the temperature readout, both the air temperature and the water temperature were below zero, so amen to the “getting serious”. We are nearly 58 degrees south. 60 degrees is the legal beginning of Antarctica according to various treaties and protocols.
With better weather, and both engines running, we have been making about 14 knots about SW. We are currently around 101 East and 58 South. That means we have cleared Australia above us and passed above the site of Casey Base on the edge of Antarctica where I laboured for two weeks with the other Mawson 1966 crew all those years ago to help build a base that was later torn down. So we have about 10 degrees of latitude and 20 of longitude to make to come to Davis.
I have just emerged from touring the engine room. Down there all is noise and steel and oily smells. Various contrivances make steam, clean the oil, deal with the sewage, claim drinking water from sea water by reverse osmosis. In the heart of the ship, two massive donks, both bearing German names, one of 5500 HP, the other 1500 HP, turn 30 cm drive shaft that disappears into the stern. There it reputedly drives a 6 metre propeller that sends on our way.
A few other figures; ship’s overall length just under 100 metres, beam about 20 metres, weight when loaded about 7000 tonnes. It can break fast ice up to 1.2 metres thick. And the colour scheme? Bright orange with green decks and yellow cranes fore and aft.
The ship has a double hull, with water ballast tanks between the skins, kept warm by steam. The fuel tanks are within the inner hull. To dampen down the worst of the ship’s high-jinks, a stabilisation system moves water from side to side within the hull to keep some balance. Unfortunately the very audible squealing and roaring from valves that relieve the build-up of pressure in the tanks and pipes can get very aggravating. Sometimes I think the rolling is better.
Midday saw another session on navigation, this time on the use of GPS (Global Postitioning System) handsets. These mobile phone-size babies read radio signals from a battery of orbiting satellites and at the push of a few buttons can tell you where you are (with 10 or 20 metres) anywhere on Earth, how fast you are traveling, the direction you need to travel to the next key point on your path, how long it will take you get back to the last point and even when the Sun will rise. Amazing machines. I do not know how Mawson and Shackelton managed without them.
We went onto the snowy helideck in an icy wind (around minus 2 degrees) to try these out and immediately were alerted to a longed-for sight; our first iceberg. It looked to be several km away on the port side, but impressive enough, flat-toped, shot through with blue tones, a few hundred metres long, with perhaps 50 metres showing above the water (and 400 metres hidden below). There are many more to come (and much closer), and knowing that, I restrained myself to 2 pictures (and one of the snow covered lifeboats), But you never forget your first iceberg.
First sight of an iceberg, soon after crossing the Antarctic Convergence.
In approaching Antarctica, the traveler passes through a number of identifiable natural zones and across some man-made borders. The first is the broad band of intimidating and relentless westerly winds, the “roaring forties”, which are something of an impediment, especially if you are headed into them, as we are. These do not cease at 50 degrees south; the furious fifties” can take over.
Imbedded in these air streams are intense cyclones or “lows”, generating the winds and swells that make sea travel at these latitudes so relaxing. The lows are born of a battle between the westerlies in the north and the equally feisty easterly winds that pour off the continent itself. The line of conflict is the “polar front”, a suitably war-like term. I think we may be through that, but it is not easy to be sure because the battle line shifts.
We do know that we have crossed the Antarctic Convergence, where the frigid polar waters begin to overlie warmer waters from the north. That happened a few days back, when we were not much below the 50th parallel. In this sector, the convergence lies quite a long way north. The temperature of the sea dropped 5 degrees almost at once and have gone down another five since.
We have today broken into the iceberg zone, which has a very ragged open edge but will become more tightly woven as we push south. Overnight we should cross the 60th parallel, a man made line to be sure but one that encompasses all of Antarctica and no other land. At these latitudes, the westerlies meet no land at all as they blow. 60 degrees South also marks the legal limits of Antarctica and its waters according to some international treaties and protocols.
Ahead lie other borders and barriers, the pack ice, the Antarctic Circle, the fast ice, the continent itself, the katabatic winds, more of which anon.
Clocks go back another hour tonight (three hours overall since Hobart)
Regarding sea sickness. No-one is suffering now, it seems, just a bit tired of the relentless motion of the ship. Some one fell in the shower and was laid up. I went to the doc myself just now to get some antibiotics. My cough has not really settled since I started, more annoying that anything. I have stayed away from non-soy dairy so that is not the problem. I had a few rattles in my chest, so the drugs are a precaution. It will be good to clear the cough before we reach land.
I am sleeping well, using the machine which does not seem to bother the others. The air is dry, so I am drinking a lot of tea, juice, mineral water.
Later: We have seen another two icebergs. The first was small but close and had some brash ice (a small field of floating bits) nearby. The other came by around 9pm (old time). I saw it an hour earlier while taking my walk (shorter path due to snow/ice but still for an hour and so will get my 10000 again today). It came by at a distance of about 7 km by the radar, and I calculated by two methods that it was about 800 m long. Very regular and flat topped, The radar showed it had a boomerang shape. No doubt many more and closer to come.
Day 10 Thursday 13 November
Overnight we crossed the 60th parallel, the nearest thing to an official border Antarctica has. In the early hours of the morning we made our first encounter with the pack ice. I awoke to see floating ice streaming by the porthole, and half a dozen icebergs in view.
On average about 50% of the surface of the sea was covered with floes and bits of ice, but in places the cover was almost complete, with large open stretches elsewhere. Many of the floes carried a layer of snow, heavy enough to force the floes themselves underwater. Such light, open pack did not impede the ship, and we glided though the whiteness at 6 or 8 knots, leaving a narrow wake cleared of ice. The seas were almost flat, now that the wild weather of the 40s and 50s is behind us.
I put all that into the past tense, since right at the moment (just before lunch) we are driving though a wide sweep of ice free water, a zone known as a polyna, where either winds or upwelling water has cleared away the floes and even the icebergs, leave the sea clear to the horizon as it was most of yesterday. But the pack is not far away, and we will meet up with it again soon. It will form an almost constant landscape (or should I say seascape) for the rest of our run to the coast. ETA at Davis is now set at late Sunday.
(Added later: in fact by 2 in the afternoon we were back in open pack with regular thumps and scrapes as the ship rode over and through floes)
I leant a lot about sea ice in a talk I have just come from. With the weather eased and journey’s end in sight (well, close) the pace of preparation has picked up. Today I have the chance to bone up not only on sea ice (and how to behave on it), but Antarctic weather, an overview of the wildlife and the lives and loves of the Southern Polar Skua.
Ice is one of the defences of Antarctic privacy (along with sheer distance and the unwelcoming winds). Ships coming south, from Cook onwards, have had to force their way through it. This is one of the reasons Antarctica was discovered so late. The first sure sightings were not until around 1820. Cook sailed all round it but did not see it once.
Each winter the seas around Antarctica freeze over, filling most of the zone within the 60th parallel with the swarm of floating ice known as “the pack”. Over much of the sea, the ice cover is total or nearly so, with polynas opening it up at sea and along the shore.
At its greatest extent in September, the sea ice covers 20 million square km, three times the surface area of Australia. The total area of Antarctica is almost doubled, in the greatest seasonally driven environmental change on the planet. The sea ice, which goes through a complex development, can be a metre thick. As spring comes, the ice begins to break up and melt, dwindling by March to a mere 3 million square km, much of that “fast ice”, two metres or more thick, attached to the shore and lasting through the summer.
If the pace of life has lifted with journey’s end approaching, you may be wondering what the 160 or so of us have been doing for the last 10 days. I suspect that ship board life is much the same the world over, with ample regular meals separated by not a lot, unless you chose it otherwise.
The lounge, next to where we eat, is popular most of the time with people chatting and reading (a lot of the latter), the video room in the evenings (with a regular 7 pm movie chosen by a secret cabal and others as the mood takes whoever is there), and the lower level “Husky” bar, later at night. Only light beers and wine are available, and a dart board, so the crowds are variable and the noise mostly not booze-generated. Other times are spent in cabins or on deck, depending on the weather and what there might be to see.
There have been some organised fun activities but not a lot; a 500 competition, a game of “Assassin”, Melbourne Cup and iceberg sweeps, and reported a forthcoming talent show under the title “Antarctic Idol”. Funds raised go the Camp Quality, and a large painted sign at the front of the mess says as much.
As time has passed, people have come to know each other and to mix more freely. Increasingly people sit at meals wherever there is a spare seat, rather looking for a mate. I am not a noted observer on such matters but it seems to me that identifiable groups still exist. The met people, being all from the Bureau, have a culture and are likely to have known each other in past lives. Likewise the people from the Division.
Those going for the year to Mawson are starting to bond. About 60 of us aboard are summer trip boffins (not counting me, except in spirit and as a communicator) and many are in teams which will be off soon after we arrive for weeks in the field. That’s another reason to seek each others company. And perhaps the women (about 10% of the total) cluster a little, but that may be because they share cabins.
The demographics are interesting. On the whole this is a young crowd, averaging say low 30s. Lots of young tradesmen, graduate (and even undergraduate) students to help with the scientific field work, youngish Division people and field training officers. The Voyage Leader and Deputy Leader (both women) are 40- ish.
The oldest heads would belong to the two Station Leaders (OICs we used to call them), a man for Davis and a woman for Mawson, and the two doctors, both male. This group would be 50s or more. Even the ship crew are youngish. The Captain might be 50, the Chief Engineer looks about 30. I would think that I am (not surprisingly) the oldest on board. 37 years ago I was among the youngest, but much closer to the mean age than I am now.
Day 11 Friday 14 November
Our second day in the pack ice, but our path southwest is little impeded. The ship slows or speeds as the resistance of the ice waxes and wanes, but we continue to move at 5 or 10 knots in our chosen direction. From within the ship, our progress is accompanied by a steady, sometimes urgent, sighing as floes and fragmented ice scrape and scratch the sides of the hull. From time to time comes a shudder and a thump as a larger floe is forced to yield to the ship’s motion, but that at the moment is not frequent.
From topside, with the pack ice laid out from near at hand to the horizon, it is plain (to paraphrase the old ad) that “ice ain’t ice”. The sea ice comes in a thousand different shapes and sizes and colours and textures. It is as varied as the look of the land in any other part of the planet.
At times the sheet seems almost unbroken, with the narrow leads and cracks tucked mostly out of sight. We could almost be on a winter shrouded inland plateau. At other times the open water yawns wide, and the floating ice becomes a mere decoration.
The thickness and texture of the ice tells of his history. What we are seeing is mostly new ice, perhaps only a few weeks old. It is thin, 20 or 30 centimetres, and flat and dusted lightly with snow. Some floes are 20 or even 50 more metres across, or at least they were until fragmented and cast aside by the ship. Older ice, up to a year in age, is both thicker and more heavily burdened with snow. The snow weighs the ice down and can sculpt its bright white surface into crests and cornices which might stand a metre or more high.
With the some of the older floe are overturned by the ship, their secrets are revealed. We can see the depths of the snow and the thickness of the floe itself. The thickest floes may be the result of rafting, with one flow humped on the back of another. Such a union can be seen in the side of an overturned floe. Brown staining in the ice at the bottom shows the presence of plankton, microscopic floating plants that signal the productivity of the polar ocean.
Other ice is newly hatched, perhaps as recently as last night. The average sea temperature is down nearly to -1.8 degrees, the temperature at which sea water freezes, and so new ice can form at almost any time. Fresh from the womb, sea ice born in calm conditions is a pale almost transparent skin upon the water, briefly flexible enough to withstand the motion of sea surface without cracking. It soon thickens and stiffens and whitens, generating an almost infinite greyscale that shades towards the brilliant whiteness of old snow-covered ice.
Among this immense variety, it is the colour that is most surprising. The ice is blue, not white, blue in itself and not just because it is partly underwater. Pure whiteness belongs to snow. Ice filters out the yellow and red tones from sunlight, passing on only the blue. So any crevice or cavity seems lit from within by striking blueness.
This is revealed with greatest effect within icebergs, with their massive vertical surfaces and wave-carved indentations. Every face seems shot through with blue tonings, and a cavern in the side of an iceberg throbs with the colour. Where ice melts and refreezes, air bubbles are expelled and the colour becomes even more intense. Hence the term “blue ice”, though in truth all ice is blue.
A slight correction. We have heard about “jade icebergs”, which are green. This apparently is the consequence of sea water freezing beneath a floating ice shelf and attaching itself to the ice above. The frozen sea water contains plankton, hence the colour. I will let you know if I see one.
As we continue southwest (we are currently around 63 south, 88 east), we are passing over a ridge on the sea floor where the water is 2000 metres deep instead of the usual 4000. This bulge connects the coastline near the Russian base at Mirny to Heard and Keguelen Islands which lie 1000 km north west.
It is a relic of the disintegration of Gondwanaland 100 million years ago. Australia, India and Africa parted company with Antarctica, opening up the Indian and Southern Oceans as we know them today. As a result, Heard Island is still actively volcanic, and at the southern end onshore stands the extinct Gaussberg.
The Gaussberg lies west of the Shackleton Ice Shelf. It was here that the western party of Mawson’s 1911-1914 AAE set up a base. The need to send the Aurora collect those men started the chain of events that lead to Mawson being stranded with companions at Commonwealth Bay after his epic lone survival.
Mirny lies directly in the path of a total eclipse of the Sun predicted for 23 November this year. On the morning it occurs, we are due to leave Davis and steam west to delivery cargo to the Chinese base in the Larsmann Hills. So unless plans change, we will find ourselves just outside the zone of totality. We will see the Sun 95% eclipsed.
It strikes me that though these jottings have provided some impressions of the passing polar parade, it may not be clear to everyone how I come to be here. I have my berth aboard by the grace of the Antarctic Division and by virtue of my long (nearly 40 year) association with the ANARE Club. All expeditioners are entitled to belong to the Club, which brings them together from time to time, at Midwinter Dinners and the like, so perpetuating a unique sense of comradeship.
I have some duties to perform, enrolling the current generation of expeditioners in the Club, and reporting back my impressions to those still at warmer latitudes. That is one of the purposes of these daily reports. And I am doing whatever else I can to be useful. It is a very small price to pay such an experience.
Day 12 Saturday 15 November
Last night, another high latitude experience. At much the same hour (a little before midnight) as two nights ago when I was watching an aurora against a dark sky, I was tonight watching the afterglow of sunset. The sun itself had gone but given the shallow track it takes so far from the equator it was not far below the horizon. The sky was still bright with light and colour, with a pink wash all round, and in the west of line of clouds still burned orange and gold above the departed sun.
In technical terms, we were still in civil twilight, with enough light to undertake everyday activities. I could have read a newspaper, had I had one. Civil twilight ends with the sun six degrees down, and that may have happened soon after the cold drove me indoors. Certainly the fire in the west had gone cold.
But the next stage, nautical twilight, which ends with the sun 12 degrees below the horizon and the horizon itself no longer discernible, would not have ended last night, And without even an entry into astronomical twilight, we would have been denied any view of the stars, even though the sky was clear.
These musings are clearly those of a mid-latitude man, where sunset at eight o’clock (daylight saving excepted) is late enough still to be respectable. Those who live at high latitudes, in upper Scandinavia or Russia or Canada a world used to such “white nights”.
But for the rest of us, a sky is still bright at midnight takes some getting used to. With three degrees still to travel to the Antarctic Circle, and five weeks to pass until the summer solstice, the conjunction of which factors generates the phenomena of the midnight sun, the midnight sky has still some brightening to do.
While I pondered the sky, the pack ice continued to pass. It now covered most of the sea, but being thin, it offered little resistance to the ship. The engines were audible but only just, and we seem to move across a frozen landscape almost in silence.
Perhaps the right word is ” glide”, or perhaps “float” in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense. Only near the ship’s side did the ice take any notice of our passing. It seemed to me we approached Antarctica with as little noise and fuss as James Cook In the Resolution two centuries before. With a pink tinged sky above, and the ice stretching away below, the overpowering emotion was a sense of serenity.
I am in my possie in a corner of the conference room where I spend a lot of my time.
A couple of people have come in to buy post cards, so those stocks are slowly dwindling, and I will do another push before people get off the boat at Davis.
We are pushing steadily through the pack-ice, and the sound of scraping on the hull is almost continuous. I
Cereal for breakfast again today, but by the time I had added some nuts and dried fruit it was as good as you would buy.
News is that I will not be living ashore once we get to Davis. There is not enough room with over 100 people on the base (including 60 summer trip scientists). The round trippers, the Mawsonites and even some of the Davis people will continue to live on the ship while we are there, though of course we will be going ashore every day.
With a late Sunday arrival and a 23 November departure, will have only six days. They will be busy. On the trip back, the ship will be half empty.
A few things have changed. The sun is shining for only the second day, brightening the sea ice and making dark glasses and sun-cream obligatory. Not a cloudless sky but enough to fire a billion glittering points in the snow covering the sea ice.
Secondly the ice has thickened and often dominates the sea entirely, as far as the eye can see… We are further south and less ice has been melted by the advancing spring. It has not yet an equal contest, but today the ship must work harder to maintain its path. Occasionally, the ice wins, and the ship is brought to a halt. It is forced to back up and to seek another route.
Much of the time, the captain follows a “lead”, a narrow opening in the ice which can wind like a river among the floes. But these leads can close or run out or take the ship in the wrong direction. Then we must cut “across country”, sometimes breaking through, sometimes not.
The tranquility I spoke of earlier is harder to find today. From the bow, and even more from the chamber below the bow where the anchor chains and mooring cables are kept, the noise of battle is unmistakable. The ship is winning, but at some cost in time and effort.
The ice maintains its fascinating variety. Much of the open water, where it occurs, seems smeared with grease. Here layers of very new ice crystals cover the water, dulling its sheen and smoothing out the ripples. A little later, the thickening mats of crystals begin to overlay each other, forming large brighter patches with astonishingly straight sides. I am told this is a consequence of the crystal structure of the ice, the microscopic made large and plain.
To liven the passing ice, we caught our first glimpses of wildlife; a group of a dozen penguins, a few seals and a variety of birds. These, like the currently sparse icebergs, are sure to thicken as we close on the Antarctic coastline.
Social activities centered on the Husky Bar last night, with a full house to witness a talent quest under the title “Antarctic Idol”. It was hosted by a couple of the ship’s crew, who succeeded in inducing our Chinese fellow passengers (we are taking them to their base which lies a little west of Davis) to perform. The applause shook the walls. We had some Scottish folk dance music, with dancing (“William Wallace and the Wives”), and a pair of Dusty Springfield impersonators (“The Mawson Girls”), interspersed with jokes from whoever was willing to get up and tell one. A lively and enjoyable night, helped along by infusions of light beer and passable wine. The nights are festivities will be on the trawl deck, where the crew will put on a barbecue.
Watching for the ice slide by from the helideck gave me a chance for a good yarn with Bob Jones, the incoming Station Leader for Davis. He will be the man in the middle for the summer of science, attending to the needs of 100 people, 60 of them scientists. He will stay on to lead a much smaller team through the winter.
At 55, Bob is a veteran of eight voyages south and five winterings, four of them as Leader. When at home in Bendigo, he is a vet. The influences that drew him south for the first time in the 1980s were mixed; reading The Fire on the Snow in school, being in Scouts, getting involved in bird banding (and discovering that some of the birds had come from Sub Antarctic islands).
This lead to trips to Heard Island on expeditions to see why the numbers of elephant seals were declining, and ultimately to winterings at Macquarie Island Mawson and Davis. So Antarctica is in his blood and he keeps going back, though he admits to a certain sense of selfishness.
The hectic pace of scientific research at Davis through the summer is exciting, Bob says. Once the summer parties leave, the winter is a very different experience, with the same sense of isolation as of old despite the improvements in communications. In time, he thinks, the culture of the summer and winter parties will diverge, and the imminent replacement of the long sea voyage by an eight-hour plane trip will accelerate that trend.
Day 13 Sunday 16 November
This is now our fourth day in the pack ice but one should end with our arrival at Davis. The latest bulletin on the whiteboard in the dining room now sets ETA at midnight. As of now (after breakfast) we are still 100 nautical miles (200 km) to the northwest of our target. That is 10 hours steaming at 10 knots. We can exceed that in the open water or through a thin ice crust, but tougher ice will slow us considerably.
And at the end of the journey, we will still have the challenge of the fast ice, one or even two metres thick, clinging tenaciously to the shore. For a successful arrival, we need to push within three or four kilometres of the base. For one thing, the lines which are to carry fuel ashore to resupply the base generators are only four kilometres long. Breaking through to that point is likely to be hard work
Last night, we crossed another major boundary, the Antarctic Circle, 66.7 degrees from the equator. This precise number is set by the tilt of the Earth’s axis. Within the Circle, there are days or even weeks when the sun does not rise at all around midwinter, and equally days in the middle of summer when it does not set. This is the realm of the “midnight sun”, the “real Antarctica” if there is such a thing.
Ironically this was the latitude at which Antarctica attempted to bar the door to us. The plot of our track overnight, generated by the amazing GPS and displayed on a monitor in the conference room where I write, shows that the captain found his way directly south to Davis blocked by obdurate ice. He was forced to turn west for 100 km or more, almost along the line of the Antarctic Circle, to find a way through. That is why our course is now southeast, and we still have 200 kilometres to go.
I confess to watching the passing ice through the porthole rather than face-to-face. The temperature outside is -10, although it is almost calm and so no wind chill. I will wait until there is more excitement before I venture out. Actually it’s not very warm inside, at least in this room. Some parts of the ship are better heated than others. My guess is that the temperature here is less than 10ï¿½ and my fingers feel a little chilled.
All these factors, the ice, the cold, the winds, the immense distances, fill me again with admiration, even awe, for the exploits of the early navigators and explorers, who came into these remote icebound waters in tiny, flimsy, wooden sided and wind-powered ships. Those men, and the scientists (again almost all male at least in the early days) who came after them, are my heroes, if I have any. Even with all our technological aids, Antarctica is a challenge. How much more so then.
I have heard these men criticised for abandoning their wives and families to years of uncertain waiting and watching while they (the egotistical heroes), plumbed the unknown. It is probably now very politically incorrect to say so, but I believe that a questing and questioning spirit is a common element of the male psyche. I suspect that evolution put it there.
Many women have it too, just as many men share the equally vital qualities typical of women. But I suggest that a desire, or even a need, to explore is one of the indications that, on the whole, men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
Later: With journey’s end less than a day distant, the last tasks are being squared away. Cabins given a check by the quarantine officer (very concerned to avoid any alien species of plant, animal or bug entering the continent) and inspected by the ship’s crew (reportedly very impressed by our tidiness). Final packing done by those going ashore to stay or flying on to Mawson. Final briefings on helicopter operations and safety on the sea ice. Planning meetings for the teams who will be unloading the ship or monitoring the pumping of fuel ashore. Writing of postcards so that they can be franked from Davis.
Current indications continue that we will reach Davis around midnight. So no going ashore tonight. Gangplank down in the morning, and the current Davis leader will come ashore for a briefing. Then the real adventure will start. I will update this report later as we draw near to Davis.
Day 14 Monday 17 November
The big news is that we have arrived. The Aurora Australis is now parked about three and a half kilometres (an hours walk) off shore from Davis base. The wharf at which we are docked it is made of ice, the hard one metre think “fast ice” that clings to the shore and between the offshore islands. The base is visible from the ship, its cluster of multi-coloured buildings (lime green, dark green, yellow, blue and red) distinct against the snow-hung rocks on which it is built.
Graders have already begun scraping the snow off the ice to make a road (dual carriageway, no less) across the fast ice between the ship and the shore. Communication lines will be laid and four kilometres of hose rolled out, ready to carry 600,000 litres of fuel from the ship’s bunkers to tanks onshore to feed the generators. Unloading has begun and may be complete in two days.
After 4000 kilometres of ocean and ice, the hardest work was late yesterday, coming the last few kilometres to our mooring. Through much of yesterday we kept up a good speed, 10 knots or more southeast through waters lightly crusted with grey translucent ice.
By mid afternoon, a line of low dark brown hills, our first sure glimpse of Antarctica, had emerged to separate the overcast sky (grey above, whiter near the horizon) from the multi-toned sea ice with its few studs of icebergs. The scene was almost devoid of colour, just a flash here and there of blue from an iceberg to break up the many shades of grey.
There was a little life on the ice. We disturbed a few seals and rather more penguins who ran, tobogganed or humped away at our approach. From time to time we crossed and broke lines of penguin tracks, with the marks of both feet and bellies (for tobogganing) evident.
As the afternoon went on, a few islands detached themselves from the background of the hills. Gardner Island, home to many penguins, and therefore a popular site to visit (I hope to get there myself) lay just to starboard, and Anchor Island, whose association was clear, just to port. Our route lay between the two. We could now see the final barrier, the bright white sheets of fast ice, kilometres wide, through which we would have to break.
The ship struck the fast ice at more than 10 knots, shuddering as it rode over the edge and its weight began to bear down and part the ice. As the shattered pieces turned sideways we could gauge its one metre thickness and rich blue colour. This was massive ice, not easily split like the floes we had seen so far. Within 200 metres the refusal of the ice to yield had slowed the ship to a halt. A war of attrition then began.
For hours the ship went forward and back, hitting the unsplit ice at 7 knots, breaking through for 100 or 50 metres or even less, and then withdrawing. On the ice beside us, some of the soon-to-be-departing Davis winterers, in orange freezer suits and riding quad bikes, urged us on, anxious for the ship to dock so they could get their mail and fresh fruit. And the odd penguin looked on.
When the Captain decided we were far enough in, he called it quits and shut down the engines for the first time in two weeks. We were here. The ship was unaccustomedly motionless, and if not silent, at least without the beat of the engines which had been our constant companions for a fortnight. It was only six in the evening, so we had arrived six hours early.
To add a special touch to our new situation, light snow began to fall, dimming and blanching the view, and cutting us of from our view of the base. The gangway was lowered and the more impatient ones went down to stand on, if not solid ground, at least something that did not constantly shift beneath their feet.
The outgoing Station Leader, Jeremy Smith drove out to the ship in his ute to welcome us and set the scene. The usual method to get the three plus km to shore will be shanks pony. Water is very short, especially since the reverse osmosis plant has broken down, so don’t waste it. Stay away from places where the signs say “stay away”, otherwise you are free to go anywhere. And most importantly, the excellent locally brewed ales available at the bar after work will be both free and gratis.
He also announced that I would be one of the first coming in to go out again. With two other round-trippers I will be choppered out, weather permitting, this afternoon (Monday) for a two day “jolly” (the ANARE term for a trip mostly for pleasure) to a field hut at Platcha, 20 km east across the icefree Vestfold Hills.
What we will see and do there I am not sure, but everyone assures me that this is a great gig and a priviledge and I will have an excellent time. I am certainly looking forward to it and will report fully to you (hopefully with pictures) when I return.
Day 15 Tuesday 18 November
As I am away “in the field” tonight, enjoy the delights of the “Chateau Plateau” aka Platcha Hut, today’s entry is “one I prepared earlier”. I thought you might find useful some information about Davis and its place in the world. (in several senses).
Davis is one of four research bases operated by Australia through the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) which is in turn part of seeing Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage. Two of the other bases are on the Antarctic mainland, Casey further east and Mawson further west. The third is on Macquarie Island, south of Tasmania in the “sub-Antarctic”.
Davis sits on the shoreline within a large area of ice free rock known as the Vestfold Hills. Roughly triangular in shape and covering 400 square km, the Vestfold Hills are bounded on the east by the ice-covered plateau, on the south by the Sordsal Glacier and on the west and north by the sea, fringed in fast ice.
In the bigger picture, Davis is a little east of a major embayment in the Antarctic coast line called Prydz Bay. Much of this is filled with a major shelf of floating ice, the Amery Ice Shelf, 400 km long, 200 km wide at the mouth, with ice some 400 thick. This about the size of NSW, and is the third largest such shelf in Antarctica (only the Ross and Rohne are bigger, about the size of France.)
Ice in the shelf comes from the world’s biggest glacier, the Lambert which drains much of East Antarctica. The behaviour of such glaciers and ice shelves in time of global climate change is of vital concern, as indicators and even causes of change. As a result, a lot of attention is being paid to the Amery by scientists here at Davis over the summer.
Doing research is one of the four stated reasons for being here at Davis and the other stations. Another is monitoring global climate change, a research function but one thought to be so important as to be worth a separate listing. Looking after the environment is another, though the environment would probably look after itself if we weren’t here.
The last is a political role, to support the Antarctic Treaty System, the international regime which governs what can and cannot be done down here. Under the Treaty, territorial claims are set aside and cannot be either enforced or negated. Australia maintains a claim to 40% of the mainland of Antarctica, and for example prints Australian Antarctic Territory stamps.
The research function makes Davis very busy in summer. About 60 researchers are now on station, working here and in the field on programs for mapping, geology, geophysics, glaciology and many aspects of the wildlife. I plan to write more about these later, perhaps during the homeward trip.
If you want to position Davis on a map, look at latitude 68 degrees 30, and longitude 77 degrees 54 east. This puts us perhaps 100 km inside the Antarctic Circle and somewhere south-ish of India (I have no atlas on hand to confirm that).
Day 16 Wednesday 19 November
Day 17 Thursday 20 November
Well, patient readers, here we go along with Day 17.
What happened to Day 16, I hear you cry? Yesterday was largely lost to high winds and drifting snow which marooned us at Platcha Hut, 20 kilometres east of the main Davis base, for an extra day since the helicopters could not fly. The weather conditions also kept us indoors today, except for trips to the “red shed” to commune with nature in several senses, and also for quick “digital camera” moments, as the sun broke through and filled the scene before us with soft light.
But no matter. The time at Platcha was time very well spent. We saw and did so much that people take more than one diary entry to give you anything like the full picture. Suffice to say, to begin with, that it was the authentic Antarctic experience. The Hut stood on the shore of a frozen lake, or to be more precise an arm of a frozen fjord, over which we could have travelled by quad bike or tracked vehicle back to Davis in a couple of hours. By helicopter it was only a few minutes, but to walk would have taken the best part of a day.
So remoteness and isolation are the words most appropriate. Around the blue-tinged, snow-dappled lake rounded brown hills led to the north, cut through by darker stripes of rock. To the south east, a wall of ice and snow 50 metres high looked down, with its back to the vast Antarctic Plateau. If we had scaled that, we could have set our feet on the 1500 kilometre march to the Pole, across essentially trackless blue ice. With
The first night after our arrival we donned crampons, grabbed ice axes and walked on the water. The wind had dropped to nothing, and the silence was, as they say, deafening. Here we could drink in that unforgettable Antarctic stillness. Nothing moved unless we ourselves moved, and our movements made the only sound. The Antarctic silence is one of my most deeply ingrained memories from 37 years ago. Hearing it again was welcoming.
I overstate the case slightly. There was other movement, but only of snow petrels. These pure white, fragile birds, with their bright eyes, nest among the brown rocks, and love to soar and swoop when the winds are challenging. How they survive in this frigid landscape, with any source of food dozens of kilometres away across the fast ice, taxes the mind.
Other than the snow petrels, and a pair of orange clad expeditioners who arrived on quad bikes one afternoon for a cup of tea and a chat (one of them apologised for disturbing our solitude), we were the only living things of measurable size. Our minder, Tony, whose praises I cannot sing highly enough, took to turning over likely looking rocks to see if some lichen or moss was hiding beneath. But he found nothing. Too cold, too dry.
The hut was cosy. Two double bunks along one pair of walls, a compact kitchen on another, with a door in the fourth wall leading to the “cold porch”, a sort of airlock to keep the Antarctic air out. We had a gas fire and stove, and most mod cons, though the loo was definitely outside, and the only renewable source of water was a nearby snow drift.
When the wind came up, it sang in the roof vent, scratched at the walls and even rattled them at times. But the weather was mostly well-behaved. The below zero temperatures did not bite with any severity, and drifting snow never cut visibility below a kilometre or so.
The next day we crossed the ridge behind the hut, to seek out a freshwater lake (the water before a further Plateau being salt). But I will leave a discussion of that and more of the unforgettable Platcha Hut environment to another time.
We were finally released from our pleasurable isolation by the arrival of the helicopter at 1100 this morning. The return journey swept us over the Plateau and then along a narrow frozen fjord, running between the now familiar brown striped hills. Fresh and saltwater lakes with their distinctive colours and markings passed by either side, with only the deepest and most saline free of ice.
As we neared the coast, an orange point in the fast ice ahead marked the position of our ship, locked in the bright white fast ice four kilometres offshore from the gaggle of multi-coloured buildings that is Davis base today. Beyond the ship we could glimpse open water, toothed by icebergs, and nearer at hand, low snow-streaked islands.
Three days of regular traffic across the sea ice had left a definite track from ship to shore, but with the resupply largely completed during our three days away, though there was now little movement. Even the refuellers had rolled up their four kilometres of hose and put it away.
Once the helicopter had delivered us back to base, Tony led a quick tour of the precinct; living quarters, the powerhouse, the emergency vehicles sheds, workshops, laboratories, storehouses, the big blue meteorological building, clusters of antennas water tanks. Behind one building stood an impressive array of heavy vehicles and earthmoving equipment.
Davis could be a remote mining settlement anywhere in Australia, except that the roads are paved with frozen melt water and shouldered by banks of dirt-stained snow, and everyone is rather more warmly dressed.
The fast ice was more than a road into ship; it was now also an airfield. Two bright red aircraft, Twin Otters chartered from a Canadian firm and which the flown right across Antarctica to be here, have been at work on a shuttle service to Mawson base further west, delivering the next year’s wintering party and bringing back last year’s team who will return with us on the ship. They, and the helicopters, have also begun to ferry parties of scientists into the field.
The fast ice has also acquired another resident, the Kapitan Kelebnikov, an icebreaker now serving as a cruise ship, much bigger than the Aurora Australis. It looks like a floating apartment block. It has come at great expense to its passengers to Antarctica to enable them to view the total eclipse of the Sun which is due to occur near here in two days time. As I sit here writing this, the KK’s eclipse-chasing passengers are coming ashore for a tour of Davis.
The Kapitan Klebnikov joins us at Davis.
Pictures captured during David’s visit and presented courtesy of the Australian Antarctic Division.
Must close. It is time to get back ashore for a farewell barbecue and to attend to other tasks. The word is that the AA will sail from here at 1300 tomorrow.
Day 18 Friday 21 November
With an emergency muster drill over, and the beat of the ship’s engines once more in my ears, I sit down to try to bring you up to date. That will take some time, as the last five days at Davis have been full of fascination. I started this task yesterday and it will fill as least some of the days ahead.
The gangway went up at 1330 today, and after some head counting and name checking to ensure we were all aboard, the ship began to move 20 minutes later. Using all its substantial power, the AA cut itself free and, swinging in a semicircle, was pointed once more for the open sea. In its wake, massive slabs of fractured fast ice were upended, their cross section showing first a thin coating of snow, then a metre of more of hard, blue ice and at the bottom the brown stain of plankton.
We pushed west though the rubble of our entry five days before. A few strolling penguins watched us pass, waddling or tobogganing away if we got too close. Behind us, the coast and the base soon became dim with distance, and the knot of human figures, standing on the ice to see us off, quickly followed. I have little doubt that feelings among them will be mixed, as they will be among the 40 or so returning home with us after a year away.
We cleared the fast ice in a few minutes, and continued west to follow the coast. Our first destination is the research base at Zhong Shan, run by the Chinese Antarctic Research Expedition (ChinARE), about 100 kilometres down the coast. We have half a dozen of their expeditioners on aboard and tomorrow will unload supplies for them. It seems that the Chinese are keen to access Australian expertise in Antarctic matters. We are, after all, one of the most active nations. with a long history.
At the moment we are pushing at good speed through pack ice which varies from very light to a little more troublesome. I can hear once again the familiar scratching on the hull, and occasionally the ship shudders from the impact with a larger than usual floe. Through the port hole there is little to see of the coast; the low brown hills have fallen behind and only icebergs are visible.
I awoke this morning to find the KK had sailed during the night, leaving only a large hole of the fast ice. Returning late last night after the farewell party ashore, I had strolled 400 metres across the ice for a closer view. It was nearly midnight, but only heavy cloud seemed to limit the amount of light available. Somewhere behind the clouds the sun had only just set. Again, the silence was palpable, broken only by the sounds of my footsteps in the crusty snow, and more faintly, the calls of penguins on an island rookery a kilometre away.
This morning was busy. I went calling on the penguins in the company of a couple of scientists. There was so much to see there that I will leave that story to another day. But I did secure an on-location interview with one of them (one of the scientists, not one of the penguins) which I plan to use in a radio program with the working title “A Summer of Science at Davis.ï¿½ That interview will go with four others I got last night, mostly by dragging people away from their drinks.
After a quick interview by phone with the ABC for the Tony Delroy program, I raced across to the mess in time to miss most of the official handover from the old party to the new. It had obviously been quite emotional, with lots of words of praise for those who had put in the extra mile during the year here.
Behind the gathering, a large picture window looked across the ice to the ship which would soon carry the old hands away. I recall this moment, if not this setting. There were plenty of hugs, and a few tears, and in many, it seemed, a resolve to return. A big young mechanic called Mark told me that plans are well set for a reunion of the Davis 2003 crew at the Midwinter Dinner in Adelaide next year. I hope that at least some of them will still be meeting 35 years hence, as we still do as the men of Mawson 1966
Yarning last night over a glass or three of the excellent home brew, I found that it had been a good year, with few significant issues, helped by excellent leadership. The doctor told me he had had a quiet year, with only two cases that might have needed surgery but in fact did not. The presence of four women was generally agreed to have enhanced everyone’s experience.
I had already heard that the highly trained and enthusiastic emergency crews (for fire and for search and rescue) had had little to do beyond drills and the answering of false alarms. Speaking on the ship with Helen, the young Army psychologist who will be debriefing expeditions on the trip home, she remarked with a twinkle that Davis 2003 had been “a boring year”.
But she still have some important work to do. As the homebound doctor remarked last night, being in Antarctica nowadays could be judged a highly protected experience, unlike the harsh isolation faced by the early expeditioners. Everything is provided, conditions are comfortable, and the everyday world with its many problems and issues seems (indeed is) far away. Reconnecting with the many people will need help.
Day 19 Saturday 22 November
A quiet Saturday afternoon in Antarctica, our 19th day since leaving Hobart. It is quiet for me at least, with time to catch my breath after a hectic last day in Davis. Elsewhere, there is activity. Helicopters are being loaded with cargo, ready to be carried across the fast ice to the Chinese base at Zhong Shan, out of sight the beyond the horizon.
We are parked at the edge of the fast ice some 35 kilometres out from shore. The ship cannot penetrate any closer in. Last year, about three weeks later, the AA was able to break through to within 10 kilometres, but the ice is much thicker and tougher this year. The Captain says the ship would expend too much fuel by pushing on.
So it is up to the choppers. Some 50 or 60 flights will be needed to deliver all the goods, each one taking a half or three-quarters of an hour round trip. We will not finish today. While other helicopters are operating, we are barred from going on deck or to the bridge, so we sit inside, largely detached from the activity above.
To describe the scene: the ship is bow in to a stretch of fast ice many kilometres wide. It is coated with snow and largely featureless, but near at hand, where the snow is heaped up, pockets and crevices glow from within with the rich blue light that has become so familiar. Behind us lies open water and fractured pack ice. The engines throb gently to keep us in position, though it is almost calm.
Straining my eyes forward, I can see some ice cliffs and even a few dark brown hills, here and there, which mark the coast. Some icebergs appear to be frozen-in, close to the shore. The sky is a pale overcast, as it has been much of our time down here, but along the horizon through some blue sky and cloud catching the yellow light.
Obviously, we will not be getting ashore, but I have had a description of the Chinese base and also of a Russian base called Progress, which is only a kilometre or two further away. These came from the returning Davis doctor, who I yarned with this morning. He dropped in on both earlier in the year.
Compared with the Australian bases, the others are poorly equipped, though they have new accommodation buildings. Equipment at Progress is old, and money is clearly very short. The Chinese have very little (at least in terms of medical equipment) though there is evidence that funds are starting to flow.
He also thought those expeditioners lead restricted lives, again when compared with Australians. They are not permitted away from the base and into the field, on the sort of trips that so brighten the year for our winterers. I was intrigued to see that at least one of the Chinese expeditioners we have had onboard seemed to have no appropriate Antarctic clothing. He would regularly turn up on deck in ordinary shoes and a mismatched suit jacket and trousers.
Jeremy, the returning Davis Station Leader, commented (perhaps jokingly) that the first cargo ashore would consist of slabs of beer. These would not, it seems, be drunk at the station, but rather be donated to Davis throughout the year, with as thanks for the help the Chinese would receive. While at Davis I also noted a fax from the leader of the Russian station, asking if they could buy some cigarettes, there being “some difficulty with tobacco productsï¿½.
These are trivial glimpses of a much larger picture, namely the cooperative and international nature of operations in Antarctica. Our support for the Chinese resupply is a more substantial one. The Russian and Chinese bases (and some other Russian facilities) stand within what is often called Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). There is no problem with that, under the terms of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, since all territorial claims are set aside (I refrain from saying “put on ice”).
The Antarctic Treaty, which many see as a model for international relations, makes Antarctica essentially “a continent for science”. There is free access anywhere for the purposes of scientific research, and representatives of Treaty nations can call at any base at any time to see that the requirements of the Treaty are being observed. Military activities are forbidden, as is the testing of nuclear weapons and the storage of nuclear waste.
Furthermore, under the more recent Madrid Protocol to the Treaty, the sorts of economic activities to which some nations have aspired, mining for minerals or drilling for energy reserves, are now outlawed (at least for 50 years). This protocol also put in place measures to protect the Antarctic environment, matters given little emphasis when I was here in 1966
This does not mean the territorial claims have been forgotten or that geopolitical issues are now considered unimportant. Australia, like the six other claimant nations, continues to quietly promote its claim, for example through the printing of AAT stamps, and by maintaining an effective occupation of the region through its scientific bases. We see the claim and our high level of activity as helping give us leverage in the international Antarctic community.
But the other objectives of the Australian Antarctic Program have substantial, and perhaps at least equal, worth; the protection of the Antarctic environment, the monitoring of the impacts on global climate change, and the carrying out of scientific research of practical, national or economic importance.
I do not see these , as cynics might, as mere covers for our primary purpose of claiming territory. They are substantial, valuable, and indeed highly successful activities in their own right, and collectively justify the expenditure of many tens of millions of dollars of taxpayerï¿½s money every year to support our Antarctic presence.
One way to represent this changing emphasis over the years is to consider a range of Departments in which the Australian Antarctic Division has found itself over the last 50 or more years. In the early days, including during “my time”, the Division answered to the Department of External Affairs, pointing to the geopolitical concerns of the time. As I recall, it then moved to the Department of Supply (with an emphasis on logistics), then to the Department of Science, and lastly to its present association with Environment and Heritage. That is, I suspect, where it should, and will, stay.
Day 20 Sunday 23 November
As we move through Day 20, our sojourn offshore from Zhong Shan continues. The helicopters were up again at 0830, roaring across the fast ice to the south with 300 and 400 kg loads slung beneath. I helped for a while with preparations. The loads seem to be mostly food in bottles and cans and packages all labeled in Chinese. The air is cold, perhaps minus five or less, with breath steaming continually, but there is little wind and the chill does not bite. Antarctica continues to show a welcoming face
Although the run-in to shore is much longer than expected, hopes are high that we will finish the task by this evening and can then be on our way. The Sit Rep published today (see below) suggests that we will be heading for Fremantle, which is certainly our ultimate destination, but there remains a possibility we will pass through the eclipse zone at the right time tomorrow morning. What the weather will do is anyone’s guess but we have not seen a full sun for several days. I will report on all of that tomorrow.
Around us, as the helicopters have done their work, Antarctica remains drowsy. Behind us, loose pack ice drift slowly westward, carrying an occasional group of seals or penguins. The neighbourhood is not thronging with wildlife and what we see is usually several hundred metres distant. But that is the nature of the place. Concentrations of animals are rare and usually confined to breeding sites.
In this pause, there is time to think back over some of the events of the last busy week. In talking about my memorable visit to Platcha hut, I left hanging the story of our second day. This took us over the bare, rock strewn ridge behind the hut and down to a frozen lake of freshwater.
We were out into the crisp, calm, cold air around ten in the morning, We wore full gear; multiple layers underneath (such at least six), yellow ventile wind-proofs with fur- trimmed hoods outside, great clod-hopper boots with duffle linings, ear protectors, neck warmers, balaclavas and beanies, gloves and sunglasses and suncream. I donned my 37-year-old original ANARE issue brown balaclava, the only item from 1966 I still possess, determined to give it one more airing in the place where it did me such service
An extra protection came from instep crampons, sets of metal spikes that fitted under our boots just in front of the heel and which could give us some traction, though not a lot, on the ice. It was always better to look for patches of snow on which to plant our feet.
We expected to be gone no more than three or four hours, and the weather looked harmless enough, but we all carried ice axes, I had a backpack with food and drink, and our minder Tony lugged a substantial load of emergency and survival gear. You never take chances in Antarctica.
On our left as we climbed, the edge of the Antarctic plateau rose up, blue and white, above our heads toward the pale overcast sky… Where the wall of snow abutted a substantial rock outcrop, the sun warmed rocks had melted a narrow corridor, several metres deep and floored with hard blue ice. With Tony watching closely, I scrambled down into its depths and out again, climbing the rocky outcrop.
Every step that day, I walked on history. The diversity of rocks beneath our feet was stunning, with an immense array of colours and textures. With no vegetation to hide them, these rocks could plainly tell their tale. Every one was a piece of the jigsaw puzzle of how that place had come to be over perhaps billions of years.
I struggled to use my small amount of geological knowledge to piece together some sense of its story. One thing was clear. All the rocks I saw were of the types the boffins call “igneous” and “metamorphic”, the products of intense heat and pressure. This now frigid, icebound land was born long ago in fire. Dark stripes cutting across the brown hills proved to be veins of basalt-like volcanic rock, where long ago lava had forced its way through weaknesses and out onto the surface.
There was some real finds. Tony pointed out a couple of rocks in which pink garnet crystals stood out from a white background. We admired them and then carefully put them back into the place they come from. That is now the way Antarctica should be treated.
Coming down from the ridges, we walked onto the surface of a frozen lake, edged with drifts of snow. Unlike the frozen fjord we had explored the previous night, this one had no tide cracks, no pressure ridges around the edge. This lake was landlocked, and the water beneath the ice was fresh. It had its own special colour, a distinctive pattern of cracks ran across the snow rippled surface, and the ice itself was a stunning sight.
In some places, the ice was clear enough to see down 20 or 30 centimetres; in others it seemed whitely opaque. On hands and knees, we could see why. Beneath a clear lid a few centimetres thick, white ice crystals formed a forest of hollow vertical tubes, of many shapes but all about as wide as your finger. I was reminded of my experience on Kilimanjaro, where overnight at altitude of around 4000 metres, the ground froze and hollow tubes of ice sprouted from the soil.
Even in the clear patches, there was a multitude of detail; fracture lines sometimes running a metre or more, stripes and clusters of frozen bubbles breaking the ice up into cells. It was amazing to see.
We discussed why this might occur here and perhaps not elsewhere. One answer was that this is undisturbed territory, subject to extremes of nature but no human interference, and so there is peace for freezing water to respond to subtle shifts in temperatures and currents to generate such wonders.
From higher ground we took in the broader view; frozen lakes and fjords looked back at us from all directions, blue-tinged snow banks buttressed the rock faces with their secrets on show. There was a little wind, and snowflakes fell gently, but again the Antarctic stillness gripped us. Words cannot really express how we felt.
Day 21 Monday 24 November
What a morning! We saw the eclipse. It was not total, but all but, and certainly worth getting up early for. Indeed, on such a glorious morning it would have been a shame to be in bed, eclipse or not.
Let me go back a bit. We started to feel good about the prospects yesterday afternoon and evening. We finished the fly off to Zhong Shan not long after lunch, stowed the helicopters back in their hangar on board, backed away from the fast ice and headed north at five knots.
Already the sky was beginning to lighten. The overcast broke and was replaced by rolls of altocumulus cloud with blue sky showing in between. Along the horizon to the south sky was clear, and clouds in the west caught the yellow light of the hidden sun. A pale pink cast enveloped the ice and the cold air was almost still. It was, in short, a beautiful evening
The down side was that our course would not take us any closer to the zone where the eclipse would be total, albeit briefly. That lay quite a distance to the east, around the Russian base at Mirny. That was the direction in which the KK had gone after leaving us at Davis, seeking a slot in which its passengers could enjoy the astronomical experience they had paid $A 40,000 for.
I thought that by now I had seen all the variety the sea ice had to offer, but that of course proved not so. A new version was on show; large slabs of year-old ice, brilliantly white, separated by the light grey of newly frozen sea. It looked like a chessboard or a patchwork quilt.
For the most part, the ice did not resist our passage and parted readily, with long cracks opening silently up out to 50 or 100 metres from the ship. Where the ice was half a metre or thicker, it was not so accommodating, forcing the ship to slow and generating the odd thump of protest. It broke grudgingly and only very close in.
Looking back, we could easily see in our wake where these brief struggles had been. Instead of an open vein of water stretching back to the horizon, we saw a tangle of frozen rubble, stained brown by plankton where the shattered floes had been overturned.
The proud mark our ship is scratching across the icy seascape will not last very long. It will be rubbed out as the floes regroup and the sea freezes over again. This was another indication that this part of the world is for exploration and even for enjoyment, but not for conquest.
Dawn came at half past three, ship time, or about half-past one by the Sun. Our longitude should require we keep our clocks about five hours ahead of Greenwich (Universal Time, to be technical), but onboard we are seven hours ahead, a sort of double summertime.
By four o’clock, sunlight was tumbling through my porthole, and it was time to be stirring. I had arranged for the Chief Officer Murray, who was on watch that morning, to ring me at a quarter to five, but I was already on the bridge. I rang the half dozen people who had asked for an eclipse wakeup call, and stepped outside.
It was a stunning morning, without doubt the finest we have had on the voyage. A mostly blue sky overhead, streaked with white clouds, the Sun beginning to burn through the sea smoke in the south-east, the multi-textured ice all but unbroken in every directions, and the air alive with a billion sparks, where ice crystals caught the light. The temperature was below -10, but in the calm air I barely felt it, except on my exposed camera-working fingers which became painful quite quickly.
By the time the eclipse began a little before five, the bridge and the wing deck were beginning to fill with sightseers. The Chief Engineer had provided half a dozen gold-filmed visors from welderï¿½s goggles, through which we could safely view the Sun. Already the encroaching moon was beginning to nibble at the Sun’s left-hand edge.
As the minutes passed, it slid inexorably across, covering more and more of the sun’s disc. The sunlight became noticeably paler. In half an hour only a narrowing crescent remained on the right and above. This too began to shrink upwards.
At maximum eclipse, some 40 minutes in, only a thread of light remained at the top of the hidden Sun, covering perhaps one sixth of the circumference. From our viewpoint, the Moon was crossing the Sun just below the midline. Further east, where the passengers of the KK would be watching, the alignment would be perfect and the eclipse total. The corona would be flaring out, and perhaps prominences decorating the Moon’s edge.
The Moon moved on, with a broadening and lengthening crescent now on the left. The high point of the event now past, the crowd began to disperse, some to an early breakfast. I stayed on, wanting to see the event through to the finish. By half-past six, the full disk of the sun was again asserting its dominance, was only the merest notch taken from his right hand edge. Then once again the familiar full circle.
This was the closest I have been to a total eclipse. Perhaps only 2% of the Sun’s face remained uncovered. It has whetted my appetite to track down the next total eclipse, or the one after that, and feel it all. I think I should do that at least once in my life.
This morning perhaps marks the end of the near-Antarctic experience. As we plough north through the ice, the coastline falls further behind. It will take several days to traverse the pack, and the wild winds then await us. Fremantle is still 10 or 11 days away.
I have a lot more to think about and to write, especially about the science being done down here, and I plan to send more pictures, so I hope you will keep watching and reading. You have certainly not heard it all. But we are now headed home. You can see it in the faces of the returning expeditioners. After a year or more away, they are beginning to say, with feeling, “Are we there yet?”
Day 22 Tuesday 25 November
Day 22 is now well under way. I took my customary hour on deck this morning after breakfast, “customary”, that is, in calm conditions such as we are currently enjoying. When the weather roughens up, as it is likely to do between here and Fremantle, the hour on deck is likely to become more “occasional”.
It was a good hour to be up and about. The weather over the last couple of days has been better than anything so far presented. Today a mostly blue sky was streaked and daubed with high clouds and hung with a few fair-weather cumulus. The wind was gentle, the unobscured sun delivered palpable warmth, and at around minus 3ï¿½ the air perhaps best described as “bracing”. My cheeks and nose knew they had been out in the cold by the time I finished.
Around us the pack ice continues to loosen its grip, only occasionally requiring the man at the ” wheel” (there isn’t really a wheel anymore; just a lever and some buttons) to taken mildly evasive action to dodge a larger than usual ice floe. The pack stretches away in all directions, seeming to thicken as it nears the horizon and the open leads of water become obscured. With the sea temperature slowly rising, we see no more newly formed ice, just snow-laden veteran floes that have seen a year or more of life in these waters.
Under this morning’s bright sky, the seascape delivered of its best. Blue tones in both ice and water were vivid, and looking towards the Sun the sea shone and the ice glittered. A dozen or more icebergs poked through the icy water, none very close but some impressively large. Using a few rules of thumb, I judged one near the horizon to be more than three kilometres in length. That is a lot of ice. If it is as broad as it is wide, it would if melted deliver more fresh water than Sydney consumes in a year.
Though clouds came over later, and the brightness faded, the panorama was for a time quite magical, the face of the South at its most appealing. Few people were about to witness it. The returning expeditioners seem to prefer life indoors, both within the ship and within their cabins. Occasionally one would come out on deck, usually hung with a camera, sniff the scenery and go back inside. Even the bridge was mostly deserted, other than the duty metperson doing the three-hour observations.
It seems some of the returnees are unwell, others merely tired, and all looking for a swift passage home. We are pushing north east on direct route to Fremantle at 10 knots or more, and that should bring it us into harbour by Friday morning of next week or even the night before. We’re above 63′ South, with perhaps 200 kilometres to travel before the ice gives out altogether. Already there is just a hint of swell beginning to lift the floes, perhaps an early warning of the less gentle seas that lie ahead.
There have been comments that I have said very little about Antarctic wildlife, perhaps suggesting that I haven’t seen any at all. Where are the pictures?
The disappointing truth of the matter is that I have seen very little wildlife, if we disregard returning expeditioners partying at 2 a.m. on their last night ashore. Antarctica is a harsh land, and the surrounding seas little more welcoming. Its remoteness deprives it of the large mammals seen around the North Pole. There are no polar bears or reindeer, and indeed no indigenous people.
Animals can survive here only by living in the sea, which though on the point of freezing is still warmer than nearby land, or by migrating back and forth with the seasons. So animal life on land is restricted to birds, including the flightless penguins, and various species of seals, particularly Weddell Seals in the region that I have visited. So where were those during my stay?
I have already commented on the ship being followed by wandering albatross and other birds as we made our way south, and the hardy snow petrels which at Platcha were about the only things that moved other than ourselves. There are seals around Davis, but mostly in areas for the North that I did not visit.
That leaves the penguins. Around Davis two types are found, the large majestic Emperors, and the small feisty Adelies. The former were elusive, though there was talk of one on the ice near the ship while we were docked. As with other reported sightings (such as humped back whales and orcas buzzing the ship on the way down) I was simply not in the right place at the right time.
But this was not a totally dry well. My one close encounter with wildlife, and it was memorable if brief, engaged me with Adelie penguins on Gardner Island, just offshore from Davis. To make matters better, my companion on that trip was Dr Gary Miller, an American expert on Antarctic birds, who is spending the summer looking for signs of disease among predatory birds called Skuas, who may be responsible for bringing such diseases down south.
DE drops in on some penguins.
We tramped a kilometre across the fast ice from the ship to the island, battling towards the end with deep snow into which we regularly plunged calf, knee or even thigh deep. The low slung, snow decorated island, perhaps a kilometre long, is a major nesting site for these penguins. This was another slight impediment, since ANARE rules do not permit an approach within five metres of nesting birds.
Adelie penguins are your archetypal “penguin suit” birds. Pure black and white, with a bright white rimmed eye, they are the size of a large chicken. On land they look ungainly, with their flippers (which are really wings) spread backwards. But Gary told me they were really great walkers, able to cover 20 kilometres of fast ice to find open water and food if need be.
They also can toboggan on their bellies, as a faster and more energy efficient means of travel. In the water of course they are masters. I have seen them porpoising, plunging in and out of the water as they swim. And there is little more startling than to see swimming penguins emerge from the water, flying upwards to land on their feet and then waddling off unconcernedly.
Gary said that about 80% of the penguins on Gardner Island had already laid eggs. Fathers and mothers were sharing the incubation duties. The nests are made of small stones, greatly prized and fought over. I watched while a nesting mother growled fiercely at an invading penguin seeking to steal stones from her nest.
The penguin rookery spoke to more than one sense. While we watched their amusing behaviour, we could hear the mix of soothing and aggressive sounds and breathe in their ripe odour. But in this harsh context, the penguins survive and indeed thrive. I questioned Gary about the future of these rookeries, and he said they were in good shape. Penguin numbers in other parts of the world are under stress, but here in this stressful environment, they are doing well.
Day 23 Wednesday 26 November
My walk on deck this morning was taken under mostly blue skies, and surrounded by steadily emptying seas. Over the last few days, we have crossed, one by one, the borders that separate Antarctica from the rest of our planet; the fast ice, the Antarctic Circle, the pack, the 60th parallel. Ahead, as we push north east for home, lie only the Antarctic convergence and the wild westerlies.
The long twilight are darkening. It grows steadily warmer. Sea temperature is up to zero, and the air should reach above that in the course of the day. This may be my last walk in the thermals. And the ship’s deck, so stable when we threaded the silent pack, is now heaving gently as swells reach us from the North.
Icebergs still punctuate the skyline, but few come close. Most are now astern and falling further back. The horizon ahead seems bare. Some are still proudly tabular and stolid, but others show the ruin brought by waves and warming water.
Nearer at hand we see their fate. “Bergy bits” are iceberg remains the size of a house or less, often almost awash in the waves and swell. The ship avoids them but there is plenty of empty sea. Where a bergy bit has collapsed, a patch of brash ice floats, hundreds of pieces the size of a head or hand. For a time they float together, then slowly drift apart and melt away alone.
BENEATH THE ICE
“Most people looking at Antarctica see only the ice”, says Anya Reading. “There is certainly a lot of it. But it is only a veneer, a few kilometres thick at most. The long term history on the continent is written in the rocks below the ice. The challenge is to find what those hidden rocks tell us.”
The rocks underpinning Antarctica very rarely show their faces. Ice-free areas like the Vestfold Hills around Davis Base are uncommon, as are features like the Prince Charles Mountains, 500 km south west of Davis, where several lines of rocky peaks break though the frozen surface. For the most part, a vast dome of ice stretches uninterrupted from coast to coast.
To plumb the hidden rocks, Anya relies on earthquakes. Antarctica is mostly earthquake free, for reasons bound up with its history. But major earthquake zones lie not far away, in regions of conflict between some of the major fragments or plates into which the outer crust of the Earth is broken. One of these runs through New Zealand, another fringes the still growing Andes in South America.
“Seismologists have long known that the various sorts of waves released by an earthquake travel around and through the Earth at speeds that vary with the rocks they encounter. If you can pick up the waves at a number of sites, noting the times that they arrive and so computing the speed at which hey have travelled, you can begin to build up an image of the structure of the rocks through which they have passed.”
Anya’s work in East Antarctica began little more than a year or so ago but has already begun to produce results.
“I have compared the pattern of earthquake waves arriving at Mawson Base, where we have had a monitor for many years, with those caught by a monitor I set up myself at Beaver Lake, inland about 300 km south east. They are very similar, suggesting that Mawson and Beaver Lake sit on a common foundation of underlying rocks. They are in the same geological province.”
“If we go further away, we will at some stage cross a border into a new province, a new grouping of basement rocks, where the pattern of received earthquake waves is noticeably different. So if we set up a network of monitors in likely places, and are ready to move around every year or so, over time we will gather enough data to be able to see the pattern of geological provinces under the ice. ”
“One important use of our new data will be by people trying to figure how Antarctica was first put together hundreds of millions of years ago, how it was assembled by the coming together of various fragments of crust. Ideas on this are in a lot of flux right now, and it is exciting to think that our data will provide new insights.”
It is perhaps not surprising that Anya Reading spends her summers in Antarctica (this is her seventh trip). She comes from near the Yorkshire birthplace of Douglas Mawson, the great Antarctic explorer and geologist that Australia claims as its own. She took up geophysics at the University of Edinburgh and then began to work with the British Antarctic Survey. When a job came up at the Australian National University in Canberra, she was delighted to find that the Antarctic was among the interests there, and proposed the project that now brings her to East Antarctica.
“Working in Antarctica is a challenge” says Anya. “Conditions can be very tough. I have set up monitors in the field when the temperature was minus 35 and the wind at 30 knots, working with bare hands at times because of the delicate adjustments needed to get the gear working.”
“We have to travel long distances over the ice shelf or plateau by helicopter or fixed wing aircraft to reach the sites. We need full field and survival training since we camp out at each site and the weather can turn nasty very quickly. There is a certain amount of risk, but the environment is awe-inspiring.”
“At each site we have to carve a hole in the ice or frozen loose rock to house the sensor. We do that by hand rather than by machine because there is less environmental impact. To suit our special needs, we use high fidelity sensors that record movement in all three dimensions, and capture a broad band of frequencies. We hook up a box of electronics to record the data, a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to give us an accurate time signal and a solar panel to provide power.”
“I want to stress that I donï¿½t do all this alone. I rely hugely on the Antarctic Division and on its field training officers who have taught me how to work and survive down here and who come with me into the field.”
Anya’s network of seven earthquake sensors follows a rough V shape around the Amery Ice Shelf and Lambert Glacier. Davis and Mawson bases mark the tops of the V, with the bottom located at Komsomolovsky Peak, 1000 km inland. The monitor there was set up in 2002.
“We were the first to go into this remote area to station equipment, so that was an achievement. Soon after, another team put in a GPS monitor nearby which will show directly how the land surface is still rising following the retreat of the ice sheet at the end of the last ice age. That relaxation may trigger some earth tremors that our gear will detect.”
Mapping local earthquakes is another goal of the program. Quakes may be rare in Antarctica, sitting as it does in the middle of a major tectonic plate with its boundary far away under the surrounding ocean. But they do occur, perhaps along enduring lines of weakness where the building blocks of Antarctica came together long ago.
The network will need to run for several years to gather enough data. That means yearly visits, not only for servicing and perhaps for relocation, but also to read out the data from the onsite recorders.
“At the moment our funds do not run to real time forwarding of data, say by a satellite circuit. But technology is changing fast. Perhaps in five years we will be able to dial up each seismic station from Australia to check its health and download its records. Happily, each new deployment of stations will see me back in the field in Antarctica.”
Day 24 Thursday 27 November
I am just in from my turn on deck. It is always good to get out to sniff the air and see the water. The oceans are bare to the horizon, except for our train of seabirds. Dozens of them are following us home; albatross, fulmars, petrels, perhaps others (I missed the lecture on seabirds on the way down). They soar just above the waves, or nonchalantly sit on the sea, too far away or too fleet to be caught with the camera, but glorious to watch.
The high overcast sky delivered a little snow. The wafting flakes were large and soft, two or three millimetres across, with their six-pointed architecture plain to see. With the air getting warmer, this was more friendly snow than the harder grit we have had before. I recall from last time how that with could combine with a stiff wind to scour rocks and buildings like a sandblaster. The polished and contoured grain exposed on external timbers at Platcha Hut is evidence enough.
Sea temperature is up too, indicating that we are near to the Convergence, With a following wind and sea, we are making good time. Our ETA in Fremantle has been advanced. Pending any major blows, and the weather predictions are looking good, we are likely to be tying up early afternoon Thursday.
I have been musing (as I think you would expect me to muse) on my experiences this time round, compared with those when I went south in 1966. What is different? What is the same? I have been storing away in my head scraps of observation over recent weeks; now it’s time to set them down.
To begin at the beginning, with the ship. The AA is a bigger, stronger boat than the Nella Dan of blessed memory, with a real capacity to break ice, and a proper keel, so that it does not roll on wet grass like the Nella. So we travel faster, more steadily and more comfortably.
We came down last time much later in the season, leaving Melbourne in late December, so there was much less ice. Checking my old diary, I see that we did not reach the ice until 63 degrees south and were through it in about a day (this time 60 degrees south and 4 days).
The bases themselves have been massively rebuilt since my day and are almost unrecognisable. I did not get to Mawson this time but I have seen enough pictures to know the truth of this. Davis was closed in 1966 and we did not visit it, but some of the original buildings remain. The current station dominates them completely.
New facilities mean more comfortable living and working conditions, comparable to those people would expect back home. Clothing does its job better, equipment is more up to date. New styles of vehicles such as quad bikes make “jollies” faster, safer and more enjoyable. The stations all run hydroponics farms, delivering fresh vegetables such as tomatoes and chillies year round. The movie shows feature DVDs and videos, as well the old “clicketty clicks”.
The change in communications has been profound. Today’s expeditioners enjoy Internet access, emails, including the ability to exchange pictures, and phone calls with quality that puts their loved ones in the next room. We had only 200 free words of coded telegram a month, sent by Morse code.
There is no doubt that the standard of living is higher, and no one should regret that. Health and safely have greater emphasis, as they should. Whether people enjoy their time here more is arguable, since that depends at least in part on things that have not changed, the nature of Antarctica and its environment.
The landscapes, the winds and weather, the changing seasons, the wildlife, the inherent perils of life down here are much as they were. Expeditioners can chose to expose themselves to the richness of this Antarctic experience, including its risks, or shield themselves from it, just as we could “back then”. Some might argue that the old lifestyle was more rugged and closer to nature, and the experience therefore both more intense and harder to avoid, but that may just be old men talking.
Nonetheless big changes have taken place, both in operations and in attitudes. Most of the things I have talked about apply mostly to “winterers”, which we were, living on the base the whole year, enduring the dark winter. We derided the few “summer-trippers” as “not real ANARE”.
Now the “summerers” are in the majority, with a huge growth in the numbers of scientists coming in, especially to Davis, to work through the summer months. This trend is likely to continue, accelerated by the impending replacement of ships by planes as the main way of getting south. The number of winterers seems certain to decrease, absolutely as well as relatively.
This means a change in ANARE culture, a change that has already begun. Some see a deliberate move to distance modern operations from a hard living, hard drinking “pioneer” image that may have been represented by the old ANARE, though I am not sure we were like that in 1966 in Mawson.
We see major attitudinal change in the now ready acceptance of women in the full range of roles on our stations. There were no women at Mawson in 1966, nor for 15 years after. Another big advance is in the way the environment is treated. Our environmental vandalism in 1966, such as the way we dealt with wastes, would rightly horrify a modern expeditioner, but our attitudes were typical of the times.
It is pointless to try to say whether things are ï¿½betterï¿½ or ï¿½worseï¿½ now than then. I doubt that the question has any meaning. We can say that things are very different in some areas, not much different in others. Many of the changes are in response to powerful, perhaps irresistible, forces. To quote the old song, the challenge is to accentuate the positive and eliminate (or at least minimise) the negative.
Day 25 Friday 28 November
We continue to power home at speeds touching 15 knots, under skies alternatingly blue and dropping snow. The seas are only moderate (weather person jargon meaning “about two metre wind waves”) and both the swell and the winds are helping us along. We have crossed the 50th parallel, and at our current speed have only about four days sailing to go. So our arrival in Fremantle may be even sooner than currently planned.
I thought I should say something about the feelings of the returning expeditioners on their year away. Chatting over meals and in the bar, it seems clear that everyone (at least everyone I’d talked to) reckons the year has gone well. That’s probably an understatement; some would say “absolutely brilliant”. Certainly no one seems to have regretted the experience.
Probing a little further, I find that no one seems to have had any particular hassles or dramas, beyond those which might be endemic to an isolated environment like Antarctica. People point to good leadership, good training, good facilities, good teamwork. Medical staff and emergency crews seem to have a fairly quiet year. Life on the stations has been comfortable, for the sorts of reasons I discussed yesterday.
There seems little doubt that most people find the environment engrossing, not that should be any surprise. “Jollies” and genuine tasks that have taken people away from the base, into the Antarctic weather and landscape and giving a chance to interact with the wildlife, are recounted with relish.
All the bases now have field huts in a number of locations so that time can be spent cheek by jowl with Antarctica, away from the sights and sounds and smells of civilisation. My time at Platcha Hut at Davis gave me a sample of that. Such trips are enabled by the new forms of transportation, and supported (and made acceptably safe) by field training and equipment (such as the “bivvy” and the “megabivvy”) that surpass anything in my day.
There have been undoubtedly times of tension and conflict, but no one talks of those much, especially in the growing euphoria of an imminent arrival home. I heard details of events that I cannot recount here for obvious reasons. Some are the consequence of the presence of unequal numbers of the two genders. Again they seem to have been well handled, by both individuals and management.
I find a strong desire for the expeditioners to keep in touch, at least in the short-term. The returning Mawsonites plan to get together at the ANARE Club Mid Winter Dinner in Adelaide in June next year, and there is talk of a barbecue in Brisbane in January for the Davis people who live locally and for those who will quite willingly travel a fair distance to be there.
I like to think that I have given support to such thoughts by talk of the reunions we have had of our Mawson 66 crowd. We have already marked the 25th, 30th and 35th anniversaries of our midwinter, and plan to gather again in Sydney in 2006, 40 years on. We are still in contact with 17 or 18 of the 23 survivors from our party. I have pointed out that such reunions are not spontaneous but the result of hard work in maintaining contacts, but when you get together it is as if no time has passed at all
One way to assess how people felt about their year here is to ask whether they plan to come back. For a large number, perhaps the majority, the answer is “yes”, though perhaps not right away. Antarctica seems to have got into their blood. Some plan to travel and to work overseas before again signing up. Others will go back to their old jobs, pick up the threads and see how things develop. Some who have round-tripping plan to upgrade their skills and seek a full summer or winter.
Obviously, one factor in any decision is the strength or otherwise of personal relationships “back home”. I do not claim to be a keen observer in such matters but I see at least three groupings. The older expeditioners, mostly men, generally seem to be in relationships which are able to accommodate their time away, often through the partner having a career and friends and plenty to do. They may like the time by themselves.
Among the younger set, many do not seem to have a steady relationship, not one that might inhibit another journey south. Perhaps they will not, while Antarctica calls them. For those with young families, at least part of the lure is, as for many before, ï¿½the moneyï¿½, and the benefits that can bring. That is set off against the stress of separation. I suspect that modern communications make it less stressful, but it still cannot be easy. These are the ones who are most anxious to be home.
An increasing number of expeditioners are on long-term contracts with the Antarctic Division, which sees them committed to returning at least once more in coming years. These people include station leaders and doctors, as well as field training officers, communications and trades. I am told the Division is moving to have half of the expeditioners on any one time on such contracts, helping to build up a reservoir of expertise and corporate knowledge, and cutting down the costs and time involved in annual recruiting.
This reflects a change going on in Australian Antarctic operations, which will undoubtedly affect the nature of the Antarctic experience, and perhaps how people feel about their year away. The rough-and-tumble and risk-taking of early expeditions has now been replaced by an increasingly complex and sophisticated operation, which to some extent removes some of the uniqueness of a year in the south.
Some people might regret this, many do not. Talking to the ship’s captain today, I found that he noted, over seven years of his association with Australia’s Antarctic work, much better organisation and greater professionalism, making what could be hazardous operations in a difficult environment more routine, but by no means trivial.
Antarctica will always be ï¿½differentï¿½ to some extent: its remoteness and demanding environment will ensure that. Nothing can be taken for granted. This is not a continent for conquest. But advances in technology and the build up of operating experience means that in many aspects it is ï¿½less differentï¿½ than it was. I’m not sure how many of today’s expeditioners appreciate that.
One symptom. I have been talking with the returning Mawsonites about the state of buildings remaining from the “old station”, the one I remember before the big rebuilding. Many have been demolished as they fell into disrepair; others such as my old donga (sleeping nut) Shackleton, still stand, though disused. The oldest surviving building (nearly 50 years old) caught fire last week, but was fortunately little damaged.
A few of the returnees wanted to know more about these old huts and what they had been used for. But perhaps more thought they were just expendable relics which ought to be cleared away before they cause more trouble. My heart would be of course with the first group; where my head is, I am not sure.
Day 26 Saturday 29 November
See Day 27
Checking the names: an emergency muster drill on the helideck
Day 27 Sunday 30 November
Somehow I seem to have missed a day of writing in my diary, Day 26 having past seemingly without trace. Things did happen of course, but not a lot. We had an emergency muster drill on the helideck, then the usual round of very ample meals, a couple of movies, a couple of walks, some reading and writing and chatting, the usual stuff.
The weather remains quite kind, though mostly overcast and sometimes dropping snow. We roll a bit but the seas are nothing like those we experienced on the downward voyage, and we continue to zoom north east.
The small number of returning expeditioners (having left the summer scientists behind at Davis, we have now only about 40 passengers instead of the 160 on the way down) continue to keep mostly to their cabins, reading, sleeping, watching movies, waiting for the time to pass.
I have not been idle. One task has been to collect photographs (or should I say digital images) from the many generous people who have offered them to me. My own collection of pictures is not particularly impressive for a variety of reasons, so I’m glad to have access to some of the stunning efforts of the winterers.
Of particular interest over the last day or so have been the photographs of Mawson which help many identify the remains of the “old station”, the buildings that I knew before the massive reconstruction of all the Australian Antarctic bases in the 1980s. Combining the information from these pictures with some chats with the returning Mawson winterers indicates that most of the buildings we lived and worked in 1966 have gone, replaced or simply demolished. But a small number remain, some of them forming a little historic cluster at the core of the old station.
Mawson’s historic heart; Biscoe, Radio(rear), Shackleton (right)
Note on the seaice the Twin Otter aircraft which flew to Davis
Central to these is one of the most historic buildings in the Australian sector, and perhaps anywhere in Antarctica if you leave aside the iconic “heroic age” huts of Mawson, Shackleton and Scott. The “Biscoe” was the first recreation/eating hut or mess. It came originally from Heard Island, and was brought to Mawson in 1954. So has seen nearly 50 years of service here, and more in total. Unlike virtually all Antarctic buildings, it has a pitched roof,
Even in my day it was “historic”, replaced in its original purpose by a larger more modern building (which has now gone), and used by the 66 Mawsonites as the gym and as the headquarters of the Southern Brewing Company. We were shocked to hear that last week a fire had broken out in this building, probably due to an electrical fault, but it seems to have suffered only some water and smoke damage.
Two other huts from my vintage stand on either side of the Biscoe. One is the original radio office, the other the sole surviving “donga”, or sleeping hut. Base accommodation nowadays is in large buildings where everybody sleeps under the same roof, enjoys internal plumbing and can go to meals and recreation areas in their slippers. But 50 years ago, with the fear of fire paramount, it was thought necessary to keep the huts small and separated.
So a typical donga hut had seven occupants sleeping in small cubicles maybe three metres square, with a bunkbed high up and a desk and storage underneath. There were curtains on the cubicles rather than doors, a “cold porch” for the hut and a kerosene fire down one end of the central corridor.
Anything you wanted to do, beyond sleeping, and I mean anything, involved wrapping up and going outside. I am not pretending this was always very rugged. We thought we were pretty comfortable, and certainly much better off than men living in the dormitory style accommodation typical of the Mawson era. And looking back, I’m pleased we had to face whatever the Antarctic environment was offering many times a day. I think it’s one of the reasons we came down.
(Continued in Part 2) (continued)
One of the delights is discovering that the remaining donga hut is Shackleton (all the buildings were called after Antarctic figures), which the one I slept in. In one of the photographs I can even identify the window of my cubicle. The others are memories (Wilkins, Ross, Balleny), though their wooden name plates now feature in a wall display in the Mawson Bar.
“Shacko” (to be affectionate) is no longer slept in, or indeed even used, though it has served as an electrical store, so I understand. But it seems to be sound, and likely to survive at least a little longer.
Three other buildings date from my era or before. One is the hut from which the aurora was studied, with a large dome in the roof. This serves now as the hydroponics farm. Another, much more remote, was for absolute measurements of the earth’s magnetic field. It is abandoned. The third is the hangar.
For a few years in the early days of Mawson, it was home to some aircraft and RAAF pilots to fly them. This proved in the longer run not practical, and was phased out. But the large hangar to support those operations still stands along one arm of Horseshoe Harbour, on the edge of the current station. This was for quite a time the largest building on any Australian Antarctic base.
I’m told that hanger is now used for storage of various kinds, despite having a cantankerous main door, but in my day it stood disused. I would like to quote a little from my old diary on a visit to the hangar and the impression that it made on me.
6 October 1966
I wandered down to the hangar today to pick up some materials for patching the roof of my cosray shack. The hangar is heavy with emptiness, no longer used, rarely visited, with old aircraft spares, emergency clothing and all manner of stuff scattered about, half buried in drift snow in that metal cavern. Small rooms, obviously used for sleeping, are piled with mattresses and clogged with snow. On a wall hang faded photographs of the old Antarctic flights, with pegs and pigeonholes marked with the nicknames of men now scattered.
In the hanger itself, fantastic stalactites of drift snow, some a yard or more long, are suspended from the ceilings and walls where the tiniest hole has allowed snow to enter. These are so delicate, even the moving air from my passing by can blow them apart. It’s another sign that people rarely come here.
Emerging from the hanger, I stood for a while gazing back along the hemp blizzard line, across the brown, age-old rock, past huts and masts, piles of briquette bags and fuel dumps and food stacks, across the snow drifts piled and shaped by the wind, across the stark white ice cliffs with their thousand blue-lit crevices, up the blue ice slopes to the horizon. How feeble is our finger-hold upon this vastness.
Day 28 Monday 1 December
Day 28 is also the first day of summer and perhaps therefore an appropriate time to be emerging from chilly climes. The captain has taken his foot off the accelerator, and we are cruising towards Fremantle at 10 knots. Conditions are very pleasant, balmy air if a little cool, little wind, gentle seas, and this evening, with the parting of the clouds, a view of the stars.
Most of the entries in this diary have been about the present or immediate past, the stuff of this trip, though I have allowed myself the indulgence of a little nostalgia. But I do need to say something about the future, just to provide some perspective as to where our activities in Antarctica might be leading.
The business of being in Antarctica has grown enormously since I was first there. I think our activities have always been well-managed and run with dedication, but there is now so much more to do and take care of. Many more people go south under the ANARE/AAD banner now than then, especially all the scientists who spend the summer pursuing their researches in biology, glaciology, geology, geophysics, cartography, meteorology and the rest. Close to 100 this time round.
Environmental concerns make for additional work, work which is willingly done, but more work just the same. The major construction efforts, such as the wind turbines and Mawson, and the series of runways to take the planes which from next year will be flying expeditioners to and from Antarctica and between the bases, all require meticulous planning and big efforts in implementation.
Expeditioners are better trained, I think, especially in areas which received scant attention in my day. “Diversity training” emphasises the need for cooperative behaviour and acceptance of the wide range of people’s skills and needs on base. Field training, to give expeditioners, both winter and summer, the skills and knowledge needed to survive away from the base, is another major and time-consuming concern.
And there are great many policy issues that now need to be addressed. Interest in Antarctica internationally is growing, even though the possibility of economic exploitation has been choked off by the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. The challenge of growing tourism also raises issues. For this reason the Antarctic Division needs to employ people skilled in policy as well as in operations. This is one of the reasons its staff has grown substantially in recent years, above what might be expected from that seemingly inexorable tendency of bureaucracies to grow.
We should not underestimate the complexity of Antarctic politics. Even though, under the Antarctic Treaty, territorial claims cannot be enforced, nor are they being forgotten. We have a continuing interest in the marine resources around the shores of Antarctic and its offshore islands. We also need to keep up with our involvement in the various international forums where a whole range of Antarctic concerns are discussed. Australia is one of the major players globally, a consequence of our high level of activity and long history of involvement.
I have already alluded to some of the future issues and challenges. From next year, planes will replace ships as the major way of taking expeditioners and scientists to Antarctica and bringing them home. We had a dry run of some of that this time, with the Mawson winterers being flown in from Davis. Ships will still be needed to carry cargo and fuel suppliers, and it may be that winterers will still return by ship, to give them a crucial couple of weeks to debrief and adjust to the very different life “back home”.
But Antarctica will become much more easily and quickly accessible, and that will undoubtedly make a big change in the typical experience of Australian expeditioners. Indeed, the term “expeditioners” may no longer be as appropriate as it was. Among the beneficiaries will be the scientists, especially the more senior ones for whom even the 2 weeks each way on the boat is more time than they can spare.
There are some big decisions ahead. With budgets tightening, and costs rising, fully maintaining four bases, three on the continent and one on Macquarie Island, may be more than we can afford, whatever the undoubted benefits. You can add to that the need to keep up a major effort in Southern Ocean marine research through special science cruises, and renewed interest in Heard Island. There the shrinking of glaciers is seen as a significant indicator of global climate change.
It seems that something will have to go. Among the proposals being discussed are the closing of Mawson in winter, and the conversion of Macquarie Island to purely a meteorological station, providing crucial data to help the forecasting of Australian weather.
Both of these would mark a significant break with the past. Mawson has been the longest continually occupied base operated by any nation in Antarctica, with the 50th wintering party at Mawson returning home with me on this ship. Macquarie Island has been continually occupied since 1948, and its human connection with Antarctica stretches back nearly 100 years to the first expedition under Douglas Mawson.
But for the foreseeable future, parties of Australian “expeditioners”, with an increasing number of participants from other countries, will continue to arrive in Antarctica for summers and winters of activity in pursuit of our national goals in the region. Scientific activity will grow, as much of the work I’ve seen this summer are still largely embryonic. As the same time, our efforts in the environmental realm must intensify, with the goal of keeping our footprint on the world’s greatest wilderness as light as possible. Doing both these simultaneously and harmoniously will be the greatest challenge.
Day 29 Tuesday 2 December
With the end of our trip in sight (figuratively, if not literally), I need to start to wrap up a few loose ends. My weather report for today speaks of beautiful benign conditions, blue sunny skies, very gentle seas, an almost motionless ship, and only a little wind, but perhaps with just enough bite in it to remind us, albeit very faintly, of where we have been.
Firstly, a little correction in my nostalgia piece about the historic buildings at Mawson. Let me quote from an email from a very reliable source.
Re Biscoe, it came from the Norwegian, British, Swedish expedition to Maudheim in 1950; PGL (Phil Law, first AAD Director) was observer and acquired it when they didn’t set up a second base. All pretty well explained in Antarctic Odyssey. I think it arrived at Mawson in a packing case and was known in the beginning, certainly to Lem (Macey) and Bill Storer (original 1954 Mawson winterers), as the NBS Hut, I don’t think there is really any association with Heard Island. Bad luck about the fire, it would have been a big loss to our history if she had gone up.
Thanks, Col Christiansen, for setting me straight on that.
Another e-mail, generated by my “comparison” piece, came from Geoff Butterworth, aka Brother Ignatius, one of my fellow winterers at Mawson in 1966. He points out something that I had overlooked.
I SUPPOSE YOU FOUND MANY ASPECTS OF LIFE AND EQUIPMENT CHANGED. THE TOILET ARRANGEMENT COMES TO MIND. SOME OF THE MODERN IMPROVEMENTS WOULD CERTAINLY MAKE LIFE MORE COMFORTABLE, ON THE OTHER HAND, MISSING OUT ON THE HOME COMFORTS DID ADD TO THE ADVENTURE. THE MODERN EXPLORER WILL MISS OUT ON EXPERIENCE WITH THE HUSKIES. THAT MEMORY ON ITS OWN WAS WORTH THE TRIP DOWN SOUTH.
Geoff is right to remind me that the dogs were a big thing for us at Mawson in 1966, and for all the parties between their introduction in 1955, and their final removal around 1993.. They were simultaneously a connection with the old ways in Antarctica (dog teams were commonly used in the “heroic” era), and a source of great fun and diversion.
They were not used for “work” (for example, for major trips inland as these relied on Caterpillar tractors and other tracked vehicles), but were taken out in teams on the fast ice or on the plateau for what are now called “jollies” (a term not in our vocabulary in 1966).
It must be said the dogs had a hard life, chained up in the open when not being used, and so having to see out blizzards which might last for days. They rarely reached 10 years of age. Though very aggressive to each other, they were affectionate to us and anyone who dealt with them has fond memories. I think that travel by husky sled, without noise of engines and machinery, brought you closer for the heart of the Antarctic.
Their removal was a consequence of the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, which put in place a much tighter regime for managing the Antarctic environment. This sought, inter alia, the exclusion of any “alien species”. The dogs had been at Mawson for nearly 40 years, but they came under this classification and so they had to go.
Some were taken to Minnesota in Canada, others saw out their remaining days in Victoria. They are commemorated in various ways, including by a striking statue of a husky at the AAD headquarters outside Hobart, and by the “Husky Bar” on the AA, where we can sip on our light beers or Chateau Cardboard surrounded by pictures of huskies and bits of sleds.
Lastly, a little amplification of my thoughts about the returning expeditioners and how they feel about the year down south. Chatting with Helen, the army psychologist, who is round tripping with me so that she can be briefed the returning expeditioners, we explored the range of issues that I touched on in my piece.
As to why people want to go down there (it is now “there” rather than “here” now that we’re almost home) she suggested a mix of four factors; the lure of the environment, a sense of adventure, interesting work and a chance to upgrade qualifications, and the financial return. She had no statistics, nor would she speculate, on how the mix might vary between younger and older expeditioners, between men and women and across job classifications. But all these factors are at work, to a greater or lesser degree, in all expeditioners.
The issue of existing relationships, and how they might impact upon a decision to winter or summer in Antarctica, is more sensitive. Over a number of years, she has seen various groupings among expeditioners; those without enduring relationships, those with strong relationships able to withstand the separation, and conversely, those with relationships under strain for whom a year away can serve, perhaps unconsciously, as a sort of trial separation.
As to who might make a “good Antarctican”, she said that of course there is no such thing in any absolute sense. All parties display, and usually benefit from, diversity of personalities. But perhaps those who do best, and enjoy the year the most, are those who can both be both good participants in the group and be satisfied with their own company, as circumstances require. Good self-esteem helps people be good team members.
I found it interesting to turn through the pages of my old diary in search of any references to this matter. In November 1966 I made some scribblings on what I termed Homo Antarcticus, which I can transcribe as follows; ï¿½ï¿½.generally needs to be self-sufficient and sociable, not wildly extroverted, as loud voices become wearying after a time. Even the best jokes wear thin after several months. Highly sensitive, introverted types would not survive here since they “can’t get away”.
On another occasion (undated) I did little pen pictures of some of my fellow Mawsonites, and commented “”..they are as varied a bunch as you would find anywhere, a cross-section of average Australians. There are no recognizable general traits, no “Antarctic men”. They are not even all men that would regard themselves as well adjusted or successful. Perhaps long confinement together has impressed certain superficial similarities in speech and habits, but these will disappear as soon as we get home.”
I guess this supports Helen in saying “Homo Antarcticus” is not a definable species!
Aurora Australis is due to berth at Fremantle’s No 2 berth North Quay on Thursday 4 December at about 2.00 pm local time.
Day 30 Wednesday 3 December
This should be my last entry in the diary for this trip. We will be docking in Fremantle around lunchtime tomorrow. Today again blue skies, gentle seas and not a lot of wind. The boat is pottering along at 8 knots. We should see land this afternoon, and may be in range for mobile phones. We have had cabin inspections, handed in our ANARE cold weather gear, settled our bar bills, made final purchases from the ship’s shop, and tonight there will be a last barbecue on the trawl deck. So it’s all just about wrapped up.
How best to finish the record of this remarkable, indeed unforgettable, trip? You have been with me just about every nautical mile and every step of the way. I thank you for sticking it out and I hope you have enjoyed the ride. I’m grateful for those who took the time to e-mail me back with comments and embellishments and encouragement.
I have tried, day by day, to give a sense of what has been like for me revisiting an astounding and unique environment after so long away. My first trip to Antarctica was one of the most profound experiences of my life; the trip just ending has powerfully reminded me of that.
I have waxed lyrical (hopefully, not enough to put people off) about the sights and sounds (including silences) of Antarctica, and even its smells. The words do not capture that completely, or even images. You have to experience the Antarctic environment to know it. I hope you all may have an opportunity to do that in the flesh sometime.
I’d like to finish where it all began, with my 1966 trip. I brought my old diary along on the ship, optimistically hoping that I would be able to type it up, something still not done nearly four decades after I committed it to a hundred assorted sheets of paper, some fully written out, much more as scrappy notes.
I didn’t get it typed up of course, but I have had time and incentive to reread it. I have been reminded of things I had forgotten, or remembered incorrectly, and been able use the perspective it provides to frame the new adventure. Here are just a few quotes, which run into tomorrow and even longer.
3 February 1966
We are passing through Iceberg Alley, a 5 mi. wide channel with an honour guard of grounded icebergs on either side. This is the royal road to Mawson. Ahead lies the coast of Antarctica with delicate colours showing beneath the blue sky, the dark shapes mountain peaks jutting through the snow and the cold wind. Below the eastern end of a mountain range on the skyline, a narrow strip of rock stands out against the white background of the snow and the deep with blue of the sea. On the rock stands Mawson.
21 February 1966
Here for two and a half weeks, and nearly two months since leaving Australia. We are slowly settling in, cleaning up and unpacking, cursing our predecessors, getting used to the routines of nightwatch and snow runs. Already a D4 tractor has gone into the melt lake and had to be retrieved. Someone took the VW up onto the plateau and bogged it in snow. Dog teams are being organised, and the first field party has got away. The entertainment committee has met and decided that midwinter will be fancy dress.
22 March 1966
The days are shortening rapidly as we close to within three months of midwinter. Temperatures are falling. In the rec room, the billiards table and table tennis and darts are much in use and we have films twice a week. Bill’s homebrew is very popular, and we enjoy a dozen bottles at “homers” each night before dinner,
5 April 1966
I had my first sight of an aurora tonight. The yellow green light looked almost like drifting smoke, so it was moving at incredible speed being 60 mi. up. It ebbs and flows, dimming and then quickly growing bright again, with arcs sometimes sharply outlined, dividing in two, and then growing diffuse. We watched it while enduring one of the Doc’s “cold runs”, which will measure our cold endurance. We stood for 10 minutes in -2’F and a strong wind. No one got frostbite but it was very uncomfortable. Most of the boys are beginning to put on weight with
11 April 1966
The sea has now frozen as far as the eye can see, with the moving blue of open water replaced by the chill grey white stillness of ice. Legend has it that various vehicles lie in 90 fathoms of water in the Harbour, including a D4, Fergie tractor, Snowtrack, Jeep and various bikes. The days are fine and almost cloudless but very cold, -5′ to -15’F, or 40′ below freezing. The air is painful on the face, not merely cold, and bare fingers become painful after two minutes exposure.
12 May 1966
Blizzard today. In the 60 knot wind, the walls of my work throb visibly in and out. I have to go hand over hand along the safety rope from hut to hut. Only a few yards ahead, the rope is lost in the drifting snow. Snowdrifts mount up with amazing speed, and can be knee deep in a few hours. The drift drives into your eyes, collecting and icing on face and beard. The wind is unnerving. You cannot at your own pace or in your own direction. There is merciful release from the tyranny of the wind when you move into the lee of a building.
16 June 1966
In an attempt to dispel the midwinter blues, we staged a frantic game of football on the sea ice, played according to Mawson rules which are “there are no rules”. At one end Doc and I had a tense struggle in moving the goalposts, I seeking to widen the goal, he to narrow it. We were completely wrecked after 30 minutes, with beards widening the rapidly as our breath froze on them. So we retired to the recently completed garage for the official opening. The cement mixer was filled with cans of beer packed in snow.
21 June 1966
Antarctica is displaying its drabbest face for the winter solstice. The snow fall last night has blanketed almost everything. The sky is grey, overcast, and almost featureless except for some lighter and faintly coloured attaches to the north, where the sky should announce the Sun’s hidden passing below the horizon. Morale has lifted a little already, with the knowledge that we are on the downhill stretch after midwinter.
28 June 1966
We have just endured a three-day blizzard, with winds often averaging 70 to 80 knots. I had a terrifying experience trapped on top of the met hut. I had climbed up to see what was flapping on the roof of my work hut (it was a loose piece of tin, now torn loose). The winds were gusting to 100 knots and immobilised me against the wind recorder mast. For five or ten minutes I could not even get down on my hands and knees. But I finally escaped.
10 July 1966
At last the sun has reappeared, having been hidden by the horizon and low clouds since 17th June. No sunshine recorded since 2nd June. I feel immediately more cheerful. The ship will leave Denmark in September, which is only two months away. It has been remarkably warm over the last few days, with temperatures of 10′ to 12′ F. With little wind, it is very pleasant.
Day 31 Thursday 4 December
It is just before 1300 on a warm day and we are easing into toward Fremantle to pick up our pilot. We should be docking before 1400. Then the trip really will be over.
Pickings from my 1966 diary continue below and will finish tomorrow.
Some very rare occurrences were observed yesterday. We saw some incredibly beautiful nacreous or “mother of pearl” clouds above the setting sun. They were delicate with all the colours of the spectrum melting into one another. Neddy said that they were in the stratosphere, perhaps 25 or 30 kilometres up. Later we saw other clouds, wispy, white and still visible three and half hours after sunset. Neddy thought they might be noctilucent clouds, with which are extremely high, up around 80 kilometres. The clarity of our air is still astounding. Casey Range seems to be only a few miles away but it’s actually over 20 miles. The stars are more brilliant and clear that I have ever seen them.
Spring has sprung! And Mawson has welcomed it with a blizzard which laid a few feet of fresh snow over the dog droppings, wrecked Yorky’s ham radio antenna and clogged up the chimney in our sleeping hut, putting out the fire and filling the place with fumes and smoke, which were excruciating at first and still linger on. One or two clean-shaven faces have appeared. The common explanation “I started to trim it and …..”
Mawson has at last let in the advancing spring, with a calm, clear, beautiful day. For the first time in many weeks, one can feel the sun’s warmth on the face. There are rumours that seals have been sighted. No advancing green or unfolding flowers mark the spring’s return to this place, just the lengthening day and the sun mounting higher.
Another small blizzard today, with visibility down to 10 yards. The noise vibrations in Cosray were too much for me and I took the afternoon off. I had a rough time coming down. The wind had me at full stretch of the arm on the blizzard line, trying to pull it out on my grasp, which it ultimately did. I was reduced to sliding and crawling. My goggles and glasses iced up and I was forced to bare my eyes. In the driving drift I was almost blinded. Well and truly lost, I floundered in the drift and could have ended up anywhere.
Though the Equinox has come, Mawson seals out the spring with a wall of wind under a low grey sky. All the exquisite colours are gone, the sea ice is dirty brown, blue, white. Pellets of ice and drift rattle against the windows and whip the exposed face. A fuel drum, torn loose by a wind averaging 70 knots and gusting over 90, leaps across the sea ice in strides 40 ft. long, clears West Arm and disappears. Buildings shake and groan, walls pump visibly in and out.
The wind and drift continue into the sixth day. This is the most depressing time of year. Though the sun is high it is hidden for days. The world continually shrinks and expands. One moment it ends just beyond the window. Then the wind drops a little and the drift lightens, rocks and islands are dimly seen on the fringe of the world. Then the drift closes in again and we are cut off once more.
A beautiful serene spring evening. Barely a breath of wind; the wind gauge cups turned gently and lazily, smoke rises almost vertically toward a blue sky faintly streaked with clouds. The sea ice, now old, is many shades of blue and white and brown, edged with hummocks of pressure ice but smooth enough for skating in the centre. Three bulky figures on skates are trying their luck. Their shouts come faintly over the ubiquitous and now almost unnoticed growl of the generators, and one is aware even now of the silence and emptiness of this place
I must be getting acclimatised. Today in light drift, a 20 to 30 knot wind, and temperatures below 10’F, I walked up to my work shack in almost the same clothes as I would be wearing 4000 mi. away and 50′ warmer. One feels cold of course, especially in the ears and fingers, but it’s not painful.
It has been very warm over the last few days, temperatures up to 26’F, little wind, up to 14 hours brilliant sunshine. The accumulated snow is beginning to melt. Pools of free water are now lying about on the rocks, and streams trickling down from behind drifts. Beaten tracks across old drifts are no longer crisp and firm but soft and slushy. Sunset is back to nine o’clock local time, and the southern sky is bright all night.
A magnificent day today, virtually cloudless. The blue sky over the plateau is marred only by one lonely orographic cloud above Casey range. On days like this the dark misery of winter seems little more than a dream.
We had our first seals steaks today, very enjoyable though dark and rich due to much blood still in the tissues. They had been soaked all night and were considerably more tender that some beef steaks I have had.
Last night icebergs about a mile out to sea were still sunlit less than an hour from midnight. We had over 17 hours of sunshine recorded. The Nella Dan leaves Melbourne for our relief in only 10 days, and should be here in five weeks.
(To be continued)