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Showing posts from 2013

One week on

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It has been a sobering week. At the time we were initially caught by the sea ice, the Shokalskiy was just 2 to 4 nautical miles from open water. Now the sea ice distance has become even greater with the continued winds from the east, putting our nearest point of exit at some 16 nautical miles. The international effort has been extraordinary and we are incredibly grateful for all the hard work and effort everyone has provided to assist the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-14 in escaping from the ice – a big thanks in particular to the Chinese, French and Australians, co-ordinated by the Australian Maritime Rescue Centre. The winds have eased slightly but at times have reached in excess of 70 kilometres an hour – equivalent to the average conditions experienced by Sir Douglas Mawson’s original expedition a century ago at Cape Denison. It is humbling to consider these men not only survived but thrived, mounting a major scientific expedition. A continent of extremes was revealed an…

The AAE has met heavy ice

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Following our successful visit to Cape Denison, sea ice remained clear, allowing our science expedition to proceed to the Mertz Glacier and open water polynya on the other side of Commonwealth Bay. Good conditions allowed the team to reach the Hodgeman Islets to continue our science programme and make comparisons to our findings around Mawson’s Hut. We managed to collect a range of samples for three of the science teams on these rarely visited islands; a fantastic result. The distance from the land to the sea ice edge is only 5 kilometres, providing an excellent test of the impact of the large sea ice extent around Cape Denison. Supported by volunteers on board, our teams investigated marine mammals, ornithology, glaciology while oceanographic work continued on board. Kerry-Jayne Wilson of the Blue Penguin Trust found the penguin colony on the Hodgeman Islets is thriving, demonstrating the distance the Mawson Hut Adelie penguins have to travel is a major factor in the fall of numbers…

Return to Mawson's Hut...one hundred years on

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We’ve had an exhilarating couple of days and I’m just taking stock of all that has taken place. The last time I wrote was in the early hours of the 19th making final preparations for our attempt to reach Cape Denison. During the previous day, we had arrived in Commonwealth Bay and secured the Shokalskiy against the sea ice edge, some 65 kilometres from our goal. Over the next 12 hours, two reconnaissance trips were made using an eclectic choice of transport: quad bikes, all terrain vehicles and skis. The plan was to find a route over the ice towards Cape Denison while the science team continued their work around the ship. Unfortunately both recce teams returned with tales of a chaotically jumbled surface. The wheeled vehicles struggled in the ice and the prospect of finding a route through to Cape Denison did not look good. But one of the real finds of this expedition has been the ATVs we call Argos. Looking like a tank, these eight-wheeled boats on wheels are the ultimate craft for t…

Exploring the sea ice edge

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Apologies for the short blog entry. The last 24 hours have been frantically busy. We have managed to get the team on the ice and started work exploring our environment and making scientific observations. Tracey has led her team to collect biopsy samples of Weddell Seas to get a better handle on diet for comparison to material collected a century ago while Erik has been leading the charge collecting ocean data off and on the sea ice edge. I hosted a Hangout on Air with Kerry-Jayne and had an fun conversation with Adelie penguins and a lone emperor penguin… and than half way through the broadcast an Orca turned up, breaking the surface, hissing as it went! This was all caught live and broadcast to the world. Must be a first! The Hangout is now online on the Chris Turney-Intrepid Science YouTube Channel. But the big update is Chris has led two recces to find a route to Cape Denison and returned with the news the ice is badly mixed up. Our tracked Argo works fantastically well on this sur…

We've reached Antarctica!

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After a fraught morning ploughing our way through the sea ice, the Shokalskiy finally broke into a huge area of open water. The contrast couldn’t have been more different. Over the past few days we have become surprisingly comfortable with crashing and shaking our way through sea ice. Now there is only the gentle throb of the ship’s engine. Captain Davis, Mawson’s second-in-command and future best man, was palpably relieved when he saw a similar sight to us in his first final approach to Commonwealth Bay: ‘We coasted along this barrier [the Mertz Glacier] up to its western end, and were then delighted to see open water extending away to the Southward inside a small fringe of pack; also a fine water sky to the southward.’ It’s reassuring to know we are travelling the same path as the original AAE. At first glance, the presence of open water in these latitudes does seem rather odd. Why is the area not covered with sea ice all the way to the continent? It’s existence is thanks to a comb…

Southward ho!

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It is a fascinating experience going through the same decision making process as the expedition of 100 years ago. What Mawson’s captain Davis achieved with so little is extraordinary. Using just observations from their vessel the Aurora, the original AAE explored thousands of kilometres of ocean, much of it by working their way through the pack, probing for gaps and hoping they did not close up behind them. It takes incredible courage to do this. One mistake and the ship could be trapped in the ice – with no one in the outside world really knowing where they were. It’s hard to imagine this scenario today. We have all the advantages of modern technology. Daily satellite reports provide images of what lies ahead, the Australian Antarctic Division are kindly sending us daily weather reports for the region from Casey station (thanks Jane!) our location is publicly available, and if we get into serious trouble we can pick up the phone for help (albeit a last resort). That’s not to say we …

Going with the floe

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Punching your way through sea ice is a bit like being in a bombardment. One moment all is calm, the next silence is shattered by a crushing, grinding sound which reverberates throughout the ship. The duration of this assault on the senses can be fleeting or sustained, depending on the ice being negotiated by the vessel. The Shokalskiy is fortunately an ice-strengthened vessel but that doesn’t mean it is invincible. The ship’s captain Igor and his team have to carefully select which ice floes they negotiate while keeping an eye on what lies beyond. The rule of thumb is that only some 10-20% of ice can be seen floating above the surface. So 40 cm of visible ice means at least 160 cm is submerged. An important statistic when you’re taking an unsupported vessel deep into the pack ice, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest living soul. Today had everything with dizzying highs and lows. We woke to fog but this cleared early morning to leave us with a brilliant blue sky. The contrast with…

First ice

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Today I experienced an entirely sensation: travelling through sea ice. I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the magnificence of the experience. After days of rolling on the high seas, we have entered a world of absolute silence and calm. The chaotic high seas have been replaced by tranquil, millpond conditions. Flat, low lying chunks of ice lie scattered across the surface, separated by narrow leads of water, which the Shokalskiy resolutely tries to follow as it works its way across this ice scape. All is white and blue. The few waves we see are shadows of their cousins further north, and these pass lazily by, leaving little impression on the surface. One of the expeditioners who wrote a wonderful entry about the AAE’s first arrival in sea ice was meteorologist Cecil Madigan. On the 30 December 1911 the fog had cleared and Madigan wrote: “From the open cabin door I look out on about one hundred yards of open sea, part of an open lead we are following just now through the…

We're officially in the Antarctic!

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I’m not a lover of routine but I will say this: it breaks up the day incredibly well. Three square meals a day, interspersed with science observations, equipment checks, planning meetings and lectures means days on the ocean disappear as if they had never existed. If you’re looking for time to kill, take a cruise on the high seas; I can’t recommend it enough. It’s been two days since we left Macquarie Island but it only seems like yesterday. We are crossing one of the wildest seas in the world. We have lost team members to their bunks, grappled with electronic gear in the wettest of conditions and spent hours on deck working amongst frighteningly high waves. But no matter how miserable the conditions we’re operating in, time stubbornly flies by. One big advantage of all this ship time – no matter how illusionary – is you do get to know your team, something just not possible when taking a flight. The expeditions of the Heroic Era had weeks at sea, testing individuals, allowing them to…

Bobbing like a cork

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Discovered in 1810, Macquarie Island suffered its first shipwreck three years later and hasn’t really let up. It is not hard to imagine why. The Caroline, Nelson, Eagle and Endeavour are just a handful of craft that have ended their days here. The only way in is by sea but steep cliffs, shallow waters, wild winds and frequently heavy surf combine to make the shore a hazard to visitors.  Even getting close is fraught with danger as Mawson’s team learnt on their arrival. On their approach to Macquarie Island, the AAE saw a beached sealing vessel, the Clyde, which had been wrecked on a reef after a particularly bad storm. Under guidance from the sealers, the Aurora edged itself into more protected waters before delivering the team and equipment that were to call this remote spot home for two years. Sitting at 54˚S and 34 kilometres long, the 5 kilometre wide Macquarie Island is almost perfectly oriented north-south. But unfortunately for us the winds and waves have been coming from the …

Beating a path to Macquarie

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On the 2 December 1911, the residents of the island state of Tasmania turned out in droves to farewell the heavily laden Aurora when it headed south from Hobart. Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition was off. It had been an extraordinary year. Mawson had somehow managed to raise the necessary funds; appoint a team of scientists, engineers and ship’s crew; buy and provision a vessel; and obtain enough equipment and supplies to sustain a scientific expedition in the field for fourteen months. But it was not all plain sailing. A week after departure, Mawson wrote to his fiancé Paquita: ‘Our journey has been lengthened by a gale and encumbered decks – we scarcely thought to get through Tuesday last, but providence has asserted itself right from the beginning.  The Starboard bulwarks, motorboat and part of the bridge have been broken up – repairs are however well underway…The Aurora rolls day and night without ceasing – I have been trying to sleep on a couch and almost nig…

We're off to Antarctica

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I’m used to turning things round quickly but reprovisioning a ship and rotating an expedition in one day is not something I would recommend. There really is only one word for it: madness. We arrived in Bluff on the morning of the 7th December. The Sun was breaking through the clouds and southern New Zealand seemed very peaceful as we slowly approached the shore. But the immediate impression I had was of the overwhelming scent coming from the coast. I hadn’t noticed Bluff as being one of the great perfumed capitals of the world but it was certainly vying for a place in the top ten as our vessel, the Shokalskiy, approached land. I sat on the top deck, soaking up the sunshine and the closed my eyes, breathing in the fragrance. It was a brief indulgence. There was so much to do and everyone worked so hard to make it happen. The challenge was trying to anticipate what was needed over the next 24 hours. At the back of our minds was the big elephant in the room: what might we have forgotten…

Land of the Albatrosses

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A sadly neglected member of the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition team was Captain John K Davis, aka ‘Gloomy Davis’. While Mawson and his teams were operating out from the land and ice bases on Macquarie Island and the Antarctic continent, second-in-command Davis effectively led the fourth base: the expedition vessel, the Aurora. This role was so much more than just provisioning everyone else. Davis was charged with leading a full science program across the Southern Ocean: the so-called ‘subantarctic cruises’. Not a scientist himself, Davis somehow managed to maintain a full program of research, whilst also keeping order amongst a group of independent-thinking academics – described by someone on our current expedition like ‘herding cats’! – and navigating some of the most treacherous seas in the world. There is no doubt this work often frustrated Davis. On one of the cruises, Davis took a Tasmanian biology professor who was no less than Errol Flynn’s father. Flynn and his as…

A baptism of wind

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The promise of fine weather ended with my last post! I knew I was tempting fate as soon I put fingers to keyboard and waxed lyrically about the excellent conditions. Since then the Southern Ocean has come back with a vengeance, swinging from one extreme to the other. Wind, rain, hail and sleet have been our regular companions, and then just to play with our minds, the clouds suddenly clear and the Sun bursts forth – albeit briefly. Tonight as I sit in my cabin writing this blog I can hear the wind blowing a gale outside and the second anchor has just been dropped to steady the vessel; a first apparently. It’s hard to second guess what will happen with the weather. I watch the barometer for signs of change but the simplest relationship seems to be high pressure equals wind but it’s only a rule of thumb. The weather almost seems to do what it wants; as if it’s made a conscious decision to give no clues as to its intentions. Late last night the barometer was rising with heavy rain and we…