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.
Approaching sea ice
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 the white against the horizon made a breathtaking sight. The ice was young – most probably formed this winter – and relatively open, allowing the Shokalskiy to cut a trail effortlessly. But by mid-morning it looked like we would meet thick pack ice so we decided to stop the vessel and put the team in Zodiacs to give everyone some experience with getting on and off the vessel in semi-open water. It was a good excuse to explore our local surroundings. The combination of ice sculptures, penguins, seals and whales rounded the morning off beautifully. It was extraordinary how much life there was in the immediate area of the ship. One moment, we would see Adelie penguins watching with interest, the next, a crab eater seal lying in the Sun not bothering to look up. A highlight was two dwarf minke whales – an inhabitant of typically warmer climes, including the Great Barrier Reef! Robbie managed to get a great movie of one of the whales on his iPhone and I’ve loaded this up onto YouTube.
After a late lunch we pushed on but the sea ice closed in significantly. By 1900, there was little, if any, open water between the ice. The Shokalskiy could no longer push the ice aside; in places ahead we could see the ice was buckling at points of contact, forming pressure points, heaving large segments skyward. We had no choice but to return north to a safer location and will try to probe south again later. The latest satellite images suggests northerly winds are driving thick pack ice to the northeast into our path but unfortunately heavy cloud has prevented a sea ice report being generated for Commonwealth Bay. At this rate it could be several days before we make the edge of the fast ice. Igor and his team were disappointed but we had no choice and regretfully turned around about. Our furthest south for the day was 65.430ºS 145.757ºE.
In Mawson’s Home of the Blizzard, the great man wrote that Antarctic “land lay to the south [was] beyond doubt; the problem was to reach it through the belt of ice-bound sea… Though progress can be made in dense pack, provided it is not too heavy, advance is necessarily very slow.”
Cape Denison holds a special place in the history of Antarctic exploration. A small outcrop of rocks on the remote East Antarctic coastline, Cape Denison is forever associated with one of the most spectacular and often forgotten tales of survival. A century ago it was the main base of operations for one of the great explorers of the south: the Australian scientist Sir Douglas Mawson. Privately funded, three bases and one research ship supported a science team that explored a region the size of the United States between 1911 and 1914. Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, however, suffered terribly during their time at Cape Denison: a sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the death of two men, allegations of cannibalism and with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. But when they first came upon Cape Denison, Mawson was ecstatic. Greeted by squawking penguins: ‘We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked. The sun sh…
There’s an old sailor’s expression: “Below 40 degrees south there is no law, below 50 degrees south there is no God.” Since the sixteenth century, sailors have spoken in awe of the violent westerly winds and seas they experienced fighting their way across the Southern Ocean. With few landmasses to slow them down, the winds found across 40 degrees latitude often reach speeds of twenty-five knots—about 40 percent stronger than their northern hemisphere counterparts—earning them the title the “roaring forties.” As shipping pushed farther south, explorers realized that these winds form part of a vast storm belt that includes the “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties,” names more reminiscent of terrible rock bands than a major part of our planet’s circulation system. The early hunters and traders didn’t understand it at the time, but these winds are created by a procession of low-pressure systems carried east by the jet stream, a river of cold air hurtling and twisting round the Antarct…
Commonwealth Bay in the
East Antarctic will be forever associated with Sir Douglas Mawson’s pioneering
scientific venture a century ago: the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Mawson’s
team had only intended to spend one year south, but it was not to be. A sudden turn of events led to tragedy on the ice, the deaths of two men, allegations of cannibalism and, with the return of winter sea ice, an extended stay in Antarctica. While the efforts of Mawson and his men laid the foundations for modern
Antarctic science, the region has continued to experience dramatic change. And
it doesn’t get any more dramatic than the arrival of iceberg B09B in 2011. The
word ‘berg’ doesn’t really do it justice though – B09B is a monster. Weighing
in at an estimated 500 billion tonnes, this block of ice is 97 miles long and over
20 kilometres wide. There’s enough freshwater in B09B to provide all of New
York’s drinking needs for 300 years. And it started out even larger. In 1987,
an iceberg the size of Bal…