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 check out who they had on board, their abilities, their quirks and how they might work best together (if at all). It is an incredibly useful time and can be deeply rewarding. On today’s AAE, we’re all getting to know each other very well. There is a wonderful spectrum of life stories on board. We have people from all walks of life, from all around the world, willing to share their experiences and skill sets. It makes for a happy ship.
The ship's bell
Last night we finished a 30 hour oceanographic survey of what is known as the Antarctic Convergence. We wanted to survey the conditions as the Shokalskiy crossed the ocean where cold Antarctic waters migrating north meet warmer waters heading south. Over some 300 kilometres, everyone mucked in, regardless of the time of day or night. We released floats to better understand how the ocean is circulating (these devices are already transmitting their position via satellite so can be followed online; as soon as we have the URLs that show their position we’ll post these online). We also made collections of surface-living organisms known as plankton to investigate biological changes, while probes provided an instantaneous measure of temperature all the way to the sea bed, a staggering 900 metres. During this work, the cooler temperatures and ever increasing day length removed any doubt we are fast approaching Antarctica; last night, darkness only really set in around 1 am. We’re getting close to the continent and the promise of 24 hours of daylight.
As we push further south, the excitement of seeing ice is gathering pace. This morning we woke to fog and it was our companion throughout the day. But this didn’t dampen our mood at all. Around noon we crossed 60˚S, the legally defined boundary of Antarctica. It’s so close! We have drawn up a list of when we expect to see the first berg. A prize is on offer for the closest guesstimate – details haven’t yet been given but the prospect of chocolate means some are taking it a little more seriously than others.
Delving into the diaries of the original AAE, I found a wonderful passage that has a lovely parallel to today. One of the biologists one hundred years ago was a first year Sydney graduate called John George Hunter. This year his diaries were published and the entry while crossing the 60˚S parallel on the 28 December 1911 is striking similar to today:
‘Sea again calm but wind more round to the west. Again very foggy. Everybody is on the look out for ice but so far none has been sighted. [Frank] Wild bet [Archie] McLean a stick of chocolate we would see ice yesterday, but lost; and he lost the same bet again today with [Walter] Hannam.’
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…