Antarctica Reloaded

It’s been somewhat of a tradition by now that my first words are an apology for not having updated this blog for a while, and then I go to list all the excuses for it. So to keep the tradition – I’m sorry I haven’t updated this blog much over the last couple of months. To tell you the truth, life simply took over, certainly while I was back in the real world.

I have just come back to Antarctica though, so no worries – I will stay on top of the blog again!

What have I been up to this year so far

As you might remember, after leaving Antarctica in February, I’ve spent some time in Chile, then in Spain, then in Poland, then in Ireland and then I’ve joined BAS for another stint, and have been in the UK since June.

In the mean time I went to Poland again a couple of times, and even managed to squeeze in a trip to Iceland (you can have a look at some pictures from this beautiful place on my gallery website).

While with BAS in Cambridge, a few interesting things happened. I have been very lucky to be put on some more training, which I didn’t do before I went South the first time, in addition to the standard Girton Conference and the Field Course which all of us have to do. The two courses I enjoyed a lot were the week long Mast Climbing course as well as the three days long Fire Fighting course with Duxford Airfield Fire Service.

Pictures above courtesy of Max Tams and Jess Walkup. Thanks!

Then came my pre-embarkation leave and I went again to Poland to visit my family and friends, and suddenly it was time to leave for Cape Town to meet the RRS Ernest Shackleton, and to set sail for a trip South.

Journey South

We arrived to Cape Town in the morning of 3 December 2015. We were picked up by the BAS Agent from the airport and transferred to the Shackleton, waiting for us in the Commercial Harbour. Unfortunately, due to the amount of fuel the Shackleton was carrying on board, we were not allowed to moor up at the Waterfront, which made trips into town a bit more difficult: it was either by taxi, or taking a 40 minute stroll in 40°C and strong sunshine.

We also had really only one day in Cape Town, or at least that is how we thought it was going to be. After boarding the ship, we all went to the town, to do any last minute shopping and to have a meal and a beer or three. Some even decided to go climb the Table Mountain.

We were meant to leave the following day and even went to Immigration to check out of the country, however it turned out that there was some problem with the fuel trucks and we ended up having to wait one more day before we could finally cast off.

The next morning we set sail. It was great to see other polar ships in the harbour when we were leaving: the South African Agulhas I (now replaced by a newer, bigger and better Agulhas II), the Russian Akademik Fedorov and the German Polarstern. Just after leaving the harbour we were escorted by whales, seals and a lot of birds.

It was a beautiful, warm and calm day and the sea was pretty flat. The weather stayed that way for a day or two, after which the seas and the wind started to pick up a little. We all set in for the ship routine pretty quickly. Every week or so four of us FIDs would be on GASH, while the remainig six days of the week we were completely free to do whatever we please. In addition, the four of us from the Science Team as well as the last winter’s Met guy Rich volunteered to run the ship’s met obs throughout the cruise, which gave us a good opportunity and reason to come up to the bridge a lot.

I even got to drive the ship for a few minutes one evening!

Within about a week or so of leaving Cape Town we hit the sea ice. Once again, this season the extent of the sea ice is much larger than usual – we encountered ice floes just north of the line which marks the average August sea ice extent on the passage planning chart. Bear in mind, our journey took place in December, which is the start of the summer season, while August is the coldest month in Antarctica! We were worried we might get delayed or stuck, however in the end it turned out that the ice was pretty thin for most of the time and the ship was able to get through it without much of a problem. From the daily updated satellite images it looked like we might struggle to find a shore lead (which is a stretch of ice-free water close to the shore line) once we get closer to the Ice Shelf, but again this turned out not to be the case for the most part and we were able to make it pretty much all the way to Halley without getting stuck too much.

One other worry we had was caused by a few massive ice bergs which calved off somewhere around the Stancomb-Wills Ice Shelf and which were very close to our primary relief site called N9. The two largest bergs were 15NM (Nautical Miles) and 25NM long, respectively, and 7 or more Nautical Miles wide. One of them was around 6-7 miles away from the shore, and we went in through that gap. Again, we were able to sail past those bergs and finally, on the 18 December, we arrived to N9, moored up and started the preparations for the relief.

The next day, 19 December, we were met by a party from Halley and the relief operation officially kicked off.

Relief

The relief was going to be a 24/7 operation and we were split into shifts. Some people would stay ship-side, while others would be brought to Halley Station. There would be two 12-hour shifts at the ship and at Halley, unloading the cargo from the ship, and handling the cargo at the base, respectively. There would also be three 8-hour long shifts for Ice Shelf drivers, who would carry the empty sledges from the base to the ship, and bring back sledges with cargo to the base. We were using Pisten Bullies, John Deere tractors and even a Bulldozer for this job. I was nominated to be one of the John Deere drivers and similarly to last year, I would be on night shift.

N9 is located 45km away from the base, and the average journey time for a JD is between 3 and 5 hours one way. Add to that the need to refuel, dig down the vehicle off snow and do some basic checks and maintenance, and the shift becomes 10 hours long or more. Because of that, what started as a night shift for me, very quickly drifted to become a morning shift, to then become an afternoon one, to probably become a night shift again in a day or two. Doesn’t matter, time is really an arbitrary concept here, especially now that we have 24 hour daylight. All I know is I will work for 10 hours, and then I’ll have 16-20 hours break. Life is good!

Back to Halley

It feels strange but very good to be back. I was looking forward to seeing all familiar faces of the people whom we’ve left here last summer, to see how they went through their winter, how they changed. I’ve not yet had the time to sit down with them for a proper chat. I’m still curious what they really think of their experience.

At the same time I got to know my new wintering team a little better and they seem to be a very good bunch. We still have a lot to learn about each other, but I think we’re in for a good time.

I’m ready to start my new winter.

2 thoughts on “Antarctica Reloaded

  1. Great blog to start your new trip. Packet full of good info and accompanied as always with top quality photos. Best of luck from Mark, Lesley and the girls.

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