Antarctic Diaries 2012 - Part 1

By Alpkit

Friday 17th February 2012
On board the Ship
This morning the team set sail en route to Antarctica. This is the first season south for the new ice breaker to Antarctic waters and she has been fitted an echo-sounder and the helicopter flight deck has been moved aft, which is the ice position. Painted bright red and white, it will be in stark contrast to the ice once we are underway. The team are now bracing themselves for the rough waters of Drake Passage, and have all stocked up on sea sickness pills. Whales have already been spotted from the Bridge, along with shags and albatross.
The scientists have been furnished with comfortable, compact cabins, and were invited to relax with the officers in the Ward Room. The officers have been extremely welcoming and friendly, and invited us to dine with them at the comfortable Officer’s Mess. We had a few drinks with them on the first night when alongside.

Whilst we have been accommodated on board, we have been sorting kit and checking equipment. Everything seems to have survived the long ship’s passage South, and we have assembled and checked the rocksaw and Alpkit Heksa Basecamp tent This should make it easier to put up once onshore, which should happen Monday or Tuesday.
Because of poor satellite communications and lack of internet, I will be unable to send this blog out until I return to the base; therefore I will keep it as a diary and Alpkit will get the full blog upon my return to civilisation!

Esperanza base

Thursday 23rd February
On board the Ship
The Ship made good progress across Drake Passage, before visiting Esperanza, an Argentinean base at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, for an informal visit. By Thursday, the team are still onboard, having tried and failed to enter Prince Gustav Channel. The strong southerly winds that slowed the ship down on its journey south across Drake Passage had blown thick sea ice as far north as Joinville Island. With sea ice at ten tenths (if the sea is divided into a grid of ten squares, all of them have thick ice in), no ice breaker would be able to break the ice and pass through.

Prince Gustav Channel

There was nothing to do but head North to Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands, for the ship’s hydrographers to complete some outstanding tide gauge and swath bathymetry work (mapping the sea floor) using the SMB (Survey Motor Boat) James Caird VI, and wait to see if the ice would clear.

Point Wild, Elephant Island, is the site where some of Shackleton’s men were left to wait in a small upturned wooden boat. Having been enclosed in pack ice in the Weddell Sea, the Endurance finally sank in the northern Weddell Sea on November 21st, 1915. Shackleton’s men set up camp using lifeboats on the pack ice, before launching the small lifeboats north of Antarctic Sound once they were clear of the pack ice on April 9th, and sailed for Elephant Island. Here, Shackleton left Frank Wild in charge before heading for the whaling stations on South Georgia on April 24th, 1916, in the James Caird. Captain Wild and his team made camp on a small promontory of rock on Elephant Island, trapped between vertical cliffs and two impassable glaciers. There were surrounded by penguins and sea lions. Half starved, frost bitten and exhausted, the men waited four months for Shackleton to return.

The Captain arranged for the ship’s company to visit Point Wild whilst hydrographic surveying was being undertaken. This opportunity was relished by the BAS scientists and by Iain Rudkin (“Cheese”), the field assistant assigned to our project. Relieved at the prospect of getting off the ship, even if only briefly, the team gingerly clambered down a rope ladder into a speed boat waiting at the bottom. This effected a fast and rapid transfer to a small Zodiac (a RIB) closer to the bay. En route, we stopped to watch whales breaching and fluking nearby.

Point Wild is a tiny scrap of rock, and living there for months on end with nothing to eat but penguins is unimaginable. The clamour and smell of the penguins reached us from the point well before we reached there with our little boat. Once there, we were given free-reign to wander amongst the Chinstrap colony.

The penguins were moulting, the chicks nearly fully grown, with many half-fluffy chicks. There was one lonely juvenile King penguin, and several sheathbills. To wander amongst them, in such a historic place, was truly a privilege.
The ship’s surveyors will continue their tide gauge and swath bathymetry work for the next 24 hours. Then we will sail south again to James Ross Island, and see if we can penetrate Prince Gustav Channel. In the meantime, there is little to do but watch the whales nearby, and to try to catch that elusive fluking tail shot.

Check out why the team are back out for a 2nd season or move straight on to Part 2

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