Thursday, 17 May 2012

Antarctic Adventure Part 1

I mentioned in an earlier blog that it is not my intention that these postings should appear in any sort of chronological order.  If I feel the frantic need to write about something that happened last week, rather than last century I will.  I’ve got a wagon load of anecdotes and reminiscences to get through as well as a few opinions which I hope to share over the next few weeks. 
So today I want to jump back a decade to one of the more exciting assignments I have experienced which took place in the summer of 2001 and concerned a major waste clean-up project in Antarctica. 
At the time, I was environment and development manager with one of Australia’s leading waste management companies, Collex.  The company had already been operating as a waste transport business for over twenty years before being acquired by leading French environmental services group, Veolia in the early 1990s.  The people in Paris had got wind of a report prepared the previous year by one of my colleagues in Tasmania following a recent trip he had made to the ice to carry out a waste audit for the Antarctic Division. 
Veolia had previously pledged to provide a pro bono service associated with managing the environment  in Antarctica.  The company made a commitment to supporting waste clean-up in Antarctica as a global mission and they were already working with other Antarctic Treaty countries including Argentina, Russia, France and the UK.
From an Australian perspective this commitment translated into an offer to donate a couple of million dollars towards the construction of specialised waste bins to assist in an environmental clean-up being planned by the Australian Government over the next ten years.  The offer was warmly accepted and it wasn’t long before we were working closely with Antarctic Division to help with the arrangements for building the 240 bins which would travel on board Aurora Australis to Casey base at the end of 2001.  An exciting outcome of this from a personal view was that I was to travel to Antarctica with the first shipment on a three-week round trip over the Christmas and New Year period.  As it transpired the adventure lasted almost seven weeks for reasons which will become clear over the course of this story. 
I kept a journal during this time and what follows is a summary of the trip.  I admit it seems a little pretentious in parts as I read it ten years later, but I have tried not to change it too much, only removing repetition and trivia in an attempt to make the story less longwinded.  I hope it provides an inkling of this unforgettable experience. 
I’m not going to post it all at once – I think it deserves at least three episodes – this first section is predominantly about getting there, and the fun of a shipboard Christmas.  I hope you enjoy it.


Sunday 16th December 2001 – On board “Aurora Australis” the first few hours at sea.

Yann and I checked out of our Hobart hotel at 7.30 am  and headed down to Macquarie Wharf with all our gear.  There, with 38 of our fellow travellers we assembled for our briefing of voyagers and expeditioners.  They are an interesting group and I’m looking forward to getting to know them over the next three weeks. 
Our party includes a dozen or so “over-winterers” heading south for the next 14 months.  This includes some of the people who are going to be filling our bins with the waste from the old Thala Valley tip.  Their voyage T-shirts say, “CASEY 2002 – The Rubbish Run”.
The briefing was thorough and started with welcome speeches by the Voyage Leader and the Antarctic Division Director.  We learned something about what our fellow travellers would be doing and what was in store for us all. 
If we had the slightest illusion that the Antarctic is not an exciting and potentially dangerous place, it was swiftly dispelled by the Chief Medical Officer who gave one of the most graphic and entertaining presentations of what to do and what not to do to survive the Antarctic. 
Because some of our expeditioners are going to winter in Antarctica and will be away from home for over a year, there was a focus on some of the personal as well as physical risks which will be faced – and as someone who had in a previous life spent many months at sea, I could understand his comments about not focusing on the way the fellow across the table eats his food or scratches his beard which, when looked at day after day for months on end, can drive a person senseless without the right attitude.
Later the ship’s master, Tony gave us a briefing on the Aurora.  She has five decks – A, B, C, D, E and F, from which we will forever remember the mnemonic, action, bosses, crew, dongas, eating and fun.  Yann and I are sharing a cabin (or a donga) on D deck which is where most of the group are located.
We had been scheduled to leave at 5 pm, but due to some last-minute technical changes this was revised to 8 pm.  It’s a major event whenever an Antarctic Division ship leaves on a voyage south, and this departure was no exception.  Although a relatively small group of 40 expeditioners and 21 crew, there was still a healthy contingent of well-wishers, loved ones and old hands on the wharf to wave us off.  The obligatory streamers were strung out between ship and shore and on the dot of 8 pm the Aurora gave a long blast and we slowly moved away from the wharf and into the Derwent.
As the distance between our vessel and the wharf grew larger, the streamers separated one by one and cameras and videos were replaced by mobile phones.  We all congregated on the helicopter deck, in the lee of our deck cargo of waste bins, using our phones for the last time for a few weeks.  As we sailed down the Derwent past the township of Kingston, headlights of a car on Bonnet Hill could be seen flashing as a determined spouse sent her last bon voyage to one of our number.
By 9 pm, we were heading out into open sea and the first gentle swells began to cause the ship to gently pitch in the fading light.  We all gathered in the Dining Room for a final briefing.  Here we learnt that we are due to arrive in Casey on Christmas Day so it was agreed that Santa would make an early visit to the Aurora on December 22.  We learnt that there were to be a few more things to look forward to, although our Voyage Leader Greg told us he’s going to leave us in peace tomorrow as we get used to the feel of a moving deck under our feet.

Monday 17th December 2001 – at sea

Today a few of us got to understand why Aurora Australis is sometimes unkindly called the “Orange Roughie.”  Personally, I was pleased to discover that although it is more than 25 years since my merchant navy days, I still seem to have immunity from sea sickness.  Sadly not all of my shipmates are as fortunate and there was only a handful of us who turned up at 7.30 that morning for breakfast.  My colleague and cabin mate, Yann from our waste research establishment in Paris, was one of the casualties with a severe case of mal de mer which saw him incapacitated until late that afternoon.  I’m pleased to say that after a couple of pills and a good sleep he joined us all for dinner that evening and was soon feeling and looking much more like his earlier self.
We are presently about 200 nautical miles southwest of Hobart and travelling at a cracking 16.5 knots having picked up speed the past couple of hours to take advantage of the relatively calm sea.  Earlier today the swells were around four to five metres with the ship occasionally pitching dramatically.  Later this afternoon it calmed down and the decision was taken to put our foot down a bit to make a little hay while the sun shines, so to speak.  If we are able to keep up this speed we may well make Casey by December 23.
Today was a day for finding our sea-legs.  It was also a good day for establishing communications so Yann and I can keep in touch with Sydney and Paris and we now have our own satellite antenna sticking out on the deck above the wheelhouse at the end of broom handle – and what’s more it works well.
Our Voyage Leader Greg, was one of the early casualties, but he rose from his sick bed later this evening to let us know that there will be some fairly intense activities over the next few days in survival training – something we can all look forward to!
We are also running an ‘Ice Sweep’, the objective being who of us can most closely predict when we see our first iceberg.  The rules are strict, it must not be a radar siting it must be visual and independently verified and it must be at least as big as the ship, more on this story later.

Tuesday 18th December 2001 – at sea

It’s a superstition at sea not to talk about fair weather when it arrives in case it leaves us.  Per, our Danish bosun, (more correctly termed Senior Integrated Rating these days) reminded me of this when he overheard me saying that the sea could easily be mistaken for the Mediterranean at its best.  Nevertheless it could almost be described as balmy and we are making 17 to 18 knots in a sea with a gentle swell and a very light westerly breeze which could almost be called a zephyr – and this is at 53 degrees South latitude, well and truly into the furious fifties.  But I’m not going to say any more about the weather, just in case Per is right.
We received a message from the Antarctic Division today giving us and all other staff at AAD an update on the voyage schedules of Aurora and one of our sister ships, Polar Bird which is on a supply trip to Mawson.  Polar Bird is not an icebreaker, she’s regarded as ice-capable and she has been stationary in heavy ice conditions in Prydz Bay for about 12 days.  The ship is in no danger and is accessible by helicopter.
We learnt that unless the situation changes, a decision will be made after our arrival at Casey whether Aurora is to be re-routed to provide assistance.  Although there are no plans to do this yet, we are taking advantage of the fair weather to travel at maximum speed to Casey thus providing an opportunity to divert if needed.
Interest in the Ice Sweep is growing, with some bidders prepared to wager that it will be as early as tomorrow night when we see our first berg.  Proceeds from the raffle will go to Camp Quality, the charity adopted by the officers and crew of the Aurora which provides great benefits and opportunities to under-privileged kids.  As I said yesterday the iceberg must be at least as big as the ship, the siting must be independently verified and under no circumstances are we to bribe the captain or any of the officers to use the radar or alter course in any way.  I’m punting for Thursday mid-morning.
Today’s training was on clothing and the risk and avoidance measures for hypothermia and frostbite.  Although much of this is aimed at the over-winterers and the researchers who will be working away from the base, the training is for all and continues to remind us that we’re not just off for a trip to the seaside.
I am constantly impressed by the scientists on board and their devotion to the work they are doing and its value and importance in understanding the role that this part of the world plays in the whole global life-cycle.  Little wonder there is so much enthusiasm for keeping it clean and pristine.

Wednesday 19th December 2001 - at sea (57 deg S, 130 deg E)

The weather deteriorated slightly, although we are still getting a relatively smooth passage as we continue on our south-westerly course.  At noon today we were about half way there, nearly 1,000 nautical miles (1,875 km) from Hobart and another 1,000 to go.  We are now at 57 degrees South latitude and the sea temperature is down to about 3 degrees C which is about one degree lower than the outside air temperature.  The wind has swung around to the northeast as we skirt around the eastern edge of a depression to the west of us.  The barometer has dropped to 975 HPa and visibility is down to about 250 metres, but we are still making good time at 16 to 17 knots.  So much for the meteorological report.
Today’s training session was on survival.  Voyage Leader Greg, a mountaineer and training consultant in his other life, gave us an excellent demonstration on the use of the Bivi Bag which is like a huge sack made from weather-proof material (not waterproof since it never rains in Antarctica).  The word bivi, of course, comes from bivouac, for which we should always be prepared even if only a few tens of metres from camp.
I have already mentioned the number of scientists on board and over the past few days we’ve had several opportunities to understand what it is that they do and their passion for their specialist fields.   For example, John has been streaming a Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) from the stern of the ship ever since we left Hobart.  The CPR catches plankton in a type of Swiss roll material which slowly but continuously winds itself on as we move south.  When it gets to the end of the role, as it did this morning he can collect and count the plankton and record exactly where it was collected, thus providing a record of plankton abundance between Tasmania and the Antarctic shelf.
Another of the scientists on board this trip is Steve from the University of New England who has been counting kelp rafts as they drift past the ship.  This helps to provide data to determine the potential for the dispersal of kelp-associated organisms.  For a long time scientists have questioned why islands such as Macquarie Island and other sub-Antarctic land masses such as Heard Island, although many millions of years different in their ages, and over 5,000 km apart, have similar fauna.  Steve’s work, which is sponsored by the AAD, plays a valuable role in providing a better understanding of the importance of circumpolar currents to the distribution of organisms across the Southern Ocean which in turn plays a significant role in better understanding our planet’s health.
Tonight we were provided with our rosters for Casey, where, if present conditions prevail we will arrive mid-afternoon on the December 22, (our Christmas Day).  We also learned that King Neptune is due to pay us a visit on Friday afternoon to seek retribution from all those first-timers who have dared to cross the 60th Parallel without his permission.  It remains to be seen what this holds in store for us.

Thursday 20th December 2001 – at sea (61 deg S, 125 deg E)

We’ve had the smooth and now we’re getting the rough.  It is as if having been granted smooth passage through the furious fifties, we’ve had to make up for it in the shrieking sixties.  We crossed the 60th parallel at about 12.30 this afternoon as the barometer fell rapidly.
The big excitement of the day however, was the iceberg sighting.  The first one was spotted this morning at 0230, which ended the ice raffle and raised $150 towards Camp Quality when the winner, Ian, one of the meteorologists on the way south for his fifth winter donated his prize.  However, since it was at half-past two in the morning, not a lot of people apart from Jake the second mate were able to see it, and it wasn’t until a little later that we all got the chance that we’d been waiting for.
At about 10 am the skipper showed us a huge object on the radar about 10 miles dead ahead.  As we got closer it slowly loomed out of the mist on the starboard side of the ship.  It was huge and looked like an enormous island with cliff faces on all sides and waves breaking against it.  It must have been 40 or 50 times the size of the ship, like a massive white Rock of Gibraltar drifting ever so slowly in a northerly direction.  It was so close that we could make out the discolouration from some type of organism, algae maybe, on its upper parts.  We saw a couple more during the day, but most of them were too far away for us to see their features.
After this, the weather deteriorated and by 3 or 4 pm we were heading into the teeth of a strong gale with winds of 35 to 45 knots and six to eight metre waves crashing over the bow and occasionally going straight over the top of the bridge.  By early evening, our speed was down to six or eight knots as we diverted course slightly further south-south-west in an effort to get into the sea ice earlier and provide some calmer conditions.
This would be a good moment to mention the ship’s bridge and the attitude that the officers and crew of Aurora Australis have toward the expeditioners.  The bridge is without a doubt the congregation point; and all of the officers and crew without exception, make their passengers welcome throughout the voyage.  As an old marine engineer, I would still say that the engine room is the heart of the ship, providing the thrust and muscle to get us to where we want to go.  But the bridge is where the decisions are made; where the eyes and ears see, and the voice communicates.  Little wonder that during my own sea days, I would spend as much time as I could reasonably get away with on the ship’s bridge, rather than down below in the artificial light of a hot and noisy engine room.
Captain Tony Hansen has been a most gracious and informative host to us all.  No question is too inane or pointless and no request for information is too much trouble to answer.  Yet throughout this his officers and crew go about the task with an air of professionalism of which the ship’s owners and the Australian Antarctic Division can be justifiably proud.
I haven’t had a chance to talk more about the scientists today.  Angela is our krill expert who will be collecting them as we approach the ice edge.  Tonight’s krill fishing has been postponed due to the poor weather – more about this tomorrow.

Friday 21st December 2001, 2100 hrs – at sea (63 Deg S, 113 Deg E)

Tomorrow will be the official longest day as well as Aurora’s official Christmas Day.  If it’s anything like as long and eventful and above all as enjoyable as today then we really have something to look forward to.
Most people retired early last night – the ship was taking quite a beating and so were we.  We had been travelling in severe gale conditions most of the day and quite a number had retired to their bunks to ride out the poor conditions.
At about two o’clock this morning, the sea started to get calmer and by 2.30 we were in a sea that was nothing more than a gentle swell.  We were approaching the sea ice and by 4 am we were in the thick of it.  What a spectacular sight it is.  All day we have made our way through ice which at various times has covered from ten to fifty per cent of the ocean.  It’s difficult to do justice to the scenery by simply writing about it.  I’m sure much better poets and literary artists than me have tried and failed. 
I will only say that it is like being on another planet.  We have all seen before on countless documentaries the shapes and the shades of white and blue, but to actually see it for oneself is like nothing seen before.  Little wonder that people keep coming back.
At one stage during the day, from horizon to horizon I was able to see majestic shapes of giant icebergs, looking for all the world like mountains, ocean liners, and city skyscrapers.  Occasionally a small group of seals would stare at us from their ice floes as we passed and a from time to time we saw the odd minke whale.
Later in the morning we participated in a lifeboat drill which required all members of crew and expeditioners to muster on the helideck in full survival gear, complete with life-jackets.  The drill went without a hitch with expeditioners responding immediately to the seven short and one long blast from the ship's siren over the intercom system.  It was however, embarrassing a couple of hours later, as Yann and I sat in our cabin reviewing our video shoot of the drill.  Our cabin door was open and the volume on the playback was maybe a little too loud.  We didn’t realise how loud until a couple of irate expeditioners, in full survival gear, complete with life-jackets arrived at our door having responded to what they thought was a second drill.  Needless to say, this will cost us a couple of beers later on!
Following the safety drill, we carried out our krill trawl.  Angela and a team from AAD are here to collect live krill samples (hopefully a few thousand) and carry out studies which will help us further understand these remarkable little creatures.  Krill is like a tiny shrimp, as big as your little finger and abundant in the Southern Ocean.  They are the main feedstock of most of the Antarctic animals including whales, seals, penguins, birds and fish, yet little is known about them.  Many of us gathered to observe the activity on the Trawl Deck as Angela and her team, under the guidance of the Chief Mate, lowered a huge net which the Aurora slowly trawled for about 15 minutes.  We did this twice, but today’s catch recovered a few jellyfish, some squid and a several tiny fish and worms, but sadly only two krill.  We will try again at Casey if time and weather permits.
The highlight of the day’s activities was the arrival of King Neptune with his Queen and entourage – and what an entourage it was.  With a team of fearsome enforcers looking variously like the Incredible Hulk, Angry Anderson and Zaphod Beeblebrox (complete with two heads), Neptune and his voluptuous Queen made their way into the E Deck Mess.  Here Voyage Leader, Greg humbly beseeched His Majesty to make welcome those first-time travellers who had entered into his Antarctic Domain.  There were about 15 or 20 of us, including officers, crew and expeditioners who were venturing for the first time – or in the case of the second mate, had been getting away with coming down here for years without ever once getting caught.
My French colleague Yann received some of the worst of it, being held responsible for a number of activities ranging from the Moruroa Atoll and the Rainbow Warrior incidents to the Davis Cup.  Yann was sprayed with water pistols (filled with Gin) and painted with Vegemite.  He humbly apologised on behalf of the entire French Nation and was admitted to the Domain after kissing the feet of the beautiful Queen and her fearsome King.  I said that Yann received some of the worst of it, but I am convinced that the worst was saved for the guy from Collex Waste (yours truly) who somehow managed to carry the responsibility for 100 years of human activity in the Antarctic Region.  Since I was the last to be seen by His Awfulness, it seemed they had nothing else to do with the rest of the ice in the bin they had but to put it all down my front and back.  And I think it will be a week before I manage to get all the Vegemite out of my hair.
The ceremony was followed by a most delicious barbecue on the Trawl Deck which was attended by all expeditioners and all others who weren’t on watch.  There really was no better place on earth to be.

Saturday 22nd December 2001 (Aurora’s Christmas Day) – at sea (66 Deg S, 110 Deg E)

Tomorrow (Sunday) we will arrive at Casey early in the morning and work will begin immediately on the task of getting fuel ashore to the Station and starting cargo operations.   December 25 will be just like any other working day, with too much work going on for anyone to take more than just a moment to celebrate the day.  It was for this reason that the crew and expeditioners aboard the Aurora celebrated Christmas Day today, December 22 while still about 60 or so nautical miles from Casey Station.  At the same time on Casey and for the same reason, a similar event took place.
The day began quietly with the ship wending its way through sea ice as the occasional iceberg drifted past.  Sea ice as the name suggests is formed from frozen sea and generally is about one metre thick, but this varies as the ice is formed and floes drift together.  Icebergs originate from land ice and then there are all the variations such as growlers and bergy-bits, but more about this later.
Later in the morning we gathered in the Mess Room to receive a briefing about the day and also to listen to some of the things that our expeditioners plan to do during the week we’ll be at Casey.  We heard from Mark who is taking a team of three glaciologists up to the Law Dome an area about eight to ten hours travel by tracked vehicle inland from Casey and, as the name suggests on an elevated plateau.  In this area, the ice is over a kilometre thick.  ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) have been taking bore samples which provide information on ice which is up to 100,000 years old. 
By testing the sedimentary deposits, salinity and general composition of this ancient ice, we can learn invaluable information relating to climate change patterns and conditions that have existed over centuries of formation of Antarctic ice.  Other expeditioners told us of the work they are doing on mosses and lichen and its growth rate over many years.  In the search for possible forms of life on other planets, the survival and growth of such organisms in an otherwise hostile environment gives tremendous information on what may be expected in these conditions.
Of course, the real highlight of the day was Christmas Dinner.  At 3 pm sharp, the whole of the ship’s crew apart from those on watch-keeping duties and all expeditioners sat down to one of the most sumptuous feasts imaginable.  Honey glazed leg ham, sirloin of beef, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, Moreton Bay bugs, Tasmanian crayfish, prawns, salmon, oysters all made for a banquet which would have gratified King Neptune himself.
Toasts to family and loved ones were shared as well as to the skipper and crew, with the loudest cheer of all reserved for the catering staff whose efforts were magnificent.
At 5 pm we eased ourselves away from the tables and gathered under the Christmas Tree in the library to await the arrival of Santa and his elves, and what a great looking bunch they were when they arrived.  Earlier all expeditioners and crew had participated in a ‘Kris Kringle’ exercise where we all draw a name from a hat and were asked to put a small gift under the tree for that individual. 
It was an excellent way to share the pleasures of giving and receiving without knowing the giver’s name.  Although our Collex caps might have been a bit of a clue to the guys who received our gifts!
As the evening progressed the next significant event was the customary auction run by ship’s captain, Tony Hansen.  As I mentioned in an earlier note, the Aurora has adopted Camp Quality as it favourite charity.  The crew have truly taken the cause to their hearts and ship’s bosun, Per gave us all a personal account of the crew’s continuing involvement with this wonderful organisation. 
This was no ordinary auction – the items being auctioned were all the same – hair!  Wintering Station Leader, John Rich started the ball rolling by offering to hair and beard for $1,000.  John is one of those quietly spoken, gentle men with a Lincoln-like demeanour and a wonderful statesman-like beard which he told us, his wife had never seen him without.   The money was quickly raised and Elvis arrived complete with star-spangled overalls and dark glasses.  To the tune of Blue Suede Shoes, John was rapidly transformed into a chrome-dome.  A succession of candidates followed including second cook Mark, with his Frank Zappa locks and krill lady, Angela whose transformation from yesterday’s Queen Neptune to today’s Sinead O’Connor was a sight to see.  All together about a dozen lined up to be sheared and the next morning at breakfast we suddenly had a whole group of new faces to get used to.
The evening was topped off for me by the most beautiful Antarctic evening I could have imagined.  As midnight approached the sky which had earlier in the day, and generally throughout the voyage been quite overcast became clear and unclouded.  The sun drifted toward the western horizon and stayed just an outstretched hands-width above the ocean’s edge.  It was a great sight to watch the Aurora’s shadow stretching to the east and  reflecting back from a nearby giant iceberg while the sea shimmered like a lake. A great end to another magnificent day in one of the truly great spots to be on Earth.

1 comment:

  1. Such crucial long-sighted work cleaning up an earlier world's short-sighted excesses - my favorite story so far.