Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Antarctic Adventure Part 2

It is a delightful surprise to see how many are reading this. The last time I looked at the data it showed that my blogs have been opened more than 1,200 times and the number is growing every day. Of course, it doesn’t follow that opening the link, means the document is going to be read, I am not so presumptuous, but since one or two readers have asked me to keep going, and since I require little encouragement, I will do just that.
I recently posted the first part of my Antarctic escapade, and if you haven’t yet read it, my suggestion is that you read it before reading any more of this.
The last entry of my journal had us arriving in Casey base, so as many a schoolboy saga would say, now read on… 

Sunday 23rd December 2001 – Casey Base, Australian Antarctic Territory
Finally, we are here and nature has provided us with an absolutely bonzer day. If this is Antarctica, move over Gold Coast. The sun shone from a cloudless sky, with hardly a breath of wind all day - what was Scott’s problem?
A sobering moment came later today when we heard the three-day forecast. In short, make the most of this, the blizzard is due within the next couple of days.
Shortly before breakfast we dropped anchor in Newcomb Bay about a kilometre offshore from the characteristic red, orange, green and blue sheds which we had seen on so many photographs and films featuring Casey. The Base is just over 30 years old, having been established in 1969 when Wilkes, on the opposite side of the bay, was closed as a result of snow accumulation and poor site selection - but more on Wilkes later.
The Casey Station Leader is Paul Cullen. He has spent the past 13 months here and like almost all the fifty or so people on station, he will be returning to Hobart with us.  Paul came on board and warmly welcomed us to the Antarctic continent. We had earlier all received an email explaining the rules of the Station, but it was clear from Paul’s personal address that his mission, before he leaves this place is to ensure that we all accomplish what we have set out to achieve by coming here.
Yann and I were on one of the first boats ashore and a small group of us were soon carefully descending a rope ladder from the ship’s side on to a barge and into waiting inflatable rubber boats (IRBs) known as zodiacs. We were to become better acquainted with the zodiac over the next 24 hours.
We set foot at the busy landing wharf area which resembles something like a working construction site in any other part of the world. Here we became acquainted with another form of transport with which we were to become familiar during our stay – the Hägglund. The Hagg is a tracked all-terrain diesel powered vehicle with an enclosed cabin connected to a tracked trailer cabin. The Hagg and the quad motorcycles have long since replaced dogs and sleds as the means of transport around Antarctic bases and Australian Antarcticans in particular, are highly appreciative of the value and reliability of the Hagg. Paul Cullen was our driver and we were driven the half kilometre or so, up the hill through a narrow laneway of packed ice and snow to the heart of Casey, the Red Shed.
This is the home of most Caseyites – a two-story, steel-clad red building which houses the dining room, kitchen, lounge and bar of Casey and accommodates most of its winter and summer expeditioners. It is also the home of the library and the cinema (the Odeon) and is the place of congregation for all. Although modest and unprepossessing in outside appearance it provides a warm, lodge type atmosphere once inside. We stamped our way through the double entry doors, shaking packed snow from our feet as we walked in. Our heavy sheepskin lined sorrels and windproof outer garments (ventiles) were removed and left close to the exit door before we all signed the fireboard, a critical requirement for  everyone entering or leaving the Red Shed. This is how our hosts know who is in or out and where we are (particularly visitors); all of which is pretty important in an environment where fire and blizzard will not forgive the careless.
Our mission today was to visit Wilkes station and after a welcoming cup of coffee and a quick lunch we made our way to the stores shed to get survival packs needed for our short trip to Wilkes. All travellers who go off station must take a survival pack – even an hour’s journey could, in the case of an unexpected snowstorm require an overnight stay in poor conditions. The pack contains sleeping bag, bivi bag, essential rations and first aid kit.
Our host was Dr Martin Riddle, Program Director for Human Impact Studies at AAD and who has been in Casey for the summer.  Martin is a marine biologist and is responsible for much of the work which is carried out at the Antarctica bases and surrounding waters. He is thus greatly involved in the work associated with the waste clean-up at Casey’s Thala Valley site and at Wilkes.
Wilkes Station was formally a US base, established in the International Geo-physical Year of 1957. It was handed over to Australia in 1959 who operated the station until the late 1960s after which the replacement site at Casey came into operation as Wilkes slowly became buried under its accumulation of snow and ice.  The station is directly opposite Casey on the other side of the bay, about an hour’s Hagg ride away. Both stations are clearly visible from the Aurora as she sits easily at anchor in the middle of the bay.
The clean-up at Casey’s Thala Valley site with its 3,000 tonnes of waste and contaminated soil which will be removed over the next three or four years is a test for the ultimate clean-up at Wilkes. Wilkes has ten times more waste than there is at Casey and the landscape from one end to the other at Wilkes is strewn with discarded fuel drums (some empty, some full), tin cans, containers, buildings and gas cylinders. It is only by using the information learned from the Thala Valley clean-up that a clean-up at Wilkes can be planned and executed.
There are at least 3,000 two hundred litre (44 gallon) drums at Wilkes which at one time contained diesel or fuel oil.  Wilkes is a land based Marie Celeste literally frozen in time, with stores and provision abandoned without prospect or expectation of recovery.  Boxes strewn around the area contain antique tins of Golden Circle fruit salad, Holbrook’s sauce, and other unmistakably Australian provisions. Although we didn’t see any use by dates, all the products were marked in pounds and ounces, with many familiar names from the past such as Vesta soap.
Quite clearly, it is not just a simple case of marching in and picking the stuff up. The risk to the environment that wholesale collection of materials will cause has to be assessed, hence the requirement to understand the outcome of the Thala Valley process. Equally there are items where it can be seen that further delay will certainly cause damage as old cans of powder slowly rust away and are in danger of creating a condition where there will be nothing to collect but scraps of iron oxide and whatever was in these cans whether it is soap, caustic or worse will be absorbed into the environment.  The risk with the oil drums is even more unambiguous.  Leave them and they will surely and eventually deposit their crud on the landscape; disturb them without care, and it will happen anyway.
It could be argued that the Antarctic continent is vast and that the amount of pollution caused by human impact is minimal. However when one considers that these bases are situated on one of the very few partially ice-free areas on the continent, representing less than one-tenth of one percent of the land mass, and that this is the very reason why much of the flora and fauna need access to this region in order to breed and survive, then the argument becomes more difficult to sustain.
AAD and the Australian government are to be applauded for their efforts in developing an ambitious program to meet their Madrid Protocol commitments and for the first time Yann and I were really able to fully understand the enormity of the task which Martin Riddle, Tony Press, Kim Pitt and the team at Kingston and Casey are facing. I’m so very pleased that Veolia Environnement are going to be able to assist in making this program happen.
As we walked through Wilkes on what was really a magnificent summer’s day in this ice paradise an occasional lone Adelie penguin would  approach us, and cocking its head on one side and peering at us through a single eye, would curiously but fearlessly assess us.  The penguins seem as interested in we creatures who like them walk upright and appear to pose no threat as we are in them. Let’s hope they are right and it stays that way.
Monday 24th December 2001 – Casey Base, Australian Antarctic Territory
Aurora’s job here at Casey is to complete a number of assignments which include re-supplying the station with fuel and provisions, taking on board Return to Australia (RTA) waste and unaccompanied luggage, delivering the dozen or so winterers who will occupy the station for the next 12 months and providing a passage home to the 40 or so expeditioners who have spent the past three months to a year at Casey.
Of these tasks, the most critical and sensitive is the delivery of sufficient fuel to get them through the year.  Aurora’s task, anchored as she is in the middle of Newcomb Bay, about one kilometre offshore is to deliver via hose line over 600,000 litres of an extremely low-wax fuel oil known as SAB (Special Antarctic Blend) which has been formulated for use in extremely cold conditions. Obviously, given the extreme sensitivity of the environment this is one job where care and attention are paramount.
The hose unwinds from a large hose reel on the shore and its end is ferried out to the ship via the inflatable rubber boats (IRBs) aka zodiacs. These dynamic little craft, powered by 35 KW outboard motors provide a great service for both scientific and operational activities.  Once the hose was connected to the vessel fuel transfer began and was to last for the next 24 hours or so.
Throughout the day, as the pumping continued, two zodiacs, each with a two-man crew continually patrolled the 1,000 metres of hose between ship and shore. The biggest danger to the hose-line is caused by small icebergs (known as bergy bits) which continually drifted toward the shore and the hose-line under the influence of the consistent northerly and north-easterly offshore wind which blew throughout the operation.
Both Yann and I had confessed to some prior experience in small boats, and so we were listed for zodiac duties between 0400 and 0800 on Monday morning.  We presented ourselves to the bridge at 0345 and after a quick trip ashore where we exchanged our polar gear for Mustang flotation suits, we were each assigned a zodiac where we were teamed with a more experienced crew member from Casey station. I was to work with a surveyor named Tom from a firm of Australian consulting engineers working on the new aircraft landing strip project. Yann was teamed with Chris, a pink haired communications guy from Hobart, known as Pepé who was a very experienced boat-hand.
For the next four hours, our task was simply to keep the bergy bits away from our precious hose line. The term bits is misleading. Some of them are as big as a small house. The smaller ones could be pushed ashore or grounded in the shallows away from the hose line with the zodiacs acting as tugs.  If this wasn’t possible we would manhandle the line out of the water and physically lift it over the ice. Smaller bergy bits could be pushed under the hose. 
Our biggest problem arose within the first half hour of our shift when the motor in the zodiac I was sharing with Tom decided to call it a day at a time when one of the house-sized bergy bits was drifting towards the hose line at an alarming rate. The four of us tried hard to lift the line over the berg, but the berg was about 3m high and it wasn’t going to happen, particularly with one of our craft disabled. Pumping was stopped and the line was filled with air. With much manoeuvring and great work from Pepé, the line was finally lifted over the berg and down the other side.  Our motor was eventually re-started in the mystical way that only outboard motors can behave and we had fewer problems for the rest of our watch.
The time passed quickly and we forgot about the freezing water and leaking gloves, and the snow which started driving at us during the last hour of our shift. It was exhilarating work and we felt great to be alive.  Pumping finished just as our watch ended.  In total 630,000 litres had been pumped ashore in about 22 hours with not one drop spilled.
Breakfast tasted good that morning.
Tuesday 25th December 2001 – Casey Base
Late yesterday, after we had recovered from our exciting morning in the IRBs and once cargo discharging was well and truly underway, Yann and I went ashore again, this time to have a good look at the Thala Valley tip site.
The Thala Valley tip is within the Casey Station limits and is in a small valley which runs into Browns Bay, a small inlet within the larger Newcomb Bay area. It was used from the mid-sixties until the mid-eighties and has about 3,000 tonnes of waste to be removed. As I mentioned earlier this is about one tenth of the problem at Wilkes.
The reason there is so little waste at Thala Valley in comparison to Wilkes which was in operation for a much shorter period was the early practice of icing the waste. This entailed dumping the waste on the thick sea ice of the bay during the winter period and letting it sink into the bay during the summer melt. Out of sight, out of mind.
It’s very easy to condemn the practices of the earlier expeditioners, but also very unfair. Much of these activities took place long before Rachel Carson and her classic book, Silent Spring made the world sit up and take a little more notice of the environment. We understand so much more now and the Australian Government is to be applauded for its initiative in mounting this clean-up operation as part of its Treaty obligations.
The Thala Valley site will provide important information before the main clean up at Wilkes commences. A few years ago, when the decision was first taken to clean up the Thala Valley site, the bulldozers were moved in and the clean-up was started with enthusiasm.  It was soon noticed that the clean-up was in danger of actually causing more harm than good, as runoff waters and leachate plumes began to appear. During the thaw a small river runs through the valley and without due care, the river carries the waste residue and leachate straight into the bay.
A diversion for the river has been built and the first project of next summer will be to install a leachate treatment and collection system and impermeable gabion walls which will prevent run off causing more damage to the bay.
Thursday 27th December 2001 – Casey Base
Today was a day for a jolly. In Antarctic terms, a jolly is defined as an excursion away from base for recreational purposes. The expression probably goes back to the eighteenth century when the jolly boat would be used by seafarers for occasional jaunts.
Our jolly was to visit a refuge about 15 km south of Casey base called Robinson’s Ridge, or more simply Robbos. We travelled there by Hagg, those wonderful tracked all-terrain vehicles, built in Sweden with a Mercedes-Benz engine which go almost anywhere and are built to float if they fall through the ice, which they occasionally do, but not on our trip I’m pleased to report.
Martin Riddle, who has been our host for the past couple of days, was our driver and tour guide again today as seven of us climbed into the front and back cabs of the Hagg. Passengers in the front cab ride in comparative comfort complete with headset communication and relatively comfortable seats. The rear cab is usually reserved for the gear but has bench type seats which three of us were able to squeeze into and for safety purposes we were provided with a two-way radio in case of emergency.
It was a great opportunity for us to look at some of the real wilderness and desolation of this great white continent. When we stopped about half way through our journey for a photo break it was clear to us all that like all the other coastal stations, the Casey Base takes up just a minute portion of this vast region. All around us, for as far as we could see was whiteness. The landscape to the east and south of us slopes gently away to what eventually becomes the great Antarctic plateau. To the southwest, we could see across Newcomb Bay and beyond to the massive Vanderford Glacier, which although wider at its mouth than the entire Casey station limits, is itself comparatively small by Antarctic standards.
It’s worth noting that I said we stopped for a photo break because that is all we would stop for in this unsullied wilderness. There are no trees behind which one goes to relieve oneself, everything that gets taken in, must be taken out. If you need to relieve yourself, take a plastic bag and bring it back with you because under the conditions of the Treaty, everything that is waste or no longer being used has to be returned to Australia. This is why it is so important to rectify the mistakes of our past – not just in Australian Antarctica which is just an example, but in the whole area of human development and activity – and make good the damage we have already done.
We arrived at Robbos in bright sunshine, and a temperature of three degrees below zero, almost warm enough for short sleeves. No wonder this is a popular spot for jollies with the expeditioners. We really were in a most beautiful part of the region. At Robbos we could see across to the penguin colony on Odbert Island and as we sat on the rocks overlooking the bay, we were able to watch in fascination as a couple of these curious and wonderful creatures, the Adelie Penguins came along to inspect us.
Penguins are the icons of Antarctica. They live only in the southern hemisphere from the Antarctic to the Galapagos. They are flightless birds which spend most of their time at sea where they feed on fish and krill, coming on land for extended periods to breed.
They have no land based predator and thus appear not to fear humans. They are apparently quite short-sighted and it’s most amusing to watch one of these creatures standing about two or three metres from us and quizzically turn its head as though to peer more closely through one eye. Then it will turn and dive back into the sea, where at once this comical little animal will become graceful and swift-like as it powers its way, like a porpoise through the water. The greatest feat, and a marvellous spectacle to observe, is the penguin’s trick of projecting itself out of the water in a vertical standing position, to land upright on the edge of the ice, several feet above the water it has left. When several of them do this together it almost makes you want to clap your hands as a sign of appreciation for this wonderful trick.
Friday 28th December 2001 – at sea (65 deg S, 110 deg E)
Today we left Casey and are presently steaming in a north-westerly direction as we make our way around the ice shelf towards the Polar Bird about 4 days sailing from here. As we mentioned previously the Bird has been beset in heavy ice since before the Aurora left Hobart and our mission is to reach her and break though about 15 miles (28 km) of ice to let her out so that she can continue on her own mission which is to refuel and resupply the Mawson Station, Australia’s most western Antarctic base. I’m sure we’ll have more to say about this over the next few days.
Our last day at Casey was for us all a moving day in more ways than one.
Moving in the sense that it is the day when all of last season’s winter and summer expeditioners say farewell to the place which has been their home for many months. The summerers came south in mid to late September and have been in Casey for the past three months. These are mostly scientists and researchers, engaged in a wide range of activities associated with the very special flora and fauna in this part of the world and the impact that previous and future visitors (including tourists) will have on the long-term survival of this fragile territory. Many of the summer scientists have been engaged in assessing the impacts that the Thala Valley and the Wilkes waste tips have had on the marine environment. Some examples include studies of the impacts of contaminants on frozen groundwater and the consequence of waterborne pollution on the marine sediments in the surrounding waters. Of course, not all of the people on Station are scientists. There is a need for plant operators, diesel mechanics, riggers, carpenters and plumbers and, of course, the most important man on the station, the cook. Altogether there were about 30 expeditioners who spent the summer season at Casey.
However, among the expeditioners, most respect is reserved for the winterers. These 15 or so people arrived at Casey in December last year and have spent the past year at the Base. These are the people: the meteorologists, the communications technicians and tradesmen who have maintained the station and its presence through the long freezing winter where temperatures are 50 degrees below zero, and winds 300 km per hour and who then continued through the busy, only slightly less cold Antarctic summer when the station population increased from 16 to 50.
It was also moving in the sense that there was a lot of emotion as one group of expeditioners farewelled their home for the past several months and another group, the sixteen 2002 winterers were left to manage and maintain the base and prepare it for next year’s summer expeditioners who will be back in September 2002.
The formal handover from 2001 expeditioners to the 2002 group took place in the Red Shed at 9 am. Some of those leaving were already on board the Aurora and only a handful of round-trippers like me were there to witness the little ceremony. There were awards of the Antarctic Medal made to expeditioners who had made outstanding contributions during the past year which was followed by the formal handover of the “keys” to the Shed from outgoing Station Leader, Paul Cullen to new Station Leader, John Rich. As a final token, Paul presented John with the last resort survival package to enable him to endure the ultimate catastrophe should everything that could possibly go wrong eventuate, a bottle of 12 year old single malt whiskey.
It was also time to say our farewells and best wishes to the winterers we were leaving behind. Those of us that had come down on the Aurora for the round trip had made good friends with them and there appears to be little doubt that the station will be well looked after by John and his team.
John’s parting words were, “Don’t worry Mike, we’ll make sure that we look after the rubbish and have all your containers ready for you to collect next season.”
The Aurora’s little work boat was used to ferry the outgoing expeditioners and their bags out to the ship, which was a hive of activity all morning. After the relatively quiet trip south where the total number of souls on board was just sixty, our numbers have now increased to just under a hundred and the lines at meal times are suddenly much longer. A whole lot of new faces have joined us, some still with heavy beards, some whose winter whiskers have been freshly shaven; and a variety of hair colours – greens, blues and gold which will no doubt be allowed to grow out as they return to a somewhat more conventional existence over the next few months. Many will be back next summer.
By 12.30pm, Captain Tony Hansen was ready to lift anchor and depart. The last passenger was on board, all the samples from all the experiments were stowed, the boats and barges which we brought with us, and without which the cargo handling couldn’t happen had all been lifted on board and safely lashed to the deck. Returning expeditioners and round-trippers gathered on the decks as we started underway. From Casey, an orange smoke flare was lit as a traditional farewell and a few bright glowing red and orange lights were seen outside the Red Shed as the winterers gave us their traditional send-off. Aurora sounded a long loud blast on her foghorn and headed out of the bay. There were quite a few with lumps in their throats as we watched Casey disappear and a couple of burly expeditioners later mentioned to me that they were glad to be wearing dark glasses to hide their tears.
And so to the Polar Bird


  1. Magic, can't wait for the next installment Mike

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