Thursday, 24 May 2012

Antarctic Adventure Part 3

By now I hope you have read the first two chapters of this Antarctic Saga.  Please read and enjoy this last chapter and if you have not read the first two episodes I strongly recommend you look at them first.
Writing and reviewing this has more than ever, made me remember and acknowledge what great work these people do and the responsibility the Australian Government has accepted, to help protect this place for the benefit of the whole planet. 


And so to the Polar Bird

Saturday 29th December 2001 – at sea (64 deg S, 95 deg E)

And so indeed to the Polar Bird
Much of the information I have passed on over the past couple of weeks has been made possible because I’ve been able to frequently refer to an excellent publication by Bernadette Hince entitled The Antarctic Dictionary.   It was here that I found the meaning of the word besetment, which says in part:
 “…I cannot improve on the 1928 quotation for besetment…The immurement of a ship in sea-ice.  When a vessel is so completely hemmed in as to have lost its liberty of motion it is said to be beset.”
Well, Polar Bird is definitely beset.  She is in 10 tenths ice about 30 nautical miles from the open sea.  Quite a challenge for our little orange roughie, but one thing which is for sure, Captain Tony Hansen and his crew with the help and support of Voyage Leader, Greg and his team will give it their best shot.  Behind us, about five days away, and en route to the Chinese Antarctic base, at Zhongshang is the huge ice-breaker, Xue Long (Snow Dragon). We hope she won’t be needed – but it’s comforting to know she’s not far away.
At about 2.30am as we were passing to the north of the Shackleton Ice Shelf, we ran into thick new sea ice.  Icebreaking mariners describe the conditions of ice in tenths, thus Polar Bird is beset in 10 tenths pack ice.  This morning’s ice is 9 tenths new pack ice.  I had been awake until past midnight sending an earlier report and catching up on sorting photographs for later transmission, and I had thus only been in bed for a couple of hours when I was awakened by the sound of ice growling against the side of the ship and the shuddering of the vessel as larger floes were dragged beneath us and demolished by the huge variable pitch propeller.  We had, of course, slowed considerably.
I went to the bridge to be greeted by the sight of ice in every direction, and little water to be seen.  Now for the first time we were witnessing what ice-breaking is about, and the difficult task ahead of us with Polar Bird still 200 miles to the south-west.
Tony had been on the bridge for about 20 hours at this stage and as I arrived was donning his heavy weather gear in preparation for climbing up the mast to the observation platform.  For the next hour, he peered through powerful binoculars looking ahead and around for clearer water while passing instructions to the second mate, Jake who was at the wheel (actually it's more of a joy stick than a wheel).
As we went further into the ice, we were watching Aurora in action  for the first time.  As the snub-nosed bow slowly pushed onwards, a long crack would develop in the ice moving away from the bow and slowly widening as the vessel forced its way through.  Occasionally the bow would ride up over the top of a floe and bring the full weight of its ballast filled for’ard end down on it – an impressive experience.  All this time the skipper and his team are looking for a water sky, a thin strip of blue or darker grey sky, low on the horizon which reflects distant water (as opposed to an “ice sky” which reflects the ice). 
There was none to be seen, and after an hour of this, it was decided to reverse our track, back to where we started and head further north looking for a clearer passage through to the Polar Bird.  It’s going to be a long and tiring few days for these guys.

Tuesday 1st January 2002 – at sea

It started quietly; at 6.00pm we had a New Year’s Eve barbecue on the Trawl Deck in brilliant sunshine with majestic icebergs drifting by to oohs and aahs and a constant click of camera shutters. At 8.00pm (four hrs behind the time in Sydney) a few of us with access to a satellite phone called our loved ones to say, ‘Happy New Year.’
At 9.00pm it was time for the Beauty and the Beast Party down on F Deck where the music was pounding and the most imaginative costumes you can think of were on display. I can't believe what people can do with a shower curtain or a few plastic garbage bags.   At midnight we all hugged each other and said what a great bunch we are, and drank to our loved ones.
An hour later the drama started, but I will start by going back 24 hours to a VHF call we received from the Greenpeace anti-whaling vessel Arctic Sunrise who was then 20 miles away. She called us to wish Happy New Year and to ask us to look out for Japanese whalers who were reported to be illegally fishing in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). We wished them all the best and went on our way.
And so it was at 1.00am, New Year's Day 2002 we came across a small Japanese Vessel, grey hull, red below the waterline with a huge harpoon on her fo’c’sle. She was hove to and drifting as we came close to her. Captain Hansen hailed her, “Japanese vessel, this is Aurora Australis, we believe you are engaged in illegal activities, please state your reasons for being 39 nautical miles inside the Australian EEZ.”
After a few minutes silence we got back the message, “Aurora Australis, this is the research vessel Kyo Maru No 1, please advise your course and position.”
Tony radioed our position and course and confirmed his opinion that the vessel was acting illegally within the Australian EEZ and advised that the Australian Government had been informed. He requested the vessel to leave Australian territorial waters immediately. After what seemed like a period of indecision, Kyo Maru No 1 headed west which was the way we were going anyway, so we followed. It wasn’t long before another larger ship appeared on the horizon - the mother ship.
As she came into view, it was clear she was a huge factory processing ship. Water was pouring from her scuppers into the open sea in what we could only guess was the result of attempts to wash down her decks to conceal any evidence of her activities. Captain Tony Hansen called her. She identified herself as Nisshin Maru and asked us to keep our distance. Captain Hansen repeated his request, “This is Aurora Australis, we have reason to believe you are engaged in illegal whaling activities 39 nautical miles inside the Australian exclusive economic zone and we ask you to depart this zone immediately.” After several minutes silence Nisshin Maru repeated her requirement that we remain at a safe distance – other than that she ignored us.
Through binoculars we could see a banner draped over her stern, “Whales are not endangered…”  it said, “…Greenpeace misleads the world.”
Having made our point, and reported our position and the situation to the AAD and the Australian Government we went on our way - and no doubt the Japanese mother ship, and how ever many whalers in her fleet, went about theirs.
I didn’t expect to get passionate about this, and maybe it was the disdainful response to Aurora’s challenge, but for a while that night I wasn’t they only one who wished our hull was grey instead of orange and that we might have a small cannon to fire across their bow. 

Wednesday 2nd January 2002 – at sea (66.30 deg S, 78.40 deg E)

En route to Polar Bird
After the excitement of New Year and our encounter with the Japanese whalers, the past 24 hours or so have been frustrating to say the least as we inch our way through ice and snow.  While some of us worry about families coping with the extreme heat and bushfire dangers in parts of Australia and wonder how the Aussies are doing at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Aurora Australis is showing us that ice-breaking, particularly ice which is covered by up to a metre of snow, is no simple task.
It is now 4.00pm and in the 16 hours and four watches since midnight last night Aurora has travelled a total distance of 18 nautical miles, and we are still no closer to Polar Bird.  The competition for the first sighting of Polar Bird looks like going to whomever of us is the least optimistic.
Chief Mate Scott, reminded me this morning that we’re an ice-breaker, not a snow breaker.  The mere presence of a few inches of snow slows the ship’s ice-breaking capabilities and makes it more like trying to force our way through solid porridge.  To compound matters, in these conditions the clumps cling to the side of the ship as we go along increasing our drag and slowing us down even more. 
The process is an art form, not a science as Tony Hansen says.  Look for little channels in the rafted ice floes and aim for a grey sky on the horizon, rather than a white one, since the grey indicates possible water, although this can be also misleading.  It’s a case of gaining some forward momentum and maintaining it.  So all day it’s been a process of making a hundred metres forward process, until the ship grinds to a standstill as a particularly nasty clump refuses to yield, and then back 20 or 30 metres before starting another run, getting up sufficient speed to break through and create enough inertia to sustain another run.  Newton’s Laws of Motion certainly takes a pounding when you’re trying to push your way through this resistance.
Through all this the scenery never ceases to hold our attention.  Imagine, every picture you have ever seen of the moon – huge rocky emptiness in every direction – then imagine it painted the purest white, with blue shading and you are close to the picture that we have been looking at today.  And the wildlife persists, several species of seals, sea birds and of course the emperor penguins.  Today, even in the thickest ice, suddenly in a tiny pool of water we saw two minke whales that came up for a breather before disappearing back under the ice again.
Again I am reminded of the need to keep this area clean and unspoiled.  I was interviewed by a Chinese journalist yesterday by satellite phone.  Among other things he was most interested to know why we thought it was so important to clean up waste in Antarctica when the continent is so large and the part affected by human occupation and exploitation is so small.  The point I made then, and one which gives a lot of cause for thought is that it is true that the part of Antarctica which is partially ice free in summer and which has been affected by humans is less that 1% of the continental land.  However, it is because this region is comparatively ice-free and warmer, that it is so abundant in wildlife. That is of course abundant by Antarctic standards, where a couple of millimetres of moss growing on a rock is considered an absolute rain forest.  And because of this abundance of flora and fauna, over 90% of the continent’s birds and animals use these regions to live and most importantly to breed.  So we have the situation where less than one per cent of the continent supports over 90% of the wildlife, and this is the very spot where we have been making such an impact for the past hundred years.
So it is critical that these regions are dealt with sensitively.  Current research at Thala Valley is already showing indications of reduced marine life in the region of the run-off from the tip. As we have said a number of times previously, Thala Valley represents less than a tenth of the potential problem at Wilkes, and the problems at some of the other bases, particularly the Russian Bases are probably as bad, if not much worse.
Finally at 6.30pm, after more than 24 hours of trying to push our way through what was becoming more and more like quick-drying cement full of lumps each the size of a small truck, Captain Tony Hansen decided to call it a day. The real risk to us is that if the weather should change for the worse, we could finish up in the same situation as the Polar Bird and instead of being a rescuer we could well become a rescuee.
We are very close to helicopter range of Davis Station (about 120 miles) and with clear weather a helicopter will do a much better job of directing us through the ice and helping us to find the most snow-free route.  At present, although the log says we are in 9 tenths thick sea ice, I would describe it as 99 one hundredths.  So we’re heading north-west instead of south-west in order to stay in helicopter range, but we need to find some freer ice, from which to make our next attempt.
It’s going to be a long haul.

Monday 7th January 2002 – in ice (68.20 deg S, 74.40 deg E)

In Prydz Bay…
We’ve been here for nearly a week – not quite within a decent “Cooee” of Polar Bird, but pretty damn close.
It’s been a long and difficult few days, which was recently described by one of my fellow expeditioners as being in a state of punctuated equilibrium.  I know what he meant.  Over the past few days, we have found ourselves constantly having to adapt to the changing conditions and situations.
As I have already mentioned, ice-breaking is much more than a science and requires skill, commitment, ideal conditions and lots of fuel.  I  have spent quite a lot of time on the bridge of the ship over the past few days, enough to get an idea of the huge responsibility taken on by these guys when it comes to deciding the action plan for arriving at the right outcome for all involved.  This is an extremely complex situation with a lot of conflicting priorities and needs.
First there is the annual shipping schedule which is built up around the resupply and the research program.  The Antarctic Division has used two vessels through the 2001/2002 season, Aurora Australis and Polar Bird.  Their role has been to carry out re-supply to the three mainland bases at Casey, Davis and Mawson as well as the additional sub-Antarctic base at Macquarie Island. 
They take down the wintering and summering expeditioners and bring home those who have been there for the past season.  There are also valuable marine science programs which are carried out either during these re-supply trips or separately.  So a disruption as major as that caused by having Polar Bird out of action for as long has she has been, affects the operations of all of the stations, not to mention the impact that it has both on the science programs and the people who are carrying out these programs.  In addition there are many round-trippers such as Yann and myself and a number of others, whose job it was to go to Casey,  do a job, and return to their day jobs. 
So it’s not difficult to see that above all other things, no matter how important it is to do everything possible to rescue the Polar Bird, it is an essential requirement that we do not get stuck ourselves.  I have stood on the bridge alongside Tony Hansen, many times over the past few days and overheard him repeatedly saying, “I’m not going to get stuck, I’m not going to get f***ing stuck.”
So we bashed and bashed our way into Prydz Bay, getting so slowly nearer to Polar Bird.  The first time we came within 42 miles, before Tony called it a day.  A sudden change in the weather from the light south-easterly which was blowing to a northerly wind and the ice channel which we create as we go forward, would close up behind us as the winds would blow the ice back in toward the shore.  The crew of Aurora Australis are extremely experienced in ice and most of them have been down this way many times before.  Without exception they were all heard to say the same thing, “I’ve never seen this much ice in Prydz Bay at this time of the year before.” Many of the old hand expeditioners agree.  (Maybe there really is something to all this climate change talk.)
From the safety of the comparatively lighter ice, some 60 or so miles from the Bird, the decision was taken to start doing some helicopter reconnaissance and stores transfers.  A little later we had two four-seater Squirrel helicopters from Polar Bird landing one after the other on the big white H in the middle of the concentric circles which make up the ship’s aft helideck, where only a few days ago a couple of dozen of our Collex bins had stood prior to off-loading at Casey.  Voyage Leader, Greg and Captain Tony were soon up in one of the Squirrels with pilot, Ricardo (about whom more later) and after a 10 minute sortie came back and confirmed everyone’s fears that the ice around Polar Bird was not going to move for some time and it was far too risky for Aurora to try to push in further.
We started helicopter transfers to evacuate the ship of its stores and expeditioners, and later in the day a decision was made that we could do no more for Polar Bird at this stage.  We had not heard from the Chinese ice-breaker and anyway decisions to get help from others are taken much further up the line than on board Aurora, so we wouldn’t wait for that.  The weather improved, then it deteriorated, then it improved again. 
During this time, phone calls and messages went back and forth between Polar Bird, Aurora Australis and the Tasmanian headquarters of the AAD.  Eventually the weather cleared enough for a 12 seater Sikorsky from Davis Base, some 80 or so miles to the east to join us and it was decided that Aurora would take the Mawson bound expeditioners off Polar Bird and deliver them to Mawson.  This would add another five or six days to the schedule, but would get the expeditioners on their way at last and hopefully give a few days for the weather to improve, so that on the return journey we would have a last look at how we might yet be able to help poor old Bird.
So it was that, having at one stage been as close as 35 miles, we left Polar Bird and with another 35 souls on board, we started off in a westerly direction to Australia’s oldest and many say, most beautiful of all stations within the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mawson.
Now with four of us wedged into our tiny cabin, and the need for dual sittings at lunch and dinner, there is no doubt at all that the beer is going to run out.
And so to Mawson …

Wednesday 9th January 2002 – Mawson (67.36 deg S, 62.52 deg E)

It’s almost midnight on what has been another of those spectacular Antarctic summer’s days where visibility has been excellent and the sun has shone almost all day.  We have just finished helicopter activities and we’re slowly making our way north again through light ice towards iceberg alley and back toward Prydz Bay and Polar Bird.
As I mentioned in my previous report we left Polar Bird well and truly beset in heavy pack ice, with no immediate or easy method of getting her free.  We left her with lube oil, some fresh provisions, and a couple of stand-by communications guys and set off for Mawson with 35 additional passengers.
On Tuesday night we had a Quiz night which turned out to be a fun event which raised a further $500 for Camp Quality.  It would be clever of me to say that I was able to answer all of the questions. It would be also not surprising, since I was the Quizmaster for the night, and had prepared the questions myself based on many years of trivia nights at our children’s various school functions.  I knew it would all come in handy one day.  My favourite question, What famous sporting event was won by Russia in 1946?  (Answer: The Melbourne Cup).  Absolutely no one had the right answer and I was later peppered with a variety of projectiles for being such a smart arse.
It was the first night for some time that most of us had an evening free from work and the presence of Mawsonites, Caseyites, round-trippers and crew, not to mention Ricardo the Uruguayan chopper pilot from Polar Bird, made the scene in the “F” Deck Lounge at the end of the evening most memorable.
We made excellent time to Mawson, punctuated by yet another engagement with a fishing vessel.  This time instead of Japanese whaling “research” vessels, we came across a long-line tuna fishing boat the Nova Tuna 1 complete with marker buoys and lines all ready and prepared.  When hailed and asked what she was doing 60 miles inside Australian waters, her skipper, (who sounded more Latin American than African) said that his Ghana registered vessel was just “looking around.” 
 “No sir,” he said when hailed, “we’re not fishing, just looking, and now that you have told us about this 200 mile zone, we’ll head north and go on our way.”
As I said at the start, the weather was spectacular, and we made excellent time on our way to Mawson.  What made it even more magic, was iceberg alley, the orcas and the minkes.  The approach to Mawson leads us through an iceberg field, of about 30 miles, where drifting and grounded bergs, separated from the continental mass, stand in a huge array of colours, shapes and sizes.  I saw my first iceberg over two weeks ago, and was gob-smacked then, I still am now, as are all of us and when I talk to crew members who have been here many times, their response is the same, you can never get tired of this.  
Pods of orcas and minke whales kept appearing, first on the port then on the starboard side.  They really are the most photo-shy of all Antarctic animals.  Great to see, but never appearing when you get the camera out unless it’s to show up in exactly the place where your camera is not pointing.
And what a striking place Mawson is.  If Casey, with its bay and abundance of penguins and bergy bits is magnificent, then I don’t know how to describe Mawson.  As you approach your destination and the ice-edge looms closer, you suddenly realise that what looks at first like low cloud, is in fact coastline gently rising to a clear white plateau with a number of splendid rocky hills and mountains etching the skyline.  
Of the three continuously operated Australian continental bases (the others being Casey and Davis), Mawson is the one furthest from Australia and is some 5,500 kilometres southwest of Hobart.  The station is the oldest continuously operating station south of the Antarctic Circle and was established in 1954.
Sadly, none of us had the opportunity to get ashore as we hove to, gently pushing into the sea ice which stretched out for about 3 or 4 miles from the Mawson station.  But we did all get an excellent view of the operation being carried out as the versatile and reliable French Squirrel helicopters spent all day ferrying expeditioners, baggage, stores and important scientific field samples between Mawson and our ship.
The weather was excellent and at one stage, I caught sight of a couple of the hardier souls out on the fo’c’sle with their shirts off, taking advantage of the afternoon sun. I have noticed how remarkably quickly we all seem to adapt to the weather.  It’s as though -1° C is practically T-shirts and shorts weather and it’s only as the wind gets up that concessions are made to beanies and woollen mittens. I will however stress that this is only when one is on board ship, within easy reach of a warm cabin in case there’s a sudden change.  Regular visitors to these parts tell me that it is noticeable that when the ship gets back to Hobart, family waiting on the dock always seem to have more layers of clothing than the returning expeditioners.
After a very long day, where those involved in the activities worked tirelessly, we were finally finished by late evening.  With the Squirrels stowed in the helideck hanger and everything once again lashed down, we backed out of the ice, made an 180-degree turn and slowly began again on our way north and eastwards at midnight.  The sun sat low in the west without ever quite disappearing.  As we gently made our way out of Holme Bay, it would briefly disappear behind one of the mountains or an iceberg in a blaze of changing colours providing endless photo opportunities for those cameras and videos which are never far from hand.
Tony Hansen has earlier predicted that the sight as we sailed back through iceberg alley at midnight would be magnificent and he was absolutely right.  I hope that our photos do justice to it all.
The effect of 24 hours of daylight on all of us means that there never is a moment when people aren’t up and about, working, watching or just reading books or playing cards.  With biological rhythms in utter confusion we sleep when we’re tired and work when we’re awake and some mornings the E Deck Mess is as busy at 3.00am as it is at 6.00pm.
We had another encounter on the way with Nova Tuna 1, who seems to be spending a lot of time within the Australian EEZ just looking.
And so again to Polar Bird

Friday 11th January 2002 – Prydz Bay (68.20 deg S, 74.40 deg E)

It’s late Friday night, early Saturday morning as I write this and we’re all hoping that it is only a matter of hours now before Polar Bird will be free and both vessels will be on their way home to Hobart.
It’s been a long day, one that started out hopefully, turned to optimism and exhilaration and, as I write this, one of tension and frustration.  We’re two miles from Polar Bird, but still the ice, the snow and the weather continue to thwart us.
Last night was a long one.  I had been up through much of it working on a waste management report for my employers.  This was followed by a lengthy telephone call to Australia at 7.00 am Sydney time, which was 2.00am ship’s time when I started and well after 3.00am when I finished.  I eventually got to bed at 6.00am.  Two hours later, I was woken by voyage leader Greg Hodge, who told me that we were about 100 miles from Polar Bird and that our two Squirrels were about to take off for a short reconnaissance flight.  Greg knew that we were keen to get some aerial footage of the ice and of Aurora Australis and he said that if I was quick enough, there was a spot on one of the choppers.
It took me about a millisecond to become totally awake.  I scrabbled around for warm weather gear, grabbed hold of the cameras and film, pulled on Yann’s fur-lined Size 10 Sorrels, since mine had been missing for the past few days and made my way to the helideck.  There I was kitted out with immersion suit and life jacket and given a short but thorough briefing on the safety procedures.  For long reccies such as this the choppers always fly in tandem.  Ricardo would be flying Sierra Romeo Bravo with his two passengers, first officer Scott and voyage leader Greg.  I was in Hotel Romeo Delta with pilot Kevin and ANARE expeditioner Zane.
We were first to lift off and did a couple of circuits of Aurora while waiting for Sierra Romeo Bravo to join us in the air.  Once she lifted off, we were on our way in a southerly direction toward the thick ice.
It was a beautiful clear morning with bright sunshine and little wind, perhaps a light southerly.  Aurora had been moving easily at 7 or 8 knots in light ice floes, with about 60 or 70% clear water.  The plan was to fly toward the thicker ice where Polar Bird was and search for inlets and channels in the ice which would help us to get close.  From 2,000 feet, with such a clear sky we had a horizon of about 40 miles and could clearly see the Amery ice shelf and the distant hills.  The light ice soon gave way to the thicker porridge that we’d become used to, but as we flew west along its edge, channels of water started to appear.  Looking down, the ice looked like a cross between crazy paving and broken bits of plaster of Paris. 
Our original plan was to do a short reccie and report back with options, but as some of the channels and leads become more pronounced, it was decided that the two choppers would push on further to see how close to Polar Bird the leads were.  After another 20 minutes flying, we could see her right ahead, a tiny dot on the horizon which ever so slowly grew in size.  Little cracks in the ice, turned into longer channels and leads of clear water and, as we got closer we could see that Polar Bird was in the centre of a rectangular pattern of channels, each one perhaps a mile or so away from her.  There was the tiniest suggestion of a diagonal crack which appeared to run right through Polar Bird’s escape route, and lead to a possible way out.  Even as I watched and filmed, the crack seemed to open wider.
I was so taken with filming as much as I could of what was taking place that I almost forgot to take in the absolute splendour of the scene surrounding me.  It was breathtaking.
We landed on Polar Bird’s helideck, forward of the bridge and accommodation.  Polar Bird is a Norwegian vessel, registered in Bergen – slightly smaller than Aurora Australis, but because she is a more conventional type of vessel than Aurora she appears to have a little more cargo space.
We were soon on her bridge where we met her Norwegian captain together with voyage leader, Joe Johnson.  By this time the crack in the ice had opened sufficiently for Polar Bird to attempt to push forward a little, and very soon to cheers all round, Polar Bird moved under its own steam for the first time in over four weeks.  With ironic humour, typical of the hardy souls who venture down here, one of the stranded expeditioners, who had been stuck on board for the past month, called out from the bridge where she was standing, “I’m feeling seasick!”
Shortly after this, our two choppers were back in the air.  Sierra Romeo Bravo with Scott providing the information went ahead, tracing a route through the ice channels and relaying GPS latitude and longitude way points to Polar Bird so she would have a course to follow.  While this was happening, Kevin in Hotel Romeo Delta, with myself and Zane on board, hovered in front of the ship, providing her with on the spot information on  how she was doing as she slowly at first, and then more positively moved through the channels of ice-free water which were slowly opening up for her.
We all knew that this was only the start.  She still had 30 miles of thick ice between her and more easily negotiated waters and although we had spotted plenty of leads, there was still a lot of crud for her to get through and she could never do it herself.  There was also the continuing concern about the weather.  A change in wind or a drop in the barometer and it could all close in again, and if the streaks appearing in the sky away to our north weren’t enough of an indication of more bad weather on its way, the Met. update from Davis Station confirmed that our window of opportunity was small and getting smaller.
After ensuring that Polar Bird was underway, and making her way as far north through the ice as she could, we headed back to Aurora Australis, arriving there some 45 minutes or so later, an absolutely exhilarating trip, one I will remember for a very long time.
All through the rest of the afternoon and early evening Aurora made good progress through the ice.  A buzz went through the whole ship when at about 9.00pm, Polar Bird came into view for the first time, about 12 miles away and getting closer.  Polar Bird had found a small billabong and appeared in the distance to be waiting for us to open up a route for her.  Spirits were high and we were feeling that success was only a few hours away.  Tony Hansen was aloft in Sierra Romeo Bravo with Ricardo and was giving running directions to Scott at the helm of Aurora.  But the weather was deteriorating and the wind had come around to the north, the very thing we didn’t want.
Very soon the leads had all petered out and we were back in the thick crap which had so frustrated everyone last time we were here.  But that time we were 35 miles away; now we were only two miles from success.
Concentration and focus on the job in hand were paramount.  By midnight, we were asked to leave the bridge to the professionals and let them get on with their mission unhindered.  As I write, it’s 2.30am on Saturday morning and the northerly wind is rapidly closing all the exits.  The worst possible scenario is now a plausible reality – are we going to get stuck ourselves?

Monday 14th January 2002 – Prydz Bay (68.17 deg S, 75.43 deg E)

Yesterday morning there was a yellow sticky note on the Bridge door which said,
The little sign said it all.  After several hours of bashing ice and seeing us get nowhere, and watching the northerly wind closing the ice behind us and closing off our line of escape, we drew back.  If we wanted to move now we probably could, but with the northerly blowing the ice back in on us, it would be hard work and an excessive use of fuel.  So the strategy was – wait.  
The break while everyone waited for the change in the weather was a good opportunity for an exhausted crew and voyage party to rest and recover from the sleeplessness of the past few days and get ready for the next ones which are likely to be every bit as challenging.
Late on Sunday afternoon, the wind had come around enough for Tony to be ready to give it another go.  There had been one or two bar room experts who had decided that we were really stuck not “waiting” despite Greg’s earlier assurances to all at a Mess Deck briefing earlier on, when he discussed the situation.  Needless to say, the experts were not to be seen when we started in the early evening to move in closer toward Polar Bear who had been about three or four miles from us for the past 24 hours.  Our escape route was looking quite good, and the weather favourable as we started to work our way down a lead toward Polar Bear's stern.  It took about four hours to make the few miles through the ice and by 0100 we were within three ship lengths of her.
The last 300 metres took eight hours to get us to a position where both ships were almost touching.  Breaking ice for a rescue mission is not the same as breaking ice to make progress.  It’s necessary to provide room for both vessels to manoeuvre and Tony’s aim was to smash up enough of these thick unfriendly floes to make progress for a conventional ship like Polar Bird relatively simple.  So we would crunch our way for a few ship lengths towards the stern, then do the same thing amidships and then to the bow, turning the ice into manageable lumps.  Of course, we could not charge in towards the ship on full power, otherwise a sudden breakthrough might see us becoming a battering ram rather than a rescuer which would not have been a happy scene.
It would be overstating it to suggest that the precision had to be surgical, but it certainly had to be precise.  The skills and teamwork of Tony and his chief mate Scott, and the other team members continued to impress us all and at no time was there ever a suggestion that failure was an option.
By mid-afternoon, 24 hours since we first started to move in on Polar Bird, we had mooring ropes attached to her bow, and we began an attempt to pull her around and into our track.  This was laboriously slow, but after a few hours, we had Polar Bird in tow and were making slow progress towards the open sea, 30 or so miles to our north.
Just when things were starting to look good, the rope separated and Polar Bird came to an abrupt stop.  The ice was particularly unfriendly during this time, and Polar Bird was having great difficulty even making progress through Aurora Australis’ wake.  We needed a strong towing line, and options were being considered which included using one of Polar Bird’s anchor chains.
We backed right up to Polar Bird’s bow to try to chop up some of the gnarly bits which were impeding her with our propeller wash.  Slowly, ever so slowly she started making progress again and we pushed on.
The chopper was back in the air, with firstly, skipper Tony Hansen, then voyage leader, Greg Hodge and then Tony again aloft with one of the pilots, directing traffic through the elusive little channels and ponds which would appear.
It was a long, long night with several stops as Polar Bird would fall behind and then lose her momentum, but persistence and the combined skills of officers, crew, pilots and the voyage leader and his team paid off.  At about 3.00 am the watery bits were getting more frequent and the thick rafted floes started to change to lighter ice which broke easily under Aurora’s bow.
By 3.20 am we were in open water.  Amid cheers and handshakes, the tension was released and thoughts of home on both ships became a reality.
The beer will taste good later tonight.

Thursday 17th January 2002 – Southern Ocean (55 deg S, 92 deg E)

I think this will probably be my last journal entry for the trip.  Barring vessels in distress lost refugee ships or pirates, we should have an uneventful voyage from here and be making our way back up the Derwent River towards Hobart in about six days’ time.
Yesterday afternoon, Yann photographed what may well have been the last iceberg we will see.  When I asked him why he was taking a picture of such a pathetic little chunk when we had thousands of pictures of the most majestic looking structures imaginable, he replied that since we became so excited to see the first, we should also treat the last with the same respect.
When we left Hobart nearly five weeks ago, we had no idea what was in store.  We were looking forward to a relatively short and uneventful three-week round trip.  It was a chance to understand the waste problems of the Antarctic at first hand by meeting the people involved and visiting the project sites at Casey and Wilkes.  We certainly accomplished this part of our mission.  We have a much better grasp on the scope and the size of the challenge and, as a result, we are even more committed to ensuring the success of the program.
But what else did we learn from the voyage?
Well, perhaps as much as anything we learned about the human relations aspect of such a voyage.  Being thrown together with a wide variety of people and personalities, even for this short period of time, has provided a great opportunity to learn something about people’s characters as well as our own.  From my perspective, being used to a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, with plenty of personal space whenever it is needed, this kibbutz-style of living three to a cabin (four at one stage) and sharing all facilities takes a little getting used to at first.  I never really feel I’m on my own until I draw the curtain in the evening on the 2 metre long by 1.2 metre wide capsule which is my bunk.
There is no escape.  If I decide to go to the bar for a drink, or to the video room to watch a movie, or the conference room to check or write an e-mail, I will share the same space, with the same people with whom I have had breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And yet it’s not so bad.  This has been a particularly happy and friendly voyage, and there is something agreeable about the experience of strangers becoming friends and of unfamiliar faces becoming familiar. 
On the way south, we were a comparatively small group of 40 expeditioners and 20 crew and the eight days it took us to get to Casey,  provided ample time for us to become a friendly community.  We shared a barbecue on the Trawl Deck and had a great time on Christmas Day.  We enjoyed the fun of watching a hirsute bunch of people become follicly challenged as they shaved their heads for Camp Quality and we had the opportunity to learn a lot about the different reasons we all had for coming on the voyage. 
There were wintering expeditioners on their way to face 14 months of isolation, marine scientists carrying out work en route and individuals like Yann and myself who had some particular project involvement, for which a visit to Casey would provide valuable information in carrying out their various tasks.
Once we arrived in Casey, we were overwhelmed by all the new faces.  We, who had been comfortable in our ship-board environment were suddenly the visitors; the interlopers who were invading the space of the fifty or so expeditioners who made up the 2001 Casey summerers and winterers.  We joined them in the Red Shed for meals and socialised with them in Splinters Lounge, but we knew that we were the round-trippers who were now taking up room in their territory.
Then we left Casey, and those fifty or so Caseyites came with us, leaving behind the fourteen 2002 winterers that had come south with us.  The ship was now not so quiet and we who’d had the luxury of being the sole occupants of a four berth cabin, were now three to a room. 
Then the decision was made to turn left, instead of right when we came out of the ice.  We weren’t going home after all, or at least not just yet.  First we had to see what help we could give Polar Bird, a few days away to the west of us.  It was during this time that those strange Caseyites who had joined us, turned out not to be so strange after all.  Those odd people with names like Critter and Fishbuster and Pepé, with their green and orange hair and their familiarity with each other, started to appear normal and friendly people, and quite a pleasure to be with.
Is it something special about the type of people who come to the Antarctic, or is it true of people everywhere?  I guess it’s because living and working in the cities and towns and in the busy world of today, the only people we really need to know well are our immediate families and friends and that anyone else is just a bystander.
I’m reminded of one of the comments of AAD’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Peter Gormley at our briefing on Day One, the morning before we sailed.  He said, “When you sit across the table from the same fellow for four or six or twelve months, or however long you’re away for, and even though he cleans the food out of his beard with his fork, you’d better get used to it and learn to live with it, because he’s going to be there again tomorrow.  So the message I leave you with is this: be kind to each other.”
And so it was when we picked up the Mawson crowd from Polar Bird.  By this stage, we had over 100 souls on board, and lunch and dinner required two sittings.  But still morale was high and the attitude of all one of comfortable cordiality.  Alright, the rationing of the beer to one can of VB per day was a bit of a drag, especially when the Guinness ran out, but there are still a few cases of Jacob’s Creek on board and the Light Ice at least quenches the thirst.
Now that we’re on the way home, someone has organised a Murder Game.  The rules are simple, everyone is given a piece of paper with the name of their murder victim on it.  Killing your victim is simple – you have to be alone in a room, or a corridor with him or her and simply say, ‘You’re dead.’  The victim then gives you the name of their intended target, which then becomes your target.  The game can last for a week or longer.  I lasted less than an hour.  At 7.00am on the morning the game started, I ducked into the Conference Room to send an e-mail.  Two minutes later, big Dan from Casey came in and said, ‘Good morning Mike, I’ve got some bad news for you, you’re dead.’
It was a blessing in disguise as I saw my shipmates and friends slowly deteriorate from normal people into haunted paranoiacs.  After several days, Yann said to me, “It’s not a game anymore, it’s a nightmare!”  The ship’s corridors became places where people would only walk about in pairs, and signs appeared around the vessel saying things like, “BT must die” and “Tamara is dead.”  At the time of writing this we are down to five murderers, the rest of us are all dead.  
On Saturday, we’ll be having the finals of the 500 competition, followed by a farewell barbecue on the Trawl Deck.  We should arrive into Hobart either late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, fair winds prevailing.  I’ve learned that the final way-point is the Customs House Hotel, so that’s where I’ll be on Wednesday night.
It’s been a trip that I would not have missed for the world.  Had Yann and I known beforehand how long we would have been away for, we would not have come.  Our jobs have suffered during this extended absence and it’s been unfair to our families.  From a personal perspective, I probably could not have been away at a worse time with bushfires in Sydney at one point threatening the suburb where I live.
I believe that during this time, my boss at Veolia in Sydney sent me the very first email he ever sent in his life, complete with punctuation errors it read, “Dear Mike, Do yOU still work for CoLLex?”
But I’ve now seen Antarctica and witnessed the wonders of that special part of our planet which is its very engine room.  The place where the currents and winds seem to originate; where circumpolar low-pressure systems are formed and then spun off into the lower latitudes; where so much unique wildlife exists – the whales, seals, petrels and most of all those comical little penguins.
It’s a place where scientific research provides us with so much information about the very life and future of our planet; where the glaciologists, geo-physicists, earth and marine scientists and biologists come to study those things which look at climate patterns, the ozone layer and the biodiversity of life.
I’m so very pleased to have made this trip and pleased that Doug Dean, Collex and Veolia have made a commitment to helping to return the White Continent to a condition where our human impact is minimal.  I’ll be back.

Footnote 2012

I never did go back – or at least as I write this, I haven’t made it back yet.  Maybe I’ll get there one day as a tourist, but it is unlikely to happen any other way. 
They are still dealing with the waste in Antarctica and the Wilkes problem in particular continues to be an issue.  Now the airport has been opened and expeditioners are flown down on a four hour flight from Hobart, which reduces the amount of work that Aurora Australis is doing in terms of carrying expeditioners, but she still makes the regular visits for refuelling and continues to carry out scientific marine work.  To people like Dr Martin Riddle (who recently won the prestigious Phillip Law medal for his work in Antarctica) and Dr Ian Snape in particular, I acknowledge the critical contribution you are making and I hope you continue to do so for many years. I dips my lid to all of you, expeditioners and mariners alike.


  1. Yet again, very interting Mike...Cheers, Jim

  2. This is incredible i love it.

    Christmas/New Year 01/02 I was a 19 year old Engine Trainee it was my second trip out in the really big world.
    I was on the journey if a life time, i had seen thing others could only imagine.

    I lived at Arnøyham in Norway, approx 70 degree north i grow up in a community of around 350 people.
    The sommer of 2000 i had worked on a passanger vessel going to Svalbard and the cruises started in Tromsø and we turned around and headed back to Tromsø at 80 degrees north.

    Now i was as far as i could go from home and i was stuck, in Antarctica sitting on board M/V Polar Bird.

    Believe me i was happy to see the M/V Aurora Australis.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kristian, I always appreciate the feedback. It was certainly an exciting experience and one which those of us who experienced it will never forget. Hard to believe it happened fourteen years ago - it seems like yesterday.