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Published: March 18th 2008
Breaking through the pack ice into the Ross Sea was far from a foregone conclusion. Aurora’s previous trip in January had not managed to do so, and we spent an extra couple of days battling this ice ourselves, venturing as far east as the dateline and using helicopters for recce flights before we found a path through.
Once through and into the Ross Sea’s polynya, a recurring area of open water, our battles were far from over. Fast ice around the coast would challenge our attempts to approach some of our desired destinations sufficiently close for either Zodiac or helicopter landings. Last season’s pack ice should still have been disintegrating, but recent temperature variations meant that new ice was already forming rapidly.
Even for Antarctica aficionados, it was an astonishing trip in terms of the number of different kinds of ice we encountered. With new ice forming, we were treated to some extraordinary sights. There was salo ice, where snow lands on the surface of the sea and does not melt. Grease ice is almost otherworldly; it looks like rippling grey silk from the elevations of the bridge, but something more glutinous and less romantic, such as porridge, on
icebergs in the bay at Cape Adare
closer inspection. Finger ice is where calm water freezes into long, fragile fingers of ice on the surface of the water. These then interlock when pushed against each other. We also saw what appeared to be every stage of the formation of pancake ice: frazil ice, otherwise known by me as “cell ice” (it looks like cells seen through a microscope) or “tadpole” ice (the “cells” now have a thicker spot in the middle), depending on the progress of its formation, “pikelet” ice and full-scale pancake ice, with crusty edges curling up as the pancakes bumped against each other.
We became experts, so we thought, in navigating through pack ice, eagerly scanning the horizon with Captain Gena to work out the best way through, and talking knowledgeably about the consistency of the ice we were encountering, whether it was soft and slushy or hard, crunchy stuff that was already frozen solid. Down in the bar, located in the bow on the third deck bow and doubling as our lecture room and cinema, we could gauge the quality of the ice by the nature and volume of the rumbles, squelches or crunches.
The crew had their work cut out
navigating us through the southern reaches of the McMurdo Sound. We’d heard from the US McMurdo base that an icebreaker had been through recently, beating a wide path through the solid pack ice to the base which had not seen a passenger vessel in two years. Certainly an icebreaker had been through, but had left about a fortnight earlier, its efforts still evident as a wide channel of broken sea ice, clearly visible between the bands of smooth fast ice that lined the Sound on either side of us. But this smashed-up ice had already started to re-freeze. On first meeting the Marina Svetaeva a fortnight earlier, I would not have thought that she could ever be delicately manoeuvred, but Captain Gena proved me wrong. He gently edged the ship forward, then back, then forward again, making progress only in tiny incremental steps. Through more than forty kilometres of ice in this condition, taking us first to within easy helicopter-range of the US base and then back north again, it was painstaking work. When, on our way north, we finally broke through into open water after more than six hours of this inch-by-inch manoeuvring, there was a perceptible sigh of
relief. No-one really fancied wintering at McMurdo - described by one of my co-travellers “an open pit coal mine” - although Scott Base, the New Zealand station on the other side of Observation Hill, had had its attractions.
Icebergs contributed to the difficulties faced by Captain Gena and his crew.
Romantic in theory: iconic islands of former glacier in a myriad of whites and blues. Each one an extraordinary slice of the past, untold centuries of environmental history locked in frozen layers. Looming out of the mist. Gazing silently down on our passing ship. Littering open water like an upturned box of Lego. Standing rooted, incongruously held fast in the surrounding sea ice.
But less romantic in practice. The remaining chunks of B-15, the vast iceberg which calved from the Ross Ice Shelf a few years ago with an area equal to that of France, were still drifting north after causing such havoc for the McMurdo base that the Americans had, at one time, considered evacuating it. Now one part of B-15 was lodged against the end of the Drygalski Glacier’s tongue and we had to spend an extra day backtracking to go round it. Greg’s morning
announcement that day started, “For those of you who have looked outside this morning, and noticed a mountain that resembles Mount Melbourne on the port side of the ship , it IS Mount Melbourne, and, yes, we are heading in the wrong direction.”
I missed our first iceberg. There had been a competition for guessing its position and the time we encountered it, but I’d missed the boat, so to speak. (Apparently, the competition was won by one of the helicopter pilots but his win was disallowed on the basis that he might have benefited from a degree of professional insight, though I can’t think why: the GPS co-ordinates of our first ‘berg obviously depended on our route which changed on a minute-by-minute basis.) Combating sea sickness had been my priority that first week. Not that I was actually ill; I just preferred life horizontal and with my eyes shut. For long stretches of time. Very long stretches of time. A few lectures, meals and other activities took a distant back seat, together with that first ‘berg, as I snoozed
my way into my sea legs. Besides, I blasphemously reckoned, I was sure we’d see more. Mind you, I was gently punished for this earlier cavalier attitude when the second ‘berg appeared on the radar. I peered excitedly out of the window when the radar suggested it should be coming abreast of us, but the dense fog hid it well. An element of just desserts, I guess.
We also struggled with the weather, although it could have been infinitely worse. One day, on our way south, we woke to a nasty southerly blowing which caused mayhem in the dining rooms, whole tablefuls of crockery and breakfast accoutrements sliding inexorably and noisily onto the floor. Even the non-slip matting which covered the surfaces could not combat that wave and a few of its successors. Captain Gena kindly changed direction to ameliorate its effects, but the new course added further miles. Our journey north was also hampered by wind and swell, particularly on the final leg between Macquarie Island and Tasmania. We docked more than six hours behind schedule, Gena having been reluctant to speed up because of the significantly increased discomfort it would cause us. As it was, each manoeuvre
round the ship required careful advance consideration, and we all admired the waitresses for keeping their feet, and the food, even the soup, in the relevant receptacles.
But the gods ran out of ammunition, or decided that we deserved a break, several breaks, in fact. In the space of a week, we had five incredible days, any one of which would have made the entire trip, seasickness and all, worthwhile. If anything, the difficulties of reaching these amazing sights only added to their attraction: how reassuring that, in this day and age, it is still so hard and so time-consuming to reach these places. It somehow puts man in his place; the planet wins this round at least.
We knew we had been incredibly lucky to see the sights we did, but quite how lucky was only emphasised further a couple of weeks after our return. On 10th March, less than four weeks since our departure from the McMurdo base, our southern-most point in the Ross Sea, the ice charts showed an extraordinary sight. Val and I had been keeping a close eye on the ice conditions in the months prior to our trip, anxiously trying to work
pancake ice against a backdrop of the Ferrar Glacier
out each day if the ice had reduced at all in depth and/or area. (The joys of the internet.) Each day, the Ross Sea’s polynya was clearly visible; the question was simply whether the pack ice at the western side of the mouth to the Ross Sea would break up sufficiently to let us through. Going further east than the dateline to go round the pack ice would have taken too long. When we boarded the Marina Svetaeva on 2nd February, Greg Mortimer, our expedition leader, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about our chances of getting into the Ross Sea; the amateur ice analysts, Val and myself, were pessimistic, but nevertheless keeping every finger and toe crossed. Greg’s optimism held us in good stead. Last week, it was a completely different story. The entire Ross Sea was frozen solid all the way to the Ross and McMurdo Ice Shelves. Truly the gods had given us a huge break.
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