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Antarctica 2012: And we’re off

Life boat on the Aurora

The Aurora Australis has set sail! The seas have been calm, and I do not know anyone that has experienced any seasickness. Immediately after boarding the vessel we were instructed on various alarms. The fire alarm is a constant ring, and abandon ship is seven short rings followed by a long one. We had an emergency muster drill, in which everyone had to don an immersion suit as practice in case something catastrophic occurs. The immersion suit material is high in friction and elasticity, making entry difficult. It

Christian Sampson, U math Ph.D student, models an emergency survival suit

was fun to watch a dozen people at once flop around as the attempted to squeeze into the “one size fits none” suits. There were a lot of laughs as we tried them on. The humor was nice as it countered more serious thoughts of ever having to put on an immersion suit again. I’ve attached a photo of Christian in his suit looking a bit like a superhero.

Life boat on the Aurora

We learned how to get into lifeboats. The lifeboats seal up like submarines, even though they are designed to float. They are self-rising, so if they were to be dragged down with the ship they would surface upright. Life rafts are smaller and more fragile, but release automatically when the deck they are on is submerged. Each lifeboat is equipped with food and water, emergency survival gear, G.P.S. locaters, and plenty of seasickness tablets. The lifeboats each have their own motor, allowing the operator to collect up life rafts. Space in the boats was tight by design, as the passengers heat each other. The chance that lifeboats will be needed is incredibly small, but it is nice to know they are there, just in case.

The captain gave a speech immediately before we commenced that was both eloquent and appropriate. He reminded us that the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated to place scientific exploration above all other concerns. It was designed to foster collaborative efforts that scaled country and culture, and has successfully worked to increase global scientific cooperation. This vessel and its occupants are strong evidence for the success of this treaty. Before our dismissal the captain reminded us the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated during the height of the cold war by countries that housed cultures of fear and distrust toward one another.

The first two days of will be devoted to sea trials. This will allow verification and calibration of the ship’s equipment. The Aurora is currently filled with 1.6 million liters of diesel fuel, and has been equipped with an underwater robot, two helicopters, and various scientific measurement instruments designed to be dragged behind the boat. The measurement equipment we brought has been carefully lashed down in the lab provided us. Rough seas are usually seen in the south pacific this year, so it is critical that nothing moves during transit. Loose boxes could easily hurt or kill someone if the boat were tossed about.

Our official weather report states we should see 6-8 meter waves in the next few days. I have attached a map sent to us

Wave estimate map for September 17.

showing tomorrow’s wave estimates. We currently are located near the island in the upper right hand corner of the map, and will be moving down towards the blue area in the lower right hand corner. The white part of this map is where the ice is expected to be, but it is only estimated on this map. Weather is expected to get increasingly worse, then calm down as we approach the ice zone. The first ice we encounter will be in the marginal ice zone, where the ice is thin and sometimes sparsely populated. Eventually we will reach ice flows that are large and thick enough to support scientists and our equipment, probably two days travel into the sea ice. Our arrival to the first ice measurement station is estimated at 10 days from our original departure, but will depend on how wild the sea becomes.

Although there are several crews testing equipment, for many of us there is not much to do but wait to reach the ice. Everyone is very eager to get to work, and the thought of at least a week’s delay in research is frustrating. There is a strong community here. Everyone I have met has been courteous and thoughtful, even though we may not have the same culture or language. I see having such a good initial experience as a very good sign, as seven weeks would be a long time to spend with someone that was unkind or discourteous.

The Aurora is not yet home, but is rapidly winning me over. It only took four days for Scott Base to become home on my last expedition. It will be interesting to see how long this process takes aboard the Aurora. At the moment I am happy, warm, and well fed. The stress of preparation is fading away, slowly being replaced by excitement, and anticipation of the approaching ice. I know it is looming out there, waiting for us to be the first and last people to stand upon its surface. I can hardly wait. . .

More from the ship can be found on the Australian Antarctic Division’s home page at SIPEX II on the right side of the page.