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Antarctica 2012: Emperor Penguins on an Unstable Floe

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Small occurrences have suggested the Aurora is finally becoming my home.

Doors in the ship are spring loaded, but each with a different amount of closing pressure. I finally know how much pressure is required for frequently used doors, raised door seals no longer catch my toes, and I know the location of my light switch in the dark. Fortunately I have not had to worry about objects jutting from the ceiling, a problem for many of the taller members aboard.

Our home has been on the move, hunting for our first ice station. Ice stations have to be very carefully chosen as they have a restrictive set of requirements. The floe must be large enough to carry several dozen scientists. The small groups in which we operate typically require a minimum distance from one another. The station must contain a large square area of ice suited to a particular experiment, and must be stable on the upwind side for those doing atmospheric and trace metal experiments. This last requirement is challenging to meet if the wind is expected to shift, as these teams must remain upwind for their data to be usable.

When a potential ice floe is found, the Aurora carefully pushes her brow partway into the ice. This allows us to remain attached to the ice, rotating and moving with it. Pushing our way into an ice station without breaking it up requires great skill by the crew as our ship is well designed to break apart ice.

The first potential ice station was spotted while most of the voyagers were safe in bed and well into R.E.M. sleep. Although it initially looked promising, the ship split it in half while attempting to push into it. The floe had a thin band that was not immediately evident, and may not otherwise have been discovered until the on-ice safety assessment was performed.

Another potential floe was found with the help of satellite data and a helicopter reconnaissance flight. We nosed into it successfully and moored the ship. An initial survey by our Field Training Officer (F.T.O.) and chief scientist proved fruitful, so a more extensive survey was taken to note particularly dangerous areas. Workspaces and hazards were marked out in colored flags, small red and yellow squares on the standard Antarctic white and blue background.

The presence of our orange behemoth attracted the attention of some emperor penguins. We watched and photographed the emperors staring back at us, two species mutually intrigued at the presence of the other. A small “bing-bong” over the ship’s communication system called us away to a briefing about our work site with emphasis on hazards particular to this station.

We found ourselves hungry and near dinner, so we delayed entering the ice.

When we reached our work site, the emperors had apparently agreed to investigate the yellow, orange, and red clad aliens spreading out across the ice. Two large groups of penguins would creep close to each working group, and spend some time watching our activity. Emperors are very bold, approaching within a few meters, and remaining unconcerned about the odd noises we generated.

We took several photos, knowing that such a large group of penguins is rare to encounter. I was surprised to find that emperors scratch their heads in the same manner that dogs do, using a back foot. See what I mean?

Emperor penguins seem content to spend a lot of time shaking their heads to and fro and preening their feathers. They are the loiterers of the Antarctic, with little to do but chat, chill, and occasionally go for a belly slide. Emperors are collected and noble, especially when compared to the toddling Adelie penguins, always seen either in frantic scurry or executing pratfalls as they clumsily hop across the snow.

After spending a half hour with us, the penguin groups grew bored with our antics and moved along, seeking further entertainment with a new collection of gear handled by another group of scientists. Our radios crackled a warning that it was now 7:00, and that all expeditioners were to return by 8:30 for a briefing. We pinned down our work site precisely, planted our flag, and began our return to the ship.

Radio chatter indicated some ocean swells were moving through the area, suggesting that our floe may not be as stable as previously believed. Some have speculated that the floe was composed of several smaller floes, glued together during the recent snowstorm. From out on the ice surface, it appeared as if the sea ice was breathing. We observed our fluorescent orange equipment bags moving up and down on the ice with an unusually large amplitude.

Radio orders commenced, “All teams must evacuate the ice immediately.”

Several sleds were queued to run up the gangplank, so we dropped our gear and assisted in getting these into the belly of our ship.

Attention was paid to keep the door clear for the next upcoming sled.

Three horn blasts were sounded to emphasize the importance of immediate evacuation from the ice. We heard harrowing news from our radio. The ice had cracked in two locations. Three people had been separated from our ship by this crack. I hurried up the gangplank and momentarily reflected on the safety and comfort the Aurora provides in such a hostile and unforgiving environment.

The primary incident response team sprang into action, knowing that the individual tasks given them by the F.T.O. would be part of a larger plan, a thought out and concerted effort to retrieve the missing voyagers. This team consists of several members of the marine science support staff and some expeditioners who have extensive experience in working on sea ice, including Ken.

The rescue bridge was determined to be the best opportunity to save the stranded voyagers. A quad track vehicle was brought to the bottom of the gangplank where we removed the bags currently attached to the quad track, replacing them with the rescue bridge and a pressurized tank for inflation.

A trained driver shuttled the bridge to the F.T.O. and select primary responders, already planning the rescue at the hazard site. When the doorway was cleared we asked the deputy voyage leader what else we could do to assist. All but primary responders were requested to wait in the mess hall with radios. A few of the secondary responders, myself included, were asked to remain in full cold weather gear in case the need for additional people arose.

Now safe and hot inside, we kept careful watch out the porthole. Calm voices spoke clearly on the radio. I watched the incident response team quickly and confidently unpack and inflate the bridge. The rescue proceeded just as discussed during incident response safety and training drills.

Discussion of the circumstance clearly took place before action was taken, and actions were performed calmly and efficiently.

The ship’s spotlights were used to highlight the closer of the two cracks to watch for further damage that could risk F.T.O. and responders, but no expansion was initially seen.

Shortly after its arrival the rescue bridge was extended to the stranded voyagers. I watched as they crawled across on hands and knees, and cheers were heard as the radio indicated they were on their way inside.

The gear was determined to be critical to an experiment onboard. After careful consideration it was determined recoverable if done immediately.

The responders donned immersion suits to prepare for a worst case scenario.

I watched the F.T.O. and a few experienced hands retrieve the equipment and push it across the bridge. The equipment and the bridge was tied to the quad track which slowly and deliberately chose a path home.

The bridge indicated those making their way back onboard must move with utmost urgency in light of a new development. Our ship was wandering away from the ice floe, its moorings no longer effectively holding us in place.

A flag was planted at the bottom of the gangplank to monitor this and frequent updates were given over the radio.

The quad track was driven into a storage container that was already attached to a crane and pulled aboard. Audible rejoice swept through us as we heard a final radio announcement. All were believed to be onboard, a tag check was to be performed to verify everyone had logged themselves off the ice.

An emergency roll call was expected shortly.

We are all home again, cradled by the firm steel walls of the Aurora. It is comforting to know an experienced crew and a culture of safety and readiness stand between us and the chaos raging outside. Although disaster was averted, our first ice station was a sobering reminder of the terrible and powerful environment into which we have ventured.

As a final note I want to extend public thanks to the crew and voyage members involved in the rescue. The crew know their jobs well and executed them bravely and professionally. They have my humblest and most sincere appreciation. For many crew members this is not the first tense encounter they have had on the ice, and won’t be the last. Ken, a few of the expeditioners, and a number of crew members even experienced a serious fire aboard the Aurora in 1998. This is a dangerous environment and the lengths taken to ensure the safe return of all voyagers is worthy of applause.

Editor’s notes: This post describes the first ice station and thus is out of chronological sequence.

For additional information about the SIPEX II voyage, there are two other groups are documenting the expedition. Check out the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) web page  as another place to find out more about the scientific investigations being conducted on the voyage. Also, the blog of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists. There is also a webcam on board the ship that updates every 30 minutes.