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Antarctica 2012: Halloween Heyday

Minke whale surfacing, photo by Christian Sampson

The ice relaxed briefly, a welcome site following our five stationary days within the last floe system. We pushed and pushed ahead, making very slow progress. After nearly five days of heavy pushing and a lot of drifting, the ice closed up again, resulting in a decision to have ice station 8.

The ice closed in to the point that we even lost the little pool we typically keep at the back of the ship. The ship’s thrusters remained on 60 percent to keep the water around the prop from freezing, but we again were going nowhere fast.

This ice station was only a horizon away from the last, and had very similar ice structure. The lack of progress had a noticeable effect on morale, but did not cause too serious a dip. We are still eating well, and many welcomed another chance to see the noble Aurora from the outside.

The lack of a pool behind our ship prevented several science teams from gathering some much wanted data. The lack of a large pool makes it difficult to deploy either of the underwater vehicles, and slows or prevents some work by various oceanographic teams.

Work was further complicated by the fact that the ice around us was composed of many small floes being compacted by pressure from around. There were pressure ridges all around the floe our brow was dropped upon and many areas were marked off limits without the accompaniment of the field training officer.

Many teams were unable to operate due to the restrictions of this station, but fortunately our team was not prevented from gathering data. This made for an interesting change in scenery. The busy little groups once found outside in cold weather gear were now commonly found inside, whispering away as they analyzed data.

People were frequently seen outside, eyes happy to no longer be staring at a computer screen. For several days we waited for the ice pack to break.

A small lead appeared ahead of us, but without sufficient space around the horizon there was no hope of it opening. This lead was still welcome, as it provided a breathing hole for wildlife.

Minke whale surfacing, photo by Christian Sampson

A minke whale was seen surfacing in this lead for the better part of two days. The whale would surface at intervals ranging from 2 to 20 minutes to clear its blowhole before diving again, presumably to look for food or another hole in which to surface. A camera was lowered through the hole by Aaron Spurr, who managed to capture a stunning underwater video of the whale as it left.

Photo by Aaron Spurr

Some of the scientists aboard got to thinking. The outside world is a dynamic, changing, wildlife filled, exciting environment, but alas, it is cold! Inside the Aurora is both warm and safe, but it is static and lacks the brilliance found in outside world. There must be a way to get the best of both worlds. The solution they came up with was elegant in its simplicity: improvise a hot tub on the ice! The only problem with this plan is that a person in a hot tub just happens to make a wonderful snowball target. . .

Moderate winds were felt. Although they weren’t strong enough to break apart the pack, they were fully appreciated by a few aboard. A small group of people were seen outside with a stunt kite. The vibrant colors were quite striking over the snow, and the flight of the kite was relaxing to watch. I have always liked stunt kites; they are so fast and agile in the right hands.

Halloween was an exciting opportunity to break the monotony, so a barbeque was held outside on the ice. Our team did field work on Halloween, but those aboard used the opportunity to generate creative costumes.

The area around us is working itself towards its summer state, where daylight never leaves.

For now the sun does set, but twilight remains for hours afterwards. Night fall was marked by a dramatic increase in the number of hands competing for the fire, and although darkness had not yet arrived, people slowly made their way inside in search of a cup of tea, or a warm bed. It was easy to identify those that remained around the fire until it was doused, as their coats still carried a heavy campfire smell in the morning.

These events are both fun and important to morale, but they are no substitute for being underway. We now know with certainty we will arrive late to port, but until we start moving we do not know how late we will be.

We hope to wake up one morning and find ourselves moving, but we know that the probability of this occurring in the next few days is not high.

Fortunately our probability of moving is steadily increasing over time. Our floe is slowly drifting northwest into an area that large floes become smaller. Summer is on its way, bringing warmth and 24 hours of daylight.

One really good southerly wind will cause the ice to relax so we can leave.

If this doesn’t happen, there is some consolation in knowing at some point nearly all the ice in this area will melt. I just hope we are not still here to see it when it happens.