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Antarctica 2012: Ice at last!


Yesterday was truly one for celebration. Many ships are well steeped in tradition, and the Aurora is no exception. As we abandoned the “Furious Fifty” latitudes for the ice infested sixties, a rite of passage commenced.

King Neptune made an appearance aboard our ship and required tribute of all voyagers sailing into his domain for the first time. The crew clearly put thought and time into fashioning their costumes, and the ceremony included a certificate for all participants.

An iceberg was spotted off the port side of the ship, bringing our lottery to a close. A crewmember named Murray Dovey won a total of $265 AUD. This same amount was given to Camp Quality, a charity that shares a long history with the Aurora Australis.

A social gathering commenced, and around 9:00 pm we congregated for our first glimpse of the marginal ice zone. The water temperature had dropped off steeply, a sure indication we were near. The crew was kind enough to allow voyagers in the bridge area, even with the heightened navigational risk. Careful watch must now be made to avoid both icebergs and growlers.

A growler is a chunk of floating ice too small to be an iceberg, but large enough to make the ship and crew growl if inadvertently struck. At approximately 10:00 pm we entered the ice.

A hush fell as we realized a few of the distant white caps had not disappeared. They were in fact small pieces of floating ice, drifting and glinting in our ship’s spotlights. For many old hands the sea ice represents their life’s focus and they know it well. Some aboard had never seen sea ice outside of photos. Whether experienced or not, all aboard seemed to welcome the ice. Reverent whispers complimented the engine’s grinding thrum. The conversation grew as did the ice cover. Within minutes broken conversations had given way to an excited buzz and we entered a nearly solid field of white.

Perhaps Neptune was pleased with the tribute provided and asked other gods to shine upon us, or perhaps we were beneficiaries of a random coalescence of fortune. Maybe today was predestined to be memorable. Whatever the reason, we had the opportunity to witness a supreme example of nature’s majesty. The Aurora flared above us, a shimmering emerald fire upon a pinpricked ebon field. I watched the sky dance aside our revel and felt something stir deep within. “Tonight,” I inwardly remarked, “will undoubtedly be among my most cherished of memories.” The evening could only have been more complete if my family were present as well. I made a valiant attempt to capture the illumination on camera, but this proved too difficult aboard a moving ship.  This is the best blurry photo I managed.

The sunrise found us beneath a clear sky, steaming past icebergs. I’ve summered in polar conditions, but have never had the pleasure of new scenery every time I looked outside.

While taking photos of the icebergs I finally managed a photo of the little white birds that are following our ship.

Snow petrel

Giant petrel

Someone aboard identified them as snow petrels. They are hardy little creatures. I’ve even seen them soaring in winds that threatened to push me around, and roared angrily into pink ears. I’ve also included a photo I took of a giant petrel. They have been following our ship for some time. I understand the complex beak structure is used to remove excess salinity from the bird’s body as it ingests significant amounts of seawater.

Life aboard is still surrounded by familiar engine rumblings, but a strange new accompaniment has stepped in. The forward of the ship is filled with strange hammering and crunching noises as we suck ice below, pushing and overturning any floe that stands its ground. The rear of the ship is frequently harangued by thuds from our propeller, efficiently and greedily gobbling up ice pieces that managed to survive intact. At the moment I can hear a helicopter rotor, winding itself into an airworthy state, preparing to deploy accelerometer laden buoys to measure ice-wave interaction.

Some experiments have started, but ours will require a day or more to reach an ice floe large enough to support our weight. There is concern that the storm ahead may cause setbacks by churning up the ice, breaking up the larger floes we seek. I believe that while we wait there will be an equipment deployment to measure salinity, temperature and fluorescence, followed by an instrument to measure trace metals in the ocean. Our ship is alive.

Potentially only a day to our first station, and so many preparations still await. Now we walk the line that borders meticulous and frantic. Equipment will all be woken and checked, only to be stowed again in slumber. Sleds will be packed, lashed, and lined up. We will sleep well knowing our gear is packed tight, waiting for us to open the brow door and push it into the great white beyond.