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29 December 2006 - 10:15 am - Friday - posted by Dennis

There are a myriad of reasons someone might choose to travel to Antarctica. Some go for work, others to conduct research and even a few, very few, as tourists. Some might go to see penguins, others seals and still others killer whales and then there are those who would like to travel over the continent in search of adventure. A frozen continent with ice so thick and high you can walk over a mountain and not even know it’s there just below the surface or perhaps the peak is just piercing the ice and looking more like a small hill known as a Nanutuk. They might seek adventure through travel on a continent full of hidden peril in heavily crevassed ice shelves and glaciers as it was done more than a century ago with sleds and teams of dogs to haul them…and then there are those who are completely disinterested in anything to do with the continent. These people I do not understand but what I do understand is that most people have, at least to some extent, differing opinions on most any subject you were to question them about and this diversity in life, as in Antarctica, is what makes it interesting to me.

Despite the diversity there is one unifying concept or reality that is ever present, that all animals living in, on or around the continent have adapted to living with and that is the ice and associated freezing temperatures; in fact, because more than 99% of the continent is covered in an ice cap it is often referred to as “The Ice”. As ironic as it sounds, Antarctica is the driest continent on the planet despite containing the vast majority of the earth’s water reserves. This is because these water reserves take the form of a solid, ice, and not as a liquid, water. Predominantly water below freezing takes the form of ice or snow but the water in the Southern Ocean starts to cool well before we reach the continent; in fact, the water we’re traveling over now is just below freezing but because of its salt content and the fact it’s in constant motion it’s kept from freezing. We’re traveling over this ocean in heavy seas in anticipation of an oncoming storm as the temperatures steadily decrease and the swell steadily increases.

I’ve included a couple journal entries below in italics of a couple of the more interesting observations made during our journey south:

bigberg

bowspray

Flying the Crests

The Aurora is in heavy seas. The waves and sky open up greeting each other and in great frothy explosions of white and gray spray their chaos in all directions. The crests of waves erupt and are destroyed by strong winds and sleet coming down sideways as they reach for the sky… and as the Aurora slides down the backside of these great crests and crashes into the trough we spy something small through the spray. Something is flying just above the surface and then, just as fleeting as it came, it’s engulfed by the crest of another wave.

…and then there she is again, closer now, out from just behind the next crest, an Antarctic Petrel, her small frail body and wings just centimeters above the rapids darting this way and that as the waves from competing swells pass beneath, meet, crash and spray skywards in great arcing rays of water and ice. Darting this way and that she avoids the onslaught and continues on her quest, her journey over frozen seas to frozen lands of ice and snow, lands void of interference from that which is nearly at hand, us, mankind in our never ending exploration into one of the few remaining wild places on earth, Antarctica. Riding the winds forced upwards by chaotic forces below, and doing so without a single flap of the wings, she holds her wings, wings of perfect design and dimension for the task at hand, spread wide and in the chaos that is the southern ocean is the only bit of evidence of grace and beauty in an otherwise hostile and vast expanse of ocean wilderness.

She is so agile, graceful and fleeting in her beauty and in such harsh company it begs the question that is difficult to pose, difficult not for the asking, difficult not for the supposed answer, difficult simply for the question itself. What question can be asked that is worthy of this scene? Simply, how is it possible that this is possible, this scene, this vision before me that words cannot convey? Not a single flap of the wing to propel her across this vast ocean wilderness as she rides currents unseen, yet, here in her majestic beauty gliding before me with only the slightest of effort. There is no doubt she reins queen over her realm, the southern ocean swell.

An inspiring scene indeed!

So we made it through the storm's onslaught unscathed…though there were fewer barf bags available in the passageways than before the storm! The storms came and went and we seemed to skirt around or between most but it was very obvious to us that conditions continued to improve as we reached lower latitudes on our approach to the pack ice. Just prior to entering the pack we were visited by King Neptune in what is a sea-fairing ceremony heavily steeped in sailing tradition for those expeditioners traveling south and crossing into the Antarctic Circle for the first time. Jim and I didn’t have to participate as “victims” because we each had already been through the ceremony during previous expeditions; however, Jim did play the lead role as King Neptune and graciously invited those wishing to gain entry into his southern realm to undergo a series of challenges that required several hours, and for a select few, days of cleansing from which to fully recover!

Now we’re entering the pack ice:

In the Pack Ice

Stretching before us and into the horizon further than the eye can see lies the pack ice, that vast expanse of ice that has broken free of the continent and coalesced into what often seems a single formidable barrier acting as a gateway to frozen lands beyond. Floating free and encircling the continent this barrier with entrained icebergs in times past has forced many worthy expeditions away in failure or worst, trapping  those wishing to pass and destroying their vessels. The Aurora slams into the ice sheet, rises and lists to one side victoriously in anticipation as the ice below sinks and is crushed as it’s driven aside or under the vessel and is finally chopped by the propeller blades behind.  Even now, as we make our way through, we’re stopped to a complete stand still on several occasions and are forced to turn our direction to areas of thinner ice or back up and get a running start to force our way through regions of thicker ice in route to open leads just several hundred meters beyond. It seems impossible to us how anyone was able to make it through in centuries past considering a complete lack of satellite imagery, radar and massive diesel engines propelling a massive bronze propeller on a ship designed especially for the purpose of crushing and chopping ice. We’ve also deployed helicopters in the past to search the immediate vicinity for open leads to open waters beyond. Those early explorers accomplished quite a feat indeed without having any of these luxuries at hand! Of course, expeditions more than a century ago often lasted more than a year, and 2 years, though not desirable, was not unheard of! Ours is only a summer in length.

seaice
tandem bergs
heli emps

After having paid our respects to King Neptune and made it through the pack ice it seems we’ve been permitted to make the rest of our journey to the continent beyond over tranquil waters. Often, the waters are so calm so as to reflect mirrored iceberg images of those relatively few bergs adrift on this side of the pack. We make steady progress the rest of the way as the pack ice shields us from the deep ocean swell of the southern ocean. Another day into our journey finds us traversing through iceberg alley, that area just offshore of Davis Station that concentrates icebergs close to shore in a nearshore circulation pattern, so close in fact they are often entrained in the fast ice, that ice that freezes out from the continent every winter for several hundred meters and in many places many kilometers offshore and freezes the icebergs in place until the following summer until the fast ice melts and the icebergs carry on in their migration with the currents. The fast ice has already deteriorated offshore of Davis and the bergs are continuing on their journey or in some cases are grounded (stuck on the bottom) as we come to a halt just offshore of the station to begin the fly off of the round-trippers (those researchers here to take samples for a week and then head back to the continent on the Aurora when we return in a few days). Jim and I are staying for the whole summer so are left to stay on the boat for a few more days because the station is overflowing with people and activity. Once the round trippers leave the station there will be enough room and resources (plane and/or helicopter time) for Jim and I to get the instruments in the field.

After visiting Davis, we’re off again to Zhong Shan, the Chinese Antarctic base, to drop off 24 Chinese expeditioners participating in this year’s Chinese Antarctic Research Expedition. Their base lies just 50 kilometers further southwest. We sailed over night and are now sitting about 15 kilometers offshore. With roughly 15 km of ice between us and the base we’ve gone as far as the fast ice will allow – it’s too thick for us to break through so the fly off begins. The Chinese expeditioners were flown off first and most of their gear is being flown off today and tomorrow. Now, patiently we sit and wait at the edge of the fast ice beside an entrained berg for weather conditions to improve so the helicopters can take off and make their deliveries. The waiting however is not all that uneventful. We’re often visited by Weddel Seals, Adelie and Emperor penguins and even a Minke whale. They’re using the trail we made in the ice behind the ship as a breathing and feeding hole! The extra time also gives Jim and I time to practice (Dennis) with and play (Jim) our guitars.




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