I-TASC Antarctic expedition 2006-07 – aboard SA Agulhas icebreaker
We woke up at 9am to find the ship parked on the pack ice. The helicopters had already gone to do a scout and we were waiting for their return. No one is really sure of what the plan was, and I have heard at least four versions of what’s going on. The stories differ from “I heard we are definitely leaving today by chopper for SANAE” to “we won’t even think about getting everyone off for another 3 or 4 days.” So there you go, if you ain’t the boss you don’t know what’s happening – such is the way with many parts of ship life, I have found. Limbo was better today however. We travelled quite a distance looking for routes to Neumayer. Everyone was outside on the decks taking in all that was to offer. The day featured beautiful clear blue skies with fine lace-like clouds and a lot of variation in ice. At one point, ice cut into the horizon in huge mountainous shapes very similar to the stony red mountains seen in wild west movies. Other times, we approached large areas of pack ice where the pressure had caused ridges, outlining large (approx. 6m square), tightly packed, and irregularly shaped blocks of ice. The ridges formed miniature mountain ranges about 50cm high around each block. Other times, we moved through open water with small ice all around us and with the clean blue skies and water, clear, deep, blue. Here we could see the luminous blue keels of ice under each iceberg.
There is also a fair bit of wildlife around. Often on large blocks there are fresh footprints from penguins that have evaded the icebreaker, and we pass many Emperor Penguins that are very talented at ignoring us. They seem so bored with us, one could imagine they see icebreakers twice a day and three times on Sundays. There is a troop of Emperors off the port side. They slide forward on their stomachs in single file about 1 km from the ship. Occasionally one penguin stands up and the queue behind stalls momentarily as the standing penguin looks around and then awkwardly tilts forward until it falls over on its stomach and begins the slide forward again. There are a few Weddell seals around, but mostly its us and the penguins.
Later the helicopters did some investigation of the possible routes between our ship and Neumayer. At one stage we made a lot of ground with the Agulhas cutting through thick but soft ice. As I write this the ship is trying to do just this, forcing a passage to the base. The ship reverses about 100m and then ploughs full throttle into the ice, often rising a metre or so as it cuts through. The Agulhas makes about 10-20m each time. I think the base is several kilometers away. The issue here, is that as we cut forward, the ice is closing behind us, leaving the possibility we might get trapped.
…I just returned from checking out the stern and it appears we are indeed stuck. The ice has closed behind us and there is nothing but kilometers of ice ahead. The Agulhas is retreating a few metres at a time and then thrusting forward, making about 2 metres every 20 minutes. According to one of the crew, there is an issue with a thruster which doesn’t help. It seems we will continue this battle for the night. The open water is just 500m metres behind us but blocked by large pieces of ice we broke up on our way through. Additionally, the ice is too weak here to offload onto the ice…
…It’s after dinner now, and just before dinner there was an interesting 45 minutes when the ship tried to back out of the trail we had cut. The ship backed up as fast it could, pushing large pieces of broken ice backwards and to the side. When the ship could not move anymore, it would drift forward a few feet and blow water out of thrusters at the back of the boat. Some ice would then be shifted by the currents of the thrusters and the Agulhas would then try moving backwards again. This went on for about 30 minutes before the ship was in a clear pool and could then push more easily back to where we started. There is now a slight twilight and the ship is in open water making towards our plan B dock (Akta Bukta).