19 December 2006

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).

18 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctic expedition 2006-07 – aboard SA Agulhas icebreaker

We are at the footsteps of the continent. The walls of ice now are gigantic. Just four days ago a few meters of ice would be photographed at least a dozen times by the crew and passengers by the time it had floated down the length of the boat. Now we are spoilt for ice. Huge motionless icebergs surround us with sheer cliffs falling to the sea. Some have the appearance of being on fire as the strong winds whip the loose ice off the windward cliff edges in a grey smoky haze. Icebergs on fire off the shoulders of Neumayer. This afternoon we slowly crawled by a piece of ice the size of Waiheke Island. It is by no means the biggest iceberg here, but distance and size is hard to judge when measuring white cliffs against a white sea and light grey sky. We can only judge the size of the ice that comes close to the ship and these are impressive. I wonder if it was these chunks of the ice shelf that Cook referred to as ice islands.

It looks like we may have time to become quite familiar with these particular icebergs. Round and round we go at a crawl… 11 miles from Neumayer but there is no opening in the ice that we can go through. The sea is too deep to anchor, and the captain judges it better to be under our own power than to drift. So we crawl round and round in huge circles. We don’t know how long it will take; there has been mention that we could spend Christmas on the boat. No one wants this. The entire journey we have been amazed at how lucky we have been with the weather. We have faced no storms, and the pack ice was cleared early by swells only a few weeks before we arrived. By all counts, we arrived here at least 2 days ahead of schedule. Now it seems our 4500km journey will be stalled just 11 miles from home. As a result, I think everyone has gone a smidgen stir crazy. The bird counter looked a bit deranged as he has been sitting upstairs counting birds for 10 days to calculate approximate bird populations through the areas we have travelled. But now he is surrounded by birds and can’t count them, otherwise the results would be skewed as we are circling the same area.

The captain looks bored. I saw the ships doctor cleaning the keyboard of the library’s PC, muttering something about possible diseases one could catch through unhygienic computing. First Born has gone to sleep early (it’s 1920) to dream of trees. Outside my cabin door, Bob Marley is reassuring everyone that everything will be alright and I can hear the overly dramatic slapping of dominoes from the ship’s bar at the end of the corridor. In short, there is nothing to be done. The scientists calculate the possible research days they may lose, and the ship’s crew paint unnecessarily while they wait for the well-paid overtime hours they will work once docked. Everyone wants to get to shore.

In the meantime the I-TASC crew devises strategies to inform people of what we are doing and argues about whether the website jpg should show the feet of Ladimur or not. I think it would do us all good to put our feet on firm ground…

17 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctica Expedition 2006-07

Last night we sat in the bar and played cards. In the ship’s bar there are pictures of all the famous Antarctic voyages and landmarks. Mount Erebus exploding, the Endurance being crushed. For the first time, I feel a direct sense of where we are going, I feel a real sense of Antarctica as being a part of the world, whereas before, it was always somehow on the periphery to me. Now that I am here, I feel a strong connection, much stronger than I have felt before. As we are entering the geography of Antarctica, I feel Antarctica growing in my consciousness.

The icebergs are now only occasionally seen on the horizon and the pack ice surrounds us. Last night we played cards in the ship’s bar until late and then about 1am ventured out onto the front of the ship. It was clear light outside and it felt very much like we had entered a twilight zone. The ship came upon several large fields of pack ice while we were there and cut its way through. The ship usually slows to half speed within about 500m of the pack and then maintains a constant speed. The ship occasionally bumps up and down, similar to the shudders experienced when flying through air pockets, but usually the motion is smooth. In particularly thick ice, the ship stops completely. When this happens the ice broken by the bow cracks and turns by itself, tumbling in the water with eddies and currents as if there is a strong natural spring located beneath it. After a few minutes the boat then pushes forward again.

Often there are penguins and seals on the ice as we cut a path. The penguins usually run away when we get close, while the seals look lazily at us. Earlier we saw our first Emperor Penguin standing by itself on a lonely field of ice. It looked very solemn as it stood motionless with its back to us.

We filmed a lot of the ship’s movements through the pack and I took a lot of photos, but it’s hard to capture a feeling of this amazing contest between the boat and the ice. Watching a passage of broken ice open up in front of the bow, and marking a line that the boat then proceeds through, is a strange but beautiful sight that does not translate well to a still image or even video. We did manage to record some nice sound with two contact microphones attached to the hull. The cracking and hissing of the ice is clear in the recordings and I hope to use this sound in some short 1 minute audio docos I am working on.

Apparently we reach Neumayer today or early tomorrow morning. In preparation, we had a helicopter briefing and weigh-in. It is similar to the safety briefings given on commercial aircraft but perhaps a little more information as the safety equipment on board is a little more sophisticated. The chopper guys we have been seeing everyday and having the occasional drink with will now come to the fore and it looks like they are getting excited about finally doing what they came here to do. We are allowed a small bag on board for our flight to SANAE, which must contain enough to keep us going for three days while we wait for the rest of the equipment to arrive over land by the large caterpillar tractors.. I hope we can meet with I-TASC during the day and establish a recording protocol to reduce unwanted talking or bumping noises etc in the recordings.

14 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctic Expedition 2006-07

Yesterday we saw our first icebergs. They were spotted early in the morning but not by us. We didn’t see our first icebergs until about 1900. Then there were two large icebergs in the distance. After dinner, the I-TASC crew went to the bridge and spoke with the officer there. He showed us the radar where we could easily see many large pieces of ice. From the radar, we could look through the mist in the direction of the radar blips and search for the floating mountains.

I spoke with one of the officers and he was saying it’s not the big icebergs they are worried about. It’s the ‘growlers’ which cause problems. Growlers are smaller pieces of ice broken from icebergs, or the last remnants of a melting iceberg, which sit on or just below the surface. The officers are more concerned about seeing these so they can avoid hitting them. Big bergs can be easily seen and avoided but the little ones do not appear on the radar and must be spotted by eye. For this reason, there are constantly two people (not officers but paid crew) that sit on the bridge 24/7 (from yesterday) and look for ice. They have binoculars and if they see something they inform an officer.

The movement of the ice isn’t as easy to judge by eye as you might expect. The ship is constantly adjusting its course as the wind and swell push the boat slightly one way or another and the ship must constantly make adjustments for this. Hence nothing is static and points of reference are difficult to trust. Additionally, the movement of the ice can either be most influenced by the wind _or_ the current, depending on whether there is a larger surface area above or below the surface. Hence, the ice moves erratically and watching the trails on the radar you can see the plotted paths of some bergs seem to move against the general flow, making navigation by radar something less like using mapquest and more like a game of frogger….

I watched one episode of this interestedly. I could see on the radar there was an iceberg straight ahead of us. I could also see some growlers in our path. The growlers are difficult to spot as the sea is a bit rough, so there are white caps of foam everywhere. The growlers can most easily be seen by looking for constant white spots in the sea ahead – to my New Zealand eye they are reminiscent of how reefs appear from a distance, with a constant rolling whiteness amongst the waves. The officer was quietly having a cup of tea and the spotters saw the ice and called him on a small handheld radio. As they called him it was amazing to witness how quickly the visibility can change at sea. In less than one second, the visibility was cut from about 2km to about 500 meters – it was the outlying cloud moving in like a quick fade, and less than half a minute later the visibility was again about 2km. Also, once you know what to look for, you start seeing ice everywhere. A course was then set to avoid the iceberg ahead and we all watched as the growlers ran harmlessly past. The ship always tries to avoid the bergs by a mile or so as the trailing path of the icebergs often has growlers that have broken off.

I talked with the officer and he was saying that they do hit the growlers. Although no one really gives a straight answer as to how dangerous this is – I have had two good replies from different people, one said “you will definitely know you have hit one”, and the other said, “well, you will at least spill your coffee.” The officer I spoke with had once worked on a boat where the captain made the officer in charge pay a 6 pack of beer for any growler they hit that woke him while he slept. Apparently, it was a good method for improving growler avoidance.

The officer also explained to me, that as we go further into the belt of ice, the ship gets steered like a car going through an obstacle course. The ship can be turned in about 2 or 3 ship lengths so it is quite quick to respond and in the worst case they simply stop the boat.

The sea got up a lot last night and it seems we were rolling in every direction simultaneously. Sometimes the rolls were very marked. I couldn’t help but ponder the effectiveness of spotting growlers by eye in rough seas at night. Consequently, I didn’t get much sleep. It’s 09.50, I will now get a coffee and have a shower, then I will go berg spotting.

…its now about 1500 and I spent a good 1.5 hours after lunch on the monkey deck watching icebergs. We are apparently traversing a belt of ice and then we move into the pack ice. There is now ice everywhere. At one point I saw a thin white line on our horizon (about 4km), I thought it might be the oncoming pack ice but it was just a large collection of growlers floating together. The boat altered course about 5 degrees to avoid it and then came back once we passed. Right now, I think we are just on 60 degrees south. This afternoon we are going to discuss some ideas First Born has about documentation and read some of the tech manuals.

12 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctica expedition 2006-07

Today is a smooth day on the seas. Last night got a bit rough with the ship taking some swells across its sides, causing the boat to roll quite a bit. The I-TASC crew are meeting in the ship’s library to start the tech planning. The Automatic Weather Station (AWS) looks really good, and the deployment plan looks also very interesting. None of us has experience with any of the electrical (solar), weather instruments, or HF radio components, but that’s just a challenge. Looks like we can do it. I am mostly concerned that we can get it installed in time. At least today First Born and Tom managed to get some of the sensors working with the weather data logging application.

Before lunch, I strolled up to the ‘monkey bridge’ which is at the very top of the ship and a good site for watching birds and looking for wildlife. Often there are albatross cruising behind and around the ship. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some when I spied a pod of Orca cruising past about 300 metres from the boat. They were beautiful. I think the pack numbered about 8 or 9. Before that, in the morning, the birdwatchers that stay most of their time on the monkey bridge had seen a humpback whale.

Today we also entered the ‘ferocious 50s’ (50 degrees latitude). It’s getting colder and there is a soft haze reducing visibility to about 1 km. Tomorrow we might see some icebergs, according to the ship’s crew. There is a really large one ahead of us, apparently. I think I will spend most of the days on the monkey deck to see what I can spy.

I am feeling quite used to the ship now and also feeling quite ‘normal’ after several days of hazy sea-induced giddiness. Consequently, I miss being in touch with people off the boat. The BGAN terminal we use mainly for uploading the website updates gives some limited contact, but I will try and make some calls in the next days from the ship’s (expensive) satellite phone.

Before lunch, I also had a good talk with Tom about why we are going to Antarctica. Tom feels very strongly that by having a presence at the base we can influence some of the technological choices that the base may make. The AWS might be a good model (for example) for showing how solar panels could power other equipment at the base, rather than SANAE using diesel for generating electricity. I think Tom is in a good situation to put these ideas forward and to possibly link the contacts he has with the solar panel developers to the SANAE people. It was good, however, also to hear that it might be that I-TASC focuses more on this kind of role than on establishing a new base on the continent. This sounds more interesting to me than the idea of establishing a stand-alone base. Although Tom is ideally suited to the task of influencing the decision-making processes for tech strategy in the areas of renewable energy etc, I am not sure on how many other people from the proposed I-TASC crews could fulfill this role.