Join an Australian Oceanographic campaign on board the Icebreaker Aurora Australis. Over five weeks sailing from Hobart (Tasmania) to the frozen Commonwealth Bay (Antarctica) and back to Fremantle (Western Australia), you will meet icebergs, tourists, storms and Adélie penguins.
As I mentioned in the past, an Oceanographic research campaign consists of a series of locations – or sampling stations – at which scientists collect data. In order to establish time-series with these data, sampling stations must be re-sampled over time. During this campaign we re-sampled two major Oceanographic lines part of the WOCE – World Ocean Circulation Experiment – called SR3 (on the way down) and I9S (on the way up). This is why we spent so many days in the middle of the ocean, instead of playing on the ice with penguins. A tour operator preparing a tourist cruise in Antarctica and looking at the map of our daily position at noon (below) might think this was the dumbest plan ever. Especially the way back to Fremantle.
Despite not being a tourist cruise, an Oceanographic campaign is still an occasion to see beautiful things and when not working, behave like a real tourist, taking pictures of everything that moves or doesn’t. No one will make fun of you because everybody does it. Some might still smile at you if you have more than two cameras around your neck, but it is understandable. In addition to its scientific goals, this campaign was the occasion to celebrate the centenary of Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, a celebration for which historians, policy scientists and journalists joined us on this trip. A lucky few even went to Mawson’s Hut where a ceremony was held, including some flag raising, speech giving and – well-deserved – Australian pride. In addition, we had, like in the good old times, an artist on-board; award-winning Australian Wendy Sharpe was the expedition’s artist, she was lovely and lively – as long as the ship was steady – and produced some great pieces during the trip. A last point worth mentioning, and that most oceanographers care about, is that the Aurora Australis is a ‘dry ship’. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you must bring lots of moisturising cream, instead it means ‘no booze’. Or maybe once or twice for special occasions, which gives a very different dynamic between crew members and scientists, compared to ships like the Canadian Icebreaker Amundsen, on-board which occasions to bond are plentiful. Things still went extremely well, and my wife and I (I was assisting her Carbon team) met some wonderful people among crew members, scientist and doctors on-board.
Hobart to Commonwealth Bay: Going South
Because the Antarctic continent is spinning at a pole and is not connected to other continents, the largest ocean current in the world flows – clockwise – around it; the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This means that any ship going to Antarctica is doomed to be hit sideways by winds and waves. The way South wasn’t as rough as I expected. We had a few stormy days, but nothing big, just enough to remind us that everything must be attached, tied down, screwed, glued, duct-taped, or velcroed. This is true in labs and cabins, for scientific instruments and cameras.
Soon after seeing the first pieces of ice, we met a tourist cruise ship. Some, probably quite wealthy, tourists were put on zodiacs to see us from closer. I guess at that point, from their perspective, we were some other curiosity in their trip worth taking some photos of. It turned out the opposite was also true, and we ended up taking photos of each other in silence. After a moment of awkwardness, they returned to their boat, we returned to our labs.
Pieces of ice got bigger and bigger as we were going south, until the day we reached the frozen Commonwealth Bay. A spot was chosen and was hit repeatedly with the icebreaker until a nice and tight parking spot was created. We were going to stay there only for 5 days.
Luckily, I had a Lomokino (with a Power-winder) during this trip. Unluckily, it broke soon after we reached Commonwealth Bay. The poor thing didn’t agree with below zero temperatures.
I still managed to get something out of it, over the first part of the mission.
Commonwealth Bay: Home to Adélie penguins
Our stay in the frozen commonwealth Bay was peaceful. Being stuck in the ice makes the ship very stable, complete nights of sleep are guaranteed. At this point, a lot of people unseen before emerged from their cabins after days of colourful gastrointestinal adventures, back when the ship was rocked on the way south. I’m not making fun of anyone here, this happens.
While being stuck at the edge of the frozen Commonwealth bay, we had in front of us the coastline of Antarctica and behind us large pieces of sea-ice and icebergs passing-by in what seemed to be a constant ballet of frozen wonders and white cathedrals.
Soon after we arrived, Adélie penguins Pygoscelis adeliae, came to take a look at us. Our big red ship was probably visible from far away and they might have come out of pure curiosity. They might also have chosen that spot, just like I guess we did, because of its vicinity to the coast. In any case, the number of penguins increased constantly and we found ourselves surrounded by busy and noisy birds.
I cannot imagine anyone seeing a penguin for a first time without smiling. There is something about these creatures that makes them simply funny. For instance, their way of running with their wings open, slipping on the ice, getting up, falling again, giving up on walking and just gliding on their bellies while pushing with their feet, makes them hard to take seriously. Every once in a while, they extend their neck, like if they wanted to look at you from a different angle, and suddenly look like any plain bird but without real wings, a bit like poultry. It would be tempting to be amazed at their day-to-day bravery in the rough conditions they live in, running around naked and jumping into the coldest ocean of the planet. They are however adapted to their environment, and running around naked protected by a good layer of fat covered with nice feathers is probably more comfortable than what we might imagine (with our poor skinny hairless bodies). They also have well-insulated feet which are so big that if you were to lend them to a pigeon, you would need to find a huge one, or he couldn’t fly.
Apparently, because of the limited number of predators penguins encounter on the ice (it’s another story in the water), they are quite fearless and curious. Our instructions before getting on the ice were not to walk towards them and stay within a certain distance. Turned out there was need to tell us not to chase them, they would come to us running, try and taste our boots and pants with a complete disregard of our larger size. They would look at everything we would leave on the ice as a new wonder, would come and listen to our conversations, sometimes try and participate to them, and other times just fall asleep next to us.
Sometimes, in a disorderly manner, some would start fighting, picking each other with their beaks, slapping each other with their wings and try and look intimidating by raising a sort of feather crest on their heads. At this point you really can’t avoid laughing. Except if you’re a penguin specialist who has been looking at them for the last 30 years.
There is one thing for which penguins are not laughable, something in which they excel and for which they truly deserve admiration: their swimming ability. As birds, they weren’t designed for it, they learned it the hard way and they do it beautifully. Seen from over the surface, they are like teams of little torpedos jumping in and out of the water, with a speed and ease that anyone who likes swimming would envy. They also jump back on the ice, spend a last second of grace in the air, before landing more or less successfully and returning to their looks of slippery poultry.
A day in the life of an Adélie penguin seems quite demanding. They run in groups, back and forth between the ocean, where they forage, and their in-shore colony, where they bring to their chicks delicious regurgitated meals. They sometime hang out on the ice edge, sleeping or just waiting, times at which you can’t help but wonder if they are actually taking a break from their noisy and stinky colony. Most of the time they still seem very busy, running from point A to point B without caring about you at all.
A Zodiac ride
Before leaving the Commonwealth Bay, those of us who didn’t have the chance to go on land for the Mawson’s centenary celebration, were offered a zodiac ride along the ice edge, not too far from the ship. It was overcast, there wasn’t much wind and the surface of the ocean reflected the low sun. It was a pretty ride, with a nice feeling of being far from home, finally quiet, away from the constant noise of the ship’s engines.
The Return: From Icebergs to a blazing sun
After taking precautions (fixing down everything that could fall), we were finally freed from the ice and started our long way home.
On our way, we met with very large pieces of ice.
The way home was long and busy, and as usual, each half of a given research team worked 12-hour shifts. After a short time going through smaller and smaller pieces of ice, ice was gone and the air temperature rose progressively. One night we went through a storm, everything was flying around, and I was told that during one particular hit, we came 2° away from the point of no return of the ship, the point after which the ship is so tilted it could fall on its side.
This image was taken during the storm by one of the ship’s cameras:
This campaign was a great adventure I will remember dearly when I’ll be old. I have no idea if I’ll ever sail again on the Southern Ocean, I hope so. If not, I’ll look at my photos and sigh nostalgically, that’s what they are here for.