Southern Ocean

February 24th, 2009
Sorry for the delay, Ross is sending these from the ship. Steve (admin)

S66 20 W 0

We’ve left Antarctica, crossing the Antarctic Circle early this morning and steaming swiftly north (well, 12.5 knots is pretty brisk for the Agulhas).  The last summer expeditioners were flown onboard from SANAE by helicopter on the morning of the 21st, leaving officials from the VIP visit still waiting for better weather to catch their flight out of Antarctica via Novo by fixed-wing.  A tense moment passed: as the helicopter neared the ship where it lay in the lee of the ice-shelf, a bank of thick fog rolled off the Blaskimen Ice Rise and swallowed us in greyness, but a quick deviation to the west found a clear patch of beautiful sunlight and the Kamov  landed without hitch.  With a few blasts on the ship’s horn to the overwintering team left on the shelf, the Agulhas turned northeast and began picking her way through the remaining pack-ice.
Most of the day was spent steaming through beautiful pancake ice.  This is reminiscent of large water-lilies; as the sea surface freezes in the cold night, sheets of ice form which bump into each other, becoming round with slightly raised edges.  Against the dark blue of the water, they look beautifully white and delicate, but after we saw a pair of skuas land thereupon and easily stay afloat I began to think otherwise!

According to satellite imagery, a last 30-mile band of pack-ice lay between us and the open sea.  We sailed north-east to pass through a less intense area, and then once free of the multi-year ice turned west to regain the Greenwich Meridian.  The return voyage follows the ‘Goodhope Transect’, an oceanographic research course: zero degrees longitude from Antarctica to 40 south, then a northeast dogleg into Cape Town.  Despite seeing many beautiful icebergs, the sea ice itself was easy to navigate, and we have now reached open but delightfully smooth waters and are making excellent speed.  Several albatrosses are to be seen effortlessly skimming over the waves or riding the easy lift above the bridgehouse – an excellent omen for our voyage.

Homeward Bound

February 22nd, 2009

There was a whirlwind of activity today (20 Feb) at the base, mostly in preparation for a VIP visit.  The new Neumayer III (German) research station was being commissioned, and many bigwigs were  flown in to the continent to attend, including our own SA Minister of Science and Technology and the director of the SA National Antarctic Programme – my boss.  Germany one of our closest Antarctic neighbours and research allies, and thus plans were made to bring many of the dignitaries to SANAE IV after the Neumayer opening, to allow them to visit the base and experience some good SA hospitality.  A much awaited dinner (including calamari and shrimp… wow) was organised, but this being Antarctica, reality was not well aligned with the plans of men.  In the end, the dignitaries arrived by Basler and helicopter in the early afternoon and were gone by evening.  So too was I.

We had expected to fly out tomorrow morning (21 Feb), but with the alterations and a falling barometer a decision was taken to make the first of three flights with the Kamov helicopter today.  At the 11th hour, one of my team who was scheduled for the flight had a problem with a data download, and so at short notice I bit the bullet and substituted myself and the patient who needed to fly with me.  Before I could get my head around the fact that I was leaving I was watching SANAE drop away in the small window of the Kamov.  I had planned a bit of time alone, out on the ice, to contemplate what it meant to be leaving, to say goodbye to the continent, and to soak up the last moments of the magnitude of the place, and yet there I sat in the cramped aircraft amidst hastily packed baggage, thoughts in disarray.  Only tonight, standing on the monkey-bridge of the ship and watching the sickle moon rise over the ice shelf have I had moments for contemplation.  While little lithe Wilson’s Petrels whirled through the dark air, clucking impatiently at my silence, I breathed the breeze coming to the ship off the shelf, and let the reality soak through me – I am leaving. Homeward bound, I suppose, although its hard for me to think of ‘home’ when this place has sustained me and nourished my soul for almost 14 continuous months.  SANAE and Antarctica have been everything a home is, in essence – a place of security, family, shelter; a base, a point to orbit; a resting place for the heart.  Leaving is bittersweet: I have much to look forward to in South Africa, but the piece of me that felt such belonging the first day I set foot in Antarctica knows that I will always long for the ice.

More fieldwork – Lorentzenpiggen

February 19th, 2009
Fieldwork... bliss in the middle of nowhere

Fieldwork... bliss in the middle of nowhere

I’m waaaaaaaaaay behind with writing some good posts about all the fieldwork that we did this summer, and so I’m just going to make some brief posts with pictures and maybe short descriptions to give a passing impression.  I’ve just updated the post on the first trip (to Flarjuven, when we had to pull out due to bad weather) with some new photographs, so start there.

The next field trip was to the nearby nunatak of Lorentzenpiggen, which forms a distictive part of the skyline to the south of SANAE IV.  The geomorphologists (aka ‘Geos’) wanted to survey the area for specific types of features.  They have several research projects on the go, and are also collecting data for colleagues back in South Africa.  Many of the nunataks have not been surveyed in detail by geomorrphs, so there was a element of exploration to the expedition.  Nunantak lucky pack…

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