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Into the Tempest

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

S59 40′ W 0 01′

Good old charts – the kind with inscriptions like ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ and ‘There be Dragons’ – often have similarly romantic slogans written in the margin of the mid-latitudes: ‘Zona Tempestua’ decorates the one hanging in my room. The Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties have earned their reputations, and are to be respected, but my innate love of the wild fills me with a perverse joy in anticipation of heavy seas. Indeed, the ocean has treated us tenderly so far… one wonders if it is the calm before the storm.

We left the ice-pack behind, but not the ice. Bergs large and small continue to appear regularly on the radar and over the horizon; some white, tabular and enormous, other deep blues streaked with black in unlikely shapes. Just before sunset last night we passed one shaped uncannily like an Origami swan, glowing under the brooding sky. We passed rapidly through the 60’s, steaming consistently at 12.5 knots through flats seas yesterday, but today awoke to strengthening winds and choppy waters. The swells are still negligible and the chop insufficient to cause major pitch or roll of the vessel, but nonetheless bear their own danger. Big ice-bergs are easy to see and avoid, but the little growlers – small bergs that barely break the surface and are invisible on radar – are hidden very easily by chop and white-horses. Every now and then, as I sit in the hospital near the stern, I feel the ship heel suddenly over as the officer of the watch makes a sudden correction to avoid a chunk of ice which will _probably_ bounce off the strengthened hull but _could_ hurt her. Still, we rather steam fast now while the sea is still friendly… the Fifties lie ahead.

Tonight is wonderfully dark. The thick cloud overhead has extinguished every hint of star- or moonilight, and the sea has no luminescence. My habit is to circle the decks as I climb from level to level on my way to the bridge, to make the most of the opportunity for exercise, but tonight I moved only by feel, barely able to discern the railings to which my hands froze and eyes wide to absorb any hint of light but blinking rapidly to clear the hard-blown snow. The monkey-deck above the bridge – the highest deck on the ship, completely exposed to the elements – was eerie, pitch black and battered by the wind. My hair was soon full of snow, and clad only in a thin fleece I had to retreat after a few minutes to the quiet warmth of the bridge. There, the still glow of the radar and a few other instruments served only to highlight the darkness; the mate on watch, hearing the door open and close but no other movement, nervously let off a soft “Hello?” after a minute or two and was patently relieved when I identified myself as mortal and no harpy Neptune sent to claim him for the deep. The radar showed what our eyes couldn’t; nine large bergs floated ahead within less than two miles, all on our course.

Due to the vagaries of wind and current, 55 to 60 degrees south is known as the ‘iceberg belt’, where bergs slowly circumnavigate Antarctica in great concentration. Add the tempestuous reputation of the Fifties and you have a great danger to vessels. Thus, we place a great deal of trust in the officers of the good Agulhas to find us a safe passage and not let their attention wander through the dark night. As I write the pitch and roll of the ship increases; at these latitudes there is no land anywhere around the globe to interrupt the ocean swells, and they too roll around the earth in magnitude unmatched elsewhere. Antarctica and her ice, despite the cold, have sheltered us; safe port now lies very far ahead, and with only the wild sea between.

Southern Ocean

Tuesday, 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

Sunday, 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.