Saturday 25th February 2012

The swell is increasing. Part of the sky is overcast and it is snowing, while in another part of the sky, the sun is shining! The swell is already about 4 to 6m (12 to 18 feet). 

The weatherman predicts that we will be rocking and rolling in the next days, as there are a few storm fronts moving through this area. He showed me that if we had been two days later in departing, we would have been caught in a huge storm with winds in excess of 50 knots. We will however, still get caught by the 40 knot winds once or twice.

(This large ice berg reminds me of lemon meringue pie!)

(Snowstorm at sea)

Friday 24th February 2012 – A whale of a day!

This morning, for hours on end, there were literally dozens of whales all around us  -  I did not know where to look first!  I confess that I am not very good at whale identification, but after poring over my guide book, I think it safe to say we saw humpbacks, sperm whales and Southern Right whales. There may have been a few minkies there too. Some of them were very close to the ship. In all the excitement of seeing whales popping up everywhere, I unfortunately did not manage to take very good photographs!

(Gotcha! I think these are Minkies)

Later on in the day, we passed a ‘black’ iceberg.  In fact, about half of it was a blueish- black colour and half was white . I think that as the submerged part eroded away in the water, it became top-heavy and must have tipped over, thus exposing the blue-black portion from below. It was the first time I had seen something like that. For what it was worth, I did ask the officer of the watch if we could sail a bit closer to take a better look at it…. My request did not even vaguely pique his interest. In fact, he looked at me as though I were mad. Pity.  It was worth a try, though.

(Black iceberg with Sooty Albatross in foreground over a steel-grey ocean)

(A weathered ice berg with beautifully-rounded edges)

(Silver horizon, with the dark shadow of the storm cloud looming above)

(Black and blue sky and silver horizon glows in the distance)

(Oops, I meant to publish this photo earlier. It is of the last sunset in the ice. The beam of light is extraordinary!)


Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Home we go!

(Again, for this post, all photos are courtesy of the webcam at the Neumayer base)

I think it is about 17h00. The chopper has just landed after dropping its last load on the front deck of the Little Red Boat. The crew rushes past me, where I am standing outside on the walkway, port side. They are animated and excitedly slapping each other on the back.

(An animation of the loading seen from Neumayer – the cargo sled is bottom left (photos from 07:00-18:00)

I ask: "Hey guys, what's up? "

They reply: "The Captain has given the order: prepare the ship for seafaring."

That's it: we are on our way home.

One of the young crew members says to me: "Soon, I will be home, I'll see Table Mountain, my house, my bed and my girlfriend in it."

The ice is dense. Pancake ice surrounded by smallish floes. One lone, beautiful blue iceberg on the horizon.  The ship is moving past it, seemingly faster and faster. Perhaps that is just my imagination. I check the heading on the pc inside the lounge:  we are going North. Within minutes the ice starts thinning out. We will be in the open water soon.

Northward, homeward.

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Morning loading

Wonders never cease! The weather is still good enough to fly! Our one chopper is flying cargo from the ice shelf to the ship. It's a long haul for the pilots, Tjaart and Bees and the engineer, John. Their dedicated support crew stands by on the heli deck and in the hangar, ready to perform whatever needs to be done at each touchdown. It's freeeezzzzing out there. A cargo flight takes about an hour round trip, as the load is heavy and the ship is far from the ice shelf. The pack ice is too thick for the ship to get closer to the ice shelf, and I am guessing that the captain does not want to risk getting stuck in the ice at any cost!

The ice is thick around here, and getting thicker. All around us there is 'pancake ice', i.e. the new ice that is forming as winter approaches. It is quite beautiful.  Imagine a roundish, semi-translucent piece of floating ice, of which the edges are slightly raised and more solid-looking and white. Some pieces are as small as a saucer and others, the size of a small coffee table. I wish I could film it over a period of days to see how each little molecule actually gets added to the bulk until it grows into a floe. Plenty of seals are floating about on top of the ice floes. Generally, they just ignore us. Penguins? Sadly, I have not seen any in a while. It's cold outside. I love to stand on the deck and watch the sea of ice around me heave and give way as the ocean swell beneath it rises and dips.

Saturday 18th February 2012 – Waiting. Still.

We have been on the ship for about 10 days already. Actually, I have lost count  – I think it is more than that. Sailing East then West, biding time and staying clear of the pack ice while waiting. Sometimes, turning South to see if there is access to the ice shelf so that the back-loading of the ship may commence.

It is a waiting game. Wait for the storm to pass. Wait for the wind to lie down. Wait for the wind to blow harder. Wait for the ice to melt. Wait for the wind to change direction from easterly to southerly. Then we wait for it to blow the pack ice away from the ice shelf . Wait for clear weather so that the choppers can fly.

Down here, you learn to wait. It seems that we have been granted ample waiting time in which to perfect the art of waiting. The difference, I have discovered, is that down here the waiting is not measured in minutes or hours, but in days and weeks. It has taken me quite a shift in mindset to cope with this.

It could be worse, though. Like in 'the old days', when the waiting was counted in years and months. In those days, when a ship got stuck down here, it was a long wait, often 18 months or two years, sometimes even longer, before they would be on their way home again!

Just wait and see, I am sure there will be a few surprises yet!

Thursday 16th February 2012 – Ice

The Captain gets satellite images regularly. However, even the satellite images of the ice conditions don't always help very much. For example, they don't show the vertical thickness of the ice, nor do they show if the ice is what is called 'first year ice' or multiple year ice. First year ice is freshly formed ice from the current season. It is relatively soft and fairly easy to break through. Ice that is a composite of first and second year ice is harder, but can still be attempted, depending. And with extra caution. Ice that is older than 2 years is going to stop the Little Red Boat dead in her tracks. The only way to really know what ice you are dealing with is to sail right up to it and take a look at it. Clearly, this can be risky and can lead you into a dead end, costing time and diesel.

'Polynas' ( I think this is a Russian word) are open leads or patches of blue water between the floes of pack ice. This is what the Captain looks for, and they are not always shown that clearly on satellite images, apart from the fact that they change continuously.

The wind and the tides can and do have a huge effect on the distribution of the ice. I have often stared for hours at the vast expanse of white around the ship. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that it is solid, immovable. However, the heaving swell of the Southern Ocean is merely subdued, and not eliminated by the weight of the seemingly solid cloak of ice floating on top. The wind and tides move these masses of ice around constantly. I have often been amazed at how fast it all can happen.

Another  issue is that we are heading for winter. Thus, the tendency is for the ice to become more and to get thicker and harder. This means that our window of opportunity for back-loading the ship is becoming smaller and smaller. We might just have to leave some things behind, up there on the ice.

This is Antarctica and ANYTHING is possible! You just never know for sure what's going to happen, until it happens. Believe me, I will let you know when IT  happens!

Tuesday 14th February 2012 – Valentine’s Day

Update on situation down here: no news.

We are out at sea somewhere, clear of the big ice. Grey stormy weather, nothing major, but no possibility of flying today. The wind will be increasing to about 35 knots (70km/hr) and the bad weather might only clear by Saturday. Yesterday, the pilots reported seeing  a clear band of water near the ice shelf but no way for the ship of getting there, as the ice was too thick between the ship and the clear water.

There is some cargo aboard ship that must be offloaded onto the ice shelf and there is plenty of cargo on the ice that must be brought aboard. Yesterday, the pilots managed to fly three round trips. It could have been more, had it not been for the fact that the ship was about 12 miles from the ice shelf and the Summer Station where many of the goods are that need to be collected is a further 8 miles from there. That means that each trip was 40 miles (about 70km), return. When slinging a load of about 1,5 tons under the chopper, the going is rather slow. It also requires frequent refueling. This takes time. Good weather does not always last as long as one needs it to.

Nothing is simple in Antarctica. No, that is incorrect, let me restate that: Human activities and human attempts at  mastering Nature in Antarctica are never simple and I dare add, seldom successful. I think that Antarctica itself is very simple in many ways:  water in different forms, rocky mountain outcrops, sky, wind. Wide open space. Simple, perfect beauty.

I watched the chopper as it hovered above the ship's front deck while the ship's crew hooked a load of cargo onto the end of the cargo sling, a steel cable of 7m to 10m in length. They flew off to the ice shelf and more than an hour later, came into view again as they approached the ship with a different load dangling below. Watching them fly over the ice and ocean with a load swinging beneath them actually made me feel anxious for their safety. It just seemed that there was too much that could go too wrong, too easily. What if they had to land in an emergency? The water is not an appetizing landing spot.

One of the other pilots (whose chopper is broken) was also watching the flying operations. I asked him if it that type of flying was as scary as it looks. His response was that it looked scary to me because I am not a pilot. Ha, ha. I did not really believe that.  Seeing my look of disbelief, he conceded that such flying is intense and quite challenging, but enjoyably so. Are these guys adrenaline junkies or what?

Thursday 9th February 2012 – Waiting.

Yes, we are just biding time, waiting for the weather to clear. Outside, it is misty, mysterious, grey. The snow comes and goes. Visibility increases and then disappears almost altogether. The size of the swell depends on the intensity of the storm and the wind speed, which has been ranging between 35 to 45 knots. We are moving through a 'family' of storms and are currently in storm number three.

Hopefully, the wind will change direction soon and instead of blowing the ice to precisely where we don't want it to be, i.e. to the ice shelf, it will blow it away from the ice shelf, thus enabling us to reach the ice shelf. Then the labour-intensive task of back loading may commence. Some people are using this time aboard the Little Red Boat to catch up on reading.  Some are overdosing on movies. Others are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. And others complain of being bored out of their minds. Of course, there are a few who are working.

Personally, this is a difficult time. My subconscious mind thinks that being back on the ship means that I am on my way home. The enthusiastic movement of the ship in the swell emphasizes the feeling of moving FORWARD (in this case, Northwards) and home. I feel mounting excitement at the prospect of being re-united with my family. But then I have to keep reminding myself that all this movement is going nowhere. We are just sailing around in circles, waiting for the weather to improve and the ice to blow away, so that we can reach the ice shelf

Monday 6th February 2012

Within a few days the storm blew away and the blue sky re-appeared. The first flight carrying passengers from SANAE base back to the ship, departed on Sunday afternoon. There never was a second flight that day, thereby giving me one last night at the base.

I consider the spectacular moonrise that I witnessed on Sunday night as my parting gift from the continent. That was rounded off by a captivating sunrise that saw me on top of the roof of the base for hours.

At about 7am this morning, a group of us was instructed to be ready to depart from SANAE at 07h45.  We flew over crevasses that are big enough to swallow a bus or two. The tracks of the Cat Train were clearly visible from above and glistened like snakes in the sun.  The endless variety of shapes, patterns and textures in the snow had a calming effect on my tumultuous emotions. On the one hand, there is the excitement of being one step closer to being reunited with my family and on the other, the difficulty of parting with this continent.

We received a warm welcome from all those who had remained on the ship while we were away at SANAE.  A few whales even popped up, which I took as a good sign. The chopper, a Bell 212, was refueled so that it could fly another transport. As it started to lift off, it suffered an undercarriage cross tube failure and as a result, it won't be able to fly again during this voyage. Once the disabled chopper had been safely stored in the hangar, the second chopper could come in to land on the helicopter deck. Earlier on, they had landed at Neumayer Station (the German base, near our Summer Station) to wait for the disabled chopper to be cleared off the deck. This chopper then flew to Summer Base on the ice shelf a few times to collect the people who had, at long last, arrived there by Cat Train, after a very trying journey of about 37 hours. It was great to welcome them back to civilization and to hear tales of their overland journey.

The ship's next challenge is to get alongside the ice shelf to start the back-loading process. While that is taking place, the last group of passengers will ride the Cat Train from SANAE to the ice shelf to meet up with the ship and to load up some of the vehicles.