Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Last moments

Some of the last images I took on the 22nd before we turned home:

(Chopper bringing the last cargo load)

(John, flight engineer, checking on the load below)

(The alluring glow of blue ice)

(Pancake ice  -  the new ice of the coming winter  -  covered in fresh snow)

(Icebergs on a silver horizon)

(Blue ice berg, close-up)

(Pancake ice that has turned a bit 'brashy', up close)

(Panorama of pancake ice in all its diversity)

(Close-up of pancake ice, like overlapping crystalline petals floating on top of the ocean)

(Stages of development from water, to pancake ice to pack ice)

(Two crabeater seals emerge from a gap in the pack ice)

(Silken, sleek hunter, totally at home in this ice world)

(This sunset holds promise…)

(The promise is fulfilled -  our last, glorious sunset in the pack ice)

(Moonrise over the open sea, after turning homewards)

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.

Monday 20th February 2012 – NEWS FLASH!

The weather is clearing up here, at long last. We hope that tomorrow will be 'flying weather'. The priorities are to bring the 19 passengers aboard, then their personal luggage, and then whatever cargo can be flown aboard, i.e. the stuff that has been identified as most important. The rest of the cargo will have to remain on the ice until December. I believe that while we wait aboard ship for the flying weather to arrive, the vehicles that will be left behind here (in Antarctica) are being stored inside the old Neumayer 2 base, which is buried under the ice. It is located a few meters from the Summer Station, where the rest of our passengers are holed up.

In fact, when the Germans vacated Neumayer 2 to move into the brand new Neumayer 3 base (about 8 km inland)  in approximately 2009, they said that SANAP could have the containers that made up the living area inside their old base, but we would have to extricate them from the base at our effort. This was done in one season, to the utter astonishment of some, who had thought that it would take about 3 seasons to achieve. Thus, our Summer Station was built on top of a metal frame, using the old German containers for the living areas.

I understand that the Germans at Neumayer 3 have very kindly offered to help open up a certain access point to their old base, where our vehicles can be parked and stored until the ship returns in December. There is a big trap door that must be lifted to gain access, but first, all the snow on top of it must be removed.  The Germans aboard our ship will also hopefully, fly tomorrow. They need to fly to Neumayer 3 to collect 1,5 tons of geological rock samples to bring aboard.  It is possible that they may help to fly passengers from our Summer Station to the ship.  Their choppers are quite a lot smaller, only being able to carry about 4 passengers at a time. However, at this stage of the game, every bit helps.

But, as I have said so many times, this merely  'the plan'. The Weather will call the shots, as always.

NEWS FLASH:  We have just been informed that the ship will turn homewards on Wednesday. If all goes well, the loading will take place tomorrow and will be completed on Wednesday and then we will head back to Cape Town…!!!!!!

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?

Monday 13th February 2012 – Progress

At long last: 'flying weather' has arrived. 'Flying weather' requires almost perfect visibility. This has been pretty darn rare around here over the past few weeks. But, this morning was pretty amazing: The chopper took off early and returned shortly thereafter with a load of our personal belongings, which had been transported overland from SANAE to the ice shelf by Cat train. The excitement in the air was almost palpable. Many of us have been without most of our clothing and personal items since returning to the ship from SANAE, as we were flown to the ship and could not bring much personal  baggage on the flight. It will be quite nice to wear a different pair of shoes and T-shirt!

Today, for the first time in quite a while, I felt that something was moving, that there was PROGRESS!  It seems that I am not the only one who feels that way. The energy on the ship has changed dramatically. I feel an air of optimism. Let's hope the reasons for optimism remain intact!

(The one remaining helicopter arriving at Neumayer – captured on their webcam)

Sunday 12th February 2012 – Plans, changes

We're still biding our time, waiting for the weather to clear.

If necessary, some things will have to stay behind on the ice until next year. Certain scientists are already planning to repack their cargo from one big container into lots of smaller ones, so that they can be airlifted to the ship. It looks like Sunday afternoon will be clear enough for flying and hopefully, the loading will commence then.

Nobody knows.

We have two very competent captains driving this ship and I have full confidence in their ability to make the right decision, when the time presents itself. They don't like to 'get ahead' of themselves. They never commit too far into the future, I saw that on the way here. They like to wait and see a bit, because down here, things change all the time. You never know what might happen. I did hear someone say that one of the captains said 'we float well but we don't crush well', meaning that he does not want to stay here long enough to get crushed by the ice. Winter is approaching, and getting crushed is a reality.

Also, food might get a bit scarce on the ship if we stay down here much longer.

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.