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E-mails from Antarctica (1)

 

 

Email Chris at chris_sml@hotmail.com

 

For emails from Fiona click here.

 

Thursday 15 November

 

I am sending this to you from a cyberplace in Christchurch. I met up with two of the group, Mary and Jocasta, on the flight down. We were picked up at the airport by a rep from Antarctica NZ and taken to their HQ where we spent about an hour trying on clothing for size. Much of the clothing is similar to tramping clothing with a few exceptions. There is no rain gear for obvious reasons. The outer layer of clothing is much warmer than what would be worn tramping. The two pairs of boots we all received are not designed for tramping. One pair, Sorels, is designed for wet conditions and has a lower part covered with rubber. They have a thick felt liner for warmth. The other pair, Mukluks, is even warmer but have a leather exterior. They come with a quilted inner boot and a thick inner sole. Certainly the biggest, warmest pair of boots I have ever worn! Finally I got some work clothes: overalls and leather gloves. Altogether this clothing took up two bags.

 

After getting this clothing we were shown a short video about looking after Antarctica: waste disposal and so on. Also got a booklet detailing the research groups at Scott Base. I was pleased to see that we were the first in the booklet! Other handouts covered first aid and the sort of thing that was in the video, only in more detail.

 

Finally we were dropped off at out hotel in the city centre. We checked in and walked into Cathedral Square where we ate lunch and listened to the famous wizard before going off to buy chocolate, wet wipes, and any last minute items. Security at Auckland airport had stopped Mary taking her Swiss army knife with her (it was in her hand luggage) so she needed to buy something to replace that.

 

Tomorrow we will get picked up at 6 am for a 6.30 am check-in and a 9 am flight on a Hercules. Most of the passengers will be Americans, I am told, going to McMurdo rather than Scott Base. We need to keep a change of clothing out of our checked baggage in case the weather is too bad and we are boomeranged back to Christchurch.

 

So far the weather has been great. But tomorrow it will be a lot colder, even on the plane during the eight hour flight. Remember that I got two bags of clothing from Antarctica NZ. One of these bags of clothing contains the clothing I will wear on the plane! Must be cold! We also get earplugs because the plane is so noisy! And a packed lunch!

 

Will write again after I get to Scott Base. Provided I can get on a computer down there!

 

 

Friday 16 November

 

Well, here I am, still in Christchurch. The weather is fine, but the plane had mechanical problems. Last night we heard that the flight had been delayed by four hours. Then, this morning, another three-hour delay was added in. That would have meant an arrival time around midnight. Still light, but a long day for all concerned. So now the plan is that we check in at 6.30 am. We have met a few others who are also going down to do research: a small group of geologists from Otago University. However, their area of research is in the opposite direction to ours. Hopefully my next message will be from Scott Base. Yes, I know thatís what I said last time!

 

Saturday 17 November

 

Owing to mechanical problems with the Hercules the flight was postponed 24 hours. We had to change hotels to one nearer the airport. This was because of Cup Week in Christchurch. Lots of horse-racing, and lots of tourists. And not many hotels with vacancies. Anyway, this hotel had rooms with showers and TV, even a bit of Sky! We were told our check-in time would be 5.30 am. So, an early night was had by all.

 

Sunday 18 November

 

We drive ourselves out to Antarctica NZ in the minibus they have lent us. After the 5.30 am check-in we wander off to have breakfast and look at the other planes in the Antarctica area. There are two from the US and one from Italy. After this, we sit down and watch a video about surviving and generally doing it right in Antarctica. Of course, all the newcomers will need to do a two day training course on arrival anyway! Then itís a quick check with a drug-sniffing dog before getting on a bus to our plane. We are wearing our mukluks (our warmest boots), and quite a bit of warm clothing besides. Two pairs of salopettes over our longjohns, for example. It seems quite warm. The seats are just webbing seats, not very comfortable. There are four rows of seats running from fore to aft, the outer ones having their backs to the aircraft sides and facing the middle. The inner ones have their backs to the middle and face the aircraft sides.The hand luggage is stowed behind the webbed seat backs. The plane takes off. We put in our ear-plugs, provided specially for the seven hour flight. We really need them too! Some passengers sleep, others read, others check out the provided bagged lunch. It contains a lot of food, a bottle of water and a bottle of orange juice: dehydration is one of the problems in Antarctica because it is so dry. The video has warned us about this one. However, we also know that the toilet facilities consist of a bucket behind a curtain somewhere down the back of the plane. So not too much drinking goes on. After we reach altitude, there is an announcement which I can't decipher but it must have meant "unfasten your seatbelts" because a few old-timers immediately rush off and take up positions on top of the non-food cargo where they can really spread out. Actually, most of the cargo is food. I can see 24 boxes of bananas, and that's just the front of the first luggage pallet. There can be more than 1000 people at McMurdo in summer. Most of the passengers are Americans. Not surprising, since New Zealand's Scott Base only takes a maximum of 85. On the bus I had talked to an American astronomer who was going to the South Pole to do research at the American base there. I'm immediately envious.

 

After two and a half hours there is another announcement: we are turning back to Christchurch: bad weather around McMurdo. Some depression sets in. We head back to a fourth night in Christchurch. Just as we near Christchurch, the ice on the inside of the plane roof melts and we experience our first rain for some time. Our luggage is not unpacked because we will be on the plane again tomorrow morning. Luckily I have some civilian clothes in my carry-on luggage. We had been warned about boomerang flights. We head back to the hotel we left earlier this morning. Check-in tomorrow is 7.30 am.

 

 

 

Monday 19 November

 

Monday was a no-go day, as a spare part had to be flown down from Auckland for the Hercules. So we took ourselves to Antarctica NZ in the minibus they had lent us and practised roping up for glacier travel, crevasse extraction techniques, and so on. All in the warmth of a large indoor building. Then we visited the University and attempted to track down the Antarctic collection. In the end we bought a few more books at the bookshop, since we were all running out of reading matter.

 

Tuesday 20 November

 

Today we finally got airborne again, with a full complement of 60 passengers as well as some freight. The bananas must have gone down on another flight. Guess they must be more important than the people! Before the motors got revved up and we had to put our earmuffs on I talked to some US scientists who were off to camp on the slopes of Mt Erebus and explore its crater. One of the few volcanoes with a magma pool. Then it was a case of reading, eating and sleeping till our arrival in Antarctica. I managed to read a whole book, ďThe WhiteĒ, about the last days of the expeditions of Mawson (who survived) and Scott (who didnít). Amazing how much one can get done when there is no in-flight movie!

 

 

We were transported by pickup truck to Scott Base, enjoyed a fine and filling pasta meal and had a briefing followed by a tour of the base. Certainly a lot smaller than the American base (McMurdo) we drove by on the way here. As I write this it is 9.30 PM and the sun is still bright outside. And it will be for months. I guess that explains the shutters, not curtains, on the windows of our bedroom. Iím sharing a room with three others, and thatís pretty normal. During winter each person gets his or her own room.

 

 

Showers here are limited to a few minutes long in order to save fresh water. This water is extracted from seawater by reverse osmosis. However, there is a sauna that they have recently installed. Tomorrow we go out on the two-day Antarctic Field Training Course. A sauna could be just the story after that.

 

 

Wednesday 21 November

 

After trying to sleep with the sun shining outside, we wake to more brilliant weather, enjoy a big breakfast and report to Antarctic Field training (AFT) briefing with Lisa and Jim. All good stuff apart from the helicopter video that didnít seem so relevant and went from too much detail that we couldnít remember to too many messages about the importance of avoiding decapitation! Then it is off by tracked vehicle to the first venue where Lisa teaches us about self-arrests with an ice axe. We practise stopping ourselves while sliding down the slopes from every possible position. The scariest ones were head first on oneís back and somersaulting down the slope. Then we don crampons and harnesses and rope up. We walk around through glaciated terrain and try to spot the crevasses. Jim points out a few for us. Finally we descend via a steep ice slope, praying that the crampon points are sharp enough to dig into the particularly hard bit of ice.

 

After lunch we drive to tonightís camp spot. The only problem is, we have to build our houses. This we do by shoveling snow into a high dome, then digging into its interior to carve out a volume large enough for four people. Dinner is about 8 PM. We cook it using a kerosene heater that is preheated with meths. The low temperatures mean that even the meths needs two matches to set alight. Luckily there is no problem with darkness. And it is so cold that there are no drops of water coming from the roof of the snow cave onto our sleeping bags. Actually, we each have two bags, a Polar Inner and a Polar Outer, plus a protective cover. We retire to sleep about 11 PM, still wide-awake. It seems that with more sunshine, people need less sleep. Someone tells me that the winterĖover party have about 18 hours sleep a day.

 

Thursday 22 November

 

I have 6 hours sleep, then lie there for another hour and a half. We all fitted into the cave, which was something not all the groups did. And we all had a good sleep. Caves are better than tents, because the walls are thicker and therefore offer better insulation. All the same, virtually everything is frozen. Toothpaste, water in water-bottles, suntan lotion, and so on. Anything that has to stay unfrozen should be put inside oneís sleeping bag. Actually, my mittens are still icy and I put them inside my outer sleeping bag.

 

We head back to Scott Base, but the course isnít over yet. We learn about the survival bags. They contain enough food for three days, also a tent, a sleeping bag and a smaller version of the kerosene stove. We try out the stove and the tents. Finally we drive out onto some sea ice and learn about how to drive on it without falling through. This involves drilling holes in the ice to find how thick it is.

Back at base we warm up, have a short shower, have lunch, and clean up after AFT. Then we learn that we are out off again this afternoon, up to Cape Evans. This is a change of plan. Originally we were to have visited Cape Roberts. However, Cape Evans is near some of the historic huts and with a bit of luck I will be able to visit some of them in between catching, measuring and tagging fish!

 

 

Thursday 22 November Afternoon

 

Mary, Jocasta and I get a lift in a tracked vehicle called a Haaglund up to Cape Evans. Here we meet up with John and Mike. Just 100 m away from the research base (situated on the sea ice) we can see Scott's Terra Nova hut, the largest and almost certainly the most famous historic hut in Antarctica. Our sleeping quarters are further away, back on solid land. Even if the land is covered with snow and ice! Mary and Jocasta have a small hut. John and I each have a tent. Mike sleeps back at the research base, basically a container with a ranchslider as well as the normal insulated door at one end. From my tent, I take a short walk up to the top of Wind Vane Hill. Here there is a cross to the memory of three explorers who died. These explorers were part of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The party here had the task of laying food depots for the other party, led by Shackleton, coming through from the Weddell Sea. However, Shackleton's party had considerable trouble just staying alive after their ship Endurance was trapped and subsequently crushed in the ice. Shackleton's adventures as a result of this misfortune are about as famous as Scott's. From the cross I can also look down on Scott's "Terra Nova" hut. For the next ten days, we will be working within sight of this hut. It is incredible for me to be so close to this hut: I was raised on stories of Scott and Shackleton. After a fair bit of chocolate, quite a few hot drinks, and a filling meal, we retire to sleep at about 11PM. I've worked out that the sun at 1.30AM would be directly south. However, I don't have any plans to check this calculation!

 

Friday 23 November

 

I sleep for about nine hours in spite of the bright sunshine throughout the night. We have a hot breakfast and take the skidoos down to the fishing holes. The skidoos have a single ski at the front for steering and two tracks at the back for traction, and for spreading the weight on snow and ice. Steering involves leaning outwards to put more weight on the outer track. In this way, it is the opposite of riding a bike. Mike and John finish off drilling holes through the ice. There is about 30 cm of ice above the seawater. We know that 90% of floating ice is below sea level, so that makes the ice 3 m thick. Easily thick enough for the vehicles driving over it. In fact, ice is so strong that even 2 m of ice is enough to land a Hercules aircraft on!

 

The research involves catching fish with a hook, line and sinker. We use squid bait and hold it about 40 cm from the sea floor. We have to keep removing from our fishing holes the ice crystals that continuously build up. Fishing holes not being used are covered with a disc of black plastic that absorbs heat from the sun and minimises ice build-up. Once fish are caught, they are placed in a bucket of seawater with a lid on it so as to protect the fish from bright light. After half an hour or so we take the fish in to Mike who measures and weighs them. Fish caught last year are identified by tags put on them then. New fish are tagged. Scales are removed by tweezers for measurement. Then the fish are returned back to the same fishing hole by an ingenious bucket device which is lowered to the sea floor, then opened, then inverted so as to release the fish back to the location from which they came. The hooks don't have barbs on them so the fish can easily be freed from the hook. I catch fish at about a rate of one every five minutes, but then the supply seems to dry up. I have half an hour with no nibbles at all. They all seem to have migrated to John's hole! He is catching them about as fast as he can pull them from the water! At this stage the weather is getting worse. Just a small bit of wind makes a huge difference to how cold we feel. Mt Erebus is no longer visible. Jocasta and I head back to cook dinner. We finally eat about 9PM. As I go to bed at about 11PM and the wind whistles round my Scott-style Antarctic tent, I think a lot about Scott and the other explorers of a similar era. They didn't have all our modern-day equipment and the safety net of radio contact with Scott Base.

 

Saturday 24 November

 

The weather isn't good. Visibility is just enough to get me to the toilet shed. The wind is chilling. I find my waterbottle has frozen. I have put my boot inners, gloves and mittens in a net container that is situated in the highest and therefore the warmest part of the tent. My socks are inside my sleeping bag. Actually, the sleeping bags are so warm that I have slept in just the Polar Outer and used the Polar Inner underneath me for a bit of extra padding. We have a slow and warm breakfast while we decide what to do. John, Mike, Mary and Jocasta do a bit of sewing. Mike repairs Jocasta's tripod. It seems that the plastic became brittle and fractured in the cold conditions yesterday. I update my diary with the help of a laptop (always take the essentials when roughing it!). It is powered by a 12 V battery about the size of a motorbike battery. We have half a dozen of these. They are charged by a solar panel. The solar panel isn't much use today though! First, there isn't much sun. Second, the panel would quickly be covered with snow.

 

Mike and John head out to ream the fish-holes. Even if we do no fishing today, it is easier in the long run to keep the holes clear on a daily basis. Jocasta and I think about melting some more glacier ice for drinking water. The heat of the Optimus kerosene cookers will warm up our living quarters too. Now that we have stopped cooking, the room is cooling down rapidly.

 

After lunch we decide we had better do some fishing. I put on a few extra layers of clothing. When I am just sitting I am about the right temperature. As soon as I do anything like exercise I overheat. Luckily that is not too often! Dinner is at 8PM. I go to bed and read in my tent till after 11PM by sunlight.

 

Sunday 25 November

 

John and I move the solar panels to a better location. We also improve the angle of tilt. After this they deliver a charging current of 2 A to one of our batteries. We then go down to the sea-ice and ream out the holes. This involves using a large diameter motorised drill to redrill the first one metre. We then put extensions on the drill to ream the next 2 metres. We could do it using the motor but by hand is easy enough: the first one metre is the most iced up.

 

Being Sunday it is fam-trip (familiarisation trip) day. We receive a few haaglunds and similar vehicles carrying people from Scott Base and MacTown (MacMurdo). Sunday is their day off and it is their opportunity to get familiar with conditions out in the field. Also to visit the historic huts and to find out what the research teams are really up to. We also receive a group of people who may well have a lot of say about research funding in the future. The group has representatives from the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of the Environment, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FORST), Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and Antarctica New Zealand. We also catch up with a few people we previously met on AFT: a lady from Norway seeing how we manage waste disposal, two students from Otago University who were boomeranged on a helicopter flight (their other two group members were on a different helicopter that wasn't boomeranged: they haven't had radio contact from them for two days now), and the group from Tauranga Girls' College who help out with our fishing.

 

Nearby there is a group of divers from NIWA who are operating below the ice, mostly using a hole in the ice which is in the floor of a hut. They also have a video hooked up to show what is happening under the ice. In spite of their dry-suits, they can only stay under for 30 minutes.

Mary spends some time organising her net for the research she plans on starting tomorrow. Jocasta is having a few problems organising her camera and video-recorder to study the daily behaviour of Antarctic fish. At 10 30 PM. Mike is still working on Jocasta's videocam.

 

Monday 26 November

 

Mike slept in yesterday so this morning he is up particularly early, roaring around on his skidoo, trying to wake us all up! By the time we get over to the research area Mike has already done some reaming out of the holes. John and I finish the job off so Mike can get on with the fishing. All the holes have to be reamed out every day so that the ice buildup in them does not become critical. Next, we try out Mary's fishing net. She lowers the closed net through a hole in the sea ice to a depth of 50 m, then opens the net and raises it to the surface, collecting plankton samples. These are then transferred to a container, preserved with formalin and later transported to the University of Auckland for further analysis. Mary is particularly interested in meroplankton, plankton that, in a later part of their life cycle, may become something quite different; a starfish or a snail, for example. Mary will be taking three samples each morning, for five consecutive days.

We then try to set Jocasta up for her research. We drill a hole through the ice so that she can video fish under the ice. The plan is to video each hour for 15 minutes. Unfortunately, her video isn't operational and so we have to use Mike's which does not have a timer. So Jocasta will need to be by the hole, awake for pretty much all of a 24-hour period. We set up a Scott tent for her by the ice hole.

 

We have drilled the hole in the tide crack. This crack forms because the sea ice has to rise and fall with the tide (about 75 cm here) while the land ice is grounded and can't go up and down. The result is a series of cracks between the ice that does go up and down and the ice that does not. It is amazing to think that all the tents, buildings and vehicles on the sea-ice are going up and down with the tide. We enjoy a steak dinner tonight. The hardest thing about this sort of meal is defrosting the steaks! We note each other's sunburn. In spite of the fact that we are putting on sunscreen very often, we are still being rather burnt. The air is very clear and there is also a problem with the reflection from the snow and ice. In this respect it is like skiing. Sunburn is such a problem that the personal first aid kits we were issued with by Scott Base contain sunscreen, as well as the usual bandages, antibiotics and so on.

 

Tuesday 27 November

 

More of the same today. Mike was up early yesterday, so today he sleeps in! We ream out holes, help Mary collect plankton, and catch fish through the holes in the ice. Jocasta starts collecting video evidence of the behaviour of fish. She needs to relate this behaviour to both the time of day and the tides. To find out what the tides are doing she has a depth sounder. It's about the size of a torch. She holds it just below the water surface, pushes a button, and obtains a readout of the depth. It is typically about six metres where she is. Where we are fishing the water depth is about 15 m.

Today a penguin arrives at our lab. We are not allowed to interfere with it. Unfortunately, it is in bad shape. We think it will be dead by tomorrow. It has strayed too far from home: Cape Royds. After dinner, Jocasta retires to her tent. She has to record 15 minutes of fish behaviour every hour, right through the night.

 

Wednesday 28 November.

 

More of the same again today, but today the weather is much better. However, I am still wearing my ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) jacket, as I have been every day. Jocasta has managed to stay awake and record the correct video sequences. The penguin that arrived yesterday has unfortunately died and the skuas have been feasting on it. The hole reaming went very well today: probably because we have been careful about replacing the black plastic disks whenever fishing holes are not in use. We catch about 80 fish today. Jocasta has another night ahead of her in her Scott tent. Will she be able to stay awake again?

 

Thursday 29 November

 

As for yesterday. Today the wind is brisk and the wind chill factor makes it very cold. Fishing for one hour is a real mission, even though I am wearing down, thinsulate, polyprops, etc. Yesterday I walked in a pile of seal faeces, which had thawed out and walked it into the lab. It really stank. Actually there isn't too much to smell here, squid bait, kerosene, and now this! I mopped it up and cleaned out the sponge in fishing hole E3. Now Mike is catching huge numbers of fish in hole E3 while John and I are catching almost none. Could the seal faeces be making the difference? We give fishing hole E0 the same treatment. It will be interesting to try hole E0 tomorrow. Will all the fish be there?

 

Speaking of faeces, in case you are wondering about going to the toilet and waste disposal in general: when we go to the toilet, what we produce has to end up in the ocean. So, we can either walk down to a tide crack or we can walk to the toilet. The toilet is set up over a hole in the sea ice. Scott Base and McMurdo deal with toilet wastes in the same way, namely disposing of them in the ocean. Washing water can be disposed of on land by pouring it out on snow free land. We have plenty of that around here: scoria from Mt Erebus. Erebus constantly towers over us here. For other rubbish, paper, wrappers and the like, we have two plastic bags. One is for food-contaminated waste and the other is for other waste. This waste we take back to Scott Base and they send it back to New Zealand.

 

Friday 30 November

 

Our last day of research here. The weather, by the afternoon, is the hottest yet. However, I am still wearing my ECWs. But now I have only my polyprops on underneath them. Yesterday I had two extra layers between my polyprops and my ECWs.

 

We get a visit from another lost penguin. It visits Jocasta at her tent and Mary at her fish-hole before wandering off. Sadly, it does not look in great shape. A skua is keeping an eye on it.

A seal comes up for air in the large hole used by the divers. It soon vanishes but later in the day I recognise its breathing and manage to get it on video before it dives again.

 

I take a walk up to Skua Lake, just up the hill behind our research area. There is some water and a fair bit of ice in the lake. Dozens of skuas are bathing. From here, I have a great view of the ice cliffs at the end of the glacier from which we have been getting our drinking water. I also have a great view of Scott's hut.

 

Back at our quarters, the "hot" weather has melted some of the snow holding down the snow-flap on my Scott tent. I shovel snow back on to the flap so that the wind cannot get under it. Then I go in for dinner. With the constant sunshine, we seem to be eating very late. Tonight dinner is about 9:15PM. As I write this it is 10:15PM and we are still finishing off dinner. Most nights I read by daylight inside my tent until after 11PM.

We call Scott Base on the radio and find that the plane from Christchurch has come in today as scheduled. We are able to speak to Fiona, the teacher who will be taking my place in the research team. Tomorrow she will go out on AFT. We should meet up with her on Sunday when we return to Scott Base.

 

Saturday 1 December

 

A tidy-up and pack-up day. We visit the ice-hole Mary has been using and take a depth sounding. The hand-held device tells us the depth is about 41 m. This is odd because a previous reading gave 53 m. Also, we have been lowering Mary's net 50 m!

 

Next, we rescue Jocasta's underwater camera. We have to chip out the ice that has formed over the hole. Also, the camera cable, being black, has melted itself into the ice at the side of the hole a distance of about 10 cm: more chipping of ice required!

 

John, Mary and I, armed with ice axes, visit the glacier to get some more ice. We need water for cleaning the lab as well as for drinking, cooking, and washing ourselves. Actually, I have been using wet-wipes for washing myself. So far, my pack of 80 is lasting well. Mike keeps talking about a swim but I do not think it will be happening somehow. There is also a lot of talk about the showers at Scott Base, clothes washing, clean clothes, meals we don't have to cook, etc.

 

Back at the lab, Mike and John are putting equipment in small boxes to go in larger boxes. These larger boxes will then be piled on to the sledges that will be towed by the skidoos. Three of us will drive skidoos while the other two will ride the sledges. There isn't much for the rest of us to do there. Outside, it is sunny but increasingly windy. The sea ice has become very slippery. With the wind, it is hard to walk. The skidoos also do not have grip. They are fine in a straight line but changing direction is not easy. Today is not a good day to see if they reach their maximum speed: according to the speedo it is 160 km/hr! Instead of an odometer, they have a time gauge. This measures the engine running time to the nearest 0.1 hr.

 

Mike also takes a few GPS readings with a surveyor's GPS receiver. It is about the size of a daypack. After factoring in further information he will get from McMurdo, Mike reckons he can position the holes to within a few centimetres. Without that, both his GPS receiver and John's hand-held GPS receiver are accurate to about 3 m.

 

Back at our living area, the wind is really strong. I bring in the solar panel used to charge the radio battery before the wind blows it away. The other panel is held in place by four stakes hammered into the snow, so I decide to leave it there. The hut itself has a door that, when opened, catches the northerly wind we have. Great for a southerly, but right now it is very hard to close the door whenever it has been opened. The hut itself is held down by four strong wire cables: reassuring since every now and then it is rocked a bit by a gust of wind!