E-mails from Antarctica (1)
For emails from Fiona click here.
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.
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.
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.
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!
again after I get to Scott Base. Provided I can get on a computer down there!
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!
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.
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.
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 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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Friday 23 November
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!
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Wednesday 28 November.
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
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
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
Friday 30 November
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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