The Shackleton Ride

Hey everyone, here’s my updated post, with photos! Enjoy.

I wasn’t able to post about my journey down to Halley in real time so I tried to write a bit each day about the things I saw and did whilst aboard the RSS Ernest Shackleton – BAS’s research and supply ship. This post is some of the good bits, it’s probably a bit disjointed and out of order but hopefully makes sense. I’ll try to get in some of the photos I managed to take – but because the station is quite full, and the internet so slow it may be that I’ll have to add more later. I must have taken thousands of pictures so I’ve still plenty to look through and post. There aren’t any dates to the posts but they are in some sort of order (ish).

The trip down has been a mix of rush, slow, sick, tired, dopey and excited.  Sometimes the days have been slow, with not too much going on, especially so when the seas begin to rise and you are locked inside and experiencing the unpredictable gravity of a ship riding big waves. Walking up the stairs and down the corridors can leave you feeling weightless – one moment you are able to climb the stairs in a single bound second and then you’re twice as heavy and stuck to the floor. The first few days of this left me feeling exhausted, with sleep hard to come by until I got used to the ocean. The first week after leaving South Africa was fairly steady and warm. And the sky in the evenings looked like this:

sky

sky

sky

sky

sky

When the sea was calmer (and this voyage has been fairly good all in all) I would rather be on deck than anywhere else. Today I’ve been up there again. In my enthusiasm I don’t want to miss a thing, be it bird, whale or odd looking cloud. This morning I got my first real look at a sea mammal! I’ve seen a few whales – but when you’re at such a distance it’s hard to know if you actually saw what you think you saw, let alone the size or species. This morning I caught a brief glimpse of a black head alongside the ship. Unsure whether I’d seen something cool or just another funny looking wave (there are lots of these when you are staring, intently at the sea, searching for anything that looks out of the ordinary). Then, it popped it’s head up once again! A seal!  I wasn’t sure what type but I had a new thing to tick off in my bumper book of Antarctic stuff to see (now I’m not sure whether there is one of these but it might be worth writing one over the winter). Nobody else seemed to be too excited about this turn of events, the other newbies were a little and the regular Antarctic folk a lot less so, though it was nice that they all humoured me. Yesterday I spotted my first iceberg and, again, those on board who had seen thousands were, strangely less chuffed about the whole thing than me!

iceberg

Only a little one but still – an Iceberg!!

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Just been out on the deck again, practicing with my camera and getting pictures of sea birds. Petrels of so many types it’s hard to identify them but some of them giant, almost albatross size and smaller, storm petrels following the ship, dancing round it effortlessly, almost wondering why we are going so slowly. Also seen albatrosses, these don’t tend to come as close as the petrels and certainly don’t fly about with the same agility, instead drifting alongside use riding the air currents coming off the waves.

bird

bird

bird

bird

My fingers started to get a bit tingly in the cold so I went back inside and had a quick look at the snaps I’d just got and noticed in the bottom corner of a picture of an albatross that I’d just seen a little head poking out of the water. Not completely sure but a southern fur seal had jumped into frame! I had no idea it was there at the time. Cameras – they see what the eye does not!

seal

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Right now we are just passing close to the most isolated bit of land on the planet, the island of Bouvetoya, a small volcanic cone located 52 deg 25’south 3 deg, 20′ east. Although it is uninhabited it did have a research base built in 1994, but that has now been blown out to sea following an earthquake in 2006 which weakened its foundations. There’s now an unmanned weather station set up by the Norwegians in 1997. Although the island was close enough to see in normal visibility the mist we have been shrouded in for the past day meant the island was unfortunately relegated to mythical status.

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Nothing much going on today apart from GASH duty. Whilst on board the Shack we are essentially passengers, though we help out whenever we can whilst also staying out of the way of the crew, we do, however, have a rota in which everyday, four of us take a turn on what is known as GASH duty. We clean the mess room, clean all the communal areas and help out in the galley, peeling veg etc… This will also apply on base, with two of us in summer and one in winter taking it in turns to be on GASH duty for the day whilst everyone else works. It’s nothing too hard really and to be honest it’s nice to have something to do. Had a few breaks, nipping up onto deck but nothing really to see today, just the mist that we have been travelling through for days. Visibility down to about fifty metres and it’s snowing too.

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Out on deck in the evening and the visibility has gotten better, a few hundred metres. Whilst leaning against the rail, staring out into nothing I had a bit of a “moment” – one of those times when you think to yourself “remember this”. Staring off into the distance with snow blowing around me, thousands of miles away from anywhere and just the hum of the ships engines and the sound of the breaking waves to listen to. An empty ocean, shrouded in fog might be lower in the rankings of the things that I’m yet to see – and have already seen, but it was just one of those times when you feel the need to try and actively capture the feeling of a particular instant in time. Reminds me again, just how lucky I am to be here.

Went to bed with a bit of a swell on the ocean but fairly gentle compared to some of the last few days. When I woke it was to the most amazingly glossy looking flat sea. The mist was still there – this must be around 700 miles we have travelled through it! The sea was absolutely serene, like a duck pond on a still summer’s night instead of the open ocean thousands of miles away from land, the surface looked polished. I got some pictures of petrels diving and gliding inches above the surface, with their reflections perfect in the mirror like sea.

bird

Then, another one of the milestone moments of a voyage into the Antarctic –  penguins!

I noticed some odd looking black shapes in the water floating by some distance away and zoomed in for a closer look. It’s a little chinstrap penguin floating on its belly, staring at our ship. It bobbed up and down a few times and then it was gone. Around half an hour later a group floated into view, just having a rest and watching us go by. None of them were brilliant photo opportunities but hey – I’ve seen penguins!

penguin

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Some more impressive icebergs came by this morning, one for its grandeur and one for its passengers. A giant one floated by around a kilometer away, still in the slowly dissipating fog but clearly visible. As it went it began to carve huge chunks of ice into the sea, sending waves hundreds of metres into the air. We were just too far away to hear the crashing sounds and it was too shrouded in mist to get good photos but it was an amazing spectacle – witnessing this floating island losing hundreds of tonnes of itself to the sea below in a few short seconds. Another, much smaller berg came by closer to the ship with four chinstrap penguins hitching a ride. There were many tiny floating pieces of ice, beautiful, crystalline forms just like miniature castles, with white towers reaching up from curved walls. All in all – a good morning. I’d imagine I’ll be on deck for the much of the next twenty four hours, more and more stuff is coming into view as we approach the sea ice.

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We are now into the sea ice and nighttime has gone until next year. We hit the pack ice around midnight and then watched it as it came in waves with floating chunks followed by patches of sea ice. The noise when the ship hits the ice is great, apart from when you’re trying to sleep. When we are breaking through the looser brash ice it sounds like an intercity train is flying past you at speed. When you are hitting the thicker, more consolidated ice then you still have the train, but this time the train is in the midst of a derailment, the noise of steel crashing into tonnes of 3 metre thick ice reverberates through the ship. We are still not at the sea ice properly yet, just at the leading edge which has broken loose and begun to break into smaller and smaller clumps on it’s way to melting into the warmer ocean. Still impressive stuff though. It’s great to be on deck watching the ship-smash through three metre thick floating islands, casually tossing lumps of ice weighing many tonnes out of its path.

It’s hard to convey the size and energy of what’s happening, especially in the thicker ice. You see the cracks widen in front of the ship and the hull churns the edges of the ice as it slides past and under the prow of the ship. As the ice breaks it then flies upwards out of the water, the huge chunks breaking and rolling, showing the stratified ice, with layers of different colours from deep turquoise blue to brilliant white with yellow and green layers of algae tinted ice. More of the other stuff I’ve been getting closer and closer too as we sail deeper into the south and the pack ice increases – penguins, seals and whales.

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Today we sailed past a berg and were quite close, it was in an open patch of sea. The big ones seem to have their own gravity – they either pull the brash ice into them or sling it out of the way. The ship tends to stay quite far away from them. This one though, was a bit smaller and so we got in closer. The colours were shocking. In parts the ice was so bright blue it looked unnatural. The pictures that I took look like they have been photo shopped. There are bits of the passing ice that look like it has its own, inner illumination. Cracks have strange ethereal topaz glows shining from within, set against the pure brilliant white of the surface ice.

It’s been a good day for wildlife viewing, though not as good for wildlife photography. Taking photographs of the things I’m seeing down here is quite hard. The ice is so bright that without the polarized sunglasses you are in danger of burning your eyes and blinding yourself and it is so cold that gloves are a must, especially as the wind picks up. Those two things and my lack of experience with the camera make it difficult to get shots of things that disappear fairly quickly. Seals and penguins can be fairly hard to get when they are further out because we move past them pretty fast. Sea birds tend to be easier because they seem to be quite photogenic and will often swing round the ship a few times before heading off. The minky whales are nigh on impossible.  You get the briefest of warnings with a loud blow and a jet of water vapour as they surface and then you see the dorsal fin and a splash before they are gone. Still trying to get a good shot of them.

whale

More on the journey south to come, and more photos. It’s really taking me a while to upload these so they will have to come in stages!

This week I’ve been hard at it grafting away and also managed to help out the NASA BARREL team launching their helium balloons – more on them to come soon!

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5 thoughts on “The Shackleton Ride

  1. I’m loving the photo’s Anthony keep them coming

  2. Do Fids still have to help out on the bridge? Going down south on the RRS Biscoe in 1982, we took terns to work on the bridge mirroring the officers hours. I had to get the 1st Mate up for the 4am to 8 am shift, make him a coffee, sweep the bridge and generally just hang out up there! Is there still a King Fid who organises all the work routines? I remember a visiting American scientist being flabbergasted that he had to do some chores! It’s a great leveler! Regards Ray

    • not too much work on the bridge for most of us Ray, though the met babes do go up and do met obs. Just general cleaning and tidying for us lot. Yup, still king fid and most of the other fid traditions. Most people on GASH duty were glad to have something to do, so not too many complainers on my trip. Just like on the base- everyone has to do their bit of cleaning etc.. From the NASA scientists to the doctor and all the engineers.

      Cheers

      Anthony

  3. Hey man, this is good stuff, enjoying hearing what folk get up to down there! Looks like a totally crazy place! Currently waiting to hear back from BAS, got my fingers crossed.

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