Winter is Coming!

Excuse the Game of Thrones reference but winter is really coming for us here at Halley. (Actually it’s here now but as ever I’m posting stuff that happened a week or more ago)

This morning we went down to the mooring point at the coast to wave the RSS Ernest Shackleton off, along with its passengers – the folk we have spent the summer season with, working and living together. It was a strange moment. Waving goodbye to the friends you have made. Some of whom you may not see again, others you will see next season.  It’s sad – there’s quite a few of them I’m going to really miss, but at the same time it’s also exciting (not to mention worrying) to know that you are now left alone with your winter team, to live and work together for the next year, isolated on the Brunt ice shelf at Halley 6.

Getting ready for the off

Getting ready for the off

Lifting the Gangway

Lifting the Gangway

Going...

Going…

Going...

Going…

Gone!

Gone!

Photos by Kevin Hallam.

We drove down at 6am in a snow-cat for the 3 hour drive to the coast, managed to get a few goodbye hugs and then watched, waved and let off some flares as the ship pulled away and sailed off into the distance.  I hope that everyone on board has a great journey back to the Falklands and finally the U.K, U.S. and other home destinations.  About half an hour later and we began another bouncy and uncomfortable drive back up to base to begin getting ready for the long winter. Closing down the summer accommodation, scrubbing out the modules and generally cleaning the house before the weather turns colder.

There are a few more planes due to come and go from Halley over the next few weeks but watching the Shack disappear was a big moment. Well worth the 6 hour drive!

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The Shack Trip Part 2

This post might be edited a lot over the next few days as I try and get the text and pictures to match, till then it’ll be all over the place.

More from the Journey down below:

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This afternoon I was blown away by the place. Since learning about BAS and applying for this job I’ve become obsessed by this and watched every video and read everything I can about it;  from the islands around the continent to the pole itself. I’ve been blown away by things like the BBC’s frozen planet, as I’m sure many people have been. Still, there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the reality.  It takes your breath away, it is just so different from anywhere else in the world you just have nothing to compare it to, and just when you think you are as amazed and awe-struck as you can be something  will come into view and make you think again.

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Staring out onto this brilliant white desert you can’t help but think you are on another planet. Mile upon mile of windswept ice dotted with bizarre shapes and huge ice structures with their blue glow emanating from inside. Huge monoliths caused by the ice rupturing are then left to be weathered by the wind and snow. In the back ground are bergs the size of towns and cities (and sometimes small countries!) and in the foreground streams and rivers of ocean wind their way across the landscape. You see it and struggle to take in just how awesome it is. And then the sun comes out and it all becomes so beautiful you think you might just burst into tears. There really is no way to explain what this is like, with words or with pictures.  The sheer scale of the place makes you feel insignificant and at the same time a part of it all.  I was running from one side of the ship to the other for days in some sort of religious ecstasy, with wild eyes trying to take in the scenery, getting cold and exhausted but not even coming close to being tired of the things around me. As I said, just when you think you couldn’t be more impressed something will come along and disabuse you of that notion. Late last night a berg came into view that from the front was impressive.  I have pictures but they don’t really convey the size of these floating islands. We were heading for it and would pass quite close. What followed has left me feeling amazing. The berg got closer to the ship and I noticed a cluster of penguins about a hundred feet up, on a slope high above one of its cliff like sides. Then, as we began to pass it my attention switched to the growing slice of blue that was coming into view.  More and more of this glow became visible as we passed, eventually giving way to daylight as we saw the huge archway in the centre of the berg. The hollow inside of the ice was brilliant blue with the ocean visible on the other side. The curved ceiling of the cavern was hundreds of feet tall with cracks in its walls, each crack shining out against the white ice. Encircling the berg was a shoreline sloping off down into the water, the underwater ice like the turquoise looking sand in some tropical lagoon.

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For quite a while after I was a bit dumbstruck. Not only have I just witnessed one of the most amazing things on the planet but given the temporary nature of icebergs I might be, along with the couple of other folk on the deck, the only person to ever see that glowing palace of ice. The ice itself may be hundreds of thousands of years old, beginning its life high on the Antarctic plateau before sliding down onto an ice shelf and then breaking off into the sea. Even larger then, it might have spent decades being weathered by the sea and wind, turning over and over in the ocean as its weight shifted, slowly being moulded into the fairy tale, once in a lifetime, spectacle that I was lucky enough to witness. Now in the last stage of its life, it will carry on into the short summer and slowly disintegrate in the southern ocean. If by some chance it is glimpsed by anyone else it will have already changed completely.

Get ready for me not shutting up about my perfect berg when I get back!

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We got a bit stuck getting through some particularly thick and tough sea ice today. The ship managed to get out after a few hours though. Breaking through the sea ice is a skill that the bridge staff gain over many seasons sailing at the polar regions, knowing which areas of the sea ice are weak and which are strong, sometimes seemingly circling around and around to find the route through.

Interestingly even though the ship was not going anywhere we were actually travelling around 1 nautical mile an hour as the mass of sea ice as far as the eye could see was slowly drifting with the current. It’s strange being on the sea ice. It looks so much like land, stretching from horizon to horizon with little rivers and channels criss-crossing all around that you forget you’re not actually on land. The little pools of water and the streams are so still that they look like shallow ponds and creeks. instead they are just windows into the freezing darkness below and everything you can see, apart from the ice bergs, is only a few metres thick. Travelling through it are seals and penguins resting on the ice between, hunting for squid, fish and krill. In the small pools and channels you can see whales coming up for air.

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As we get further and further into the Antarctic circle the ice bergs begin to get bigger and bigger, changing from the sculptured irregular shaped ones like my perfect berg  into huge flat topped monsters, much younger than the ones further north, some miles across. These are young ice-bergs, yet to begin rolling around, breaking up and assuming different shapes. The sea ice has almost gone now too, giving way to open ocean. The previous winters sea ice has broken off from the Antarctic coast and drifted north, melting as it goes. We are now beyond the back edge of the main pieces, though every now and again straggling patches come along. Lots more seals are to be seen now, Crabeaters for the most part, lounging around on the ice.

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We arrived at the Antarctic coastline this morning, as we were getting nearer and nearer the bergs became larger and larger and had their original shapes, the same as when they broke free from the ice shelves – long flat-topped floating islands with hundred metre tall cliffs. As they go further out they will gradually break up and roll, assuming more irregular shapes such as the perfect berg I saw. I was on the phone in my cabin when I had to stop mid sentence as I looked out of the porthole. Passing by us was something so huge I couldn’t take it all in.  This berg must have been a kilometre long and as its middle passed the window I could not see the edges.  Hard to describe to the person I was talking to exactly what I was looking at it; it was so vast.  Then, as before when you think you have seen something spectacular in Antarctica you are confronted with the next step up – this time it was the brunt ice shelf, my home for the next year and the frozen white coastline of this bit of Antarctica.

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We then cruised along between the ice shelf and the sea ice in a channel left by the sea ice heading out into the ocean.  Sea ice was beginning to re-form, starting off with the silky smooth water as a skin begins to form on the surface, followed by thicker pieces and then pancake ice- floating sections of ice that bump into each other causing the edges to rise up, looking like white water lilies. This then joins together and thickens to eventually form the metres thick sea ice that we had passed through. The stuff that was forming now would probably not get that far as the temperatures warm up for summer but the process would begin in earnest when the winter starts and Antarctica doubles in size.

Chunks of ice were still floating around in the channel and many of them were occupied by seals and penguins, often looking surprised as the big red ship disturbs them from their slumber. The captain was kind enough to pull up to a few of these floating rest stops to let us see the wildlife close up. Along the shores of the ice shelf were small collections of emperor penguins, both adults and chicks, some of the more nervous ones were quick to jump into the water whilst the braver ones among them simply watched us with curiosity.

Animals!

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

British Antractic Survey: The Ships

As well as posting about what I’m getting up to I’d also like to write about my employers the British Antarctic Survey or BAS, who they are and what they do. I’m going to try to write about them as much as I can before I head South because my updates will be a little bit more limited when I’m on the ice. The internet down there is a little slower than it is here in the UK and lots of it will be taken up by the science research that will going on, though hopefully there’ll be enough for me to post pictures of penguins!

The RSS Ernest Shackleton

When I travel South I’ll be flying from London Heathrow to Capetown in South Africa and from there I will take the  RSS Ernest Shackleton, one of BAS’s research ships. The Shack, as it is known, is named after the Famous polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and was built in 1995, she was acquired by BAS in 1999.  As well as carrying out scientific research the Shack also takes supplies and people out to the Antarctic bases.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Shackleton

I will be traveling on the shack from Capetown and should arrive at the sea ice near Halley on Christmas eve this year. I am told that sea-sickness is almost a certainty for those on board for the first time!

The Shack sails some of the roughest seas in the world and is strengthened to deal with the ice on its journeys to and from Antarctica, I’ll be posting more about the ship when my long voyage starts, with some pictures and video of the ship breaking through the ice.

The Shack

My home for a short while on my journey to Antarctica

The RSS James Clark Ross

The other ship in the BAS fleet is the RSS James Clark Ross, The JCR was built in the UK and launched by H.M. the Queen in 1990 and is named after the explorer James Clark Ross.

Sir James Clark Ross

Sir James Clark Ross

Like the Ernest Shackleton the James Clark Ross is a reasearch vessel that also serves as a logistics ship. It can steam through ice 1 metre thick and is designed to make very little noise as it travels to limit interference with the sensitive acoustic equipment it deploys.

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The James Clark Ross at Rothera

You can find out more about the two ships by visiting the British Antarctic Survey website here