Land ahoy, or better yet, Ice ahoy matey!
December 18. I can finally see the antarctic coast. Since we are going straight to Brunt Ice Shelf, what you can see from the prow right now is “just” a gigantic wall of ice… literally. Just like John Snow when he got to the Night Watch, Thursday afternoon we got a big wall of ice to the starboard side of the ship (that’s the right side FYI – I need to use my “old” sailor status while I can), whose height I don’t dare to guess, but it is certainly imposing.
The captain informed us that was the Stancomb-Wills glacier, whose name was given by no other than Sir Ernest Shackleton on its Nimrod expedition. I feel like a circle has been completed somewhere.
Has I’ve written before, we are navigating through a somewhat ice free part of the ocean, quite close to the coast, but so far not close enough to see it. We do see more and more icebergs, with each new one bigger that the previous. That big iceberg that I saw in my first day on the ice? A little toddler next to these ones. Impressive! Its literally ice mountains floating around in the ocean and, considering that we only see the 10% that stays above water, well, its a lot of ice.
The biggest one was so huge that, watching it from the ship’s prow, it reached all around the visible horizon. True, there was some fog in the air that was limiting my visibility but still, uau! At first I thought that we had finally reached the antarctic coast, but when I asked one of the officers about it, he laughed and told me that it was “just” one of the gigantic icebergs that we had seen days ago in the satellite photos. I’m a simple southern portuguese boy. I’ve seen some big cork trees but this is something else.
That day I also witnessed a scene that could only happen around these parts. I was taking some photos on the prow when I spot a dark spot far away in the distance. At that time we we had a lot of ice ahead of us and the ship was charging against it to try use some of the water openings that were around there. I use the camera’s zoom to check it out and what initially seemed to be a seal was just a big brown petrel, chilling around in the edge of an ice flow. Then, out of the water bellow, a crab eater seal jumps right to the flow, right next to the big bird. And he didn’t even flinch! He just looked at each other very slowly and stayed there for a minute or so like they were discussing the weather or something. After a while, the seal got bored and went back to the water again while the big bird just stayed there has it was nothing to him. Beautiful!
Relief is approaching fast and on board all the preparations have started. The whole ship was split into 12 hour shifts. The relief is a non stop process. There’s a lot of cargo to take out from the holds and send it to Halley while there’s also all sorts of stuff that is coming from it and needs to be going back to civilization (mostly garbage from last winter. We don’t leave much in Antarctica).
About now, plan A is relief though N9, which is a shallow spot in the edge of the Brunt ice shelf and that rises smoothly to the top of it, which is perfect to haul sledges with tons of cargo. Since we are just days until disembark, there’s an Halley team already there surveying the surroundings and and flagging any danger zones, namely crevasses and soft spots in the snow.
The ships is going to unload its cargo using a big crane that’s on the deck, directly on top of the sledges. We have three holds full with fuel, food, containers and all sorts of equipments and materials to support the science in Halley.
The cargo sledges are driven on to the deeper part of that ramp, right beneath the crane’s reach. Then, mixed teams from crew members and Halley inhabitants takes care of putting all the cargo as neat as possible and secure it tightly so that the tractor or buldozzer that takes it to Halley doesn’t leave a trail of boxes and barrels in the way.
When the sledges are full or their maximum weight has be reached, these are dragged to the base using treaded vehicles instead of wheels. I saw my last wheeled vehicle on Cape Town. With so much snow and ice, everything that moves around here is on skis and dragged with treads.
This is the beauty of Antarctica. For a whole week, scientists, engineers and doctors, well, people with academic backgrounds and from very distinct areas, are invited to ignore any pseudo social status (something that is already very rare in the BAS environment), roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to guarantee that relief finishes quickly and without incidents.
Doesn’t matter ir you are the helper of the helper of the guy that sweeps the deck on Friday or the financing or a doctor finishing your third PhD.
Down here is normally the guy next to the shovel who has to dig the hole.