Report 10: Another theory blown away

The storm tossed sea
The storm tossed sea (Photo: Adrian Boyle)
Various species of animal in the distance, scattered across the sea ice

Steve Nicol, Voyage Leader

We thought we had the system well worked out down here – we sail along in the open ocean working hard and experiencing some mildly undulating weather then once a week we head southwards into the sea ice zone where the sun always shines and the sea remains as featureless as the cling film covering the cat food at the rear of the fridge. Then we head north again and put up with grey skies and the occasional roll and pitch before once again returning to the blissful south. This system was soundly based on a perfectly adequate sample size of two, but any scientist worth their salt will tell you to stop at two because once you get into sample sizes of three or more you unerringly encounter variability and have to wheel in the statisticians. So imagine our collective surprise at entering the first inklings of the sea ice zone on Sunday only to encounter sullen grey skies and whitecaps on the water. Things escalated from this point and although by Monday morning the sun had come out, the wind had picked up as we picked our way through the few floes that littered the coast at 55E and freezing spray was flying in a wind chill of −30°C. Turning northwards we headed into the gloomy open ocean with the wind gusting to 50kts and a decidedly angry looking sea which got more and more surly as the day progressed. It was a great pity because the coast that we left behind was remote and very scenic.

Mountains peeked through the ice cap giving us the first glimpse of rock since we waved goodbye to Fremantle 5 weeks ago and icebergs did their usual sterling job of providing interesting foreground and collapsing when no one was looking. The area (known either as Cape Ann, Cape Close, or something indecipherable in Russian, depending on the chart being used) is the furthest north section of coast on the whole survey, extending into the balmy latitudes of the mid sixties, and was largely ice free though there were a number of patches of sea ice in our path. On the last of these encountered before we made our left turn we stumbled across a condensed Antarctic megafauna experience with three species of seals and two species of penguins occupying a single very small patch of real estate. If you add these to the humpback whale that seemed to be scooping all the krill out of the net the night before we couldn't feel too cheated on the wildlife front, but it was no real substitute for the hours of sightseeing on the previous two eastward passages along the coast. Despite sleep deprivation, everyone appears to feel rather sanguine about the weather; this is an acoustics leg so the sampling is not too compromised, but we did have to endure an uncomfortable night and a rather meandering survey track as a result. It is, however, the last northwards leg before we head into Mawson to terrify the locals and do some acoustic calibrations so spirits are somewhat more elevated than they might be following a night of enforced tossing and turning.

We are now almost exactly at half way through both the survey and the voyage having completed 35 days at sea and five and a half of the eleven transects – although because our physical colleagues insisted on indulging themselves in an extra long transect even before we started the north-south legs, we are actually well past the half way point in terms of the science program. For reasons that are apparent to some, this point is referred to as Hump Day, a nomenclature that caused not a little confusion to some, but no lasting damage that cannot be addressed through intensive psychotherapy.

The general consensus on the science so far is that it is all going to plan – which is actually a matter for considerable amazement because the original plan was referred to as "ambitious" – an often-used synonym for "impossible". This is no time for complacency, though because, as this week has showed us the unexpected can happen and our biggest adversary is the weather and the effect it can have on our very tight time budget. Other unexpected events have been occurring on the decks of the Aurora as we enter the midlife crisis of the voyage but these will have a limited effect on our science effort although they may be of use in future psychological studies. Jason (once again) has been experimenting with a variety of facial hairstyle, each more baroque than the last but none of them could match his vibrant trousers which violated several international conventions on visual pollution, cruelty to animals and shipboard fashion sense. More furtively, one of the numerous Andrews aboard (surname withheld to implicate the innocent) was generous enough to celebrate his inadequacy at darts with a nude perambulation of the bridge – it being a Sunday night and everyone being at worship, no one noticed. Similar odd behaviours have pervaded the galley where competitive potato peeling dominated the agenda when the boys took their turn, replacing the gentle art of gossip over the peelings when the girls put the potatoes through their paces the week before. And throughout the ship the sound of violent death rings through quiet spaces as Brian consolidates his reputation and the Killer king of the Aurora, amply making up for his shift’s recent abysmal record on the krill capture front.