24 December 2003

Meal times are the great communal events at sea. Sure, there are movies to watch, TV serials to sit through again, watching the nets get hauled in over the back or even staring at one another and then at the TV screen that shows the acoustic (fish finder) marks and mumbling about whether the orange bits are fish or false bottoms.

[As an aside… Our resident acousticians, Toby, Esmee and Belinda, are hard at it at the moment because it is the 'fish finder' that we need to use to help see which areas are likely to be the best feeding areas for the local seals, penguins and albatross. They are madly processing the data (we need it in only a few days and it usually takes weeks to put together). The results are looking great thanks to their hard work but they are tired of the jokes of 'picking false bottoms'! (But they did say it first!)]

Back to meal times… The other activities are more for small groups than the whole of the ship's complement. In our "restaurant", eating fantastic food (and putting on the pounds), you cannot fail to meet everybody and get to know who is on board. Wherever one travels there is usually something better than the weather to start off a conversation. For example, in Europe, the Eurail and "which galleries have you seen"; in Antarctica it is the ice and icebergs and wildlife and at Heard Island, it is Big Ben (Australia's highest mountain – "have you seen it yet?") and the sea. So, of course, it is hard not to mention the sea, especially when the plates, mugs, and cutlery have to be caught as they slip towards the end of the the table on each roll (it's just the soup in the bowl that keeps on going). If you're lucky they will just slip right back to where they started. And (as you do) you get to know who people are, why they are here and, well, how do they like being at sea.

At breakfast, I was reminded that it is 12 years since I've been at sea in the Southern Ocean (only a few months before Samara, my eldest, was born) and 8 years since doing any field work, which means I've never been in the area (until now) that I have been working on since joining the AAD (Australian Antarctic Division). Mind you, I still haven't because most of the area that I work on is over 300 m deep.

But, we were as close as we will ever be today (and a couple of days ago) when we watched the first video shots of the sea floor around Heard Island (and there were many of us crammed into the little stern operations room watching our gear officers and crew deploy the gear and the shots as they appeared on the 15 cm monitor). Those shots were nothing short of fantastic and spell-binding. We now have 2 hours of wonderful video footage of sea stars, sea urchins, feather stars, brittle stars, sponges, anemones, soft corals, gorgonians, fish, and more fish, an octopus, a skate (like a stingray) and lots and lots of worms. Pure magic watching the bottom loom up out of the darkness as Tony, Kelvin, Ian and crew guided the video camera gear with its headlights to the seafloor. And then watching the deep sea life whizzing by as the camera moved at about two knots above the bottom (every now and then gently caressing the substratum picking up very interesting beasties along the way). This opportunity is a great credit to the marine science support crew at the AAD who built, tested and refined the video unit. It is very robust and we hope to use it in a number of other areas before returning home.

Not only that, but dawn greeted us today with our first view of Heard Island itself. And we were lucky; most of the island was visible despite this being one of the cloudiest places on Earth. The giant cone towers above you (or at least it looks as if it does from 12 miles away), rising out of the ocean, surrounded by glaciers with only a few black rock cliffs ominously poised large on the southern side. Spectacular! It was picked out in the sun (which we couldn't see) in a heavy blanket of cloud. We have had remarkable weather for the last two days and this was an eerie sail past as the cloud rapidly closed in and enveloped the island. Its presence can be felt even if you can't see it… and as we sail back past the island on one of our transects, the cloud forms a different smooth and lighter texture near to the island.

The sea is beguiling in its rise and fall. While it is relatively smooth now, lethargically pulsing with each small swell, it was only a few days ago that we were carefully charting a track through the worst of the weather in order to make the ship as comfortable as possible within the sampling survey design we required. The Aurora Australis is 100 m long and the seas looked so small compared to its robust bow. It was only when I was reflecting on this on the bridge that Ian pointed out to me that the swells were coming through at 8-10 m - "Just look at the tower on the bow". Sure enough, when the swells came the Aurora would rise to meet them, and rise some more and then gently plunge down the other side into the next swell. And as the white sprayed around the bow you could see that the bow's mast was below the top of the next swell. It was when the ship was turned for the next leg of the acoustic track that you really knew the state of the sea, beam (side)-on and the Aurora would get a mighty roll from one side to the other, flinging everything not tied down backwards and forth.

But we take advantage of the good weather and note our good fortune for Christmas Day tomorrow. Most of the ship will be able to relax at lunch and join in the festive cheer. We are very thankful of such a splendid beginning to this marine science voyage.

We will all be thinking of home tomorrow. Have a great Christmas!