A ship comes and goes

Davis tent city, February 2003.
Davis tent city, February 2003. (Photo: J Smith)
The Twin Otter being serviced at its ski-way near Davis, February 2003.Kathleen cuts her 21st birthday cake at the farewell dinner in the workshop, February 2003.Moulting elephant seals doze during cargo operations at Davis.Expeditioners depart by barge for Polar Bird and home, February 2003.

13 February 2003

Of course summer is the busiest season in Antarctica, the time when climatic conditions are most favourable to all manner of outdoor activities ranging from science in remote field camps to construction of station buildings. The pace of activity reaches its peak when a ship is in the harbour - for example when Polar Bird, on Voyage 5 of this year's Antarctic Division shipping schedule, visited Davis in early February.

She was expected on the fifth, but as commonly happens, the weather delayed her a couple of days when strong winds trapped her in the safe but small harbour at Mawson.

Well in advance of her arrival, Davis was invaded by wild mountain men. They came, several days early to catch the ship, from the Prince Charles Mountains 800 km to our southwest where they had been part of the PCMEGA geological expedition. The Canadian aircrew with their Twin Otter aircraft flew a long day to get them all here before a weather change. They arrived in sunshine; by next morning it was blowing a gale beneath leaden skies.

The station population swelled to 96. There were no spare beds so we created 'tent city', seven polar pyramid tents erected beside the main store.

As well as the Twin Otter, two more helicopters joined the Davis fleet from PCMEGA, making a combined 'air force' of five machines. There were still several jobs for the aircraft to complete in remote places – collection of camp gear, down-loading data, moving fuel drums from ice surfaces where they might become buried by snow, and one last ice radar flight to investigate ice thicknesses across Amery Ice Shelf. Squirrel helicopters are excellent for jobs over short distances and can land almost anywhere, and for bigger jobs longer distances the Twin Otter has proved magnificent. Together they are a fine combination for accomplishing the broad range of tasks demanded by the full summer program.

On the last Saturday night before the ship arrived, we had a special dinner to farewell the 44 members of our expanded community due to leave in a few days. It doubled as a surprise 21st birthday party for our youngest expeditioner, Sydney glaciologist, Kathleen.

The dinner was held in the workshop. The mess was too small for everyone to be seated there at one time. Benches, vehicles and equipment were moved to make space, and tables were decorously covered by tablecloths and set with cutlery, plates, glasses and candles. Balloons festooned the dangling chains, tool racks and equipment around the walls.

Speeches and presentations were made. After dinner we all cleared up the workshop in very quick time before moving down to the lounge area for entertainments. It was a very happy occasion, and a suitable reward for lots of hard work achieved over previous days and weeks, as well as in anticipation of a very busy time when the ship came.

She arrived early one morning, slipping slowly along the deep channel between the icebergs grounded along our horizon. Soon barges were plying to and fro bringing visitors and cargo to the wharf. Operations were observed sleepily by the huge elephant seals lying in malodorous groups near the beach, where they come each year to moult their skin.

Visitors were offered trips to field huts where they could get a better flavour of 'real Antarctica'. They included Jak D, a Hobart science teacher granted a round trip berth as part of the humanities program and very keen to see the Antarctic environment and the scientific (especially physics) research being undertaken here.

The operations at the ship and wharf were expected to go on for at least two days. As well as items of equipment and building supplies, a tonne of fresh fruit and vegetables was eagerly anticipated. In return we were sending to Australia a large number of empty fuel drums, pallets of recyclable rubbish, a former hut of historic significance destined for preservation, and other items of no further utility here. No rubbish is allowed to remain in Antarctica: it all goes home for proper disposal, leaving this wild place as clean as possible.

By midday on the second day the incoming cargo was mostly ashore. The wind picked up raising nasty whitecaps across the bay, and barge operations progressed from being merely uncomfortable to downright dangerous. A halt was called. For the rest of the day we enjoyed an unwanted but nevertheless welcome break. The visitors returned from the field, and took their chance to tour the station and talk to its inhabitants. That night several people who expected to sleep aboard were unable to get back, and found places on the floor to lay out their sleeping bags.

Next morning the weather eased and the job was completed. Farewells were said, addresses exchanged, last minute promises made, and another phase of this Antarctic summer ended. There is one more voyage this season, in three weeks. After that the population drops to twenty-four till the first ship of next season in November.