Boating for science

Measuring a survey point on Holl Island by GPS.
Measuring a survey point on Holl Island by GPS. (Photo: J Smith)
A skua flies above a group of fledgling Adélie penguins huddled on an ice floe.Landing the small watercraft on an islet to make a gravity measurement.

17 February 2005

Jeremy Smith, Station Leader

Boating in Antarctica is a very part-time activity. Naturally it can happen only when there is liquid sea to float the boats on, and that restricts it to the ten weeks from mid-December to late February. Within that short summer window, most days are unsuitable because of wind: anything stronger than 15 knots makes it cold and raises waves, and the whole thing gets uncomfortable and dangerous. On top of that, everyone has their own job to do, so it is not always easy raising a crew. Not everyone can drive a boat; the regulations specify training, and presently we have only six drivers. So it is always a juggling act to get a boat trip under way – waiting for and watching the weather, ensuring that the scientists have their equipment ready, and finding drivers who can be spared from other responsibilities, all usually more or less at the last minute.

Despite these obvious restrictions, it can be a wonderful way to get quickly to coastal sites, and in summer it is the only way to reach the many offshore islands unless helicopters are available. This year several projects have a need for boats: we have glaciologists making gravity and GPS measurements to assess crustal movements since the last ice age, penguin counters, a tide gauge installer, and collectors of various water and seaweed samples.

We had a trip planned for last Sunday but forecast winds prevented it, despite it being the first sunny day for what felt like weeks. Yesterday was not sunny, the winds were marginally strong, and temperatures kept stubbornly below freezing point, but nevertheless the forecast was good and so the decision was made to get the trip done: summer is nearly over and it could be now or never.

Our goal was to visit several islands about 20 km south of the station. While Peter and myself would tie up one boat and climb to the top of Holl Island to take an accurate GPS measurement of a survey point, the other two boats would travel to other coastal sites to make gravity measurements, and visit and check on a cache of survival equipment which is maintained at Ford Island.

We left the Red Shed (our accommodation building) at 7.00 am and were on the water by 8.00 am. The wind was from the north and we were heading south, so the trip down was easy. Particularly as we passed cliffed Ardrey Island where several of them breed, we began to see flying seabirds that are uncommon closer to Casey where our avifauna is restricted to penguins and skuas, with snow petrels and Wilson's storm-petrels nesting in rock crevices and seldom seen during the day. There were giant petrels (albatross-sized scavengers with huge hooked beaks); the pretty, chequered cape petrels; and most abundant of the flying birds, the grey Antarctic fulmars.

The landing on Holl Island was hindered by an accumulation of brash ice blocking the bay where we wanted to go, but was soon accomplished just around the point. One boat was tied up to a large erratic boulder, and I disembarked with Peter while the other boats sped away to their other sites and tasks. We set off with heavy loads towards the summit of a hill a little over a kilometre away.

Our way soon passed through a veritable skua charnel house, a place behind the bay where some prominent rocks adjacent to a melt pool provide a skua's ideal dining spot. They were clearly feeding well, making a killing (literally) among the numerous newly fledged Adélie penguins that were clustered on floes just offshore awaiting the loss of the last of their chick down, and for hunger to spur them on to their big launch out to sea. Red penguin skins and bones lay scattered about. A couple of the skuas dived on us in a desultory sort of way as we passed, but nothing like the intense physical assault earlier in the season when their own chicks seem endangered.

We trudged across hard snow and weathered rock at increasingly steep angles until the summit was achieved, where we found the survey point marked with white paint. There Peter set up the equipment that was to consult with overhead satellites for the next hour and a half, while I scouted out a comfortable ledge out of the wind and settled down to contemplate the view.

In the distance the ice cliffs of the Vanderford Glacier showed up clearly beyond the adjacent ridge of rounded brown granite, the intermediate sea dark blue and dotted with white ice fragments. The other two boats could just be made out several kilometres away, speeding further south. The ice sheet formed a smooth, white, high horizon far to the southeast. In the foreground a basin held two pools, one frozen but one still open, and a few old snowdrifts. Variously coloured boulders of all sizes were scattered everywhere, lying just where a more extensive ice sheet had dropped them 10 000 years ago at the end of the last global ice age.

I took out a snack, and my book. I am reading Roland Huntford's account of the 'race' to the South Pole by Amundsen and Scott in 1911-12. I turned back a few pages to check the chronology. On this day 93 years ago Amundsen had recently returned on skis and with dogs triumphant from the pole, and was aboard his ship Fram en route to Hobart to announce his achievement to the world. Meanwhile Scott was about to lose his first man near the Beardmore Glacier during their hellish, disastrous, man-hauling retreat. Of course that was all a continent as well as nearly a century away, but it still made a striking contrast with my own warm, safe situation on the other side of the ice plateau.

The boat return was less comfortable than our trip down. Although the wind had eased slightly, the sea was choppy making the ride bumpy as well as cold. On the way we stopped at a couple more islets to complete the program of gravity readings, and at one such place we watched a pod of whales. They were initially far out and other than their spouts only an occasional black fin could be seen. Later they came past again, a little closer. Their steamy exhalations sounded explosively across the silent sea, and their black backs and fins rose smoothly out of the choppy sea. They were small, barely bigger than porpoises, and were probably the common Minkes. We returned tired and cold, but happy both to have achieved all of our scientific goals, and to have enjoyed a wonderful day out in the Antarctic wilderness.