Weathering the furious fifties

Life in a tent on Heard Island can be challenging. But the most vulnerable to the weather in this zone of strong and persistent westerly winds – the ‘furious 50s’ – are those working the decks and laboratories on the Aurora Australis. We had budgeted for a loss of at least one-third of the ship days to poor weather, but, by being adaptable in the survey design, managed to collect usable data on most days. Aurora Australis voyage leader, Dick Williams, describes the difficulty of conducting marine science in the Southern Ocean:

‘January 19–24, 2004. As always in the Heard Island region the weather is the dominant factor affecting plans. Trying to finesse the weather, taking calculated risks on what the wind and sea will do in the ensuing couple of days so that something productive can be done during bad or marginal conditions, is a constant feature of trying to do marine science in this area and getting the maximum value out of the always limited time available…

As it happened, we had our most extensive period of bad weather for the whole voyage. Although the wind was not always in the extreme range (although we did experience periods of wind over 45 knots), the constant westerly or north westerly winds over 30 knots, since leaving the king penguin box, built up very large swells which precluded any work. This meant that after completing two of the 10 CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) casts on the western oceanographic transect, we were dodging west and east during Friday and Saturday, trying to stay near the transect line and waiting for the weather to abate…

By Saturday afternoon we knew we would not be able to complete either the western oceanographic transect or the juvenile icefish survey because the forecast was for continuing strong westerly winds. We headed for Heard Island to give us some respite from the heavy rolling that the ship was experiencing and to put us in a position to start the southern oceanographic transect as soon as the weather allowed.’