Warwick Barnes’ usual job is as the co-ordinator of the Australian Antarctic Division’s web sites, both internal and external. Warwick was given the opportunity to participate on Voyage 5 of the 2004–05 season aboard the Aurora Australis. After looking after the Antarctic Division’s web cameras from the Kingston (Australia) end for the past two years he saw how they work from the Antarctic end. Amongst a pretty extensive work program, Warwick sent back diary entries providing a glimpse of his time on the Aurora Australis and at Mawson, Casey and Macquarie Island stations.

Day 1: Departure

Day one (20 February 2005) of our voyage starts on land — in a lecture theatre. The Director of the Australian Antarctic Division welcomes us and introduces us to, “the most important person in the room” — the Voyage Leader. We are leaving today on “Voyage 5” from Hobart to Mawson station, Casey station, Macquarie Island station, and back to Hobart. It’s a six week trip, and for some it’s very familiar territory. For many of us though, it's a trip into the complete unknown.

One theme dominates all others at our lectures on day one … safety.

We’re left in no doubt that although everything should be fine, the Southern Ocean can be dangerous.

After the lectures there are a few hours spare … It is a good chance for some of us to spend a little more time with our families before it’s time to say goodbye. Some expeditioners are away for six weeks, others will be staying on Macquarie Island, and will be away for a year. It’s quite an emotional time for many at the wharf, as we wave goodbye and sail off into a perfect Hobart sunset.

Day 2: Sea sick!

Day two — the first full day on board the ship, is a quiet one for many of us. I feel great … as long as I’m lying down. Sitting up, standing, reading, writing, eating … any of these activities seem completely out-of-the question! The corridors and stairwells of the ship seem like a nightmare — pitching and rolling as you try to walk along them. I can’t think clearly at all.

When seasick it’s important not to get dehydrated, so I lie in bed with a drink bottle by my side and hope to feel better soon. Outside it’s a lovely day. The sea is unusually calm and the sun is shining. It’s a real shame not to be out in it.

The photo shows the inside of my cabin on the Aurora Australis. It’s a bad, blurry photo — but it matches the mood of the day. The cabin accommodates three people but there are just two of us in it on this voyage. So there’s a little more space to move around. I’m sharing with a marine scientist, who is already hard at work measuring samples of the ocean water.

Day 3: Smooth sailing

Day three dawns with calm seas, and many of us feeling a bit better. I’m able to contemplate my first meal for two days: a plain dry biscuit and a cup of tea. It’s good to go outside on deck to get some fresh air and look at the surrounding ocean.

It’s exciting to see that we’re not completely alone in the ocean — a variety of birds take an interest in our ship and circle around us for a while before heading off into the distance again. The photo shows a wandering albatross. These birds seem to glide effortlessly around the ship, they don’t appear to ever need to flap their wings.

Day 4: Sun on the water

Even members of the crew, with their long experience of ocean travel, are surprised at how lucky we are with the good weather. The sea is wonderfully calm, with the bright sun glistening on the waves. There are a couple of sightings of whales today — but such fleeting glimpses that it’s impossible to tell what species they are.

It’s still 2291 nautical miles to Mawson Station, which is currently surrounded by ice. At this stage no one knows the condition of the ice, and whether the ship will be able to get through it or not.

The forecast is for worsening weather — we can’t stay ‘lucky’ forever…

Day 5: Worse weather on the way

Overnight the sea became distinctly rougher — causing a few people to start feeling a bit ill again. It’s another largely sunny day, but the wind is quite strong — making it harder to be out on deck. Birds followed the ship for some of the day, but mainly refused to come in nice and close to be within range of our lenses. Photography is difficult. The ship moves, the birds move, your hands shake, and the odds of getting a nice clear image seem slim.

The Aurora Australis seems to ride up over the tops of waves and come diving down the other side of them. This causes a fair degree of pitching. It’s nothing remarkable to the crew or the experienced expeditioners on the ship, but to first-timers it feels a bit like a rollercoaster ride.

I spent midnight of day five on the bridge of the ship, looking out onto the moonlit sea, and hanging on tightly to the railing. Then I put my clock back an hour and waited for midnight to come around again. Every second night the ship’s time is set back, so when we reach Mawson Station we'll be operating on their local time.

The photo shows the spray over the bow of the ship as we continue to make our way westward, and south.

Day 6: Fire drill

A fire drill was held today, to get us used to the procedures that need to be followed in the event of an emergency. We have to get dressed in our ‘freezer suits’, with strong boots and life jackets, and make our way to our muster station out on deck, for a head-count.

Day 7: Albatross

Saturday is even more windy than Friday, but we’re followed by a number of birds that seem to be right at home in the conditions.

The photo shows an Albatross, that kept us company on-and-off for much of the day.

Day 8 : Iceberg!

There is intense excitement on day 8 (28 February 2005), as an iceberg appears on the horizon. For many of us this is the first iceberg we’ve ever seen.

It’s an incredible, awe-inspiring object, about as big as our ship, with the heavy seas swirling all around the base of it. Ultimately this iceberg doesn’t stand a chance, in the relatively warm water. Even as we’re watching it, a large chunk falls off the side, into the water below.

Day 9: Heavy going

It has now been three-or-four days of quite rough whether, and it’s starting to be a bit of a strain. Everything takes so much more effort than it would on land. Just getting out of the bunk in the morning is a challenge. People are developing their own techniques for being able to have a shower without falling all around the bathroom.

I try to do a bit of ‘housework’, and spend a significant amount of time just getting my clothes from the washing machine to the dryer without ending-up falling into the dryer myself. Afterwards it’s time to do some typing on the laptop computer. It’s slow because I can only spare one hand to type with — the other is required for hanging on to the desk, so I don’t slide away when the ship rolls.

There are a few keen surfers on board, and I’m wondering whether their good sense of balance gives them an advantage in the conditions. The photo shows one, Kristian, doing a stylish job of staying upright on the bridge of the ship.

Day 10: Sunshine and icebergs

Today was going to be a difficult one, with the forecast for eight to nine metre waves. However it seems we avoided the heavy seas, and all woke to a beautiful calm, sunny morning. It’s a wonderful relief from the constant rolling and pitching of the last few days.

I take the chance to do some exercise by running in circles on the deck. It looks funny to anyone watching, but it feels great to be running again, after days of just staggering along corridors.

The sunshine highlights the different colours and shapes of the passing icebergs. They’re a regular feature now — but not so regular that we've become accustomed to them. Each big passing berg is still an ‘event’. It is awesome to watch the waves swirling around the base of the icebergs and crashing up against them.

Day 11: More icebergs

The ship is far enough South now that we seem to have cleared the bad weather completely. The sea is gentle to us today, with only some occasional larger swell to make the ship roll a little.

We pass fairly large icebergs every 20 minutes or so. They’re all unique and beautiful to look at. The same iceberg can have a completely different appearance when viewed from a different angle — both its shape and colour can appear to change as the ship sails past.

The sun comes and goes today … but mostly it is a little cloudy.

Day 12: Snow!

In the morning we have the chance to go on a tour of the ship’s engine room: and see the control room with its array of buttons and dials, as well as the ship’s two engines themselves. The ship can use either, or both engines to drive the propeller, depending on how much power is required.

Later in the afternoon it snows for a while, forming a layer of white over most of the ship. It’s a good opportunity to get out on the ship’s helideck: build a snowman and throw snowballs around.

We’re getting close to Mawson now. The question since we left Hobart has been, ‘Will we be able to get through the ice and into the harbour?’

At the moment it’s looking quite promising. Everyone’s excited about getting to the Antarctic continent.

Day 13: Sunset

It has been a bumpy night on the ship. Most people aboard look tired, after not sleeping well. We’re advised in the morning not to go outside because the rough conditions have left much of the deck covered in sea spray which has turned to ice. It is very slippery.

By mid-afternoon we reach the pack ice. The sea is now so much calmer and we can carefully venture outside on the icy deck. It’s exciting to look through binoculars and see some crabeater seals and penguins sitting on different icebergs. The birds continue to fly quite close to our ship — particularly today a giant petrel.

There are meetings on board today to finalise plans for the resupply operation at Mawson Station. Along with several others, I’ve volunteered to help with the refuelling part of the resupply. The job involves sitting on top of a fuel tank on shore and keeping an eye on things — making sure the tanks don’t get too full. It’s supposed to be quite a straightforward job — though still important. The most difficult thing it’s going to be trying to stay warm — sitting on top of the fuel tanks in the middle of the night in the full force of the wind.

Late in the afternoon the ship breaks through a chunk of ice … for the first time this voyage demonstrating some of its capabilities as an icebreaker.

The sky is clear, the water is calm, and many of us gather on the deck to watch sunset. It is a beautiful night: we are surrounded by icebergs, majestic birds, seals, and some whales even put in a brief appearance. It’s hard to know which amazing, wonderful sight to look at — there’s far too much to take in at once. We’ve all forgotten how tired we feel from the previous night’s rough weather, and we stay on deck until after the last rays of the sun disappear over the horizon.

For many of us, this has clearly been the best day of the voyage. Even experienced Antarctic travellers are impressed. There is a feeling of euphoria on board. The world around us is stunning, and tomorrow we are due to arrive at Mawson Station, with our chance to complete the work we came to do, and to set foot on the Antarctic continent.

Day 14: Stuck?

I wake up in the morning to find the ship completely calm, and stopped. There is ice everywhere around us. There doesn’t appear to be any path by which the ship came in, or any path by which it should leave. It’s as if we just dropped from the sky and landed here in the night.

The news comes around that we’re not going to make it to Mawson. We’re about 26 nautical miles away at the moment, and for many of us, that’s the closest we'll ever get to the Antarctic continent. I can see mountains in the distance: Mt Elliot, Mt Ward, and Mt Henderson. Mawson Station is somewhere between us and the mountains, but we can’t see it. The mountains themselves seem to be all surrounded by thick low cloud. Someone points out to me that it isn’t cloud at all … it’s ice.

Almost everyone seems disappointed … it’s quite deflating after such a tremendous day yesterday. We’re encouraged to think positively though… The resupply of Mawson can still continue. Essential cargo will be transported by helicopter from the ship to the shore. The refuelling, which I’d volunteered to help with, is canceled; but thanks to its use of wind power, Mawson Station doesn’t need as much fuel, so it can cope without refuelling this year.

Though surrounded by ice, the ship isn’t at all stuck … it’s well within its capabilities to move on, or back. It’s just that with Winter on the way, the ice is only going to get worse. If the ship breaks through to get to Mawson, then it might not be able to break out again. Then we’d be stuck until October! No-one’s going to risk that happening. Helicopters come-and-go throughout the day. It’s only a 20 minute flight from the ship to the station. Some people who have essential tasks to undertake are ferried to the shore. The crew are busy with the helicopter operations, and the rest of us just have to stay on ship, and stay out of the way of all the work that’s happening around us.

Later in the day I carefully get out on the icy deck and explore a bit more of the ship. There should be plenty of time for walking the decks as we sit stationary in the ice for a few days.

Day 15: Through the ice to Mawson

We wake up to find ourselves exactly where we were last night… in the middle of a vast expanse of ice. I’ve slept-in and missed the 7:30am breakfast, after being out on deck at 2am the night before, looking at the stars.

There are no helicopters operating, due to the strong winds at Mawson, and at 10:30am we have a ‘muster’ (emergency drill) on the helideck. When we’re sheltered from the wind, the conditions outside are sunny and beautiful.

Just before lunch the ship begins to move through the ice. Some of us are still standing out on the helideck after the muster, and we’re not sure where we’re headed: closer to Mawson or further out to sea. After a while it becomes apparent that we are heading to Mawson, via a different path through the ice. It’s very exciting to be progressing towards Antarctica again.

Near the end of our day’s short journey we crunch through what looks like metre-thick ice, before entering Horseshoe Harbour, Mawson Station.

Although the entry to the Harbour is routine for the crew, it’s also demanding. The Aurora Australis doesn’t have much space to manoeuvre in the small harbour, and there’s little room for error.

Day 16: Setting Foot in Antarctica

After two weeks aboard ship, we’re going to be allowed off today — to stand on dry land, in Antarctica.

After breakfast, a large group of expeditioners are going ashore at once on a barge. We exit via a door in the side of the ship; climb down a rope ladder, and step carefully onto the slippery wooden surface of the barge. We stand huddled together in our warm gear — looking a bit like little yellow penguins.

On shore it’s a sunny day, with a gentle breeze. It’s wonderful to be off the ship, and to be able to walk, or even run, in the fresh air. Mawson is a rocky place. It has lots of brightly coloured buildings built around on the rock. Outside the station limits is a vast expanse of ice. Without the proper field training, and the permission of the Station Leader, we’re not allowed on the ice. However there still seems to be a lot we can explore.

Mawson Station is quite low on staff at this time of year, so people from the ship help out with various resupply jobs. There is a lot of unpacking to be done… many chains of people are set up to transfer boxes from ship containers into storage. A number of us help out with stacking boxes of food onto shelves in the ‘green shed’ (warehouse), under the supervision of the station chef. Others help out inside the ‘red shed’ (living quarters) with kitchen duties and cleaning: a job that’s known as being the “slushie”.

I get a couple of hours spare in the afternoon where I can go around and photograph seals, penguins, wind-turbines and other station structures. I’m interested in the wind turbines because one of my projects ‘back at the office’ was to represent the wind turbine data on the web. It’s good to see the turbines in person. They're even more impressive than I imagined.

After a busy and interesting day on shore we transfer back to the ship in little inflatable rubber boats, in time for dinner. After dinner I try, unsuccessfully, to get a couple of hours sleep in preparation for my shift on the fuel farm, which starts at midnight.

Day 17: Fuel farm

Today starts with me standing at midnight on top of fuel tanks on the shore at Mawson. Another expeditioner and I will be looking after the midnight-to-4am shift. It’s predicted that during this shift the last of the fuel tanks ashore will be filled and Mawson will have been fully resupplied with 578,000 litres of fuel. The fuel-farm watch is fairly straight-forward, but it’s still necessary to concentrate. Roughly every hour we have to switch fuel tanks, and make sure we're opening and closing the various taps in the right order.

The wind has been quite strong all day, but gets stronger and stronger throughout the shift. It starts to get really cold on top of the fuel tanks even though we're wearing many layers of warm clothes, underneath incredibly warm ‘freezer suits’. It’s a relief when the operation is completed early — about 3am. It takes until about 4am anyway to make sure everything is shut down properly, and then make our way back to the ‘red shed’ for some shelter, and a cup-of-tea. It feels as if it has been a long day, though it’s nice to know that the refuelling operation has been a success.

I find a place in the red shed to get a few hours sleep. I’m intending to wake up and photograph sunrise, but end up waking up at a 11am… narrowly missing sunrise by about five hours! When I do head down to the dining area in the red shed, and look at the scene it’s almost completely white… we’re about to be in the middle of an Antarctic blizzard!

Due to the blizzard, the station leader announces that people (like me) without the proper field training are not allowed outside. (Even with full field training it’s not going to be comfortable or productive to go out.)

As our ship disappears into the white, we settle-in for an unexpected extra night at Mawson. It’s a good chance to look around the red shed, and see some of the historical pictures and items that are around. This is my first, and probably last ever full night ashore in Antarctica.

Day 18: Waiting for the weather

Though the blizzard of the previous day has cleared, it’s still too windy to use either the inflatable rubber boats (IRBs) or helicopters, to return to the ship. The wind is so strong also that the wind turbines have been unable to operate for two days. In these sort of conditions they have to be stopped to avoid damage.

Those of us ‘stranded’ ashore take the opportunity to get out in the difficult conditions and have a look around Mawson station. It’s hard to make much progress while fighting against the wind at every step, but we try our best to see and appreciate as much of the station and immediate surroundings as we can, in the unexpected extra time that has now become available to us.

After dinner at Mawson the wind has finally dropped enough that we’re able to board the little boats for the short trip back to the ship. The residents of Mawson have been wonderfully welcoming, and it’s a shame to say goodbye. However we’re also keen to see how the people who remained on the ship during the blizzard fared, and the evening provides a good chance to catch up…

Day 19: Sunny day aboard at Mawson

Today is beautifully calm and sunny, with the temperature outside being a relatively warm −1°C. Cargo operations commence in the morning, and the people who were stuck on the ship during the blizzard are allowed ashore for a bit of a look around. In the afternoon there’s a service on West Arm, and the ashes of a former expeditioner are scattered.

It’s a quiet day on board for the rest of us … some have volunteered to help in the kitchen or with other tasks, and the rest of us are catching up on our own jobs, as well as spending some time on deck in the sunshine. None of the portholes on the ship are quite big enough to let in a decent amount of sun — so it’s something I’ve been missing.

In the evening I sit out on the helideck to watch the light fade and listen to a couple of the musically talented people on board: Frances playing her violin and Danielle playing either the flute or recorder.

Looking out over the water in the harbour I’m impressed by how calm it is. Then it dawns on me that the water looks calm because it’s actually turning to ice around us. The ice is called grease ice, and it’s awesome to watch it forming; but it’s also a bit scary to think we’re sitting here in the middle of Antarctica with the world freezing around us.

Day 20: Leaving Mawson

It’s calm and slightly colder today: −3 degrees, and we awake to find there’s grease ice in the harbour all around us … we were being iced-in as we slept!

During the morning, people pitch-in to help shovel snow off the helideck, so helicopter operations can commence. Items from the station to be returned to Australia (RTA) are brought aboard today.

The ship sails out of the harbour in the afternoon, with many of us standing on the helideck to wave goodbye as Mawson Station disappears into the white distance. The last thing we can see of the station are the two wind turbines, spinning calmly in the breeze.

Day 21: Accident

Today starts with the Aurora Australis holding its position in the ocean, about 50 nautical miles north of Mawson station. Apparently the Station Leader at Mawson has been injured, and we need to wait and find out if he needs to be evacuated, or not…

Then the news comes through that the Station Leader will be allright, and can be looked after by the doctor at Mawson. So at 2:30am the ship heads off on the next leg of our journey to Casey station.

It’s a grey day, which I spend trying to take more photos of the birds around the ship. Towards evening the waves grow bigger and the ship begins to roll. After days at Mawson we have to get used to the bumpiness again — and for some people this means the return of sea sickness.

Day 22: Snow and sleet

It’s another grey day, but the ship makes steady progress through the snow and sleet towards Casey.

While out on deck watching light-mantled sooty albatross circling the ship, the snow is blowing upwards at a 45 degree angle into my face. It’s very hard to see anything — to photograph anything. But the birds don’t seem to mind the weather at all.

Day 23: Warm and quiet

I spend some time between about 1 and 3am today writing a little program to make a chess clock on my laptop computer. For an evening recreational activity I’m trying to organise a five-minute-chess (speed chess) competition. Without a proper chess clock the ‘laptop-clock’ will have to do. Five-minute-chess is a widely played variant of the game where each player has five minutes to complete all their moves. If you run out of time, you lose…

There’s not much else happening on board today. It’s ‘warm’ outside — almost two degrees at its peak. So it’s a good day for being out and watching the ocean go past… with just a few birds for company and the occasional iceberg to break-up the apparently endless expanse of water.

Tonight we have to put our clocks forward an hour. All the way from Hobart to Mawson we’ve been gaining ‘bonus’ hours by regularly putting our clocks back — eventually ending-up five hours behind Hobart. Now on our return we need to travel in time once more. We’re losing an hour every two days, until we’re back to Hobart time again.

Day 24: Seals at sea

After the relative warmth of yesterday, today seems cold — minus seven degrees. I find it hard to spend as much time out on deck as I’d like. The cold feels as if it seeps up from the freezing steel deck through my boots and socks — to turn my feet into ice. After one trip out on deck I have a warm shower, which induces the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my feet. The lukewarm shower water feels as if it’s molten lava on my toes.

Two pairs of gloves are not enough to keep my hands warm. I have to stand with my hands in my pockets if at all possible. Luckily my freezer suit has really nice pockets — a lot of clothing doesn’t, and it makes it impossible to remain outside and keep warm.

It’s exciting today to see a leopard seal sitting on a piece of ice as the ship passes. The seal is probably a juvenile, and there’s some dispute about whether it even is a leopard. Have a look at the photo and see what you think…

Tonight, as we’ve reached the calm icy water near Casey, there’s a open fire barbeque on the trawl deck of the ship. It’s fantastic to have an Aussie barbeque in such an incredible place — at the back of the ship, down near the water-line, surrounded by icebergs, wildlife, sunset… There are no flies to swish away, and your cold drinks actually get colder the longer you take to drink them. Many of us remain huddled and talking by the cheerful warmth of the fires, well into the night.

Day 25: Casey station

Today is the chance for a brief visit to Casey station. I’m a bit nervous about having my first ever helicopter ride, but it seems quite smooth and simple; and in a few minutes I've gone from the ship to the Antarctic mainland.

The ground at Casey is covered in thick, soft snow — very different to the ice and rock of Mawson. It’s cold, but with only light winds it’s quite comfortable to move around. There is time for only a brief look at the station and a chance to take some photos. For me, it’s also a chance use a shared computer at Casey to log-in to another computer back at head office in Hobart, and make a few last-minute changes to the Division’s new Heard Island web site.

Day 26: Sunrise, flying and leaving

I actually get up to watch sunrise this morning. I don’t bother to dress warmly enough, and so my endurance out on deck is not good. After sunrise I head back to my cabin, and fall asleep. The next thing I remember is the Deputy Voyage Leader waking me up… they’re doing a helicopter flight over Casey Station and want someone to do some aerial photography. The flight leaves in 20 minutes…

That afternoon we leave Casey. This time I dress properly… wearing just about every piece of clothing I can find so that I can stay comfortably out on deck for hours, and say goodbye to Antarctica.

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