At Davis this week we are training to drive the Hägglunds; the nights are cold but they have auroras; and the elephant seal leaves the beach.

How to get your Antarctic Hägglunds license

Here in Antarctica we are reliant on over-snow vehicles called Hägglunds.

Hägglunds are modified by the Australian Antarctic Division in the Kingston workshop. After many hours of testing, they make the long voyage on the Aurora Australis to their new home here at Davis station.

All expeditioners need to complete competency training in their safe operation, which includes manoeuvring the vehicles on inclines/declines, side slopes, sastrugi and sea ice.

Training for a Hägglunds license includes a comprehensive presentation delivered by our Station Mechanical Supervisor, Paul Bright, followed by a walk-through of the vehicle for familiarization of the controls, safety devices, recovery equipment, pre-operational checks and post-operational checks.

The next component is a sea ice recovery exercise. In this case it was a group activity to learn how to recover a Hägglunds if it has broken through the sea ice. Senior Diesel Mechanic, Chris Burns, ensured the vehicles were ready for salvaging. Training groups braved the −28°C temperatures to successfully set up the sea ice recovery kit which involves setting ice anchors, Tirfor winches and recovery ramps and using some elbow grease to winch the vehicle to safety. Our instructors then led our practical driving tests on some steep inclines and around a slalom course, and ended with reverse parking.

Congratulations to 16 competent Hägglunds drivers!

Heading to the Dark Side

As the nights rapidly get longer, the walk to work in the morning is in total darkness, because Davis houses many optical instruments gazing at the night sky and outdoor lighting must be kept to a bare minimum. I keep thinking to myself ‘one day I will remember my head torch'. The positive side to all this darkness is a good view of the Aurora when we are lucky enough to have a clear sky. Over the last few weeks we have had some excellent shows.

One of the instruments I look after here is the all sky camera which has a 180 degree view of the entire sky. Instead of waiting outside in temperatures as low as −30.5°C, I can sit toasty and warm inside and keep an eye on any Aurora on the live feed from the all sky camera. This does have the disadvantage that the next morning I can’t resist scrolling through the nights pictures and see that there were even more fantastic Auroras that we missed while sleeping.

With the temperatures continuing to drop, Davis is living up to its reputation as the Riviera of the South. Although we have had temperatures staying below −20°C for days at a time, the winds have generally stayed under 5 knots during these times, which makes standing outside at night watching the Auroras swirl overhead quite bearable.

The freezing temperatures also had some lovely looking ice needles growing on the handrails and other metalwork around station.

The Last Stand

It is now May and already their presence seems like a distant memory.

The noisome brown patch of sand mixed with ragged fragments of hair-covered dead skin and excrement is now pristine, washed clean in the recent high tides and covered with fresh white powdered snow. You would be hard pressed to say where they had lain.

We do miss them, the ellies, their aggressive posturing and pink tooth-lined mouths issuing steamy bellows as they jostle for position. Their aim to lie as close to each other as they can although obviously hating the proximity. They slumber away their time while they wait for the three weeks it takes to replace their outer layer totally, oblivious to all except each other’s movements.

As the short southern summer ended and the sea ice developed we could see it becoming harder for the seals to keep access to the ocean beneath the ice open, until finally this wasn’t an option. Before departing, each seal searched the coastline for somewhere to enter the water, and not finding any, one by one they headed north over the sea ice, no doubt eager for their first feed in several weeks.

Gradually the numbers dropped from a maximum of 82 during March to just two. On the 18th of April one of these departed after lunch, disappearing into the distance, a black slug against the white ice. After dinner that evening the last seal, the subject of many photographs that afternoon, also departed, hopefully to return next season early enough to pick up one of the latest CTD-SRDL tags courtesy of Clive and his team.