A State of Origin rugby report and an amazing sea-ice trip to the Taylor Glacier emperor penguin colony this week at Mawson.

WorkCover meets rugby

Hi all,

Well as the whole world would know by now Queensland won the State of Origin Rugby League Series last week and I thought it worthy of a mention in ‘This Week at Mawson’.  I initially thought I’d leave it to my New South Wales counterparts to write an impartial story on the excellent series this year, however, on reflection I thought if I left in their hands, well quite frankly, it would not have been written.

Despite NSW having a momentary high by winning the second game to take the series to a decider, they fell short at the end. So well done QLD, seven years in a row, quite an achievement, and thank you to my good mate Lloyd Younger in Rockhampton who went to the trouble of sending me a Qld WorkCover poster signed by their safety ambassador, Queensland’s coach Mal Meninga.

I might reside in Victoria again these days but this ex-Queenslander is smiles all over.


In search of penguins near the Colbeck Archipelago

After many weeks waiting for the weather to stop blowing a gale, six intrepid Mawson winterers finally departed station just after 6am last Sunday in two Hägglunds (Swedish over-snow vehicles). On board were Chris, Darren, Ian, Kelvin, Mel and Wayne ready for a four-day adventure.

After careful planning and preparation, with mechanical checks, gear checks, contingency plans, communication equipment checks and food packing completed, we were on the road! We were heading west along the coast to the Colbeck archipelago with a solid ocean platform beneath us: a road trip at the end of the earth.

Several hours into the journey we enjoyed the sunrise colours bathing the sky in orange, pink and purple hues. From the comfort of our heated vehicles we spied caves and fissures in the grounded bergs in the distance. Occasional cracks in the sea ice floes (the work of tides and winds on this mobile expanse) kept us vigilant.

The trip along the coast took about eight hours and we arrived at Colbeck Hut at twilight with a beautiful moonrise. After some digging out of snow that was blocking the main door, we moved in to the hut and an accompanying van. Chris, our nominated cook, got to work re-heating some delicious food for dinner.

We had in our possession a special permit to count penguins at Taylor Rookery. One of only three places in Antarctica where emperor penguins camp out on rocks rather than sea ice, this remote penguin population has been studied for almost 25 years. It was a special privilege to be able to visit the penguins in the middle of a cold winter, and to see them huddling together for protection, carefully nursing precious eggs on their feet.

Mel Fitzpatrick

Emperors at Taylor

From the hut at Colbeck we made it to the Taylor Glacier emperor penguin rookery! Fantastic weather came along for the ride as well. We parked the two Haggs on the sea ice, and started unloading cameras. A small group of penguins were a little shy of the strange creatures that came out of the even stranger brightly coloured, noisy boxes, that had no legs but could still move. Penguins being penguins, it wasn’t long before they plucked up enough courage to come closer to our strange party. It also meant that they could get on their way to where ever it is that penguins go. Perhaps the desire for food simply outweighed their fear, as they didn’t stop for long to investigate the strange troupe on their walkway, but carried on their way to the sea and their next meal.

After putting our camera gear together, we set off to find the rookery. Rules being rules, the special permit that was required for us to enter this Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) only allowed four people entry to this unique place. That meant two of the six people on the trip would be missing out on seeing this rookery. The lucky four, with cameras packed, headed off towards the rookery area, wondering where exactly the penguins would be this year.

It didn’t take very long at all before we spotted the colony. Right at the front of the valley they make home, all huddled together. It looked like it would be hard to get all of us to a suitable vantage point to take photographs for population counting, without disturbing the penguins. A change of plan was decided, and I was the very lucky person to sneak past the penguin radar and take the photographs we came here to take. Ten minutes, and some very slippery ice later, I had the tripod and camera set and ready to start shooting. Four sets of sweeps over the whole colony were taken, firstly using the designated settings, and then some variations; just in case. 30 minutes and over 150 photographs later it was time to pack up and head back to the rest of the group, hopefully with enough suitable photographs that can be stitched together to allow the number of penguins to be determined.

So, why did we visit Taylor? Well, at this time of year all the female emperor penguins are (or at least should be) away from the area, off stocking up on food for the new chicks that should be hatching in the coming weeks. While the females are away, the male penguins are incubating the eggs. By counting the number of penguins in the colony now, an estimate of the breeding population is obtained. Counting the number of chicks at the end of the season, then gives an indication of how successful the colony has been breeding this year.

Kelvin Cope

Road trip on bumpy sea ice

Travelling across the sea ice in the middle of winter does not present many problems. The ice thickness varies from 750mm to 1200mm thick. This can change near the coast, islands or ice bergs where the movement of the tides causes the ice to crack, in some cases for many kilometers out to sea. This is more common in places where there is movement of ice away from the coast such as where glaciers meet the sea ice.

Two common areas where there are tide cracks on this route are at the Forbes Glacier and the Jelbart Glacier. We were travelling in Hägglunds that are powered by a Mercedes BV206D6 6-cylinder diesel engine with a 4-speed automatic transmission. The Hägglunds are an all terrain rubber-tracked vehicle capable of a 60° incline and crossing most obstacles. These vehicles have to be self sufficient with adequate supplies for a month away from Mawson. Replacement spares for the Hägglunds in case of breakages in the extreme Antarctic environment as well as fuel and water need to be carried.

This is a compromise between reducing weight and ensuring all possible contingencies are covered in case of an emergency. The Hägglunds also carry recovery equipment such as ramps, winches, tow ropes and ice anchors to get out of possible bogging in snow or breaking through the sea ice. The tide cracks were fairly straight forward on the journey to the Colbeck Archipelago and the Taylor Glacier.

Drilling the ice to measure the thickness was conducted at predetermined locations with a history of variable ice and also at larger tide cracks. This was to check on how uniform the ice thickness was — ice can vary at the edge of tide cracks and may not take the weight of a fully loaded Hägglunds. We drilled the ice to ensure the best location to cross the tide crack safely. The full moon and extra high tides made the return journey interesting, with many tide cracks opening up further than on the outward trip.

Ian Petty and Wayne Scandrett 

Aurora gazing and other marvels

One aspect of the trip to Taylor rookery that was appreciated by all was the marvellous display of natural phenomenon put on by mother nature. We had fine weather for the whole trip and were inspired by the natural beauty of the hills and frozen freshwater lakes around Chapman Ridge, the icebergs and sea ice formations and of course you could never miss the splendour of sunrises, sunsets, moon rises, twinkling  stars and planets and of course the aurora australis. Because we seem more attuned to nature in Antarctica than we are normally back in Australia, all these seem to be more wonderful. One thing that I will definitely do when I return home is take some time out to take note of all these wonderful daily events, even if it is only to sit it at the top of a hill look out to the east and watch the sunrise.

The islands around the area are made from incredibly old rocks, some of them a billion years old! With the folding of metamorphic rocks come beautiful layers and patterns in the granite and charnockite. Many of them are sculpted by the wind, pitted and grooved by smaller pebbles and sand blasting them over time.

As well as visiting the penguins, we walked on frozen lakes with ice so clear in some places you could see to the bottom. The bottom and edges of these lakes are liquid water during the summer, making a great home for all sorts of microbes. The lake ice contains bubbles of all sizes and shapes that are formed as the bottom and edges freeze again during early winter. This freezing happens deep down underneath the permanent ice lens so new bubbles form at depth. As the wind continually erodes the top surface these bubbles eventually reach the surface and then disappear.

Darren Henderson