Orcas off West Arm, field training and the joy of being a first-time Slushy – just some of the highlights of a week at Mawson.

Outstanding orcas

On Saturday 23rd February there was a bit of excitement in the red shed as we could see a few killer whales in the bay near East arm. They looked like they were chasing penguins around. We then saw some more killer whales in Horseshoe harbour. Some of the guys grabbed their cameras and headed over to East arm while I decided to head over to West arm.

When I got to the highest point of West arm I could see about six orcas a long way out but I was happy I could get some nice shots of penguins with the whales off in the distance behind them using my telephoto lens. After an hour or so the whales started getting closer and closer. By this time Peter had arrived and we both followed the pod of whales around to the point of West arm where by this time they were only a few metres off the rocks. We were taking so many spectacular photos we both had sore trigger fingers.

By this time Geoff had joined us then we noticed the pod of whales had a young Weddell seal with them. The whole time they had been playing with the seal like a cat does with a mouse and the poor seal was completely exhausted and close to death. We could see teeth marks in his flippers and he was swollen and battered. They would drag him down and hold him under and blow bubbles at him. It was an amazing display and we all started to yell and encourage the seal to swim to shore and climb up the rocks before he got eaten. All the whales were lined up in a row watching him and he was so tired and weak and every time he would climb up the rocks a wave would come and wash him back off to the waiting orcas. After several attempts to escape and climb the rocks, the exhausted seal turned and swam to the whales and had a five minute stare off. It was like he was saying to them “please finish me off”.

Strangely the whales didn’t take him and the seal turned and managed to climb up the rocks just past the tide line and collapsed in a heap. It looked like his flippers were broken and the poor little seal was completely exhausted. It was if the whales had brought the seal to us as a gift, like a cat does with a mouse. It was amazing and all the whales just stayed there lifting their heads out of the water to look at us. They kept doing this for at least another 30 minutes till they started losing interest and started swimming back and forth past the seal and eventually they swam off. It was the most amazing and intense nature experience I have ever witnessed.

After dinner Cookie, Luc and I went for a walk out on West arm to see if the little seal was OK, but he was gone. My guess is he went to sleep and never woke up and the high tide washed him away. (Or maybe the orcas came back and took him?) Life can be so cruel but it was such an honour to witness such an amazing event as a spectator and not to intervene even though we wanted to help that poor little seal. Orcas are the biggest dolphins and the most intelligent animal in the ocean. We think they were all young female orcas we saw and this display was probably a feeding lesson and also a game to keep the cohesion of the pod.

Field training

Last week saw the first group of expeditioners head out onto the plateau for two days of field training and familiarisation in the Mawson countryside. This trip south is the first time that I have been to Mawson, and after looking at the mountains from a distance it was exciting knowing that we were about to have a close-up look at what was on offer.

We set off from station on our quad bikes and onto the blue ice of the plateau. It was a clear day with very little wind so the visibility was excellent and the views breathtaking. As we climbed higher up the plateau, the vastness of this place comes to realisation with the only sign of civilisation being my three companions. The scenery is a postcard picture in every direction, absolutely stunning! Behind us there is the Southern Ocean, dotted with rocky islands and a myriad of different icebergs, there are glacial tongues and ice cliffs from where the icebergs are calved off and set free as the ever moving ice sheet advances onto the sea. Ahead lay the various rocky ranges that make up the Framnes Mountains and as we drew closer to our first stop at Mt Henderson the real scale and presence of these mountains could be felt. These rugged giants seem to stand defiant against the wind; the cold and the ever grinding ice sheet that gnaws at them, all the way to their foundations. Albeit as invincible as they may seem I guess that one day the mountains will eventually succumb to the relentless forces of such a hostile environment.

After a quick morning tea at Mt Henderson hut we set off toward the David Range and a visit to the field hut at Fang Peak. Along the route to Fang we pulled up and were shown a fair sized crevasse that wasn’t too far off the designated route. The crevasse was wide enough to swallow a quad bike and at this time was reasonably easy to see. The lesson here is that these hazards do exist and if you get caught out not concentrating and /or have poor visibility there could be dire consequences. We also managed a bit of training along the way when we stopped and set up our quad bivvys and then rigged up a quad recovery system with a couple of anchors, some ropes and a few pulleys, all of which worked very effectively.

A brief stop at Fang to check out the hut and refuel the quad bikes soon saw us making our way back to the North Masson Range and Rumdoodle hut where we would have tea and spend the night. The evening light was very low and soft, conditions that made for some excellent photos of the very nearby mountains and some amazing boulders that balanced perfectly on tiny pedestals of ice. The next morning we broke camp and rode to nearby Fearn Hill where we came upon a couple of frozen lakes and a wind scour featuring some of nature’s handiwork; beautiful ice sculptings. Then it was off to the Central Masson Range for a little more training; another quad recovery only this time on a reasonably steep hill, a map resection and then the task that ended up being the most challenging of all; setting an old ice screw into ice that seemed to be harder than the screw itself. By the end of these exercises the weather had started to deteriorate so it was decided that we make a move toward home and then after a brief stop at Rumdoodle to check on some questionable waypoints it was full steam ahead to Mawson.

In summary, a great trip in a spectacular part of the world with some very good company.


Pete L

First time slushy

I’m a first time expeditioner enjoying the adventure so far. This week I ticked off another first of many I expect to do down here and it was the role of being slushy. This role includes a lot of cleaning pots and pans, washing down bench tops, mopping floors and packing things away. The majority of work is in the kitchen and basically your there to help the chef.

Now this may sound not very exciting to some but it is all part of the adventure and gives a change to your normal routine which may help in a few months. The best part of the job is that you get to choose the music for the day that is played on the station’s radio. Also the view from our kitchen out of the dining room windows is amazing. Although on my first day there was a blizzard and my view was of white windows.

I was lucky enough to get to watch our chef prepare our meals this time as next time I’m in the role of slushy the chef will be on his day off. Therefore it will be my responsibility to prepare the meals for the rest of the expeditioners and I get to tick another first off.

With a smile Trent Juillerat