An expedition to the famous and unique Auster emperor penguin rookery plus a closer look at the curious googie huts of Bechervaise Island.

Auster rookery, here we come!

It started like any other day, except this wasn’t any other day — this was the first trip off-station travelling on sea ice the whole way. Destination: Macey Island, then to Auster Rookery to see the emperor penguins.

The team consisted of the Trip Leader Chris Hill, ‘Rocket’ Rodney Charles, Craig ‘Curley’ Hilder and Jens Steenbach. Four intrepid travellers, the envy of the station, going 48 km away from the station to inspect the Macey Island hut. Oh, and go a further 10 km to see the Auster rookery emperor penguin crèche.

The trip to Auster commenced at 11am, the sun just starting to creep over the Jocelyn Islands. The Hägglunds was loaded with personnel gear, survival bags, food, generator and everything else needed for three days in the field. All four expeditioners loaded themselves into the front cab, heater on, GPS coordinates set — off to Macey Island. The sea ice departing the station was great which only lasted four kilometres, then we hit the second year ice, rough and not very forgiving to the fillings and joints, so slow travel was the order of the day. Our first sea ice drill point was Waypoint number eight (one to seven had been drilled some weeks prior). At this point we encountered our first challenge: a pressure ridge (two points at which the sea ice pushes together). We needed to find a crossing and in some places the ice was 1.5 metres high, but we found an area that the Hägglunds could manage with little effort or chance of damaging the rubber tracks.

The journey continued through to MCY-12 (waypoint) with little effect apart from the waypoint drilling. After MCY-12 we encountered a very large and extensive ice field filled with 'bergy bits' (small icebergs) and second year ice. It took a further 45 minutes to travel 400 metres, after which the remaining 15 km were uneventful, apart from the odd driver change and sea ice drilling, which for the trip saw some very encouraging results in depth of ice from 900-1500 mm. By the time we arrived at Macey Hut the sun had gone down over the horizon and the time was just creeping up on 4pm.

The hut had very little blizz (accumulation of snow, usually after a storm has come through) inside considering it has not been visited since 30 November 2013. The first thing that was completed on arrival was the sked back to Mawson station (contact station via telecommunications) to inform them that we have arrived safe and sound (they will sleep all the better knowing we arrived safely). The second thing is to get the gas heater in the hut cranked on high. After this, dinner was prepared — Fray Bentos, an Antarctic tradition (apparently you haven’t been on a field trip until you have had one). Fray is a steak and kidney pie in a can and even comes with its own puff pastry top. (I must say, not on the top of foods that I will want to have again.)

After dinner, a quiet evening of idle chat and listening to music was had by all. The dieso, or diesel mechanic, was left with the powerhouse observations, a small genset that provided us with the lights and heating overnight.

The following day we saw one of the best mornings we have seen this year — not a breath of wind greeted us for our 10 km trip to Auster rookery. We departed at 1030, drilling at all waypoints from Macey hut to Auster. There was a slight problem with the rookery however, as an iceberg had decided to make its home where the penguins were expected to be — as nice as the iceberg was, it wasn’t what we came all that way to see — so we went looking for the rookery. It took us another hour to locate the crèche, well worth the wait and extra looking around.

We parked the Hägglunds about 300 metres away from the crèche and travelled in on foot, until about 60 metres away, at which point we grabbed out the sleeping mats and made ourselves comfortable, waiting and hoping that the emperors would come over and say hello. It didn’t take long, and Rocket had a team of new mates — four emperors! We named one Spot as he/she had a dark patch on the chest — Spot was very photogenic. Throughout the following two hours (time just flew by) this little group of four curious little penguins did the rounds on all four visitors. They started with Rocket then they came to me (Jens) then Chris and finally Curly. The whole experience was surreal, the trip back to Macey hut was just the four of us talking about the experience (like four school kids on the way home from a camp).

The second night saw Rocket prepare lasagne. After dinner Rocket and Curly grabbed out their guitars and started jamming, which lasted for a couple of hours. It was a lovely end to an amazing day that will remain with me for many years to come.

The trip home started early — we packed the Hägglunds, shut down the hut and called station to let them know that we were departing for Mawson. We would sked in every hour that we are on the ice — this is the normal procedure — in case anything is to go wrong on the way back. The trip back took us back the way we came, except for MCY-13 to MCY-12. Since we had so much trouble getting through on the way out, we wanted to look and see if there was an easier route back. This was not the case, as one hour after entering the ice field we finally made it through to the other side, having walked a safe track through. The remainder of the trip back to Mawson was straight forward, albeit a rough ride.

We pulled off the ice in Horseshoe Harbour at 3:30pm, a 4 and a half hour trip from Macey. We decided to do the rubbish run on the way back to the diesos’ workshop to drop off the Hägglunds and fuel up.

The googies

A few weeks ago a group of us travelled to Bechervaise Island for field training. Bechervaise Island is located close to Mawson and is accessed during winter by travelling across the sea ice. Myself and another colleague were scheduled to ‘bivvy out’ where we sleep in out in a bivvy bag and experience an Antarctic winter night sleeping in the snow. As we were preparing our accommodation in the snow we could see the Bechervaise googies in the distance where one of our more fortunate colleagues was to spend his evening.

The googie huts are located at a number of Australian Antarctic Division sites around Antarctica and provide an innovative, cost effective method of accommodation in remote locations. The huts are raised above ground level making them less likely to attract snow drift as well as presenting less resistance to high winds and nasty weather in general. Inside the hut we visited there was a kitchen area as well as accommodation for a party of three people. Apparently the huts are also similar in shape to a particular type of machine from a popular series of sci-fi movies released a while back.

The googie huts can also be fitted out as a workspace allowing research activities and studies to be carried out on the island. The Bechervaise huts and science equipment are powered by solar power allowing the scientific studies to be operated both locally or by remote from the Australian Antarctic Division head office in Kingston, Tasmania. During the summer months scientists spend extended periods living in the huts while studying the penguins on Bechervaise Island.

Learn more about googie huts