Hägglunds and wildlife are Antarctic staples

Travel Antarctic style

As we become the first to set foot on newly formed sea ice each winter season, one pontificates whether we can bestow upon ourselves the haughty title of polar explorers. Common sense says no; my resume says yes.

In reality though, we’re not so much explorers as we are commuters, following the time-tested travelling procedures that the AAD has developed over the years. The purists would claim walking is the best form of transport; the shrewd knows that’s moronic. Why walk when you can drive? Hägglunds, as our primary mode of transport, has a proud history with the Australian Antarctic Program, and allows us to assist with science projects on far flung islands.

Every drive on the ice takes significant planning and preparation. First, we must make sure that the ice is able to support the 6-ton weight of the Häggs. Depth measurements are made in the ice at fixed geo-marked locations along the route (or sites of concern), usually before the first overnight trip of the season. It is not uncommon for trips to involve significant detours to avoid large ‘cracks’ that open up as the ice sheets pull away from each other.

Second, the diesos keep a close eye on the conditions of the vehicles. Road side assistance out here is very expensive, measured in cartons of beer. Communications equipment must also be checked, ensuring that there are several ways to contact Mawson station and Head Office in case of any emergencies. Selecting food to take is perhaps the most important – there are no servos along the way to pick up a Four’n Twenty. Luckily our amazing chef always has a freezer stocked with delectable goodies for us to take.

Once the preparations have been completed, it can be a patient game of waiting for the right weather window to come along. As Mawson is Australia’s windiest Antarctic station, we need to maximise the opportunities whenever the weather becomes favourable. Then it’s a matter of loading up the Häggs, and go!

Once on the ‘road’ there are no fancy toilet breaks – we each have a pee bottle to dispense of bodily liquids to bring back to station. Drivers and passengers have to be constantly vigilant of sea ice conditions – if there’s the slightest of doubt we stop and measure the ice thickness, lest we fall through. We keep the station regularly updated regarding our location and status, as well as any changes to our trip intentions.

Finally, once at the field hut, check that it’s safe to enter, then unpack and crack open a cold one (bottle of water, not anything else). What an adventure!

David Tian, Mawson Doc

First visits to Auster Rookery for 2022

For those who are regular readers, it is time for me to apologise. It is about this time every year that the current crew at Mawson will make their way to Macey Island and the Auster Rookery and then return to write that week’s news and extoll the virtues and wonders of the experience.

I know this must be repetitious for you. Likely it’s been the same way since August 1957 when the Rookery was discovered by Flying Officer D. Johnston, RAAF, from an ANARE Auster aircraft (after which it and the nearby islands were named) and the first trips were made by expeditioners at Mawson (probably by dog sled). But it just can’t be helped. So, I beg your indulgence but the first visit to an emperor penguin rookery for an Antarctic expeditioner just has to be recorded.

Apart from arriving on station, departing to go home, the Midwinter celebrations, the biggest event on the Mawson calendar is the trips to the emperor penguin colony at Auster Rookery. And this last fortnight, this is just what we have been able to do. Over two weeks and three trips we have managed to get everyone on station out to visit our closest neighbours, and what a site, what a boost to morale, and what a memory that will never ever be forgotten!

Auster Rookery is an emperor penguin rookery on the sea-ice, sheltered by grounded icebergs, approximately 60 km East of Mawson. To get there we travel across the sea ice in the Hägglunds vehicles, intermittently measuring the sea ice thickness to ensure our ‘road’ remains safe, along a route which is taken each year but updated annually to account for new icebergs which may be in the path and most importantly the new location of the rookery (the exact location that the penguins decide to congregate each year changes… we speculate it’s based on the location of the icebergs and the shelter they can provide).

As we drive across the sea ice we are blessed with the beautiful light of the Midwinter Antarctic twilight; the lilac blue of the ice plateau and the orange pink haze on the horizon, the full moon provides a little extra light that is missing as the sun refuses to rise. The icebergs rise in the distance as silent sentinels marking our route towards the rookery. First appearing as a stark shape on the horizon, and as we approach we are presented with all shapes and sizes – tabular, rounded, peaked, some smooth some rough, some rolled and tipped, some stranded on islands. Such beautiful picturesque scenery. But nothing can deter, no time to stop and take photos, we have an objective… the Rookery.

As we move past Macey Island and the field hut, we become tense and silent. Scanning the horizon for that first glimpse, that black smudge amongst the icebergs that indicates we’ve found the Auster Rookery. And there it is, a collective sigh of relief as we see that all important smudge in the distance. The Auster Rookery has been found for 2022.

Parking about 500 m away, we dismount the Hägglunds, dress warmly, prepare cameras and make our way slowly towards the colony. Before long the welcome party makes its way to us. No need to move near the males who are incubating the eggs (while their partners have returned to the sea to collect food to feed the hatchlings when they arrive); the single males, looking for some excitement to fill their day have seen unusual activity and come to investigate what all the fuss is about. As we move around, the welcome committee follows with us. Seems they had nothing better to do that day.

What extraordinary birds - beautiful, resilient, strange, and clumsy all in one.

After a couple hours, with fingers and toes beginning to feel the cold, camera batteries running out, and the lure of the warm hagglunds calling us. It is time to depart and leave the Emperors. Not to worry though, we’ll be back throughout the winter, checking on the progress of the breeding cycle, and watching as the chicks hatch and grow into full-fledged emperors just like their parents.

What a spectacular experience. A pinch yourself moment. Large smiles on all faces and words like ‘bonkers’, ‘amazing’, ‘elated’, ‘awestruck’, and ‘just brilliant’ all used and all seem frankly unable to convey the immense honour we feel at being able to experience a day amongst the emperor penguins of Auster Rookery.

Bec J

NOTE: All visits are undertaken in accordance with the Auster Rookery Visitation Policy, which ensures that the colony is protected from unnecessary disturbance and the management of the colony is effective and transparent via regular and accurate reporting of visit data and observations taken during the visits.