On board at last

Finally after 10 years of talking about it, and two intensive years of planning, on Saturday 6th November we walked up the gangway to board the German research vessel Polarstern in Cape town, South Africa.

The Polarstern vessel © David N Thomas

The Polarstern vessel  © David N Thomas

Stathis Papadimitriou and myself from Bangor joined 50 other scientists from Germany, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Holland, Russia, and the USA and the 50 crew, who had docked just two days previously after bringing the ship from the homeport in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Promptly at 8 o'clock in the evening the captain sounded 3 short blasts of the ship's horn, and we gently slipped away from the harbour. Within an hour the Pilot had left us, and with that we were on our own. We all stood on deck watching Table Mountain and the lights of Cape Town slowly get smaller and smaller: of course there is a lot of excitement, but that is tempered by the nervous feelings about the unknown ahead and the poignancy of leaving family and loved ones for the next 75 days. This is the 6th time I have made a voyage on Polarstern, and there was still a big lump in my throat when I went to bed that night.

Iceberg in the Antarctic © David N Thomas

Iceberg in the Antarctic © David N Thomas

The next few days were a frenzy of unpacking transport containers, allocation of lab space and finding our equipment. This had all been delivered to Bremerhaven in September, after a summer of packing our Bangor-laboratory into a myriad of crates and boxes. Anything forgotten in the summer could spell disaster for our planned work coming up. So far it all seems to be there! Laboratories are completely empty rooms on day one, and within these first few days we have created a fully functioning laboratory with sophisticated equipment for our biological and chemical analyses.

This is all done while some have to deal with the horrors of seasickness. Many simply took to their beds for the first few days. There was a large exchange of various seasickness pills, some of which evidently work better and are very much more effective than others. The ship's doctor had many customers in those days.

Besides a diverse range of seabirds (mainly petrels) we have seen the huge wandering albatrosses, which glide effortlessly (apparently) just above the waves in their search for food 100s of miles from land. There is a huge rush of people to the deck or bridge when the plumes of spray from a whale blow-out are spotted. Yesterday we sailed through a huge area littered with majestic intricately sculptured icebergs, some as large as cathedrals. The sea was calm, and the sun shining. At times like that, all that project planning, heartache and stress seem worth it.

The air temperature has sunk from a 27°C in Cape Town to 0°C outside today. The water temperature is also now about 0°C. We hope to see our first pack ice at the latest tomorrow. We will then travel for another week or so until we reach our final experimental ice floe. At the moment the swell and wind are increasing as a storm approaches. Every last item in the laboratory and cabin is lashed down and secured as we prepare to "rock and roll" in some high seas.

David Thomas
11th November
55°S, 5°E