Week 2

Storms, petrels and one of the most isolated islands on earth

Bow wave on the Polarstern vessel © David N Thomas

Bow wave on the Polarstern vessel © David N Thomas

A week ago we were running to hide from a storm, which we managed fairly effectively. We had a couple of days when the ocean swell reached three meters high, and some had to take to their beds again. But all things considered we came through unscathed, with only a slight detour from our planned route.

Bouvet Island © David N Thomas

Bouvet Island © David N Thomas

During rough weather it is inspiring to stand on the bridge and watch the waves crashing over the bow. Since the temperatures were dropping rapidly, the spray from the waves froze onto the ship, and soon the cranes, railings and deck surfaces were encased in a thick ice layer, looking a bit as though someone had covered the ship in a layer of thick cream.

A highlight this week was passing by Bouvet Island, supposedly one of the most isolated of all islands on the globe. We passed it in bright sunshine, and flocks of petrels and albatrosses surrounded the ship as we all stood on deck watching the giant cliffs and sweeping glaciers that make up the island. In front of the island large numbers of icebergs were grounded on the sea floor below, an iceberg graveyard, where the waves slowly erode the bergs into weird and wonderful shapes.

Scientists from the group © David N Thomas

Scientists from the group © David N Thomas

Almost exactly to the hour, one week after leaving Cape Town we entered the pack ice. As soon as we did the rolling motion of the ship stopped and instead of the sound of waves outside, we heard the haunting sound of ice scrapping along the hull. It is a marvellous sight to stand on deck and watch the ice, basically a frozen skin on the surface of the ocean that varies in thickness from a few centimetres to blocks of ice three or four metres thick.

The ship effortlessly breaks through ice floes up to 2 meters thick, but every so often we grind to a halt. The ships officers then have to go into reverse, and then pull forward at full speed to ram the ice. This means that our speed has been greatly reduced from the 12 knots in open water down to 4 or 5 in the ice. The ships crew are always on the lookout for open water between the ice floes, in an effort to maintain some speed. We have been helped a little by winds from the south that push the floes apart, and thereby open up clear passages for the ship to pass.

The Polarstern vessel in the Antarctic © David N Thomas

The Polarstern vessel in the Antarctic © David N Thomas

Soon after entering the ice we saw our first chinstrap and Adelie penguins, scuttling out of the way of the ship. Soon after we saw crabeater seals and even a leopard seal with her pup, hiding behind a boulder of ice. We have started some basic sampling of ice floes, using the helicopter to take us off the ship.

After our first landing on the ice, a minke whale came to the surface besides the floe and gracefully arched back into a dive under the ice. It lasted only a moment, but it was a perfect start to our work on the ice. The following day two curious emperor penguins appeared as if from nowhere to supervise our work.

The air temperature is varying mostly between -5oC and 0oC, a little warmer than we anticipated. We are still heading in a south-westerly direction, and anticipating arriving at our final ice floe within the next 5 days or so.

David Thomas
18th November
64°S, 32°W