Last remnants of ice looming out of the fog before we hit the open water © David N Thomas
When we left our floe promptly at 12.00pm on the 2nd January, the only thing left was lots of footprints and skidoo tracks, a buoy. This will transmit the position of the floe to Finnish researchers (via satellite), until the floe breaks up and the buoy sinks. So although we have finished with the ISPOL floe, data is still being collected and analysed. Hopefully we will be able to watch the trajectory of our floe following the 146 nautical miles that we drifted with it during the 35 days of our investigation. This is a rather small distance compared to the 7500 miles that we will have travelled over the whole trip when we get back to Cape Town.
In the wake of the speed as we travel full speed (12 knots) home © David N Thomas
We then proceeded to have a slow passage to open waters. For a couple of days we were beset by thick ice floes that simply would not let us through without heavy ramming and considerable deviations from our planned route in the search for leads between the floes. Then when we finally came to the ice edge, a heavy fog descended that meant we had to remain cautious, and sail slowly. The waters were littered with large rotten floes and iceberg debris. Hardly the type of stuff we needed to hit. On our final day in the ice the scene was quite mystical - weak rays of sunlight burning through the fog, at times highlighting massive, twisted and rotten blue ice floes that emerged from the mist as a final reminder to us all of the beauty and at the same time the dangers of the pack ice.
Once that day had passed it wasn't long until we reached the ice-free waters, and then we travelled full speed towards South Georgia. All of a sudden we were followed by an amazing aerial display by sooty albatrosses, Cape petrels, Wilson's storm petrels, southern fulmars, wandering albatrosses, giant petrels and a number of small prions that I cannot even begin to identify. It is amazing how these birds seemingly effortlessly roam these waters, and how infrequently they appear to stop to actually catch anything to eat.
Young fur seals playing among the wrecks of whaling vessels © David N Thomas
It was then a rush to get the last ice samples melted and analysed. However, the rough seas and resulting sea-sickness for some meant that by the 5th we closed down the analysers and started packing up. Packing before an expedition is exciting, but at the end, especially in rough seas, it is simply a chore. Now most of our equipment is back in the large shipping-containers, and the ships fridges and freezers full of our samples. The last nine days will be spent working up the data we already have, presenting the first results and writing up cruise reports. As we get closer to Cape Town there should also be the odd few hours to sit on deck and relax.
On the 9th of January, we had the pleasure of visiting Grytviken on South Georgia. This is an old whaling station, complete with wrecked whaling ships, warehouses, boilers and the huge vats that the whale and seal oil used to be stored in. It is now used as a scientific base. It is also where Ernest Shackleton is buried, after he died there on 5th January 1922.
It was wonderful to see green vegetation again on a short visit to South Georgia © David N Thomas
It was a poignant moment to visit his grave and consider how 90 years ago he and his crew had travelled in the same region of pack ice that we had just left. After their ship was crushed by the pack ice in the western Weddell Sea, they made their famous journey by a combination of walking, small boat and of course, ice drift.
The weather was kind to us, and in the warm summer sunshine we revelled in the opportunity of walking on solid ground again, walking on shore and on the hills and most of all marvelling at seeing green again! No more endless white landscapes, but instead grasses, moss and even flowers. Large numbers of elephant and fur seals as well as king penguins were scattered throughout the tussock grass, and it was a delight to watch the young seals playing in the kelp beds that filled the bay.
Group picture of the scientists © Ingo Arndt
Many on board have made journeys to the pack ice several times, but it was curious to hear several of the old hands saying ‘goodbye to the ice’, and wondering whether or not we will ever have the privilege of seeing it again. We certainly have plans to do it all again, and are eagerly discussing new opportunities for the future. But at the moment these are largely dreams and ideas, just as were the first discussions about ISPOL all those years ago.