From shore to ship
I am fortunate to take part in the EU Southern Ocean Carbon and Heat Impact on Climate (SO-CHIC) research cruise in the Southern Ocean where we are currently at 65 degrees south bobbing away as a CTD reaches down to over 2000 m below the sea surface. Our reason for being out here is to take new observations in the Southern Ocean from the surface ocean to the deep ocean interior using various oceanographic instruments including CTDs, moorings, floats, buoys and gliders. There are many partners taking part in the SO-CHIC cruise. From the University of Gothenburg team, it’s me, Hanna Rosenthal and Theo Spira. In this diary, I’ll write about my experience on the cruise and talk a little about the observations we hope to make.
First, let’s talk about getting to the ship… On 3 December, nine SO-CHIC scientists started our COVID quarantine in Cape Town. Initially meant to last only two weeks, our flight to Antarctica to join the R/V S.A. Agulhas II kept getting delayed as the weather conditions were having none of it. The ship was getting battered by storms and was stuck for days in sea ice. At least we had a nice sunny balcony and a stunning view of Table Mountain.
On 30 December we got the news that our flight was going ahead the next morning. 14 days had become 28 days, but finally, we had a weather window and in the early hours of New Year’s eve, we boarded an aircraft to what seemed like a different world.
After only a few hours of leaving the 25 degrees Celcius heat of Cape Town, we were flying over the Antarctic continent. Staring at the vast expanse of the Antarctic, there was just white for as far as the eye could see. The scale of it is immense. I was trying to imagine what it must have been like for those early explorers in search of the South Pole. Months of trekking in the world’s most dangerous conditions, covering over 3000 km with only a blank canvas ahead of them. All the while dragging over 200 kg (assisted by ponies and huskies) with none of the modern equipment we have today. Those were wild times.
In comparison to the likes of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton, our travel from the continent to the ship was just a hop, skip and jump. Upon landing at Wolf’s Fang runway, we had a 10-hour wait to catch a 1.5 hour Basler flight, which took us from Wolf’s Fang to the South African National Antarctic Expedition research base. From there, we would be travelling to the ship. At the base, we saw in the New Year (not a bad place to end a long 2021) along with the previous years overwintering team and the fresh-eyed new recruits onboarding for their year on the White Dessert.
I’ve always wanted to see SANAE, so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to spend the next few days at the base. As all our work will be done on the ship, we were happy to relax, play some table tennis and get to know the people who were there to spend a full year in remote isolation. I have a lot of respect for those who choose this endeavour. The Basler was unable to leave SANAE for three days due to a snow blizzard back at Wolf’s Fang and so accumulated quite a bit of snow around it that needed to be dug out. With not much to do until we were on the ship, and happy to get outside again after the blizzard, we volunteered to help clear the snow out and refuel the plane.
The SANAE base still needed to collect supplies and fuel from the ship and so early the next morning, we hitchhiked on the famous (or infamous, depending who you ask) 170 km CAT train from the base to Penguin Bukta ice shelf. Hatched to one of the four Caterpillar Challenger’s in our train, we were fortunate to bunk in the one and only SANAE Holiday Inn, a 6-sleeper caboose. Moving at an average of around 18 km/hr, the ride was smooth sailing and the time was passing quickly. That is until we started approaching the shelf and encountered the dreaded sastrugi. We turned into human popcorn kernels bouncing around in the caboose trying our uttermost to get whatever sleep we could, mostly unsuccessful. Eventually, at about 3 in the morning, we reached the shelf. A few more hours of shut-eye and we are craned from the top of the ice shelf down about 50 meters to the ship (don’t look down!).
At the ship, we had a day or two to settle in as the supplies and fuel offloading logistics for SANAE was still ongoing. This allowed us to start preparing the instruments that we plan to deploy on the cruise. Next up, the SO-CHIC science!