During the summer months, sunlight is a constant in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean surrounding our driest continent. It was during this season, in 2016, that I had the amazing opportunity to take part in the SANAE 56 relief voyage to Antarctica aboard the SA Agulhas II research vessel as a ship-based scientist. I was responsible for taking surface water samples for the Centre for Trace & Experimental Biogeochemistry at the Earth Sciences Department of Stellenbosch University. Ten long days after departing from Cape Town Harbour, the Antarctic Shelf was finally looming in front of us. As a ship-based scientist, my chances of making it to the shore were slim. It felt like a great pity to have come all that way and still being stuck on-board for the weeks the shore based scientists worked. Nevertheless, we were secretly prepared (actually filled with desperate willingness) and expectantly, myself and some other ship based scientists got our chance. The ice shelf loading crew required help with offloading some of the cargo and pumping the fuel and so we gladly volunteered as tributes. Before stepping foot on the white desert, all passengers had to attend a compulsory boot washing ceremony. This entailed washing our ice boots in hot water with special soap and having our outer clothing vacuumed and removing any lint (a synthetic textile) from the Velcro with tweezers. This is to ensure that we eliminate the chance of bringing any foreign materials such as seeds, dirt or plant materials onto the bay ice and ice shelf. To go onto the ice, you had to wear all your snow gear and then some. The average temperature was in the range of 5°C and -2°C. With these temperatures, the last thing that we were worried about was getting sunburned, but apparently this was an issue. Due to the angle of the sun and the intense reflection on the ice, any exposed skin would bear the brunt of the Antarctic sun’s UV, after an hour or two on the ice. Luckily one of the team members brought sunscreen with a 90 SPF. The sunscreen looked like snail excrement and had the additional bonus of making you look like you had a run in with a bottle of spray tan. We were thus sorted in protecting ourselves from the vicious sun… or so we though.
Getting onto the bay ice was quite a process. The ship has to push up against the ice shelf and use the side thrusters to stabilize itself and to keep it from moving side to side. A seemingly rudimentary basket that looks like an inner tube connected to a rope net is then connected to the massive 30 ton crane. You plant your feet on the tube part, weave your arms through the rope net and cling on for dear life while the crane swings you from the deck of the ship onto the ice. Four people can be transported at a time this way. After putting on my life jacket and taking a deep breath, I realised that this was probably not the time to allude to my crippling fear of heights. I got on to the basket, kept my gaze straight ahead and kept saying to myself: “I am about to step off onto the Antarctic shelf!” Here I was, a small town guy from Wolseley in the Boland of South Africa, dangling 30 meters in the air over an iron ship surrounded by -2°C ice water. It felt surreal. The SA Agulhas II is an impressive ice breaker, but measuring it against the power of the Southern Ocean reduces it to a baby red apple bobbing in an almost frozen sea. The ship keeps moving up and down due to the impressive swells and operating a crane in these conditions is tricky, especially when offloading the passengers on the shelf. Either the basket is too high up for the passengers to jump down or it may meet the ice shelf with considerable force. The swell allows only a moment of stability. We had to jump off the basket once it hit the ice, grab our daypacks and put the life jackets back on the raft for the next group.
The shelf surface was not what I expected. It wasn’t just a solid ice surface. It was covered by snow about 30 cm thick that tried to swallow your foot with every step. There were a few large cracks which seemed to be running the length of the shelf. It was mostly covered by the snowfall which meant that you had to watch your step closely. The cracks allowed us to catch a glimpse of the underbelly of the ice, revealing a beautiful sight of the brilliant light blue ice.
But we weren’t there for sightseeing. There were diesel tanks to dig out and pipes to be carried and connected. We had to pump special polar diesel from the ship onto the shelf into 18,000 and 25, 000 litre tanks. In total, we pumped about 500,000 litres of diesel onto the ice shelf – completing the first half during those first few days at the ice and the rest one week before we left the shelf. This served as a year’s supply of diesel for the 10 members of the SANAE 56 team who stayed behind to man the South African base for the next 14 months. To ensure that we did not contaminate the environment we needed to work as neatly as possible. All of the connections in the pipelines have drip trays underneath to stop diesel from seeping into the ice. I became a proud member of Shovel Team One – the team responsible for scraping and shovelling any snow that has been contaminated by diesel or rust into buckets. The contaminated snow was stored in drums and prepared to be taken back home for disposal. Other than dragging pipes and digging in the snow, I was also one of the people who had the (un)fortunate job of sitting on top of the tanks to check up on the progress of the pumping to notify the team when the tank was almost full so that it could be moved to the next tank or to slow down the pumping.
With our bodies frozen and reeking of diesel, we had put in a full day’s worth of hard labour. For once, no one complained. They were just too happy to be on the ice shelf and it was a bunch of satisfied people who were once again swung back to the ship. I like to think it was for this reason that our captain took pity on us poor ship-based passengers a few weeks later. With most of the passengers and construction workers off to the base, the captain decided we and the crew deserved a chance to stretch our legs and parked the ship on some thick bay ice close by. It was like letting out the pre-schoolers and I don’t know who was more excited, us or the penguins. The most common penguin found in these bay ice areas are the Adélie penguins. With a reputation for being clumsy on land, we did not expect what was coming to us. As soon as the first basket of people was lowered onto the ice, they launched their assault, running towards the ship and people. They are intensely curious and have a secret speed weapon. They were allowed to inspect you all they wanted to, but as soon as you approached them, they would fall onto their bellies and slide away very fast, using their feet as propulsion. It was optimal selfie time and with the blood red ship in the background, the sparkling white ice and the blue-white icebergs, no one needed a filter. We spent our time playing cricket on the ice, with the penguins fielding. We also had the great luck of seeing some Emperor penguins. They are much higher than their cousins and stand about 80cm tall. Being royalty, the Emperors were much less interested in our activities and lounged about, basking in the sun and occasionally taking plunge into the icy waters.
The two hours we were permitted on the ice flew by and it was soon time to drag ourselves back to the ship for our humdrum routines of cleaning labs, watching movies, reading and playing card games. Nevertheless, we had a new spring in our steps. We had experienced what it was like walking on the Antarctic ice, seeing a penguin up close in its natural habitat and drinking coffee with icebergs as our wallpapers – in HD! These have been some of the best experiences of my life so far… and it was definitely much better quality than BBC Planet Earth, although I did miss Sir David Attenborough narrating.
Keep following and look out for my next blog where I will share some of my experiences visiting the SANAE base, life on the ship and our visit to the island of South Georgia!
By Johan Viljoen, MSc Earth Science Student
COVER PHOTO – Hannes Swart