Monthly Archives: December 2014


After 3 weeks of travel, 3 months of training and one and half years since being offered the chance, I arrive at my new home, Halley 6.

Our ship arrived during the day to a part of the ice shelf known as Creek 3 where there is a natural ramp down from the ice shelf to the sea ice. We tried earlier in the day to get close to our preferred landing site, N9, but were turned back by thick ice we couldn’t break. At Creek 3, we moored onto the sea ice side, held in place by ice anchors, and after very little time we disembarked from the ship, leaving it behind.

Halley is near the coast, but isn’t on it – it was a 35km drive inland to get there. We were picked up by a vehicle – the first of many to drive out from the station to meet the ship. For people transfers in Antarctica, BAS use a Sno-Cat, which is an oversized, tracked jeep with a large seating are in the back and a roof rack full of stuff that makes it look like it belongs far from civilisation:

The surface is rough, so this journey took just over 2 hours to make. The sun you see there is roughly to the South – unusual when in the Southern hemisphere – because we were making this journey at midnight. When I took this photo, we were about half way and we could just see the first outline of the base’s buildings, including the iconic modules. The weather at the boat was dark and cloudy, but there clouds parted as we drove and we quickly were basked in inviting sunlight.

A bumpy and excited hour after this, we arrived at the station – the furthest I’ve moved house yet.

First impressions of the base:

  • It’s more spacious than I had expected and looks all new. It feels a bit like a hotel!
  • It’s busy – there are about 50 people on the station now. More are expected soon, more than we have beds for. New ones are being built quickly! The people, constant radio buzzing and vehicles rolling over the site with cargo really give a buzz of activity.
  • It’s very flat on the landscape but the snow piling up next to the station has created a small hill system which is quite fun. More elevation than I was expecting, for sure – even if it will all ultimately be bulldozed.
  • The iconic modules you’ve all seen photos of are just a part of a fairly large complex – the site is about a kilometre across and strewn with other buildings, assorted containers and vehicles…
  • Not as cold as might be expected. A display in the dining area it tells us the air temperature is a balmy -5°, but with windchill it “Feels Like -10°”. It needs another figure that takes into account the blazing sun, perhaps saying “But Actually Feels Like +25°”
  • It’s very well equipped. Clearly a lot of experience has been drawn on to stock the base with all the things it might possibly need for quite a while. I saw a medium sized box filled entirely  with hole punchers.

Time to settle in, unload the ship and find out about this new home of mine…



The Antarctic, Yes!

But under very different circumstances those expected. Today I set foot onto the Antarctic  ice for the first time, but not where we wanted to. We are 200km out from Halley but the sea before us, around the Stancomb-Wills ice shelf, is too thick for us to penetrate. So, our Captain decided that if we were going to sit around and wait, we might as well do it on the ice rather than stuck inside the ship. So, with little fanfare or even announcement, they sent a landing party to check the ice, put the gang plank on and let us free onto the sea ice! Those who were asleep at the time this all happened were surprised when they woke to see people running around outside their portholes. The landing party were the first on, lowered in a flying basket, to check the ice strength. In theory, they do this by poking the ice with sticks but in practice the stick, I think, is just for appearances – the real test is them walking around and not disappearing into a hole.


We will be late to Halley – no sooner than the 26th. We could cover the remaining distance in 12 hours if conditions were good. An aircraft flew out yesterday from Halley to see us and get some aerial imagery of the ice ahead, but all it could see for 50km was ever-thicker ice. Given we’ve had a slow time the last few days, advancing only 20km or so a day owing to the thickness of the ice, the navigators felt that it would be a waste of fuel to try and push through. We are now waiting, stationary near the ice shelf, for winds to come and break up the icepack. At the moment the wind is a calm 4 knots, which is quite pleasant if frustratingly useless. The aircraft also took this photo of us, showing how small we are out here…

So on to the ice we stepped, all of us, as an unexpected Christmas day present! Walking on the sea ice is no different from walking on fresh snow anywhere else really, except that it is surprisingly uneven. Some footsteps land firmly, others sink half a metre in. There’s maybe a metre or two of solid ice below us, topped with perhaps half that of snow of various packednesses. After a few minutes we organized a game of football – made difficult by heavy footwear, frequent holes in the surface and the physical performance of players who have spent the last three weeks eating and little else.

Play was also interrupted by the appearance of various waves of penguins. First some Emperors slid by. Then some Adelies would wander up. They’re curious critters, penguins: their attitude varies between indifference and curiosity. They don’t show fear, but perhaps have an element of hesitation when they start waddling close to large groups of humans and the giant red whale they arrived on.


Talking of the giant red whale that we arrived on, it was kind cool to see our ship from the outside. It hasn’t changed much, fortunately, from when we boarded. Still the same shape, despite the amount of ice it has ploughed through.

After the football and the penguins we embarked on a short hike to investigate a large blob a little further inland. We got there easily, and discovered the blob to be a huge Weddell seal, lying motionless on the snow. We concluded it was dead, and changed our interest to this guy who had followed us when we started walking:


Later groups to walk up to check the blob reported that the blob was no longer there, indicating either that the seal was less dead than originally thought, or that we have discovered a new species of Colossal Invisible Antarctic Vultures in these parts.

Now we are all back on the ship for the night. I can say we’ve had a most remarkable Christmas day, and a most decidedly white one.


Today is the summer solstice, which means it is midday on the 3-month day we find ourselves in. Because it’s the solstice, and because the favourite date for our arrival to our landing point is the 24th, and because it’s a Sunday, we are celebrating Christmas today! The cooks on board made us a 5-course meal, excellent as always and we got all the trappings of Christmas (including some I didn’t know about!). Also, the crackers on board contain tube balloons designed to be inflated and let go which zoom across the room with a prrrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttttttt sound – the most entertaining thing to come from a cracker ever. I hope these become standard issue.  After, we enjoyed wine, port, Cards Against Humanity, Life of Brian and, my German friends will be happy to hear, Dinner for One. stuck1

Yesterday, our very energetic and enthusiastic radio operator officer, Binky, organized carol singing on the forecastle (the bit at the front of the ship). That was also highly Christmasy, with gluhwein and mince pies and snow and looking out over an endless sea of ice. Certainly, we cannot say we haven’t had a white Christmas…

The scene outside today is identical to that scene when we went out to sing. This is because we are beset, which is a fancy nautical term meaning “stuck”, in the ice. We have been now for 36 hours – completely jammed in by closing ice flows. The ice around us on all sides piles up against the hull, in some places up to several metres thick. This sounds alarming, but is actually quite common for ships out here. We are now sitting, waiting for the wind to start blowing Northwards and break up the ice – sea ice flows are like clouds, blown around by the wind and the speed at which it can change can be very fast. The crew have a number of techniques to release us from the tight hold of the ice, my favourite of which is to grab a 30t fuel tank with our crane, stretch it way overboard and swing it back and forth to induce rocking in the hull. We haven’t done this as there’s no where for us to go once free – it’s endless ice to the horizon. A taster of the scenery at Halley, perhaps?stuck2


Spirits remain high. For us passengers, there’s not a lot of difference between sailing in a moving ship and sailing in a beset ship – life goes on as usual. Food is served and DVDs are watched. There are some pros and cons of being stuck in the ice, though:

  • PRO: The ship has stopped rocking so we now can shower safely without water going everywhere. Similarly, we can use the treadmill without the fear of being thrown off when we hit a chunk of ice.
  • CON: The sewage treatment gas exhaust is being sucked into the ventilation air intake, giving a wonderful smell of rotten eggs throughout the cabins.
  • PRO: The helmsman can take it easy after a few tough days of ice navigation.
  • CON: We’re not making good progress to Halley. In fact, the ice has turned us around and we’re now facing away from where we want to go.
  • PRO: The ice is drifting naturally West, which means we’re making 0.2kts (360m/hour) in the right direction. Our engines remain off, so our fuel efficiency is great.
  • CON: At 0.2kts, our navigational software is predicting an arrival into the landing site on the 26th of February 2015….

We expect the wind will change and we’ll be out of the ice soon and on our way to Halley, which now is only 300km or so away. A few days ago we passed the German Neumeyer station, although I was asleep at the time (11:00) and so didn’t see it. We have been planning our activities for our arrival, which makes the end of our trip seem more real (even if it is some days off yet at best!). Looks like we’ll be hitting the work hard as soon as we arrive – which no doubt will be a shock after the last few weeks of leisurely cruising…

We stopped to take a ship selfie two days ago.  The Captain found a nice iceberg and ploughed the ship into some sea ice next to it. We all assembled on deck and took this photo, in varying levels of festive clothing…stuck3

We had more Breathing Apparatus (BA) training. For Commander Tom and me, it was a refresher of the stuff we did at the firefighting training, but for the other three wintering team aboard it was their first time in the kit. Good fun – we’re getting quicker at putting it on! Down from about 10 minutes to a more urgent 3 minutes. The BA is the most important part of our fire response; we haven’t the facilities at Halley to fight a large blaze but we do want to save people who may be stuck in smoke-filled modules. Here, Tom and I pose in our full kit.


Lastly, it has been have noted that our ship’s namesake, Ernest Shackleton, was, with his crew, celebrating mid-summer exactly 100 years ago today about 200km away from our current location. At that time, his ship, the Endurance, was also stuck in ice in the opening stages of a remarkable story of human perseverance against the odds that would end two years and many trials later. I am not expecting we will suffer, as they did, a winter stuck in the ice (at least, not on this ship!), but it does feel like so far we are retracing the footsteps of arguably the greatest Antarctic expedition ever on its centenary.

I wish you all safe journeys (with less delay and difficulty than Ernest Shackleton) to your various families and friends, and a Merry Christmas!

Unexpected Visitor

Since we left Cape Town, we have been feeling very isolated. Our ship was not seen land or any hint of civilisation for over a week. We are a small speck of people in a metal can on what I am realizing to be a very big sea. There’s no radio signals here, no distant aircraft or contrails, no ships, nothing – just us, the sea, the ice and the occasional animal. The radars show only icebergs and sea backscatter. I think the last two blog posts convey how remote we feel from anything.

So, imagine my surprise yesterday when I was ambling along the midship, minding my own business, when a helicopter flew overhead. A chap on it opened a door and waved at me. I waved back, a little perplexed, and then it flew off.


Helicopters are fun any day, but are particularly so when there’s no obvious place for it to have come from, and when it is basically impossible that it could have stumbled upon us by chance. Helicopters can’t fly far. I rushed up tot the bridge – my favourite place to be when something fun is happening, it seems – and the officers up there seemed equally astonished. They were trying to radio it with no success.

We later found that the helicopter was based on a German ship, the Polar Stern, which was some hundred miles away. Seems they flew out to wave to us. They have since sent us an electronic Christmas card. Nice to know we are not as alone here as it first appears.

In other news, the ice we are breaking through now is a lot thicker and covers more of the surface. It looks a bit like what the area around Halley will look like! A few times we’ve gotten “stopped” by the ice and have needed to reverse to try another way.

Breaking the Ice

Last night was strange. After dinner, we had a wine and cheese night, although at some point the wine was upgraded to port. Pleasant, but not the strange part. No, the strange part was despite the lateness of the wine and port drinking, the light outside never vanished. We won’t see night again for some months now.

Two days ago was strange. On the horizon we saw our first ice. An iceberg some 10km away from us. Despite it being so far away, it was huge. It is hard to describe or get a good scale of it but it wasn’t a classic Titanic berg. No, it was a chunk of the iceshelf, maybe 50m above the water surface and no doubt hundreds of meters below it. It was easily half a kilometer wide. Again, the camera doesn’t do it justice, but it looked like this:

On the radar we could see an even bigger one. Then they just kept appearing all around us, and we soon we seeing a couple at any given point. Silent giants floating by – we’re in their domain now. At night (brief as it was) our searchlights picked them up from a huge distance – they are very bright and reflective, like a sensible cyclist at night. Quite a sight.

Yesterday morning was strange. I woke up at 0600 to a loud crash and a violent shaking of the ship. In my pijamas I jumped out of bed and up to the bridge. Some of of the other passengers had had the same reaction. In front of us lay sea ice as far as we could see – thin white and flat chunks ahead of us for miles and miles, white lilies on a black pond. It is confusing to see such an endless bunch of surfaces that you could walk on and jump between so far from any true land. The crunch – which had continued since I woke – was the sound us us crushing our way through them. Through the way the crunching continued, intermittently as we entered and exited areas with more or less thin ice. The crew seem completely unfazed by the fairly dramatic sounds, reminiscent of distant thunder, and shaking of the ship. After 24 hours and a sleep through it, neither am I. The shaking, in fact, adds a degree of immersion when we’re watching action films.
Icebreaking is a fairly brunt force process. We just power forwards and slam into the ice. Sometimes it just cracks and pushes to the side, but a lot of bigger chunks that aren’t easily shoved about end up going under our hull later to pop up in bits alongside the ship over its full length. The amount of energy needed to break up this much ice must be phenomenal. Apparently we use 14000l of fuel a day for usual cruising, but this rises to 22000l when we have ice to smash. The sheet ice we have encountered so far is thin and weak, and usually crumples like paper when we hit it; sometime tonight we will reach a thicker layer that will require more power to crack. Behind us, a trail of destruction:


Yesterday was also strange as we got a wildlife hat-trick (possibly). We saw our first seals – lounging, as seals seem to do perpetually – on the ice sheets until our boat’s presence deigned then to turn their head and (in one case) flee in terror as the ship bore down on their ice chunk. We also saw numerous penguins – chinstraps, I am told – swimming and wadding over the ice. They look quite small from the distance we saw them. It is strange to sea animals walking on ice – making them terrestrial – so far from any land. Lastly, I saw a splash of water and something vanish into the sea. My fellow winterer Hue tells me emphatically that it was a whale, although I am dubious. Still, if it was, we’ve seen all three of the famous Antarctic critters all at once!


To finish, some statistics from a meteorological observation I just did:

  • Latitude: 65 54′
  • Longitude: 0 38′ (directly south!)
  • Sea Temperature: -1
  • Air Temperature: -2
  • Cloud coverage: 8/8 okta Stratus
  • Current iceberg count: 3

And this one highly professional warning on a GPS receiver connected to our ice-monitoring  computer on the bridge:


Unfortunately, this warning is on a lighting boom that stretches over a walkway I like to walk down frequently.

On a Boat

It’s 0400 AM. I am on a ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, up at this time for several reasons:

  • The internet is eye-gougingly slow at this time, which is a considerable improvement from the the rest of the time when others are using the tiny little satellite connection we have as well.
  • My internal clock is badly screwed up due to the lack of obvious daily rhythm and disrupted sleep the last few days.
  • We are passing the island of Bouvetøya, which is remarkable because it is a) the only land we’ve seen in over a week and b) it is the most remote island in the world, which feels about right.

We’ve traveled now for almost a week, constantly heading 206 degrees (South!) out of Cape Town, and it does feel like we’re a long way from anything. However, we’re only half way to our landing point near Halley. They’re not sure yet, but the expectation is somewhere between Saturday and Sunday we’ll start to encounter the ice – there’s a lot more of it than expected this year, and further out, so we’ll need to do a lot of icebreaking.

Some photos!

boat1Our ship! The RRS Ernest Shackleton, one of two ships that the British Antarctic Survey has. This one is more of a freighter while the other, the James Clark Ross, is a science vessel. It has accommodation for about 60 people, of which currently 21 are crew and 28 are “supernumerary crew” – what you call passengers if you want them to help with cleaning etc 🙂 It is pretty comfortable aboard: we all have cabins with at most one other person, which is manageable. There’s unlimited excellent food produced – almost more than I can eat, which is a problem. They have a bar with cheap beer (so far not taken full advantage of), lounges, a very extensive DVD collection and a very interesting crew.

boat2Our cargo! In addition to the passengers, of which 5 are from the wintering team while the rest are (much more sensible) summer staff, we are carrying many tonnes of cargo bound for Halley. Most of this by weight is Avtur fuel, stored in those four white tank-tainers (apparently a word) and many barrels held down in the hold below. We also are carrying a years’ supply of food, spare generators, all kinds of other replacement parts and science kit. And, of course, our personal boxes. This photo is looking aft from the bridge, which we can go up and visit freely – which is very cool. That room, in addition to the best views around, also has so many screens and levers and buttons – an engineer’s heaven. We have to careful when it’s dark and rolling that we don’t fall on a button that declutches the engines or something though – this is hard as most of the surfaces are covered in controls of some description.

boat3As ever, a photo fails to capture the beauty of the scene, which was a feast for our eyes. The second day into our cruise we were presented with a stunning sunset. We were sitting on the edge of the ship, beers in hand, thinking life is good. The next few days the ship got a lot more motion. Icebreakers have flat bottoms, the idea being they can ride up on the ice and crush it with their weight, which means that the handling on the high seas is not very good. This ship rolls sided to side as usual, but also strongly pitches forwards-backwards. Slowly but surely, as the seas picked up, people vanished into their cabins. To my great surprise, I have been completely unaffected by seasickness – and I’m very glad. My less fortunate colleagues have had a rough few days…

Yesterday were the heaviest seas yet. We have been able to avoid entering a storm we thought we may have to pass though but crossing in its wake still gave 10m swells and very dramatic ship movements. Enough, certainly, to make walking hard, make anything in your cabin that’s not secured fall to the floor, showering hazardous and interesting sitting in the lounge as your chair slides back and forth across the room.

boat4Another view from the bridge, this time looking forward, from last night. Although we’re not expected to hit real ice for some days, we’re in the ice danger zone and icebergs may exist as far North as here (45deg S). The big ones we’ll see on radar long before we see the visually, but the smaller ones that don’t have a radar reflection are still a risk to the ship, so the crew are watching our path like hawks that eat ice. At night, they turn on two bright searchlights to illuminate the sea, and last night there was also heavy snowfall resulting in a pair of beautiful snow shafts. The outside temperature has dropped to about 3 degrees, with the water temperature slightly below. Too cold to loiter outside long, as we haven’t yet cracked open our cold-weather gear. Strange to think just a few days ago it was hot, shorts weather… it’s starting to feel a bit like where I’m going…

By the way, I have no comments enabled here as it’s not really possible for me to view them (frustratingly the internet out here is so poor I cannot view my own blog). I do want to hear from you though, even if it’s one-line witty comments or questions about anything I write! Send them via email, though, at alexander at