Tuesday 24 January 2023
We awake this morning eagerly waiting to see what the day will bring. We are anchored slightly east of Cape Bird hoping that the predicted southerly wind change will have cleared enough ice that we will be able to make our way into McMurdo Sound. Disappointment when we see that the wind direction was still northerly at 6.00. Even more disappointment when Genevieve tells us at breakfast that when she had been on the bridge last night they had seen an icebreaker from the US Antarctic Base go out, with the intention of bringing in a container ship that will take at least 7 days to unload, meaning that we would not be able to go onto the wharf while it is there.
But Aaron’s first announcement fills us with more hope: the weather is still predicted to change to southerly winds in the next 24 hours and we are going to make our way around the Cape to see what conditions are like, even if we have to push through some ice. It is warmer today about 3C (which is positively tropical in comparison to yesterday!). As we make our way through relatively clear water it starts to snow and then we see a massive sea of pack ice ahead. Only time will tell what we will be able to do.
At least being back in amongst the pack ice means that we are treated to more wildlife. It is not very often in life that you can rush out from washing your smalls to watch a leopard seal outside the window. Followed not much later by a call of minke whale spotted off the starboard side.
Sitting up in the observation lounge we can see heavy pack ice all around us (Grade 9= 90% coverage). Adelie penguins rush around, flippers flapping as they work out which way to run/toboggan as the ship approaches. Seals lie like giant slugs on the floes, occasionally lifting their heads to keep an eye on us with some deciding that it would be better to slither off into the water, then poking their heads up again once we go past. Every now and then there is bang and the ship shudders as we push into the ice, moving it aside or splitting it apart.
As quickly as it came, the snow clears, the sun comes out along with blue sky. In the distance we start to see the Transantarctic mountains on the far side of the bay. Then we see the US icebreaker and the supply ship way out in the distance behind us – the chase is on! A very slow chase at the moment. We are surprised that there is so much ice now. It is unusual but also a consequence of global warming. Perversely, as the temperature increases the stronger the katabatic winds become, blowing cold air down off the ice cap and glaciers, and forming more sea ice. Navigating through ice is made much more difficult because there are no current images available – the various sites that provide ice updates take images and then people analyse them before making them available so there may be a 36 hour delay. Satellite images are more update to date but are only available occasionally. There is a great skill in reading the weather and the ice conditions. We put our trust in Aaron and the captain.
Slowly, inch by inch, we work our way around Cape Bird – actually around Mt Bird with its round volcanic shape. We wish for the cloud to lift so that we could actually see the mountain rather than the seemingly endless shoreline that is draped in heavy layers of ice and snow. We work our way from one patch of lighter ice to another, the long chain of the Transantarctic mountains in the distance gradually becoming clearer. But no matter how far we go, the view around the corner into McMurdo Sound seems to elude us. But we can see the site of an Adelie Penguin colony. Steve tells us that there is another Adelie colony at Beaufort Island that we see out by the big ships. There is still ice all around and the patches of clearer sea in the distance may just be a mirage. Before lunch we find ourselves in an exceptionally dense area of ice as far as the eye could see and I begin to wonder if we will ever get inside the sound.
By the end of lunch the ships have made their way in front of us – going at least twice as fast as our 2-2.5knots (we are ice-strengthened rather than an icebreaker). The US icebreaker Polar Star comes down from Seattle every year purely for the purpose of enabling the re-supply of McMurdo Base (two ships come in each summer). The sky is now a brilliant blue and we can see a huge length of the Transantarctic Mountains from Mt Discovery in the south beyond Ross Island, past the Royal Society Mountains, Prince Albert Mountains, and all the way into the distance towards where we first entered the Ross Sea 6 days ago.
We thought we might have been able to follow in the wake of the US ships but apparently the ice closes over behind them almost immediately rather than leaving an open channel. And if you follow closely behind them the radio chatter becomes full of unfriendly comment.
We can just start to see the tip of Mt Erebus appear behind Mt Bird – a puff of steam coming out the top. Further round more of the volcano appears and we stop for a while to take in the amazing scenery in this beautiful weather. In fact we discover that Aaron and Captain Denis have in fact stopped to ponder our next course of action. With the glorious day we are enjoying, the promised southerly winds have not eventuated and the current is packing the ice in behind us. Captain Denis feels that it will be safer for us to turn around and go back out to where the ice is less dense, rather than risk getting stuck in the ice.
We take our last photos of Mt Erebus and sit back watching penguins sitting on the ice floes with the sunlight glistening on the ice and the water. The ice stretches out for miles into the distance – it is incredibly beautiful and nearly impossible to describe. We hardly seem to move any distance at all and Beaufort Island doesn’t seem to get any closer. Anne and I decide it is time to go and have a drink in the bar before the briefing. Out on the back deck the sun is shining and people are outside sitting on the deck chairs with their drinks.
At the briefing tonight Bryan (unexpectedly for a geologist) tells us about recognising different types of orca/killer whales – we think we have seen a pod of type B and a pod of type C orca. Vincent goes on to talk to us about Orca communication (28 different communication types have been identified with a whole combination of different clicks, whistles and pulse bursts – they can also use diphonics) and shows us amazing footage showing not only orca tipping ice floes to dislodge seals but 4 orca cooperating to synchronise a bigger wave to tip off a seal on a floe that is too big to lift – and one peels off quickly to catch the falling seal. Then he showed amazing new BBC footage where the ice floe was very large and the seal in the middle. 2 orca came and put their heads up to assess the situation, go away to communicate and come back to swim under the flow with tales in synchrony to create a series of waves that break up the floe. The seal manages to stay on one of the pieces, so the orca pop their heads up again, then circle around to push this floe out so that there is more space before swimming up to create a wave to dislodge the seal.
At dinner I choose not to have dessert but Israel comes out with a spoon and fork for me and when I shake my head he gives me a clear plate that has “I’m sweet enough!!!” Written in chocolate. Thankfully this is done with much less fanfare than the daily birthday cake presentation.
Aaron had shown us how the sea ice that had been starting to thin out in McMurdo sound has all pushed back together again without the expected southerly wind change and the beautiful weather. We do have another 3-4 days to spend in Antarctica so hopefully there will still be time to get further in. Meantime, we have made it back out to clearer waters near the Adelie penguin colony at Cape Bird. After dinner we are excited to see a zodiac being lowered and hope this might bring relief to the cabin fever that is setting in for many.
Hopes are dashed for a while as they discover that the sea ice is moving towards the ship at 1 knot which would make it difficult to get us on and off the ship. Many of us went up top to look at the penguin colony and enjoy the warm evening sunshine. We watch a squall moving towards us and then the temperature drops markedly as it reaches us. Just as I thought it would all be off, the announcement comes that we can go out – our group first at 10.00 and the second group at 11.15. It is not as cold as expected and we enjoy watching seals and penguins and zipping in and out of the ice. One of the other zodiacs gets trapped but with them pushing the floe on one side and us on the other we are able to spin it enough for them to get out. On the way back Yuri (Zodiac driver) gives us a fast spin around the ship.
It is hard to go to sleep after that excitement – particularly with the sun still out!
Day 1-2: Meeting and Departure
Day 3: The Snares
Day 4: Auckland Islands – Enderby Island
Day 5: At Sea
Day 6: Macquarie Island
Day 7: Macquarie Island
Day 8: At Sea
Day 9: At Sea
Day 10: At Sea
Day 11: At Sea
Day 12: Cape Adare, Antarctica
Day 13: Possession Islands
Day 14: At Sea, Coulman Island
Day 15: At Sea
Day 16: At Sea
Day 17: At Sea, Ross Ice Shelf
Day 18: Cape Bird/McMurdo Sound
Day 19: Cape Bird/McMurdo Sound
Day 20: Cape Evans/Cape Royds
Day 21: At Sea
Day 22: At Sea
Day 23: At Sea
Day 24: At Sea
Day 25: At Sea
Day 26: At Sea/Campbell Island
Day 27: Final Day at Sea