We soon became acquainted with the ship and crew. On a rota we joined in and worked cleaning the decks and in the galley. For an ice-strengthened ship, the Shackleton is surprisingly luxurious with a variety of entertainment and a steward who’s always glad of a helping hand we were never bored. So for a short while I was actively part of the merchant navy. With some 30 personnel travelling South there were enough people to talk to and get to know. I soon became a regular in the gym and the sauna. The ship was refitted in Norway, so as a benefit all the signs were in English and Norwegian as well as having a sauna at the front of the ship. The gym consisted of a few weight machines and a treadmill in a corner of the cargo hold. I had never set foot on a treadmill in my life, so running whilst in a swell was great fun. I also took a great liking to the weights feeling the spirit of “pumping iron” in the cargo hold of a ship rolling in the swells of the Southern Ocean. I would frequent this place in the morning and go for lunch in the mess afterwards. Later on the sauna would be hot enough to relax in followed by a cold shower. Listening to the ice shatter against the hull only inches away whilst sat in 80 degrees C in a beautiful wooden sauna with the scent of pine in the air is a surreal and one of many treasured experiences I was going to have.
Within days of leaving Cape Town we hit the sea ice causing the waves to calm down. In fact we saw our first ice berg right at the start when we all piled out of the sauna in our swimwear for a good photo. Along with the ice came all sorts of wildlife with a variety of penguins, seals, whales and birds, including chinstraps, adelies, kings, emperor penguins, crab and leopard seals, minky and humpback whales, and skewers, petrels and the occasional sooty albatross. Many didn’t bother to move away from their perch on the growlers and bergy bits as the ship passed by, whilst the birds in flight swooped on the air currents around the ship. Although the temperature dropped each day as the ice extent grew, on a sunny day you could still stand outside out of the wind in a t-shirt. We only saw few sunsets as they became later and later until we passed the Antarctic circle and daylight ceased to dwindle.
I also spent my time on the bridge doing regular meteorological observations and learning to gauge the additional marine measurements, like sea swell, wave height, and ice cover. The temperature probe under the bow of the ship broke, so I resorted to the traditional method of determining water temperature using a bucket and thermometer. Not a simple task when the ice is 1 m thick around the hull.
As the ice floes became thicker and the days longer the ship struggled in places to break the ice by riding up onto it. On two occasions the captain stopped the ship and let us drift until a clear lead was spotted ahead to allow the ice to be displaced. The use of a drone to spy these clearings ahead expedited the process and we soon found ourselves racing down a clear polynya at 14 kts with the coast on one side and huge ice bergs some 26 miles long on the other hoping the ice wouldn’t close up. Finally a day before schedule we arrived at our mooring site on a low part of the Brunt ice shelf. The mooring parties anchored us to the ice whilst being watched by some inquisitive penguins. That evening I ventured off the ship and took my first steps in Antarctica.