A Month in the Weddell Sea

After our premature departure from Halley we headed out to the 3 Ronne’s depot sailing west then south following a hopeful lead. During the time the ship was diverted to pick us up from Halley it missed its window to get through the sea ice, as now the wind had turned and was blowing onshore compacting all the sea ice. After a day we already hit the dense sea ice and after a week of our best efforts to break up the floes and drifting along with them in the wrong direction the decision was made to head back to Halley for the final call.

There were a few days where we were waiting around for the wind to change and blow offshore to loosen up the compacted ice, which we took advantage of and enjoyed some recreational time:

On the first occasion on the 2nd February we parked up against a thick ice floe and played a game of football, as well as getting close and friendly with a few local emperor penguins. The floe was almost a meter thick, so well within the 15 cm needed to support a person.

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On another occasion we got a close up view of a tabular ice berg and I got to steer the camera on the UAV during a short flight to get some good footage of the ship while another lucky FID got to steer the ship.

Before returning to Halley for the last cargo we caught up with the JCR (RRS James Clark Ross), which was on a science cruise in the area. As they were in the middle of sampling they couldn’t stop and a week or so later we rendezvoused again to take on some spare parts to fix the V-Sat link (our internet supply).

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Wildlife is plentiful both in the open water, where Minke whales are quite common, as well as in the pack ice where seals and penguins leisurely lounge about on the ice. We watched some penguins a few times diving down for food in the evenings resembling huge ducks bobbing about the water. Before they dive down they trap air between their feathers, which they squeeze out to give them some extra propulsion when jumping out of the water. Although sometimes it’s still not enough and they go crashing into the side of a taller chuck of ice and ungracefully splash back into the water.

The biggest treat so far was watching a pod of orcas one evening after returning for Halley cargo at creek 8. The sea ice had all blown out so we again used thrusters to stay near the shore to crane the cargo, but in between shipments we went back out to sea. The 5-10 orcas were spread out following the shore line with two large fins (probably males), some smaller ones and a calf. We all watched them in awe until the wind picked up and the pod moved on.

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On the 13th we watched our first sunset since 30th October just off the Brunt ice shelf during the final call at Halley. The clouds broke up long enough to see the orange disk poke through the layers and set behind the ice.

After we had loaded all the remaining PAX and as much cargo as we could we headed down along the coast following an open lead towards the Ronne’s again. This lead went past the Argentinian station Belgrano II situated on the coast near the Schweizer glacier. On the way down low cloud kept it hidden from site and our radio calls went unanswered. Sadly the pack ice hadn’t moved and was still bunched up thick against the coast forcing us to retreat again a day or two later. At this point we had almost sailed as far south as is possible by sea to almost 78 degrees south. On the way back we had some beautiful weather with diamond dust and the sun reflecting golden off the water and leaving the ice floes to radiate an eerie bright blue in the shade. We could see the continent as it rises sharply with its huge crevasses. This time we heard Belgrano II on the radio going about their daily business.

Our last attempt to go to the Ronne’s was to take a NW route before turning south hoping that the huge iceberg known as A23 (see photo near the top of the post), which is large enough to encompass the area inside the M25 motorway around London, would free up a way through the pack ice. This berg is fairly old and is grounded so it doesn’t move, but it provides a barrier for the wind which can create a gap in the pack ice on its lee side. We got as close as a few nm, but it remained veiled in mist and densely packed with ice.

Soon enough a call came through that the JCR, which has a lower ice rating than the Shackleton, was having difficulties in the ice near Belgrano, so we headed back that way as a precaution. Once we were free of the thick pack ice the JCR had also managed to move and our assistance was no longer required. At this late point in the season the decision was made to abandon the effort to reach the Ronne’s and therefore also the need to go to the German Neumayer Station and head back out to sea, first to Signy and then the Falklands, our final destination.

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