The Journey South

Hair chopped off, teeth checked one last time, family and friends hugged, and I am off – on my first adventure as a minion on the ICEBERGS2 research cruise. As part of the cruise we will be looking at how the environment and the many different critters colonising the seafloor of the Southern Ocean respond to glacial retreat (Climate change is real).

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Boarding the JCR in the Falklands
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Route of our Research cruise

The last few weeks before departure were just a big blur of things that needed to be done, and although I was trying to be incredibly German and organised by compiling a very long list, it became very clear, after the first few days on the ship, that apparently this list had not been comprehensive. Whoever bothers with buying shower gel when about to embark on an Antarctic adventure anyway? Certainly not me.

Owing to storms our much anticipated flight was delayed by 24h, but on the evening of the 29th of November, the European contingency finally met at Brize Norton to fly to the Falkland Islands were we were meeting our ship. Very much to the entertainment of my fellow travelers, I got called to the check in desk several times (apparently keeping a nice sturdy dive knife in your luggage is frowned upon by the RAF).

During my time at Cambridge I had heard so much about the RRS James Clark Ross (JCR) that when she finally came in sight after an 20 h journey, it was almost like greeting an old friend. We got a very warm welcome from the crew and were assigned our cabins. I am sharing a very cosy and tiny one with another scientist Alice Guzzi from Genova University and we have to stagger our morning routines so as not to fall over each other. Once we settled in, life on the ship quickly turned into routine and was ruled by mealtimes, which I am all for, lots of food as well, which is even better. There is also a very good blog of life on board the JCR available here. Although we were all keen to leave the Falklands and start work on board, our departure got delayed owing to a lack of pilots on Sunday (Polar science is most definitely not for the impatient). Fortunately, we used the free afternoon for a walk along the beach and encountered three colonies of Gentoo Penguins. They were breeding at the time just a short distance from the beach, and seeing them waddling past newly born lambs on their way to and from the beach presented a fairly surreal picture to an inhabitant of the Northern Hemisphere.

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At 8 o’clock the next morning we cast off, waved goodbye to the RRS Earnest Shackleton, who was about to leave for Rothera,  left the sheltering islands behind and made our way to Burdwood Bank. Now, having already panicked about being seasick several months ahead, I had stocked up on travel medicine big time before even arriving in the Falkland Islands. Some people on board might tell you that the conditions we’ve been facing (50 knots wind speed and 4-5m swell) means we were barely moving – tell that to all the china that got broken.

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I very quickly realised that just pills wouldn’t do it for me so I dragged myself to the doctor and got rewarded with a marvel of modern medicine in form of a sticky patch worn behind your ear for several days. This patch very quickly alleviates any feeling of nausea, however comes with interesting side effects such as losing your near sight (my plate at meal time turned into a big blur and for the life of me I could not attach a USB cable to my computer) as well as getting an extremely dry mouth (makes eating toast a bit of a challenge). However, ultimately I am more than happy to endure this trade off as long as it means I will not spend the whole journey hanging over the site of the ship, feeding the charismatic megafauna (which is very much frowned upon by BAS anyway).

We spent two days at Burdwood Bank taking short trawl samples (between 400 and 1300m depth) to find out what was living on the sea floor. This will help to inform the South Atlantic Environment Research Institute (SAERI) about the potential to establish a Marine Management Area on the Bank.

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It was the first real science that happened on board, after a few days of inactivity and the whole team made an appearance at one time or another during sampling to take a look at the strange and wonderful creatures we had brought up from the deep. It was my first proper encounter with deep sea fauna and I am pretty sure this is where costume designer for the alien movies get their inspiration from.

 

Once we completed our work here, we continued our quest to the West Antarctic Peninsula. While crossing Drake Passage and the Brunsfield straight, conditions deteriorated and we found ourselves in something akin to riding a rollercoaster while balancing hot soup plates – certainly made meal times a bit of an adventure. We continued our work (preparing sampling containers – yes, this is what cutting edge science looks like) as best as possible during transit, but at one point even the hardiest of seadogs had to give up and we spent a day huddled together watching nature documentaries, wedging ourselves in corners and holding on to anything that was nailed to the floor.

Drake Passage, Photo: A. Guzzi

After two days of being battered about and having to buckle ourselves into bed we finally reached the safe haven of Marion Cove. We had successfully crossed perilous seas and arrived in Antarctica – home for the next 18 months!

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Marion Cove. Photo A. Guzzi

 

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