I have worked for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) since ending my Trinity House cadetship seven years ago. My last season south in the ice was by far the most challenging and interesting.The voyage on board RRS Ernest Shackleton began on 1 November 2014 in Immingham, where all our cargo is loaded. While the ship is relatively small at 4028 GRT she is still a versatile general cargo ship. Our cargo consists of bulk and drummed fuel for the research stations and aircraft, fresh and frozen food, scientific equipment, vehicles, spares and of course people – all critical for the running of our Antarctic stations. Our destination? BAS Halley Research Station, Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica 76°S 28°W – the most southerly British presence on the continent.
British Antarctic Survey (BAS) delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions
The Brunt Ice Shelf is in the south eastern corner of the Weddell Sea and inaccessible during the winter months due to a full covering of pack ice. At the beginning of the austral summer however the pack ice normally eases and leads open sufficiently for us to reach Halley.
Our rather bumpy voyage down the Atlantic included two stops for bunkers – a pleasant evening in Madeira and a longer stay at Cape Town. The Cape Town call was a busy four days as we loaded last minute cargo, fresh food and the fresh-faced scientists and technicians who were heading to Halley for the austral winter.
Leaving Cape Town on the 7 December 2014 RRS Ernest Shackleton headed for 60°S and the Greenwich Meridian which was our planned starting point in the ice. As the trip south progresses the Bridge Team look at the satellite images of the Weddell Sea ice concentration to interpret the trends and discuss tactics for getting to Halley. We could see from the images that the ice had not receded as much as normal and this was soon evident on arrival at the ice edge.
The image below shows the purple sea ice concentration that we were faced with as we reached the ice. Dark purple denotes 100% sea ice concentration and lighter colours less ice.
As you can see from the image we had two main options open to us. First was to head south down to the coast and then hope that the shore lead opens up in the places that are “shut”.
Or, as an alternative, head south west and remain to the north of the thick purple band until in a position to the north west of Halley and then approach from that direction. This is often referred to on the bridge of the ship as “going in through the back door.”
We decided on the first option. Initially, accessing the shore lead was quite tough going. Unusually we came across another ship in the ice, the South African Antarctic Research Vessel, SA Aghulas which was trying to access the Atka Bay Area to resupply the SANAE research station.
Once in the shore lead we did not have long before it closed up and we were once again struggling to make any progress. On several occasions we stopped the main engines to save fuel whilst we waited for the ice to ease. When you might only gain a couple of ship lengths in a day you have ask yourself if it is worth burning 25 tonnes of fuel.
When stationary in the ice it is interesting to see how the ice moves around the ship and how far a ship can drift stuck in an ice floe. On occasions the ship would cover 20 to 30 miles in a day–often in the wrong direction. It normally becomes obvious when it is worth firing up the engines and trying to make progress.
After much patient and then later, not so patient waiting and some tough ice breaking, RRS Ernest Shackleton eventually reached Halley on 28 December. Cargo handling was a 24 hour operation working in temperatures of about -10°. Round the clock operations are made easier without the hindrance of darkness during the Antarctic summer.
Usually, by the time the cargo operations are completed, the ice has eased or cleared making the outbound passage much easier. Not so this season. It was decided to try and retrace our track for part of the way – the only difference being turning to the north west when possible to reach our next destination, Signy Research Station in the South Orkney Islands.
Again we had an unplanned five day stop off the north eastern corner of the Stancomb Wills ice stream whilst waiting for the ice to ease. The remainder of the passage was relatively straight forward.
Signy is a summer only research station conducting primarily biological sciences. Perched on a rocky island and foreshore, the ship cannot get alongside so cargo operations are completed by cargo tender and small boats.
Our final destination of the trip was Stanley in the Falkland Islands for crew change and the long flight home to Brize Norton via Ascension Island, courtesy of the Royal Air Force.
Photographs reproduced by kind permission of the British Antarctic Survey
British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions.
Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know-how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs.
For more information visit www.bas.ac.uk.