Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Sunday 4 December 2011
A bright, clear, sunny morning gave us our first good look at Macquarie Island, its straight steep eastern side plunging into the sea. On the shore we could see a beach packed with King penguins.
We had hoped to take the zodiacs out to cruise amongst the swimming Kings but a southerly wind was too strong and the swell too big for safety. But the Kings came to us instead. They are curious birds, and hundreds of them swam all around the ship.
Soon it was time to leave and we set off along the eastern side of Macquarie and out into the Southern Ocean. Once well out of sight of land, we were accompanied by several pairs of light-mantled sooty albatross which soared alongside our ship.
Below, skimming the waves, flashes of blue were Antarctic prions, while farther out, the huge white wingspan of a wandering albatross swept back and forth low above the water.
Monday 5 December 2011
It's going to take us two full days at sea to our next landfall, at Hobart in Tasmania, where my Antarctic journey will end. So all day today we've been rolling back and forth in the swell of the Tasman Sea and we've another day of it to go.
This is the time to look back on where we've been and what we've seen. A visit to Antarctica is always special, but this visit to the Ross Sea has been truly extraordinary. It's a difficult place to get to - we had to break our way through 900 miles of pack ice to reach 77o 50° South - and the landscape is like no other. It's one of those places where you find it hard to believe that you are really there.
It's been an amazing and moving experience to visit the century-old huts of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions, and one can only be in awe of their achievements, not just in their exploration of new lands but in the scientific work they did here, often in the severest conditions.
Having been to their expedition bases and to some of the sites they visited, I'm looking forward to re-reading the accounts of their expeditions, and especially that of Scott's last expedition, the centenary of which will be marked next year with a number of events in the UK.
I'm sure that much of what I've seen and experienced on this trip deep below the Antarctic Circle will enhance our forthcoming exhibition, Captain Scott:South for Science, and the activities we have planned around it. But for now, it's back to the rolling sea.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Sunday 27 November 2011
We’ve been slowly breaking through heavy pack ice as we travel around Ross Island to see the Ross Ice Shelf. But we’ve the view of the volcanoes of Ross Island, including Mount Erebus, which has made up for it.
We saw a rocky headland at the eastern end of Ross Island - Cape Crozier, the site of an Emperor penguin rookery, famous as the destination of The Worst Journey in the World. Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard of Scott’s last expedition sledged the 60 miles from the other side of the island in the intense cold and 24 hour darkness of the Antarctic winter to collect Emperor eggs, believing that these would shed light on the evolutionary relationships between reptiles and birds. The journey was an epic one, with temperatures down to -60oC. It was so cold, their teeth cracked. Their tent blew away and they nearly died. Cherry-Garrard’s book is a classic of Antarctic exploration literature.
Passing Cape Crozier, ahead of us loomed the huge white cliff of the Great Ice Barrier, the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Discovered by James Clark Ross in 1841, it is one of the great natural wonders of the world. A vertical wall of floating ice rising 30 metres above the surface of the sea (and about 270 metres below), the edge of the ice shelf extends for 600 km. The ice shelf itself is enormous - a mass if floating ice the size of France.
Strong winds were blowing off the top of the ice shelf today, carrying snow in great sweeps down the face of the ice cliff. James Clark Ross saw it as a formidable barrier to southward travel.
Thursday 1 December 2011
The Ross Ice Shelf is about as far south as you can take a ship on this planet, so from here the only way to go is north. Our original plan was to head towards the west coast of the Ross Sea for some landings on the mainland, but the sea ice is way too thick.
Down by the Ice Shelf, we were in a large area of open water, but the current in the Ross Sea carries the ice clockwise and it has piled up against the west coast. So instead we’re heading out of the Ross Sea. We’ve spent three days breaking through the pack ice and broke into the open water of the Southern Ocean last night. It was foggy and snowing this morning. We’re now about 570 miles from Macquarie Island and skirting the eastern side of a deep low pressure system. The waves in that low are about 8 metres high, but here they are only 5 metres or so. Around us, albatrosses wheel in the wind.
These days at sea are times for lectures and other activities. This morning I lectured on the links between Wales and Antarctica and the support Scott’s expedition received from Cardiff and Wales. There was a lot of interest in our planned exhibition and a number of people have expressed an interest in coming to see it. Some are even thinking of coming from the US and combining visits to the exhibitions in London and Cardiff, which would be great.
Saturday 3 December 2011
We’ve not been on land since last Saturday. We spent three days breaking ice in the Ross Sea and another three in the rolling waters of the Southern Ocean.
It’s not been quite as calm as it was on the way south. We’ve been rolling at about 30o and pitching as well, so we’ve had an uncomfortable time being thrown about. But now land is in sight. We’re sailing along the coast of Macquarie Island. It’s in the middle of nowhere, a sliver of land in the vast southern ocean.
It’s a cold, grey, damp and foggy day. We landed near the northern end of the island at an Australian research station and staff there showed us around their facilities, which, being an Australian base, includes not only a bar, but a brewery. The station is surrounded by a sturdy fence to keep out the elephant seals, big, heavy, noisy, smelly animals that would flatten anything and everything. Outside the station, they are everywhere. The geology around here is fascinating. The island is a slice of ocean floor which has been uplifted along the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates.
After lunch we landed at a bay on the island’s east coast on a beach crowded with King penguins and the much smaller Royal penguins with their bright yellow crests. Walking through the surf along the shore, with penguins come in and out of the water around my feet was a special experience. A short walk north along the shore took us to a colony of King penguins where it was hard to believe that the comical, dumpy, brown, fluffy ‘okum boys’ which are the immature Kings would eventually turn into such beautiful adult birds. At the back of the beach, a penguin highway busy with Royals led uphill to a huge, noisy, densly packed throng of many thousands of the birds, some with tiny chicks at their feet.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Thursday 24 November 2011
This morning we landed by helicopter on the beach at Cape Bird on the northwestern side of Ross Island and hiked north to an Adelie penguin rookery, with perhaps 70,000 pairs of birds.
Much smaller than Emperors, these are feisty little beasts, the most southerly breeding penguin in the world. It’s always entertaining to watch them carrying pebbles to add to their stone nests, squabbling with one another, and waddling back and forth across the ice to the water. On previous trips to Antarctica I’ve seen two Adelies go at one another with a scary degree of fury.
While we were watching the Adelies, it started to snow and we witnessed a real Antarctic scene as the black backs of the penguins turned grey and then white. The wind grew stronger and visibility dropped, so we had to abandon our landing and get everyone back to the ship.
Friday 25 November 2011
We’re now the furthestmost south ship on earth, and have the weather to prove it. Our plans today were a visit to see the facilities at the large US McMurdo Station and New Zealand’s Scott Base. Also here is the hut from Scott’s first expedition in 1902. But the weather wasn’t on our side. It’s been blowing a blizzard all day (well it is summer here, after all) with the windchill temperature down to -40, the temperature at which the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet.
The ship is covered in snow, the wind plastering it to the superstructure. But during a brief lull in the storm this evening, we did get a view of a partial solar eclipse, which was a great bonus. We’re staying here tomorrow to see if the weather improves enough to fly the helicopters.
Saturday 26 November
By this morning the blizzard had died down, but the wind was still too strong for the helicopters to fly. We waited all morning, then just as the ship was pulling away the wind dropped just enough. So it was a quick dash to get changed and grab a sandwich, then out to the helideck for a 20 minute flight south to the site of the hut from Captain Scott’s first expedition.
The hut is situated at the end of a long peninsula at the southern end of Ross Island. It was convenient not only for Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902-04 but also for later Scott and Shackleton expeditions. The interior contains artefacts from all of these, most notably from the Ross Sea party of Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition of 1914-16. Seals killed by Shackleton’s men nearly 100 years ago lie on the verandah on top of sails from Scott’s ship. Seal blubber inside still drips oil onto the floor. Their last meal can still be seen in the frying pan.
Next to the hut is the large US base of McMurdo Station. Looking like a frontier mining town, it’s not the most attractive site in Antarctica, but it is an important staging post for the scientific field parties heading out on the ice. A short distance away is the New Zealand Scott Base which fulfills a similar role and also provides facilities for the Antarctic Heritage Trust who have been conserving the historic huts.
The view today was spectacular, across the fast ice to the high ice covered mountains of the Royal Society Range.
Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary
Tuesday 22 November 2011
Overnight we sailed across McMurdo Sound and pushed into the fast ice along the coast of the mainland. It was a beautiful day today, except where we wanted to be - in the mountains.
There, low cloud meant the helicopters couldn’t fly. So instead we spent the morning walking on the ice around the ship. Our presence attracted the attention of a group of Emperor penguins who were just as interested in us as we were in them. They were definitely there to have their pictures taken! They leapt in and out of the water, waddled back and forth, stood, posed and almost smiled for our cameras.
By early afternoon the weather showed signs of improvement, so we flew across the fast ice and into the Taylor Valley, one of the Dry Valleys. These are remarkable features, the largest ice-free area in the continent. Taylor Valley was discovered by Scott on his first expedition while returning from a sledging trip to explore the Polar Plateau with Edgar Evans from Rhossili on Gower.
The Dry Valleys are a polar desert where the rocks are smoothed and sculpted by sand blown by katabatic winds which hurtle down from the Antarctic ice sheet at speeds of up to 200 mph. They attract a lot of scientific attention, especially from NASA, as this is probably the closest we have to a Martian landscape and climate. It was a real thrill to experience this incredible landscape.
The valley is strewn with moraines with huge variety of rock types. Two geologists from Scott’s last expedition, Frank Debenham and Griffith Taylor, explored this valley and collected from these moraines. This gave them samples of rocks from deeper into the Transantarctic Mountains which they did not have time to explore.
Wednesday 23 November 2011
After a bright sunny night, we awoke to find ourselves back in the fast ice of Ross Island, this time offshore of Cape Evans. Visiting Shackleton’s Hut was wonderful, the Dry Valleys exceptional, but today was very much the icing on the Ross Sea cake, and for most of us, the whole reason for this trip - a visit to Captain Scott’s hut, the hut from which he left for the South Pole and to which he never returned.
Almost buried in snowdrifts, the hut has a powerful presence, seeped as it is in Antarctic history. Stepping through the door was a strange experience. In front of me was a large room that I knew well, but I was seeing it for the first time in colour. I know this hut from the famous photographs of Scott’s expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting.
I was standing where he stood, at the end of the long table, when he took the picture of Scott’s birthday. I stood between the sleeping bags of Teddy Evans and Edward Wilson, from where Ponting photographed Scott sitting at his desk. I saw the empty Tenements, the bunks of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Birdie Bowers, and Captain Oates, and could visualise them there, as in Ponting’s photograph. Above Oates’ bunk - his pinups: pictures of horses and dogs. Atkinson’s laboratory, his test tubes and equipment still on the bench; the Geologists’ Cubicle, with rocks on the floor beneath Frank Debenham’s bunk; Ponting’s darkroom, still smelling of developer and fixer; the Stables where Oates cared for the ponies, and the stove he used to heat their chaff; Clissold the cook’s galley with its stove, utensils, and canned foodstuffs; and, dividing the hut, a wall of crates of Coleman’s mustard, Fry’s chocolate and other supplies. All of these are still where Ponting photographed them a century ago.
Of course, a feeling of sadness and tragedy pervades this hut; it is almost tangible. Almost exactly 100 years ago, Scott, Oates, Bowers, Wilson and Edgar Evans left this building and set out for the South Pole and a frozen death.
Less well known is that this hut was used by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party who were laying the depots for his doomed crossing of the continent in 1916. Three of their number lost their lives on the ice near here. A forlorn, poignant pencilled scribble beside a bunk records “Loses to date Hayward, Mack, Smith”. In their memory, their colleagues erected a wooden cross on Wind Vane Hill near the hut.
The setting of the hut was enhanced by some suitable weather today; kind enough at times to allow our helicopters in, but showing how quickly the weather can change here. Snow showers, fine spindrift, a driving wind and windchill of -10oC reminded us what conditions here can be like, even less than a month from midsummer.