(A quick note of explanation from Felix: sea ice has blown back towards
Halley, and where it meets the sea ice which never detached itself in the first
place, there’s a five-foot crack which precludes moving heavy equipment off
the boat and onto the base. So the RSS Ernest Shackleton is trying to crunch
its way through the ice until it reaches the crack and can start unloading.)
I will try and describe what I see before me when standing out on deck. Firstly,
it is not that cold, especially not with Antarctic gear on. Minus a few perhaps,
sometimes even up to plus one. Secondly, there is a lot of white. And a lot
of white on white. Without sunglasses, you can’t see much at all; it’s too white
and too bright. With sunglasses, the picture gradually emerges, like one of
those computer-generated posters that first looks like nonsense until an elephant
appears in 3D. Once you see the elephant, you will never see the nonsense again.
So it is with the ice cliffs.
But first, the immediate surroundings. We have barged and bashed a channel
through the sea ice that is 1-2 km long, a couple of ship-widths wide and has
a bend in. It took three days to do this. The motion of the ship was worse than
Biscay when ramming at top
energy – we back up, speed up, ram ram ram, brace brace brace, the ship
hull slides over the sea ice and crashes down: thump. Often one whole side of
the ship points worryingly to the sky. And then we sink down again, anxiously
scanning the ice for any sign of a crack that we can pursue. Usually there is
none, the result being more of a nibbling than a munching. So we’ve now stopped.
It could take weeks for to reach the crack between us and Halley. Maybe Halley
can find an alternative route for us. I’m glad I have no role in the decision
making right now. After making such good time here we might end up with a significant
delay in arrival. For winterers expecting a handover and no more, that’s no
calamity, yet, but for folk here for the summer only, time is already pushed
in a six week season. At some point, we’ll have to start prioritising tasks.
The good news is that we can cross the crack by skidoo and some people have
gone up to base already. The bad news is that none of our heavy cargo will make
it as things currently stand.
Back to the scenery. Around us is a channel of ice porridge, slushy, on the
cusp of freezing and thawing. It looks like Lux flakes, I don’t know why. Above
the surface is the sea ice we’re trying to break up. This is perhaps 2-3m thick
at its worst, easily 1m thick in most places. This is ice that formed last winter
and hasn’t melted or been blown out to sea yet. On top of the ice therefore
is a years accumulation of snow,- at least another metre and heavy. So we’re
driving through porridge, trying to break up a heavy, soggy, very stable wall
of ice. And when it does break up, it falls into the porridge and stays there.
We need wind. Usually there has been a strong burst of wind by this time of
year that creates a large swell and breaks up the winter ice. This year’s winter
was particularly cold but the summer has been amazingly calm. Nice for the residents,
not for the ship.
On top of the sea ice is sastrugi, beautiful sastrugi, and penguins. Sastrugi
forms when the wind blows snow about,- it is the formations of snow on the top
layer. It’s all the vertical structure I have to feast on, maybe only 5cm high,
but to my eyes, as beautiful as a forest. In a very different way. The penguins
are emperors, large and elegant, yellow collar, head held high, proud. I hadn’t
seen them swim before; they are more like seals than dolphins in the water,
unlike their littler cousins. Adelies, gentoos, chinstraps – they fly
out of the water, following a parabola with their entire bodies, completely
air-borne at the top of the jump. This is called porpoising and makes you giggle
every time you see it. Emperors are larger, sleeker and, I imagine, heavier.
When they swim, their backs emerge but not their whole selves. Watching them,
they are less playful but just as much fun. Only when following an emperor swim
deep, do I realise how clear this seemingly black water really is. Deeper and
deeper they twirl, then they dissappear. A minuter later, flying, flying, they
fly out of the water and onto the ice, slip slide, wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee on their
bellies, brace with their wings, stand up, shake off and walk away as though
that wasn’t really the best thing they could imagine doing ever.
There is about 10km of sea ice between us and the ice shelf. Half way between
the two is this damned five foot wide crack. Everywhere else, the sea ice is
thick and strong, perfect for relief of the ship. The ice shelf however, that’s
what calls me. The cliffs are about 50m high and, when the sky’s clear, endless
in both directions. They look a bit like Beachy Head or the Seven Sisters except
they’re white all over. That is the edge of the ice shelf which is the edge
of the continent, miles and miles away, that is Antarctica. The pedant in me
knows that although this place is known as ‘The Real Antarctic’, it’s not –
one day I’d like to feel the Land under my feet as well. Perhaps in the Dry
Valleys or the South Pole. I’m not picky! For now, however, I’ve arrived, I’ve
come home to Halley. I don’t know why this place makes me tick but it does.
It’s just so huge, and so white, and there’s so much ice.