My furthest south

Our aim for 20 March was to see if we could get as far south as Snow Hill Island where Nordenskjold had spent two winters with the 1903-4 Swedish scientific exploration. Even Jordi was hopeful: he has spent seven years trying and failing to get there and maybe the lack of ice in the Erebus and Terror Gulf was a good sign. It was a calm day with little wind and flat sea.

Soon enough the ice began to show up. Sea water freezes at -1.8 to-2°C. It starts with a film of grease ice which forms into chunks and pancakes before gradually joining up into the pack. Being steel, Europa made her way through, though the ice crunched and shattered around the hull.  Moving very slowly, we drew level with Cockburn Island, a distinctive volcanic cone on the edge of Admiralty Sound, which rises 450m above the sea. It was named by Sir James Ross on his exploration here.

The Antarctic fringe, and particularly the Weddell Sea, is one of the great engines of the global climate. The freezing water pushes out the salt which seeps into the surrounding water and then sinks, making the Antarctic bottom water very saline. The planet’s rotation drives a circumnavigating current which mixes water temperatures to create crucial temperature changes and make conditions favourable for all sorts of life – including us.

Our furthest south official point in the log was 64°05,4, and I took a picture of the ship’s GPS just beforehand. But, as I reported at the time, the ice defeated us. The engines are cooled by sea water coming in and acting as a heat exchanger: no sea water means no engines. Chunks of ice kept stopping the engine and eventually we had to give in and turn back north.

I climbed up above the cross-trees on the main mast to survey the view and this time took my gopro with me. When you climb a mast anything you take must be tied on to your body so it cannot fall and injure people below. I decided not to take my Lumix up there but constructed a lanyard for the smaller camera’s waterproof housing. You do get stupendous views, but it does tend to distort and create curvature in the picture which I don’t (yet) know how to minimise. Bear with me here!

Our propellors churned up the water which attracted life. Whales, dolphins and many birds hunted around us. It is unusual to see Snow Petrels out at sea but Jordi caught this amazing picture of two of them near the boat.

On turning north we of course did not leave the ice before dark. As the light faded, we turned the engines off and took in the sails, so Europa was drifting in the pack ice, silent. My notes show that 2300 we were about 0.5 of a nautical mile from a big tabular berg which cast a dark shadow across the eerie scene. A three-quarter moon was shining in the hazy sky so that beyond the berg and across the horizon the ice is gleaming white. Directly around us, all around us, were big flat floes. There were penguins on some of them, probably unhappy at our intrusion and the sounds of our voices from the bows.

The crew were very calm and relaxed. Jordi talked about two days spent drifting here in the south one year. Harko was obviously comfortable with the situation and cancelled all watches except for himself and three crew on call. Everyone else, including the other permanent crew, were able to kick back and even have a beer.

I found it a surpassingly strange feeling, to sit on a boat showing nav lights but with no engine or sails, in the open sea – except it was not open but flat calm underneath thicking ice. Of course, what else would one do? It is too dark to keep a watch for ice made significantly more dangerous by our own momentum, and there is no wind. The safest course is submission and to enjoy it.

It was very difficult to take satisfactory pictures in the low light, as we were moving a bit and so was the ice. This was one occasion I really wished for a full DSLR rather than my bridge camera, for the much lower apertures. So my photographs, while dramatic, cannot capture that monochrome haze, the ice drifting in and out of our lights, its broken pattern all around us and stretching away across the black water under the shifting, mesmeric shadows cast by the clouds draping the moon.

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