The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Day 6 – A baptism of wind

Posted by Chris - 2 December 2013

The promise of fine weather ended with my last post! I knew I was tempting fate as soon I put fingers to keyboard and waxed lyrically about the excellent conditions. Since then the Southern Ocean has come back with a vengeance, swinging from one extreme to the other. Wind, rain, hail and sleet have been our regular companions, and then just to play with our minds, the clouds suddenly clear and the Sun bursts forth – albeit briefly. Tonight as I sit in my cabin writing this blog I can hear the wind blowing a gale outside and the second anchor has just been dropped to steady the vessel; a first apparently. It’s hard to second guess what will happen with the weather. I watch the barometer for signs of change but the simplest relationship seems to be high pressure equals wind but it’s only a rule of thumb. The weather almost seems to do what it wants; as if it’s made a conscious decision to give no clues as to its intentions. Late last night the barometer was rising with heavy rain and we woke to find our anchorage had snow on the surrounding hills; wonderfully this was on the first day of summer. It wouldn’t be the subantarctic without a little snow!

The last four days have been brilliant, in spite of the weather. The team have got on incredibly well. Inspired by Mawson’s efforts, Chris Fogwill and I made a conscious decision to select team members we believed would get on but are also world experts in their field. Alongside the PhD students, media and science assistants everyone seems to be settling in well. There’s always an element of chance in how people will get on but the combination of people on board is working nicely.  You’re never can tell; many a trip has fallen over because of bad dynamics in the group. Fortunately we seem to have chosen well!

When we sighted Auckland Island on Thursday afternoon, we focussed our efforts on an anchorage in the northeast known as Port Ross; a tragic location for a failed whaling settlement known as Hardwicke which was established in the mid-nineteenth century. The idea was to support the whaling vessels working in the region, but they never came; the whales were hunted to local extinction by the time Hardwicke was set up. After two years, these hardy souls and the company that was funding the ill-conceived venture gave up and pulled out. The houses were packed away and the survivors returned home, leaving the island to the rata forest and sandflies.  Not a lot remains today except for what has to be one of the most isolated cemeteries in the world. The few unfortunate souls recorded here include a grave for a three month girl whose father clearly had given up and used his millstone – which must have cost a fortune at the time – to honour the site for his daughter. It is heartbreaking to see amongst the scrub and birdsong.

The following day we had our first Google+ Hangout on Air on Enderby Island at the northern end of Port Ross. The sea was relatively calm and we approached the sandy beach with excitement. From afar we could see sealions on the shore but they seemed deceptively small; it is the start of the mating season, and most of the beach was inhabited by males defending their area from younger challengers. I hadn’t really appreciated just how large the males can get. Some were around half a tonne by the ripe old age of 10 years. We only saw one female and a young pup; but in another month’s time the beach will be packed with harems, each one protected by a single dominant male. For our Hangout, we spent much of the time avoiding younger inquisitive males, who decided they would introduce themselves, often barking at us and baring their teeth in greeting. Bounding towards us over the sand and tussock, Brent, the NZ Department of Conservation officer, advised us to look as boring as possible and NOT to flee; ‘look at your feet and don’t run’. It is tempting to hasten away but sealions can run as fast as most humans so it’s best to stand your ground! In spite of the wildlife, the Hangout went well. The Inmarsat satellite system linked up beautifully and we were suddenly being beamed around the world, talking to the winning Doodle 4 Google schools in Australia Hornsby Girls High School (NSW) and New Zealand Papanui Primary School. The quality of the footage was extraordinary. It is just fabulous what you can do with modern technology. We did the first live stream from the NZ subantarctics, and were able to show the landscape and it’s wildlife off in real time! It’s all incredibly exciting.

Sea lions copy

While we were dodging the local wildlife, the rest of the team sprung into action, working across the hills and in the sea. Richard J led the sampling of sediment exposed along the cliffs of Enderby Island that shows the last ice age extended all the way across Port Ross – something hitherto only suspected – while Janet led a team to core some of the marshy areas behind the beach to better understand impact of human arrival on the island – including the astounding arrival by Polynesians some 800 years ago. Keen to avoid digging too much in the dirt, Kerry-Jayne led a team making a census of the birds on the island where there is an extraordinary abundance of wildlife, including petrels and albatrosses. Emma and Graeme went out in the large Zodiac boats and started capturing images of the wildlife on the sea bed; lots of shrimp-like creatures known as isopods were found: ‘they’re whoppers!’. And several kilometres away, in the inner reaches of Port Ross, Sarah, Matt and Jonathan led a team ‘bush-bashing’ their way up to the tree line at 400 metres above sea level, looking at the distribution of plants with height. Alongside the tales of woe and tiredness – all suitably exaggerated back on board ship – everyone has returned with lots of samples and data. Hopefully in a few days we’ll start to get a feel for what it all means and let you know.

Bush-bashing is becoming a regular past time for many of us. After our first Hangout, I led a small team up to the Hooker Hills which sits above where the ecologists were working. There is a striking beauty in the vegetation but it was surprisingly hard to find a path through the vegetation.  Twisted rata forest – which wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy film – cover much of the lower hills while further up slope smaller trees and shrubs tightly hug the ground. I have never tried to cross ground like this. It wasn’t uncommon to take an hour to cover 100 metres. The vegetation is so thick you can walk on it in places, with moss and lichens often forming thick mats over the shrubs, giving the impression of solid ground; sometimes it will hold, other times you unceremoniously fall through, with the vegetation closing back in – almost like a trap door; you have to make a huge effort to get back to sunlight. We were more fortunate than most and took an hour and a half to climb through the 400 metres of dense foliage. I was hoping to find an ancient treeline exposed in natural cuttings of peat atop the Hooker Hills; samples collected decades ago suggest the treeline was around 80 metres higher than today some 3000 years. I’d like to get more samples on this trip to try and precisely tie down when this happened so we can work out why but so far we’ve had no luck finding extra material. We’ll keep looking.

Rata copy

We’ve tried to establish a routine as quickly as possible so everyone knows what they’re doing. As a result, each day has followed the same sort of pattern. I work up a programme of research with Chris and Greg the night before and this is posted around the ship. Breakfast starts the following day at 0700, I give a briefing at 0830 and departure from the ship by Zodiac is at 0930 for work on and off shore – assuming the winds aren’t too high. For those lucky ones close to the Shokalskiy they return to the vessel for lunch; otherwise everyone else gets a packed meal and don’t return until around 1700. After dinner we meet in the bar for a debrief where teams recount their findings and adventures and we have a slide show of the picture of the day. Roars of approval chose the image of the day. These are then loaded up on my Google+ page +Intrepid Science so you can follow the progress of the expedition by images each day. I do hope you enjoy them and should give a great summary of the whole trip.

Port Ross copy

We’re now in the southern end of Auckland Island in a flooded caldera known as Carnley Harbour. Evidence of the last ice age are seen on the surrounding slopes: corries, moraines and terraces blanket the landscape and are a major focus for this part of the research programme. Teams have gone off to core bogs and lakes on the surrounding slopes while the rest of the team have extended their work in Port Ross. Chris F is working hard with the team getting the ocean observations started and this is starting to come through. We’re getting great results from the equipment we have on board. Yesterday we got our first cores of sediment from the bed of Carnley Harbour, packed with sea shells. Who knows how old these records are. With temperatures of 9˚C being measured in the ocean (far warmer than the 3˚C we’re recording on deck) some brave souls have even been tempted for a swim. Lovely!

Original AAE Auckland Island map