The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Day 13 – Southern light

Posted by Andrew - 20 December 2013


Sleeping doesn’t come easily in the middle of an Antarctic summer as light permeates the frigid atmosphere at all hours. Yet I was fast asleep when the indefatigable Greg Mortimer knocked quietly on my cabin door at 0430. “C’mon mate” he whispered, the Mawson’s Hut crew are arriving back soon and the light outside is incredible”. He was appealing to my penchant for photography and knew that this latter bit of information would get me up quickly from my mattress on the cabin floor - apparently Russian doctors are never taller than 6 foot because I certainly don’t fit in the bunk that comes with the job as ships doctor! It had been a cloudless, windless, cold night (around -6°C) and the sun was still low in the sky throwing long bold shadows from every irregularity in the surface of the ice. It’s difficult to truly describe the nature of the light this far South on such a morning. The ice reflects a mauve colour that surely can’t exist anywhere else on earth. I noted that our spell of good weather seemed to be holding. We have been lucky so far.

After throwing on some warm I/O MERINO wool layering, I headed to the gangway just as Chris Turney and Eleanor arrived by Zodiac just a short trip from the edge of the ice. Cold and tired but elated after a long 24 hour return journey to Cape Denison and Mawson’s Hut, Chris’s eye’s shone with delight as I greeted him. I’ll leave the telling of the story of their journey and science work to another forum but simply we all now knew that one of the major goals of the AAE had been accomplished and that a lot of hard work, persistence and patience had paid off. Ben Fisk and Chris Fogwill were soon aboard and looking forward to a feed and long sleep. Their feeling of success was one shared by all those aboard the Shokalskiy.

For the rest of us there was more work to be done. Fortunately I was on the aft deck when Erik’s dedicated oceanography gang was preparing to head out for a day trip with the remaining Argo to investigate the water under the fast ice by drilling some ice cores to get access. On the back of Terry’s kind invitation to join them I quickly negotiated a day pass from the ‘boss’ (it was given with a smile), packed some gear, grabbed my camera and soon found myself nervously driving a quad-bike for the first time under Terry’s watchful eye while he rode ahead on the other bike. We headed South setting a course ~11 kms away for coordinates where similar studies were undertaken ~70 years ago, the plan being to compare and contrast our data with that recorded previously. The ice was flat and firm to begin with and we were soon enveloped in the overwhelming expanse of the ice. Multi-hued pastel blues and blinding white were the colours of our day and sunscreen and sunglasses were our protection from the intense glare and increasing warmth. Ben Maddison did a great job coaxing along the temperamental Argo while Erik navigated and Rob, Janet and Kerry rounded out the AAE Oceanography team.

An ice core was duly drilled while Adelie Penguins appeared out of nowhere and looked on approvingly. Despite their ubiquitous presence since we arrived here they remain a source of constant enjoyment as we observe their fascinating behaviour. We were delighted to find a couple of Weddell Seals hauled out near their access hole which just happened to be a few hundred metres from our co-ordinates and even more delighted when a juvenile seal popped its head up from the hole to check what was going on. I didn’t have to wait next to it for long to capture the next visit from the curious seal with my camera. Photography is my other ‘job’ ( and to be here documenting this amazing landscape and wildlife as well as the passion and focus that the AAE scientists bring to their work is a wonderful opportunity for me.


Job done we turned out attention to visiting a beautiful iceberg marooned nearby that was split from top to bottom by an intense blue serpentine crack. The berg has been stopped in its tracks and held in place by the expanse of frozen sea that formed around it. Layers of clothing were being stripped off as the day wore on and the deteriorating ice surface soon made further travel away from the ship unwise, already the Argo was getting stuck and needing frequent tows by the Quad. We had survival kit with us but with high cirrus cloud appearing and heralding a change in the stable weather pattern it was deemed smart to forego another ice core at a different location and so we made our way back passing lines of Adelies heading in the opposite direction toward their breeding rookeries on the continent. It’s likely they were headed for Cape Denison. Nearing the ship and with radio contact reestablished it was clear that some further break up of the ice edge had occurred in the few hours that we were gone, in fact the first few hundred metres of ice on which we set off was now floating out to sea so it was with some trepidation that we scouted a new route to get close to the ship.

Our little ice excursion was a great way to get a feel for a unique and ever changing, temporary landscape. I’m used to travelling on the relative terra firma of glaciated terrain in mountainous regions of the world but this was a new and fun learning experience for me.