Weddell Sea, Antarctica 71.2510°S, 15.4014°W
Sea Temperature: -1.5°C
It has been a while since the last update and quite a bit has changed.
On our travels south we spent a night on the beautiful island of Saint Helena which was an amazing experience, particularly because it was one of the last opportunities to visit the island in it's current state before the airport is finished which will rapidly change the character of the island. It is a relatively small island with one main town but plenty of things to see, including Napoleon's house where he was exiled for his final days. From St. Helena we travelled to Cape Town where we spent a very relaxing 11 days before moving on towards our final destination. I will write more about Saint Helena and Cape Town in further posts at a later date.
For now though we have finally hit the ice and are nearing Halley. After expecting a rough transit once we reached the 40's, 50's and then 60's I was pleasantly surprised to find that the seas were relatively calm and the notorious Southern ocean was very mild mannered - a highly unusual thing. We left just ahead of the German Antarctic vessel Polar Stern and the South African Agulhas II. We were considerably more lucky than they - the both got caught up in a storm which was coming up behind us.
We reached the first bit of pack at 55°S which is very far north and one of the reasons that the seas were so calm at that latitude as the ice tends to act as a break for the swell. This soon turned into more dense ice and it has been a daily habit for us to check the latest ice images - purple pixels being areas 6km square where the ice is 100% density, however it gives no indication as to how thick this ice is.
I have included some of the ice images from Polar View which is available at www.polarview.aq/antarctica, the black and white ice image SAR image shows the area around Halley with some massive bergs upwards of 20 miles long, whereas the coloured image shows the ice density, purple being 100% coverage and blue being less than 20%.
As you can see from the images, there are shore leads next to the coast where there is open water which is where the ship is aiming in order to get a relatively ice-free run into Halley. The problem with these images is that they are always approximately 12 hours old, by which time the ice has shifted position and can only be used as a rough guide.
The Ernest Shackleton is an A1 class icebreaker allowing us to repeatedly ram multi-year ice at up to 8-9 knots. Despite this there are still sections of ice which are too thick to penetrate - before we even reached 60 degrees south we hit a patch of ice which stopped us dead, forcing us to move astern (reverse).
We are currently about 40 miles from the coast but at several points we have been heading back north trying to find the best route in and are about 400 miles from Halley. Due to the nature of icebreaking this could be a few days or considerably longer depending on how quickly we find our way through. The best way I can describe it is like an elaborate game of chess, picking the best route to the shore lead.
The journey down has provided a wealth of wildlife to observe. So far we have seen Emperor, Adelie and Chinstrap penguins, Crabeater, Weddell and Leopard seals, Minky and Humpback whales and various petrels and albatrosses. The temperature has been steadily dropping from Cape Town and wasn't long before it hit freezing, the sea temperature was also quite quick to drop, with a noticeable dip when we reached the convergence (meeting of the seas), which marked our entry to the Southern ocean. It is currently hovering around -1.5°C.
We passed the Antarctic circle (approx 66°S) 2 days ago and as a result we are now in permanent daylight 24 hours a day for the next few months.
I have been on the bridge a lot lately which is the one of the best places to spot any wildlife and icebergs (which are becoming increasingly common and set in ice floes making them more difficult to spot and therefore more dangerous - hitting an iceberg would result in considerable damage to the ship). The best place on the ship however is up in the conn tower, or the crow's nest, providing excellent views for miles around providing the weather is fair.
One of the most frustrating things about being in the ice is the noise when trying to sleep. At times it is a constant bashing, scraping, unnerving noise that can be almost deafening - I ALMOST miss the rocking motion of the rougher seas purely because it was that little bit quieter at night! Not long however until we reach the relative normality of Halley where the adventure for me will truly begin.