The Expedition

THE EXPEDITION

“I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth; I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world; but they did not die in the furious waves. Today they fly in my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind.”

Poem by Sara Vial … inscribed on the memorial at Cape Horn

There are many nicknames for the most dangerous sea channel on the ocean charts. The Drake Lake, when calm; the Drake Shake, when rough; and in really bad weather you pay the Drake Tax. The voyage starts within close proximity to Cape Horn, a fabled headland of basalt cliffs where the oceans meet and the storms are the stuff of legends. Cape Horn is a synonym for adventure to any sailor.

The weather station issued the following information for them to decipher and then take into account as they continued preparations for leaving the relative calm of the Beagle Channel:

MetWarn/Fore Urgent Call to Area: 5;

Aviso de vento forte/muito forte.

Area Sul Oceanica sul de 25 S.

EMITIDO AS 1500 HMG – SEG- 07 NOV 2005

LESTE DE 030W OT VENTO NW/SW FORCA 7/8A

PARTIR DE 081200 HMG PT VALIDO ATE 0900.

This weather warning came in the form of a rather thin sheet of paper hastily handed over by the captain of the pilot vessel before he climbed down the boarding ladder, leapt the gap between the craft and taking back command of his own ship he headed back at high speed, leaving a frothy wake to mark his trail to Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city, at the tip of Argentina.

It was the seventh summer for Hugo and yet in one important sense it was also a first with this being the pioneering of internet access for the scientists who gather in the Antarctic for the more mellow season each year. But he was old school and at home with his note pads, real paper rather than virtual. The department had set schedules for emailing photos, diagrams, graphs and observations offering field based research evidence that would revolutionise the discussions back on campus. The faculty could daily interact, questioning and requesting information from the team on the spot. The lecture halls of the Earth Science, Environment & Geography were buzzing with anticipation of the possibilities this offered to the undergraduates and academics who would be among the world’s majority: those who never set foot on the shores of the polar continent.

Hugo gave the assistant a cursory nod to indicate commencing his dictation. They sat side by side in the stern of the vessel where the three computers were screwed to desks ready for rougher weather predicted when they left the channel; the daily communications were expected to go ahead even during the five day crossing to the Antarctic Peninsula. He had been assured that this Australian girl could handle the conditions, after all, apparently she had sailed Sydney to Hobart. And as far as cold went, her CV assured him she had worked up in the Arctic during winter, often minus fifty on a bad day and he did not expect to encounter that during the coming southern summer months. In any case, it was the IT she needed to manage for him. Despite his sixty years he had not had time to master its intricacies … there were other things on his agenda which he described with characteristic passion in the introduction to the lecture series they would compile together: “what is ice?” he began.

“This is both timely and important, it examines one of the most important environmental issues of our time” he explained to Clare carefully between bouts of her typing, “I want to avoid the controversies and instead just offer the observations, the overview of what we see down here, what we notice is happening. If this internet thing works, then what we put out can have a real value beyond the classroom, everyone can get a sense of it. But the language has to be pitched to just the right level: still scientific, informative and all that … but have the appeal of a story, something you can get involved in.” She nodded in affirmation; her lack of scientific training would guarantee that he would find out when he hit the intellectual ceiling of the general public. He began: “What is ice? Compacted snow crystals. What is snow? Frozen water, an ice crystal.” After pausing to check the screen, Hugo continued intensely: “The Antarctic is a huge continent, the size of the United States, the size of Europe and it is with rare exception covered completely by ice, 80% covered by glaciers. A huge ice mass around the South Pole with important implications for the global systems of climate. Antarctica is 1% ice free and is surrounded by a frozen ocean which expands to an incredible extent in winter.”

Four hours out from Ushuaia there was a noticeable difference in the roll of the small ice breaker heading 160 South at 13 knots when it passed latitude 59. The temperature was warm at 8 degrees and the southern ocean never saw more than a two hour twilight from around 2am so the bird watching for three ornithologists sponsored by  a ‘Save the Albatross’ foundation was potentially around the clock. They knew from experience that the stern of the boat was the point of least cavitation and therefore a stable platform for photography, and the avian stars were parading for the paparazzi on an aerial catwalk: South American Tern, Southern Giant Petrel, Chilean Skua, Kelp Gull, Sooty Shearwater and Black Browed Albatross. Soon the experts were seated at the computers just inside of the back deck, they had a link scheduled to suit the new satellite which would sit overhead at regular intervals to link the onboard connections to the web. Along with the photos they sent a description of the propellers rotating through cold ocean waters bringing the krill even closer to the surface and thereby attracting the constant companions in their wake. The exact location of the Antarctic Convergence or Polar front varies throughout the year but it marks a point where the southern ocean and the northern waters meet in a great mix-master of salinity, density and temperature which brings nutrients from the seafloor to the surface encouraging algae, krill and other small creatures to attract the rest of the food chain. “Our coordinates put us on the spot” they confided to Clare with some satisfaction.

Hugo kept to a timetable while at sea: the Canadian XBX exercise routine in the morning was completed on the floor of his cabin (he revealed that it kept his joints moving), then a few hours of reading and conferring with colleagues from other scientific disciplines, but regular as clockwork he would appear at the computer desk by 4pm to dictate the next section of his lecture series in time for the satellite visit which would beam his words and pictures back to the awaiting audience. An air of excitement grew daily as the expectation of sea ice encouraged his experienced eyes to search the horizon. “The continent doubles in size during winter, sea ice forms in March and breaks up in November giving us the pack ice but most spectacular are the tabular icebergs which break from the ice shelf. In the Drake Passage the katabatic winds roll uninterrupted by any land mass keeping these magnificent peaks of floating white cliffs cool” typed Clare.

On the same day that the first of the South Shetland Islands appeared in the distance Hugo was on alert, he was rewarded within an hour by the sight of the season’s first iceberg. The weather had continued to improve when under clear blue skies and with a light wind at his back he gazed through the rear window as he composed aloud a description of the process which gave this ice its spectacular colour and shape: “blue icebergs have air bubbles squeezed as they move down the glacier before calving and they emit the blue end of the light spectrum whereas the white ice at some angles is where they still contain air. They roll over and are weathered by wind and sea to form wonderful unstable shapes with colours from dark blue to cream.”

From the moment of proximity to the continent Hugo’s routine changed, he had to prepare for the landings. He and Clare prepared their packs, carefully charging batteries for an array of digital cameras, recording devices, GPS positioning units, and the safety equipment which was basic: enough water and spare clothing for a four to six hour excursion. Everything was chosen with weight in mind because contrary to the imagined version of the polar icecap Hugo assured Clare that the narrow icy shoreline was simply the landing ramp for the zodiac dinghy, “once we start walking you’ll find the steep slopes and traverses are closer to mountaineering. The land rises 8,000 feet in places, at Port Lockroy Base the English scientists even have a ski club, we will be calling in there so you might get to join in.”

The latitude was now 64 south and with that position came a drop in the temperature of air and water to minus 1C additionally lowered by the wind chill factor of a 15 knot wind. On that December day, they landed on Paulet Island where twenty men and the cat from Larson’s ship “Antarctic” spent a winter waiting for their captain’s return, the historic hut those men  had constructed from stones now only gave a waist high protection, so weathered and broken had it become in the severe conditions over the past century. Demonstrating the timeless nature of the elements, pack ice threatened similar navigation problems and gave Hugo a variety of examples with which to describe the behaviour of frozen water and its potential to wreak havoc with not only the coastline but with the waterways the modern marine transport assumed use.

Hugo’s greatest delight was to come after a night crossing of the Bransfield Strait, leaving that ice clogged Weddell Sea. Having navigated southward down the other side of the peninsula negotiating large areas of sea ice, the landing was made at Hannah Point shrouded in mist making the cliffs of volcanic ash that tower above the pebbled beach look particularly dramatic. He stopped to record the observations for Clare’s transcript. There was an abundance of exposed rock but one piece in particular was what Hugo honed in on, it was an extremely large boulder about 250 feet inland from the water’s edge, past several wallows of immature elephant seals where males were rearing up as if to bite each other in a rehearsal of future battles to win their women. This isolated fossil site gave a rare window into the past. The photos documented for that evening’s email gave the proof of tropical palm fronds which clearly had lain embedded in the sediment since tectonic plates shifted and caused the land mass of Gondwanna to move south from the tropics.

But what is a huge boulder doing, sitting on a beach, how did it get there? This mystery needed to be solved. Clare typed the notes with increasing wonder at the power of ice and not just its strength but the news that what fuelled its energy was global not local, and was played out in a timeframe so immense that it dwarfed the distances travelled just to arrive at a place where the small but significant piece of evidence clearly spoke of its warm origins. Hugo’s voice through her headphones had the slow confident diction of an expert but he rephrased the complex issues into accessible phrases, stringing together the narrative of a glacier, personifying its relationships with the landforms it lay alongside until scarred by experience it calved, the birthing of the iceberg its final gift to the water cycle of its composition. “What is a glacier?” he began.

Neko Harbour is on the Antarctic mainland and has a highly unstable shoreline of calving glaciers producing an ominous rumbling as parts occasionally break off to form new bergs. The plan was to land on the eastern shore making the most of a direct hiking route to a rocky outcrop popular with a colony of Adelie penguins who make nests using smooth round granite pebbles from a moraine field of glacial debris. Hugo’s veteran eyes seemed to scan the ice cliffs, their eroded formations like sculpted pieces of abstract art; further out in the bay a group of humpback whale continued their cooperative feeding ritual creating a circle of bubbles to trap the cloud of pink krill in a net of air pressure. As they gulped waves of the nutrient crustacean they were oblivious of the zodiac dinghy, all seemed calm. Without warning Hugo gave the command to change course and as a senior expeditioner his word was immediately heeded. The crew headed away from the shoreline in puzzled silence. Within a minute the sight of what had appeared to be an entire headland breaking from its position was quickly followed by a thunderous crash, several large boulders of ice followed the slide, creating a mayhem of turbulence but one body of water in particular was heading tsunami-like to the adjacent shore. Hugo explained that the absence of any penguins who normally patrol that beach with a business like strut, and the lack of any seals basking languidly on the dark volcanic soil, was something he had noticed as soon as they came close enough to the landing point: “you can’t just watch the weather here, there are other signs. The wildlife gives away a hint of their wisdom, how they anticipate this event may be just warning noises below the surface of the ice. We are yet to understand, but they know the absolute turmoil a disturbance such as this causes and the extreme peril it can create.” The wild life had evacuated to safety well in advance of the event, caused partly by gravity partly by climate change, which had led to glacial movement of one or two metres per year finally tipping the equilibrium and setting the accumulated ice cleanly free of the land; its cargo of sediments, rocks or pebbles, which had been slowly transported from the centre of the continent to this isolated beachfront, was dumped unceremoniously at the shoreline. The huge new tabular iceberg began its sea voyage, buoyantly driven out by its own waves.

Finally landing safely on the coastal platform, Hugo noted the crescentic patterns and smooth plates of erosion caused by the slow persistent advance of harsh debris or recrystallised snow and refrozen melt water from centuries of ice sheet movement, cracking and groaning as it carried the debris of Gondwanna land, fossils and all, to the edge of the vast continent. “Take this down Clare: ‘What is an ice age? Well 20 million years ago …What are Milankovitch Cycles? Natural global warming, and cooling, is considered to be initiated by Milankovitch cycles. These orbital and axial variations influence the initiation of climate change in long-term natural cycles of ‘ice ages’ and ‘warm periods’ known as ‘glacial’ and ‘interglacial’ periods.”

So this is not man induced climate change melting the ice, Clare mulled over the thought that it was not just not local, it wasn’t even not global, it was actually some cosmic relationship with the sun and the way our earth wobbled and tipped along the pathway, round and round it went out of our control. It was now New Year’s Eve and the planned celebration was to go for a swim, as unbelievable now as it had been when she had packed as instructed “one bathing suit”. She put it on now, underneath the thermal clothing and layers of windproof pants and jackets, hat and gloves; it was a ridiculous juxtaposition, luckily a hidden joke and in her mind unlikely to be revealed as some wardrobe malfunction. The sheer cliffs of Deception Island loomed above the boat which moved with precision through the impressive cutting named Neptune’s Bellows revealing a perfectly circular harbour surrounded by a narrow jet black beach framed with an equally exact concentric border of steep dark hillside. Strangely enough the only snow was a thin line drawn on the very summit of the walls. White clouds of sulphur scented steam floated eerily around the rusting boilers and disintegrating hulks, watched over by three graves whose wooden crosses had somehow survived since 1931 when the whaling station closed. The volcanic caldera had formed when the cone collapsed due to earthquakes. Apart from its geothermal threats, this made the safest harbour in the world; deep, still, clear water without a single sign of any wildlife above or below the surface. As the swimmers feet reached the shallows the hot sand gave away the secret of the unnaturally tepid pool, this was geothermically active and the heat percolated from the centre of the earth.

The ice was clearly affected from every dimension: the heavens above, the climate surrounding and the very deepest depths below. No wonder it held such fascination for Hugo. He leant back against the soft rubber inflatable dinghy, legs stretched out on the rough granules of lava, rugged up against the cold air, watching the swimmers, his hands sifted the dark sand in a continuous flow. He thought of the thinning ice on the Pine Island glacier nearby. Volcanically, Antarctica is a fairly quiet place, but sometime around 325 B.C., he contemplated, a hidden and still active volcano erupted, puncturing several hundred yards of ice above it. Ice core samples showed that ash and shards from the volcano had carried through the air and settled onto the surrounding landscape. Volcanic heat could still be melting ice to water and contributing to thinning and speeding up of the Pine Island glacier.  It could be affecting other glaciers in western Antarctica, which had also retreated in recent years.

They used the oars of the dinghy to dig a shallow circular hole right at the water’s edge and just like kids at the seaside watched with delight as the pool filled with water from the centre of its floor. Quite quickly the construction became a hot tub, only waist deep for those sitting in it but the temperature of the water percolating up through the hot black sand into this container soon became too much to bear, and after ten minutes the occupants were forced to dash back into the cooler depths of the crater. It was a most unexpected atmosphere of frivolity as the crew ran back and forth between the two pools, a hazy sulphurous fog giving the impression of steamy heat in the air. Finally exhausted they pulled on warm outer garments and in a noisy gaggle returned to the boat, this had been a fine way to wind up the weeks of scientific work, now there was the return journey across the Southern Ocean to endure.

The Southern Ocean is deep, five thousand meters over most of its realm, and at the edge of the Antarctic continental shelf many square kilometres of ice in a variety of shapes is pushed perpetually eastward by the world’s largest ocean current. The Antarctic coast has the strongest average winds found anywhere on earth, these katabatic gusts form cyclonic storms traveling eastward around the continent with an intensity fuelled by the temperature contrast between the ice and the open ocean. The combination of extremes: deep water, strong wind, fast currents, freezing temperatures and isolation, is given one extra dimension when the recipe tops its dish with a surface torn by mountainous waves of angry white froth.

The boat was equipped with steel shutters that slid over any porthole and when in lockdown for bad weather the interior adopted the persona of a submarine. Only the consistent pattern of the movement by the vessel through the sea swell and the constant throb of the engine gave Clare any confidence that someone was in charge of its direction north. Hugo no longer expected to meet her at the stern of the boat each afternoon, all unnecessary movements outside of the cabins and galley were suspended as everyone paid attention to safety. Lying on a hard bed which faced port to starboard was strangely pleasant as the roll of the sea gave the body a capability to massage itself as it moved involuntarily inside its skin, held in position by the straps of the bunk’s fiddle.

It was a time to contemplate Hugo’s last story: he had experienced a small scale version of shipwreck on an earlier expedition and their luck was with them to survive with no injuries. “I saw people come up from the lower decks wet and shouting about water, we had hit ice submerged by rough seas and thrown by waves hard onto our hull below water level. We put on the thermal safety suits, lifejackets, turned on the pumps. It took an hour to get into lifeboats and then the wind chill factored in, we were constantly showered by the waves making us continually wet. We huddled together to keep warm, taking it in turns over the next five or six hours to helm the twenty person boat in a desperate effort to keep the bow into the prevailing seas, contact with ships in the area had been successful, they were on their way and being summer there would be no darkness to contend with, in spite of the stormy conditions visibility was pretty good. Most of the crew were then taken by the Argentinian training vessel back to Ushuaia”.

The Antarctic continent had disclosed many secrets about ice but there was danger in letting people discover this first hand. Clare had seen tourists, a huge blue liner with two thousand people on board, a travelling hotel so brash and commercial with its casino, disco and hair salon. If there were any calamity resulting in the need for rescue on that scale it just would not happen. There had been a joke when she was first fitted with a life jacket. “Always wear the same life-jacket, it has a number on it that matches your ID”. “Why is that?” “You’ll be too cold to remember who you are.”

But it actually was no joke, the temperature of the water at -2C causes the immersed body to lose approximately twenty times more heat than at the same temperature on land. Trying to swim makes you lose more heat. The water acts like a sponge, pulling out heat by conduction, as the internal temperature lowers consciousness is lost, then the heart stops when the temperature of the body reaches 30C. Fall in that water and you only last twenty minutes so probably the only way to identify your body, when or if anyone finds it, is by that number. It’s only a matter of time before a cruise ship gets into trouble and potentially throws thousands of people into the sea, Titanic revisited. Much safer to be the world’s majority: those who never set foot on the shores of the polar continent, but could go there ‘virtually’ through Hugo’s website.

Hugo set down the binoculars after sighting the memorial plate where the poem was inscribed. They set a final course north east to the entrance of the Beagle Channel and felt the swell of the Drake Passage ease. Hourglass Dolphins porpoised in the bow wave and the skies came alive with Black Bellied Storm Petrels, Wandering Albatross and the ubiquitous Cape Pigeons.

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About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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