Terra Firma

I am currently typing away in a decidedly confused Cape Town where it is between rain and shine but certainly warm. In a way, it will be a lot like the place where I’ll be spending most of my time for just over the next two months—Antarctica.

The weather in Antarctica can be just as erratic, or so I’m told, as it is here. It will be around 4ºC in the sun on a day with no wind and then drop to -40ºC in a blizzard. I’ve hardly experienced 4ºC, much less so -40ºC so this should make for an interesting experience. Many people don’t really know this, but Antarctica is actually a desert, which is defined as receiving less than about 250mm of rain per year. It can be a foreign concept to wrap one’s head around, but this is where the name ‘White Desert’ finds its origin.

I’ll be heading to the White Desert on the SANAE 56 relief voyage. The purpose of this cruise is to resupply the South African antarctic base (SANAE IV; pronounced san-aye four), deliver the new overwintering team and summering team, bring home the old overwintering team and summering team, conduct research in the area, service a weather station and retrieve a mooring. Essentially, this cruise takes place every year and has mostly the same objectives. The name, SANAE 56, is the name of the overwintering mission; last year’s mission was SANAE 55.

The bridge of the Agulhas II is on that angular deck with the large windows. That’s where the captain stands and yells at his officers to bring his rum.

Earlier this week I trekked to East Pier in Cape Town Harbour, where the Agulhas is moored, for gear collection and a run-down of the oceanographic duties I’ll be performing. For me, this was when the reality of going south really kicked in. Up until this point I had been assembling my honours research paper coupled with much stress and perspiration followed by my final presentation coupled with much of the same. Trying on the snow jackets, snow boots, snow goggles and snow everything reclaimed the headspace once occupied by honours deadlines and allowed me to finally get amped. For those wondering, we don’t get to keep most of the heavy-duty gear. It gets returned, cleaned and reused. We do, however, get to keep our gloves, thermals, balaclava (keep an eye on your TV while you sleep, dad) and other items of clothing that essentially make direct contact with our skin. All of these and the cruise are made possible by your and my tax money—at least it’s not going into an [insert favourite corrupt official’s name here] pocket, right?

I was joined by the rest of the UCT Oceanography team at gear collection: Steve (or ‘Scuba Steve’ or ‘Steve the Pirate’), a fresh honours graduate and the group leader; Caroline, a masters student; and Ehlke, also a fresh honours graduate conducting studies on sea ice. We’ve only met twice as a group, but already I feel like we’re all getting on quite well. All bodes well for a great trip! I’ll put together a post on the team as time goes by and introduce them to you all.

I’m often asked what I’ll be doing on this cruise and for the sake of brevity I’ll just  briefly mention it here (excuse the jargon that follows) and explain it in further detail as the cruise gets underway. The oceanography team will be operating expendable bathythermographs (XBTs) which measure temperature with depth, the acoustic dopler current profiler (ADCP) to measure the currents beneath the ship, various floats which will need to be jettisoned into the ocean and, finally, the conductivity temperature depth (CTD) rosette which collects water samples from depth.

I learnt to operate some of the aforementioned instrumentation the previous and only other time I was on the Agulhas—SEAmester in July of this year. This was a ten day educational cruise which consisted of lectures, lab-work and one mutinous pirate party. This is where I met Scuba Steve. He and I shared a cabin, a pen and some hearty laughs on that cruise. We helped out in the labs on deck 3 when most students were sleeping—the science conducted on the cruise continued around the clock—so we learned the ropes and provided company to the lonesome. This also happens to be where I met my girlfriend, Tahlia, who was a lecturer and coordinator for SEAmester. To be clear: the student has become the master.

Myself with Scuba Steve (left) enjoying post-SEAmester bezzas.

Tahlia is currently on the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE; You’ll soon come to realise that acronyms are like catnip to oceanographers) cruise from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Cape Town. She arrives back in Cape Town on the 15th of December. However, her skill set is required on our cruise to retrieve a blerrie huge mooring from the depths of the ocean for the Germans and she is also the chief scientist for this voyage (no, I don’t need to click my heels and salute her). So she’ll be flying from Cape Town to Antarctica in an aircraft, getting from the landing strip (read ice) to the German antarctic base by some or other means and finally joining us just before or just after Christmas via a helicopter or a cat-train. More on this in a later post.

We are set to leave port on Wednesday the 30th of November, spend ∼72 days at sea and arrive back home on the 7th of February. Some of the things I can look forward to on this cruise (and which you can look forward to reading about) are:

  • Seeing the first iceberg (apparently the photo frenzy is akin to that observed by women in active-wear atop Lion’s Head);
  • Possibly spotting orcas;
  • Breaking through ice with the ship’s bow;
  • Reaching the ice shelf;
  • Slight possibility of going to the Antarctic base;
  • The return of Tahlia;
  • Visiting the island of South Georgia;
  • Christmas, New Year’s and Tahlia’s birthday on the ship; and
  • Probably some other cool things I’ll blog about when they happen.

Now, internet connectivity and speed might be an issue; it isn’t exactly fast or reliable aboard the ship. I shall do what I can, though, to try get these posts out there for you to read. The posts might just have to be sans photos, unfortunately. I hope that isn’t the case, though. How often I will post also remains to be seen, but I hope to post at least once a week.

Join the adventure with me, excuse my possible lynching of the English language and enjoy the silly season, ye landlubbers.



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