Life at the Shelf

We have arrived to the staunch and imposing cliffs that mark the furthest reaches of the ice shelf. Like a white wall keeping out all but the most determined of intruders, it rises up before all who sail into these waters offering admittance to only the able and daring. The shelf does not encompass the entire continent, but where we are it is also and must be overcome.

The ice shelf with bay ice in the foreground.

We reached the ice shelf only 10 days after leaving port. This is a lot faster than previous years and is due to two reasons:

  1. this year has seen an incredibly low amount of sea ice present in the antarctic; and
  2. we sailed through a polynya.

A polynya is a stretch of open water surrounded by sea ice and the one we sailed through was massive. It was first seen on satellite imagery, was conveniently on our plotted course for the shelf and essentially offered us a full day of ice-free sailing which we took full advantage of. Ice ops were put on hold so we used the time to catch up on some sleep while the ship was set for cruising at top speed.

The ice shelf was first spotted on the radar as a clear luminous yellow line on the edge of the dark, circular display. It’s crazy how much further than the human eye the radar can see. Looking out towards the horizon one could only see white. Kilometres of snow-capped sea ice. This ice was much thicker than the ice we crashed through before entering the polynya and the going was slow. But before long one could make out the shadowed wall in the far distance and soon thereafter we were alongside the impenetrable barrier that is the ice shelf. We had reached Antarctica.

Some of the thickest ice the ship needed to break through before reaching the shelf.
The SA Agulhas II carving through the bay ice to reach the shelf.

Upon arrival at the ice shelf a graduation ceremony was held for those of us missing our terrestrial ceremonies back home before the first passenger-carrying choppers flew to the base the next day and the first cargo was unloaded onto the shelf. Steve carried himself well as group leader and after two days of prodding, his grit and determination earned the two of us a ticket onto the shelf to help with the unloading of cargo. It was hard work, but the reward was worth the sweat and potential sunburn. The snow and ice, essentially everything out here, reflects the majority of the sun’s radiation so sunburn comes quick and easy if you don’t cover your skin. We managed to catch a ride to E-base (we think it stands for emergency base, but we’re unsure) where we met the men who run White Desert, a “very high-end” private tourism business in the Antarctic. Apparently you can have your wedding in Antarctica through these guys. They all seem to relish working here and I certainly envy their vocation. They were here to receive cargo we shipped in for them including a Piston Bully—the most agile, versatile and downright kief bulldozer I’ve ever seen. I would not say no to receiving one for my birthday next year, *cough* mom and dad, *cough* Tahlia.

The scale of this sacrosanct place is deceiving. The shelf doesn’t look too tall until the ship skirts its walls. Only the very tallest structures of the ship have a vantage point allowing a view of the top of the shelf which ranges around 35 metres in height. At least that’s how tall it is where we offload cargo for the SANAE bases. In fact, the crane operator has to man the crane blind, guided by those on the shelf and those with a vantage point on the ship when offloading and backloading cargo. We are currently parked next to bay ice adjacent to a shelf that looks much taller than 35 metres.

The ferry to the ice shelf.
The first of the helicopter flights for the voyage.
Further perspective on scale. Those orange objects on the shelf are tankers which were eventually filled with polar diesel.

The day before writing this post we were allowed off the ship onto bay ice, smooth sea ice that forms in bays adjacent to the shelf. It was unreal! As Steve put it once we were on the ice, “We’re actually walking on the sea.” There were plenty of Adelie penguins and a couple Emperor penguins to keep us company on the ice while some took photos, some threw snowballs and others played sports. Soon after getting onto the ice, myself, Clinton, Steve and Ehlke were all seated or prone while photographing a small group of Adelie penguins. You see, these are a very inquisitive penguin and won’t mind coming very close to you if they find you interesting. So our game plan was to sit tight, try be interesting and have them come to us. Soon after sitting down in the ice, cameras at the ready, I spotted a group of penguins moving in the water just next to the bay ice. Everybody readied their cameras for the spectacle that was to follow—penguins launching out of the water and landing on the ice. The first penguin arrived—Adelies—then it was followed by tens more. Knowing these to be curious and tame creatures, the events that followed were rather perplexing. It was as though we were a landing party in some strange, foreign territory and the savages native to the region set up an ambush. We were rushed upon by the seaborne savages, the charge led by a seemingly rogue penguin followed by its cohort of subordinates. It came barking and it came biting! Myself and Clinton, who towers just over two metres in length, were speedily displaced and ran for our lives. The penguins, on the other hand, maybe take me at knee height. They’re tiny. But that rogue ping-ping was ferocious. As soon as the charge had passed and laughs bellowed the penguins were at ease and allowed us to get rather close to them. The time on the ice was followed by a gees braai on the deck where Steve once again supplied a fitting quip, “Some people can say they’ve been to Antarctica, but very few can say they’ve had a braai there.”

The beginning of the beach assault.
The Adelie penguin.
Ehlke the penguin whisperer.
The Emperor penguin.
The SA Agulhas II parked on bay ice.
Me in front of the vessel’s bow. Photo by Steve.

In the next few days we will have time to relax more, read, watch movies and keep ourselves busy while we wait. We head to the shelf again on the 22nd to drop off supplies to ze Germans and around this time we can expect Tahlia to join our voyage. Of course, I can’t wait for her to join, but this is not the place for me to get emotional. She will join and take over the position of chief scientist for the remainder of this cruise. To blow her whistle for her, if I may: she will be the youngest chief scientist aboard the SA Agulhas II and in the history of SANAP (South African National Antarctic Programme) and one of very few females to do so. Either way, I’m incredibly proud of her and can’t wait to share the experience of the rest of this voyage with her.

Such a beauty. And so is Tahlia, of course. Photo by Marcel van den Berg.
The ‘Monkey Island’ Reading Club at its finest.

Caroline and Ehlke have been recruited along with others to decorate parts of the ship’s interior with Christmas paraphernalia. I miss that Christmas feeling one gets around this time back home with the prospect of spending time with family around a hearty meal. The decorations and Christmas tree certainly help to make it feel more like Christmas, though. Fortunately, though, there is no Boney M blaring here.

If this is the last post before Christmas, may it be a blessed time for you and we wish our families a merry Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ—the Son of God and our saviour.


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