Actually, now I think of it, we will not be seeing any shores at all on this trip. Although we will be deep within the embrace of the Weddell Sea, we will not be within view of land. This voyage is from Cape Town to Cape Town.
Ripping along at 17-18 knots in westerly seas. Nobody seems to have noticed, but today we passed the mid-point of our transit.
During the afternoon Stefanie Arndt, a sea-ice physicist from the world renowned Alfred Wegener Institute for polar research in Germany gave a presentation in one of the vessel’s labs on the equipment they will be using on the ice. Their main instrument (at least to my mind) is one for measuring the total thickness of the snow and ice from the surface to the ice/water interface below. This is vital information for both landing helicopters and building ice camps on the floes. We have to be certain that the floes are both sufficiently thick and stable to sustain our activities.
The other tools and instruments she displayed included various drills and something called an SMP (SnowMicroPen or High-resolution snow penetrometer) which is driven into the floe and gives you the density and other physical properties of the snow that covers the ice. And then there is the ice corer which will be used to extract long cylindrical samples from which they can distinguish the different types of ice, as well as determine their temperature, salinity and porosity. As for Stefanie or, Steffi, as we call her, when she is on the floes we will not see much of her because she will be head down in a freshly dug snowpit, analyzing the vertical snow structure in terms of its temperature, density and stratigraphy. With regard to the latter, she will seek to identify the different layers in the snowpack from which she will then sample single snow grains in order to record their grain shape and size.
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There are only six of the old 2019 team on the current mission. I think we feel slightly superior in that we are all tried and true Antarctic veterans, we have the T-shirt, drunk the Kool-aid and snorted the ice. Occasionally we meet up in the lounge for coffee after dinner. In general, the three years that have passed have not been kind to us; we have all greyed a little and when we sit back in the comfy chairs I cannot help but notice how our tummies now ease out over our belts. So what do we talk about? Inevitably, we chew over what went wrong last time.
There is no point in going over all the what-ifs and maybes of what happened on Endurance19, so let me just have one good moan now, get it off my chest and move on. It was 11 February 2019. Everything had been going so well, our submersible, Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) No. 7, had covered well over half the search box and optimism was brimming. The route of the AUV is punctuated by a series of designated rendezvous points, we call them ‘handshakes’, during which the AUV goes into a holding pattern (a bit like aeroplanes over an airport) while we run a series of checks on its various payload systems and, if all is well, it is issued with any new navigational instructions that may be needed, and then is released into autonomous silent running to continue its passage. The searching is conducted with two different acoustic sensing devices, a side-scan sonar and a multi-beam echosounder (look them up). With these, we kind of paint a picture of the seabed in reflected sound.
The pulverising moment of the 2019 campaign that I shall never forget came at 18.30 when AUV 7 was expected for a scheduled handshake. It should have been on line 8 of its 11 search lines. By then everybody was confident that it would successfully complete its 42 hour mission and minds had turned to her recovery which, with so much ice about us, promised to be challenging. I take the following from my blog of that day, 11 February 2019:
I had just finished eating and was walking down the stairwell to the Ops Room when I ran into Todd Oxner who was coming up two steps at a time to find me. Todd is probably the most placid guy on the ship, if anything ruffles him he never lets it show, but at that moment he had a face on him like a slapped bum. Even before he opened his mouth I felt a chill run through me. ‘It’s missed its rendezvous’, was all he said. No more was needed. There is only one flight between the mess deck and the science deck and together we ran down those steps like a couple of pelted hens.
Claire Samuel was already there; her face was drained, her usual warm complexion was now that of pancake mix. Devon, Espen and Blake were also there, standing but bent forward towards the screens and looking stony. Behind them, peering over their shoulders was Pierre Legal, glasses up on his forehead and mouth agape in disbelief. Beside him stood Julien Trincali, usually unflappable but now with an expression on his face like that of a drop-kicked penguin. My old friend Chad Bonin was seated at the centre in front of the main screen. He wasn’t smiling. Chad’s always smiling. He looked up. ‘7’s gone AWOL,’ was all he said. Suddenly the door slammed open with such force that it made the screens flicker. Channing, the AUV team leader, stormed in, ‘Right’, he snapped out, ‘from now on I want every detail logged, because if it doesn’t turn up in the next few minutes there will be an enquiry.’
It was the beginning of a very long, very tense night. Honest t’God I cannot remember a day that started so well but ended so badly.
So here we are, three years on and it is ‘Once more unto the breach, dear Friends.’ How, I wonder, will it end this time?
Mensun Bound (Director of Exploration)