Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Thursday, January 02, 2003

Dumont d'Urville

Friday, 3 January 2003

Nobody got much sleep last night because it was way too exciting approaching the coast of Antarctica. The first icebergs started to appear just before midnight. (We're now far enough south that the sun never sets at this time of year, so it's actually broad daylight even at midnight. This takes a bit of getting used to.) When the first iceberg that was a few metres across started to approach the bow, the captain made some quick adjustments to our course. I assumed he was carefully trying to avoid it, but instead he skilfully steered us straight into it and scored a direct hit. It disintegrated with a satisfying crunch, and the sound of the crash reverberated through the ship. Clearly, driving an icebreaker is a lot of fun.

By the early hours of today some really big icebergs floated past. The biggest was 10 km long, as measured on the sea radar. These are the ones that it is prudent not to hit.

Dumont d'Urville appeared on the horizon around 8 am, and by then the weather had improved considerably. Almost everyone was either on the deck or crammed into the bridge. Packs of icebergs would slide past, the captain picking a course through them with sharp eyes augmented by radar. Eventually we started to pick our way through the small islands that mark the approach to DdU, and headed for the simple wharf that we would tie up at.

Within a few hundred metres of the coast we were delighted to find that most of the small icebergs had penguins sitting on them, or - better still - diving off them or "flying" out of the sea to land on them. Ahead of the ship, penguins were leaping in and out of the water as they swum away from us, easily out-running the l'Astrolabe.

Tying up the ship consisted of throwing light ropes to the shore. These ropes were picked up and attached to a tractor, which then headed up the road dragging the heavy mooring ropes behind. Once the ship was restrained by two ropes at each end, the unloading operations could commence. Unloading is made easy by the existence of a serious crane permanently bolted to the l'Astrolabe itself. This is not the kind of crane you would casually challenge to an arm-wrestle. When last seen it was plucking a complete caterpillar-tracked excavator from the hold and waving it around the landscape with consummate ease.

The UNSW team, together with the scientists who will stay on the l'Astrolabe for the cruise along the coast, will go ashore each day we are here, eat lunch and dinner at the station, and return to the ship each night to sleep. This makes good sense because all the beds at the station are full. Meanwhile, the DdU crew who are unloading the ship will eat lunch and dinner on the ship, and sleep at the station. Confusing? Not really. It turns out that there is no easy way to get
from the ship to the main part of the station now that most of the ice has melted. In fact, the trip has to be done by barge, which is how we arrived this morning.

Packing everything we needed for the day into a backpack (in my case two cameras, a tripod and Ding-dong), we assembled on the helicopter deck at the back of ship. A rather precarious climb down a ladder attached to the outside of the ship brought us to the landing barge, which then zipped across the 100 metres or so of icy water separating us from the station.

Alighting from the barge, everyone rushed to look at the penguins (and, in particular, the amazingly cute little fluffy grey chicks). Everyone, that is, except the three geologists, who rushed off to look at the rocks. Chacun ses gouts...

It turns out that Dumont d'Urville is built more or less in the middle of an Adelie penguin rookery. There must be thousands of birds in and around the station, and the various walking paths take you right past the nests. The dining room is surrounded on all sides by birds - it's as if it was in the middle of a chook house. Looking out the windows one can see the whole drama of penguin civilisation unfolding before your eyes right outside - parents sitting on nests with their babies,
parents returning from the sea to feed them, birds bringing little stones back to enhance their nests, and more or less constant arguments about whatever it is that penguins argue about.

Nicolas, the physicist who will spend the next winter looking after the LIDAR experiment to study the ozone layer here, kindly took us new arrivals on a tour of the best penguin-watching sites. Hours of video footage and many frames of film were shot. The best thing about penguins (apart from the fact that they look like they're dressed in dinner suits) is that they are completely unfazed by the human presence. Indeed, they appear to be fascinated by these other creatures that walk past with an upright stance just like them. The simple act of setting up a tripod results in a group of penguins waddling up demanding to be photographed. I've tried to explain to them that I only have five video tapes and I've used two already and haven't even got to Dome C yet, but they don't take any notice. Perhaps these penguins only speak French.

Lunch was a superb feast of German-style food - sauerkraut, pork, potato and sausage - served with a splendid French wine and, of course, cheese. At present there are some 50 - 60 people on the station. During the winter period this will drop to around 25. After lunch Nicolas took us out once again, this time to see even more penguins. It was on this tour that we discovered an irresistible snow-covered slope. Tony and Andrew decided to see who could slide head-first penguin-style down the slope with the greatest elegance. The penguins watched with barely disguised amusement for a while and then showed us how it should be done. They won the contest flippers-down, with the spectacle attracting an even greater crowd of penguin onlookers enthusiastically discussing amongst themselves the finer points of this method of propulsion.

Next on the tour were the seals, which just lay around like slobs the way they always do. We videoed them for a bit in the hope that they would do something interesting, like change colour or levitate or maybe just twitch slightly, but we were ultimately to be disappointed.

Meanwhile the penguins continued to entrance. Several wandered up and looked at us while we were watching the seals but, no doubt having observed seals in inaction before, decided that they had better things to do with their time and wandered off again. The final treat for us was the discovery of a small group of moulting young Emperor Penguins. All the adult Emperors cleared out weeks ago, so I'm not sure what these ones were up to.

The evening's meal was of a generally Spanish theme, with sangria for pre-dinner drinks, then paella and some strange dumpling things ("quenelle de poisson") that plausibly could have originated in Spain. It was of course delicious. Desert was preceded by the ceremonial entry of a large cake in the shape of a helicopter, resting on a mountain of profiteroles ("croquenbouche"} and illuminated by fireworks. This was to celebrate the birthday of the helicopter pilot, who I was pleased to
see is of mature years. (It is well known in aviation circles that there are foolish helicopter pilots, old helicopter pilots, but no old, foolish helicopter pilots.) We then sang "Joyeux Anniversaire" (Happy Birthday), all of us being familiar with the tune even if not the words. The helicopter was also delicious.

Unfortunately it's blowing a gale at present. The clouds have lifted - though it's still overcast - and you could probably land a plane here if you were crazy enough. This is of some import to us as we are hoping a Twin Otter will come tomorrow from Baia Terra Nova (the Italian coastal station) and take us to Dome C. However, it's too windy to fly the helicopter that will take us from DdU to the landing strip, so we're stuck here anyway until the weather improves.

There are worse places we could be stuck...

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