It’s a day at sea after the Falklands and the Captain, the Expedition Leader (A professor from New Zealand), the Ice Pilot (a retired USCG admiral with 16 years’ experience on heavy icebreakers) and the Chief Engineering Officer are giving their post Antarctic lectures and findings. We were in Wilhelmina Bay with the whales for 4 ½ hours. The plan had been for an hour and a half. The whale biologist photographed and identified flukes of 77 different humpback whales that day. For a while he spotted flukes from a whale dive every 30 seconds. The bay was so calm that the Captain shut down the engines so the whales could (and did) approach the ship. We had extraordinary weather in Antarctica and on both passages across the Drake Channel.
The team commented on the ship traffic we saw, especially the sailing yachts. The captain said that weather in Drake Channel seems to go in cycles, three days bad weather, one day good. At our speed we can cross the channel in a day and if we are lucky plan to delay or speed up a departure to make the sailing easier. Several years ago Prinsendam hit a 60 foot wave in the channel, the current captain was on the bridge, in a different position, and the current chief engineer was on duty. The wave blew out the windows on the bridge. Most of the cruise ships we saw are slower and much smaller than Prinsendam. The retired admiral said that he hit several storms in these waters and he would not want to be on a small yacht or even small ship, he wants heavy metal. Prinsendam is not an icebreaker but is ice rated with a reinforced bow and fuel tanks in the middle of the ship, not along the edges. But in the early days of exploration the ships were not much bigger than the yachts we saw in Antarctic waters.
There was a discussion of how decisions are made on a ship in the Antarctic. There is an expedition leader, ice pilot and the master of the ship. The Ice Pilot said that they have discussions on the bridge, and take a vote. The Captain’s vote is weighted 51%. The team advises, he makes the decision. Although I wonder how the captain must feel with a retired admiral with years of Arctic and Antarctic experience looking over his shoulder. The Admiral said “I’m most often just another experienced set of eyes on the bridge.”
One of the discussions was about the environmental impacts of research on Antarctica. A Japanese base introduced invasive grasses hitchhiking with some of their equipment and the American bases leave a large carbon footprint. In the old days the bases used to leave old equipment on the sea ice and let it sink in the summer so there is a lot of junk at the bottom of McMurdo Sound. New Zealand’s Scott Base is carbon neutral and its wind turbines provide half of the power for the US base at McMurdo. The Koreans and Chinese have been leaders in reducing the carbon footprint at their bases.
One other interesting thing we learned is that while US Hercules and Globe Masters are the workhorses in bringing material to the Antarctic (One of the pictures I posted from King George Island has a C 130 Hercules) the Canadians are rebuilding the airframes of old DC3s and Twin Otters, giving them new turbo prop engines, and new electronics. They are becoming the local aircraft of choice. It’s amazing to me that DC3s are finding new life in the Antarctic. Climate change is affecting the way airplanes are used to resupply bases. The US uses ice runways to land its big planes at McMurdo. The ice is weaker than it used to be and the US has to limit its operations during more of the year than in the past.
At the end of the Q&A debrief the expedition leader had collected some of the strangest questions he has gotten on ships “fortunately not on this voyage” he said. They include: “What happens to an ice burg when it melts?” “Is this the same moon we see in Texas?” “Do Penguins have belly buttons?” “What sound does the Antarctic Sound actually make? “ “How can there be female sperm whales?”
I am using this coda as an excuse to post a few more pictures from Antarctica.