There are monsters in the Southern Ocean still.
They slide past silently in the night, hunting packs of brooding giants cloaked in mist , stalking us from the distant hazy horizon. Closer, icebergs lit from within glow an electric blue; taller than apartment buildings – some larger than city blocks even – tower above us. They know their power. They are Watchers ; silent witnesses to our passage through their ocean.
Growlers are a different manner of beast; bolder, smaller and more agile; dangerous and hungry. Larger than a small truck, they’re mostly invisible and more than capable of tearing into a ships hull. They duck and weave among the whitecaps to avoid the narrow dazzling beams of the probing searchlights and the Night Watches prying eyes.
These monsters are the ones to watch. The ship killers.
I was up on the bridge a few nights back listening to the watch during handover. They were playing with the radar system on the Aurora Australis, trying to reconcile what they seeing out the window to what the radar was showing.
It wasn’t yet dark enough for the searchlights – twin pencil thin beams of radiance that lance across the darkness in front of the ship – backwards and forwards – illuminating our path and hopefully giving us a heads up if something nasty is in the water. So far we could still see to the horizon.
We were surrounded by massive icebergs. All at a safe distance and highly visible on the round green screen of the radar – its like the ones you see in the movies – a large circular green screen with knobs and buttons and keypads on the sides and the familiar circular sweep of a radar screen – all it was missing was a “pinnnng’ (I added that in my head actually). The display showed all large objects around us, with notations and plots all changing in relation to our position. Everything accounted for, except one.
“See, port side about half a mile out” the First Officer had told the Ships Master.
He craned his neck forward, as if it would actually help him see better through the yellow and black German made Night binoculars.
“Yep, got it…” he said…
“Well I had a visual on it from 5 miles away, and the radar registered it faintly but I have a fix and a plot on it…look now…” she said.
The Ships Master checked out the radar screen, his face bathed in the eldritch green display … “Hmm yep nothing..not a trace”
“Exactly…” the First Officer said. “ not even a blip on the radar, but there it is – you can see it plain as day out there”.
She looked forward and pointed out ahead of the ship. I followed her gaze to the low but perfectly visible shape of a Growler iceberg – about the size of a tennis court and with two small 5 metre peaks at each end. Waves broke across it as it bobbed in the relatively gentle 4 metre swell.
Using the small toggle that actually steers this massive icebreaker (Yes I was disappointed as well that there wasn’t a big wooden wheel to hang off in a storm), the First Officer made a minor movement with her wrist, and steered a new course. The Aurora Australis responded instantly – it’s such an agile thing for its size – and swung to starboard slightly to pass between the larger berg and this little bobbing bastard.
“That’s it, all yours…” said the First officer, heading for the bridge door and a good nights sleep.
“We’ll have to check the settings…have a good dinner and see you tomorrow” said the Master, who turned to the console and began fiddling with the display.
It’s little things like this that make me really happy that there is still a human in control of this ship 24/7 – someone to look out the window, disregard the electronic data and trust their eyes. Steer us away from danger. Check the settings.
I don’t think ill be buying a self-drive autonomous car any time soon.
Fuck that’s so boring – I’m trying too hard. <face slap>
Let it come… its been a while.
OK so if you haven’t gathered, I’m currently on the way home from my little summer in paradise at Davis Research Station Antarctica.
We’ve just popped over 60 degrees South – 110 souls or more aboard the Aurora Australia – heading North by North West and sneaking our way between weather systems on the way back to Hobart. The weather and seas are strangely calm but we’ve been assured of a bit of a rollercoaster once we hit the 50’s (that news fills my black little heart with joy)
So how best to catch you up on the past few months of radio silence from me.
Hmmm…lets ‘Christopher Nolan’ it.
Confused? jeez, watch more movies already.
At the moment its 10.30pm and I’m down in the mess trying to tap this out while fucking <redacted> is again looking for friends and has plonked down at a table of guys quietly reading their newspapers – monopolising conversations with his own inane bullshit stores of quite possibly the only interesting few things he’s ever done in his life.
Harsh? Not really. Trev’s a really nice guy but can be a bit of a moron. Hi Trev.
Yes, I’m an asshole – surely youve figured that out by now.
Ahhh London Grammar – that’s better…now that my headphones are in place and my quiet rage and desire to gently stab Trev to death has subsided a little…(remind me to not finish reading that Charles Manson bio I started tonight – its really stabby)….where were we.
Memento. Got it.
Waking up this morning I was filled with the strange desire to write stuff down before I forget it. Braindump things. Be it fear of encroaching old age or a restored motivation my words are slowly coming back.
Where did they go? They flatlined with my general mood this season apparently and a strange apathy towards my little online diary took over.
Funnily enough, as I write this a Doves song called “Words” comes on – J .
It’s a 12 or so day trip back from Wonderland, and with well over 100 people contained on this ship, privacy and space are at a premium as every spare corner is generally occupied, as is the tiny theatrette and most quiet corners (I’m in a cabin of 4 – luckily they are my friends and I love them a bit – <*curious! – lets explore that statement later>)
The returning Expeditioners from Mawson have already been on the ship for 2 weeks (poor bastards), running backwards and forwards between the stations a few times as a piece of critical BOM weather balloon / Sonde kit was forgotten and the only way to get it there was by ship.
(trivia fact : they actually fired a rocket and a line from the ship to the shore and ran the package down the line rather than launch a boat to deliver it – #fknoldschool!)
But TWO WEEKS with another two weeks to go.
It’s been an easy transition to ship life again – Hell you already know I LOVE being on ships – so the old routines have come back licketty split. (look it up, Millennials).
Movies on the theatre, plenty of sleep, card games in the library (I learned to play ‘Asshole!’ today – a card game seemingly tailor made for me and ‘BananaSkin’ – the non scoring Word game for people that suck at Scrabble)
One lesson well learned from last season is to cut back on the meals – after two days of the ships hearty food supply and chocolate biscuits, my survival-oriented monkey brain kicked in and has restricted me to 1 meal a day plus fruit. It’s the only way I won’t die from overeating on this ship.
I have learned to embrace my monkey brain. It is (mostly) my friend.
Love you too, monkey brain.
Curiously it’s that same monkey brain that becomes my autopilot when I’ve had that one drink too many – like our last station drinks night before leaving where I somehow decided that drinking shots and straight spirits with my friends was a wonderful idea, peaked early (10pm), saw 1 song of the bands set and handed over control to my monkey co-pilot to get me home. Remembered heading for a wee, veering left down the stairs and that’s about it – woke up 11am the next day just in time for brunch.
Hey no judgement please – mild alcohol abuse is an Antarctic aussie tradition.
Pissed off I didn’t see the band though – the station band this year was awesome with Hayden the heli pilot, Ferret (Darryl) the Plumber and Glenn (FTO) on drums.
It was a very different season for me this year – work featured more this year as the experience of being here didn’t hold the sense of wonder that it did last year.
I must be doing my job well as I felt practically invisible this year – typical IT thing though: no one actually sees you when everything’s working the way it should. At least people spelt my name right this year. Almost.
Not getting out into the field much on jollies was a pain, but managed to get an overnighter at Brookes Hut which was fun, and a day out helping the Geologists surveying Adams Flat for the Year Round Aviation Access project (Davis Airport basically)
I did manage to have a lot of fun though, meet many new people and reacquaint myself with the old crew from last summer – now all seasoned summer/winter/summerers with 18 months down South.
Seeing these guys actually made my trip so much more bearable, and it was a friend of mines offhand comment that kinda turned me around a bit (thanks Derryn) – we were talking about something in the Mess and Derryn said something like “Jamie doesn’t offer his friendship…” which in the context of the conversation wasn’t a criticism, just an observation.
That stuck with me and I though about it a lot. He was totally right.
I generally put a hard line between me and the people I work with. Have for years. I’d done the same here again while on social autopilot. The problem with that in an Antarctic research Station is that you live with these people as well – they are your friends. I’d overlooked that completely and realised that I’d almost missed out on the other amazing thing about working down there – the personal relationships you form and the friends you make.
So I decided to change my behaviour. (as much as I can) Yes its possible if you are at first conscious of it I think.
Hell I’d instigated that behaviour in the first place when I was 17 ( being so self involved at the time I wrote future Jamie a letter explain my reasons and motivations), so it wasn’t that hard to peel that shit away. At least a little bit.
Let people in, don’t close yourself off. Be a human being and don’t be an asshole.
Well be less of an asshole anyway. It’s a process.
Another lesson learned.
Midnight now – I’m off to the bridge again to see if there’s an aurora tonight and if not, I’ll call it a night I think.
Weird-ass dreams last night, half remembered conversations with familiar people but more like dejavu than a snoozy morning dreamstate.
It’s a new day in rougher seas and greyer weather but the routine remains the same – miss breakfast, sleep in til 9.30am, stumble down for a coffee and a muffin with vegemite (see told you I was being good), have a shower then fill in time till 10.30am, watch an episode of ‘GetCrak1n’ followed by an episode of the TV Series “Counterpart” in the theatrette which takes us til 12pm (thankfully half way through lunch so again super easy to skip lunch) – head up to the bridge to see what the world is doing (nothing – we’re above 55 degrees now and no bergs left – just grey rolling ocean and what lies beneath), wander down to the Mess around 12.45 (after lunch) for a chai tea and a peanut butter crumpet, slink back to the cabin for a nap ‘til 2.30 – head to the near deserted Mess to do some writing in the relative peace and quiet as everyone else is post-lunch napping.
That’s where I am now, with a few scientists and boffins tip tip tapping away at their laptops, completing reports from their respective Summers down South.
The Mess here exists in only two states – echoingly empty outside the normal hours of occupation, or deafeningly loud (like a crowded pub with wooden floors and concrete walls on ½ price drinks night) when its peak meal times.
That’s why I avoid meal times on the ship usually – a lot of us do. It’s just too much sensory input to cope with then if you aren’t a dinner ‘chatter’ – (and I’m not, especially at meal times – leave me the fuck alone please).
A little ways back we had a massive lurch sideways that caught our cabin off guard – My cabin mates laptops and hard drives clattered to the floor. It was a big one.
Usually in seas like this we secure everything that we can, to keep it from sliding and crashing to the floor, but this one big lurch just send my glasses and books sliding off their precarious shelf and into the endless abyss that hides underneath the bottom bunks on this ship.
These bunks are solid folding affairs that lock into place – quite heavy and designed to swing up and down on a complicated mechanism – like a 70’s folding sofa but made of solid heavy metal instead of just wood. There is a thin gap between the wall and the metal edge just wide enough to let books, phones, headsets and small items like that fall through, but only just wide enough to get your fingers in up to the knuckles and no more.
Once items are lost behind these folding nightmares, its almost impossible to recover them without a complicated series of manoeuvres that you only learn by trial and error – the process goes something like this:
- Make sure you are comfortable, reading and/or asleep.
- Place all small personal Items on or around your bed for easy reach.
MASSIVE LURCH…<clatter of personal items falling>
- Stop swearing.
- Strip your bed of all coverings and pillows.
- Strip the mattress of your bed.
- Carefully lift the spring loaded base just about halfway up, so that the gap between it and the wall allows a small boned or deathly skinny person to precariously lean over the edge into the black abyss and try to reach the invisible items by touch alone, usually with an outstretched arm and straining fingertips (constantly in danger of being swallowed by the spring loaded trap just has just been half-sprung)
- Recover said items by feel while holding the traps jaws apart.
- Put the bed back together, again cursing the swell or the waves.
- Place everything exactly where it was when this happened in the first place – effectively resetting the trap to begin the process all over again.
- Go back to sleep.
Great team building exercise in a cabin about the size or a small ensuite with 4 people living in it.
Saturday night should be fun indeed as we have our Charity Auction for a ‘Kids with Cancer’ charity (it’s a regular thing here on these voyage and we raise quite a bit of money.)
The items put up for auction and mostly handmade down South by Expeditioners and can range from framed photographs through to magnificent Mastercraftsman-type woodworks and metalworks. The quality of these items can be breathtaking – mostly.
This year I though I’d participate and actually had the audacity to print, sign and frame one of my photos for the auction – I’m quietly curious to see how it will go.
Was signing it too much? It was only a tiny name and date in the corner. I don’t think so anyway and have just enough ego left to want to be identified as the creator.
Time will tell.
Its also is also the only occasion we are allowed to drink booze on the voyage – 2 cans of beer (or cider) allowance per person, presumably to lessen our voyage stress and loosen our purse strings for the auction.
Oops…3pm – time for a nap.
4.30pm…Top up the water bottle and watch The Ballad Of Buster Scrubs for the next 2 hours sealed in my little bunk/coffin – damn that’s a finely put together anthology. Wonderful. Hmmm just missed dinner! What a shame.
We’re having 4-5 metre seas today, so the ship is rocking and rolling almost to what feels like 40 degrees each way, the waves smashing against the D deck portholes and the distant horizon vanishing beneath the grey rolling waves at time as we at first wallow and then roll back to the top of next wave – rinse and repeat for the next 12 hours.
There’s a weird antigravity effect at the top of each roll and you can definitely feel yourself lift off the deck as you are walking at times. Very strange but also so much fun J Again I’m so glad I don’t get seasick as the ship is a ghost town at the moment.
SO what to do…
Better wander around aimlessly for a few hours and then crash out around midnight.
Another day blurs into the others now. We’re half way home and making 16 knots, which is the fastest I’ve heard of this tub doing! At this stage it looks like well be a day early but I’m fairly certain that the just want to put some time in to get ahead just in case the weather turns against us.
Up an hour earlier today but still skipping the main meals and coming in around 9am, just avoiding the crowds and allowing a relatively quiet coffee and a peanut butter and honey crumpet.
**Also I don’t get crumpets…muffins, yes but what the fuck is a crumpet supposed to be? What sick fuck came up with that idea? Is it a pikelet? Is it a bread pancake …WTF???? A soggy doughey tasteless mess of gluten and chemicals that’s impossible to brown nicely – hmmm yep lets market that shall we? The massive splat of peanut butter and honey makes it barely edible, but for some reason I prefer them over muffins… Anyhoo…nice work Marketing Department – thank God they’re free.
So we were working backwards yes?…
The ship finally turned up on the Monday – a full 5 days late because of a blizzard that was fully predicted by BOM Forecasters (nice work Tony) – it had meant hunkering down in up to 80 knot winds being able to go outside without full survival gear and goggles (the air is full of snow, ice, flying dust and small rocks like a fine gravel driven along by hurricane force winds)
In that time I hibernated, alternating between the theatrette and my room, laying low and helping out in the kitchen and on station where I could. Everyone was in a sort of limbo state – all the science and work orders had been wound up and with the restricted travel, no one could leave the station limits.
Boredom is actually possible at times like this – although there is so much to do, its like a snow day – everyone’s inside and get s little stir crazy.
On the bright side, it gave the elephant seals time to start coming in – a small group came ashore on the station beach, had a brief ‘Holy Shit’ moment with the blasting wind and burrowed deep into the reddish purple seaweed that had blown up in narrow windrows about 2 feet deep up and down the small pebbly beach.
I got out and shot some raw footage for a friend that wanted an Antarctican shoutout for the Ceau Cinema Festival in Timisoara this year – it was a challenge mainly as it was fucking snow-mageddon with a hurricane on top. I’d taken a few snaps around station with their festival logo but wanted a “Greetings from Antarctica” vid to send them
So not wanting to look like a total asshole in front of the whole station (the station signpost is in full view of the Mess), I wandered up the road to the heli hut and the landing pads.
Now this particular part of the station is like a wind tunnel at the best of times – the winds howling off the Plateau rushing down and across the rocky Vestfold Hills and blasting out to sea – in 70 knot winds walking up this road it was like leaning over 45 degrees and pushing your way through cold treacle (that pushed back) for ¼ mile. Every once is a while a stronger gust would hit you and try to knock the legs from under you. Then it would swirl around a building and attack you from another angle, then another, and another.
After what seemed like an eternity slowly and carefully navigating this road, I reached the Heli huts and landing pads which (as you would imagine) was on an elevated platform uphill from the station and overlooking a long plain, across which the wind whistled and howled, driving larger dirt particles and small rocks like hail directly into your eyes (thanks Goggles).
How the Hell was I going to shoot anything in this!!!! The plan was to use a wide angle on my backup Olympus camera, flip the screen (useful feature after all) and do a selfie piece to camera. I took shelter behind the heli hut, out of the wind, and set up.
Camera, lens, flip viewfinder, hold it out at arms length…test…review…audio not bad, video on autofocus…hmmm not bad at all!– this might just work.
So I hit record and stepped out into the wind to frame my shot.
Like a mousetrap, my viewfinder snapped shut in the hurricane.
FUCK – is it broken? NO….whew… ok lets try again.
Jeez my hands are cold already (it was -9)
Hmmm what to do…and why don’t my fingers work?
AHHH GAFFER TAPE (I love you gaffer tape) !!!!!!!! … being a good little boy scout I’m generally prepared, so I grabbed a strip of black gaffer tape from my little orange Backpack of Holding and taped that fucker back.
RECORD….No snap J ….” Hello Ceau Cinema….”
Dang, my fingers are actually hurting.
With a cheesy shout out in the can, I hadn’t been paying attention to the blasting wind freezing the tips of my fingers…they had gone from cold to pins and needles painful to bloody sore extremely quickly, and It was time to get them under warm water and out of this wind.
Walking with my back to the blasting wind was even more fun than walking directly into it – again my inner child got a little too much sugar and wondered what would happen if I ran and jumped…just a little bit.
There’s a rough rule of thumb here that says if the wind speed equals or exceeds your body weight, it can blow you away – just take you. I’d seen it almost happen last season. It was gusting up to 80 knots and I weight 84 kilos in my survival gear…Hmm maybe not.
Better pack it in for the day anyway and get some video and photos processed. 180 gigabyte photo and video library so far and growing from this trip alone and it takes a lot of discipline to manage it properly.
ZZZZZzzzt…and then it was Saturday on the AA again.
Still over a week to go and a briefing tonight to give some indication as to our actual arrival time in Hobart. Strangely enough even after leaving 4 days late we are still on track to get back on time – almost.
The Canteen Charity night went well with the ship raising almost $25000.00 in “donations’ – ably assisted by a 3 can alcohol allowance and triple digit Winterer paychecks. It’s a thing on the Aurora – returning Expos hand make some amazing things and put them up for auction…a few of the highly sought after items this time were. A few of the top tier items were a signed marine ensign flag from the Aurora (signed by the current crew) went for almost $4000.00, various hand made items such as lamps turned from discarded wood from the AA and from Stations, went for $900 a pair and $1500 respectively, hand knitted scarves and wooly hats went for hundreds of dollars as the alcohol kicked in and the bidding got crazy. Even a photo I’d printed and framed at the last minute went for $250 (which I was quietly stoked about). As usual the party started to crank up a gear and people were getting noisy and boozy so I scarpered well before the E deck dance party and Pineapple Express reunion.
Sunday passed like a dream and turned into a Monday before I knew it …the roomies had cabin cordial today so were indisposed for most of the day and I just spent time wandering around the now sunny decks, reading and snoozing and watching TV shows in the cinema.
Week two on this voyage starts to feel like a claustrophobic limbo; the ship gets smaller and the crowded noisy mess and library are places to be avoided at all costs. Meal times become intolerably annoying. I wish I actually got seasick sometimes so I’d have an excuse to stay in my cabin all day.
Monday is Monster Clocks day on board. At midday we align our time with Eastern Daylight / Hobart Time, jumping forward 4 hours in a heartbeat. Lunch becomes dinner and dinner becomes snacks today as we readjust to real time in the real world. Dammit. It’s getting closer now. Our ETA has just been updated to around 6.30PM Friday and unbelievably we are still on time –ish.
God its 5.30pm now apparently…I still have my tea cup in front of me from lunch…might be time for a timely retreat.
ZZZZZZzzzz…..bweepbeepbeepbeepbeepBUMP (my dozey head hitting the solid bottom of the top bunk) and I jumped up to cancel my morning 7.00am alarm (and then 7.30 emergency alarm) before waking the whole cabin…FUCK…bloody alarm…
Tuesday is it ?…hmm looks like we’ve skipped to the present again. With Monday consisting of Monster Clocks at midday, and about 6 hours of quality TV shows, 2km of walking around the corkscrewing deck in a big circle, and staying up til 2.30am trying to finish off Stephen Kings “Mr Mercedes” Tv series with my late night horror peeps (a small but dedicated following) – Tuesday was fast shaping up to be a haze of fog as well.
This morning was a blur though, again making a massive mistake in taking a phenergan to help me sleep with this little blue wonder (designed for seasickness but has a side effect of knocking you out) rendering me unconscious til 9.50am – just a few minutes before I had to put on the last few episodes of Counterpart for my daytime spy/thriller crew (a small but dedicated following completely separate to my late night horror crew).
That killed the few waking hours til midday, when I finally getting through to my housemate to check how the house move was going (getting rid of that Dubbo house finally), I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that while the newly packed-up-in-boxes house was waiting for the removalist, some low life assholes broke in and ransacked the place (yep fuck my life, people), stealing my bike and fuck knows what else. I can’t really remember what I had stored in the garage but most of my “cant do without “ stuff is either with me (personal papers and whatnot) or in my sisters storage shed already from last year.
Ahh Dubbo – you c*nt of a town.
…and its now Friday, and we’re cruising down past Bruny Island, Cell service is back, and the messages from the real world are catching up from a 4 month backlog.
This week has been a hazy blur of late night series binge (up to 2am most night and no sleep before 4am), lomg sleep ins (waking at 10am) and sleeping all day ust to pass the time.
Today its hot, steamy and delicious as we rediscover the joys of sweat and humidity – mid-20 degrees at the moment and climbing to the 30’s in Hobart.
Cabins cleaning and last minute packing is all completed and now we have to once again hurry up and wait until 6.30pm tonight before we can dock and disembark. Until then we are essentially cruising around the Derwent River in circles, waiting our turn.
After that we are only a semi-offical welcoming ceremony at a local brewery away from being released back into the wilds of Hobart and the real world.
Stay tuned…what could possibly go wrong!