Deep south: a voyage to Antarctica

The Southern Ocean swirls itself into frequent fury that can take experienced mariners from more northerly climes by surprise.

As a result, the ships that ply the great south in support of Antarctic research programs are special. 

Ships are all female – even when named for men – and we ascribe to them qualities we admire: strength, resilience, courage, determination. Over 27 years of Antarctic service, the Aurora Australis has survived fire, ice and damage to its hull, and has transported millions of tonnes of stores and thousands of expeditioners on their way to or from the adventure of their lives.

A touch of fear

I’ve been one of those lucky ones. The feelings on setting sail for Antarctica on the Aurora Australis include disbelief, awe, privilege, excitement – and a touch of fear. The tension of boarding, farewelling loved ones and getting settled in all disappears when the ship’s horn sounds and it slowly pulls away from the dock.

As land slips below the horizon behind us, our world shrinks down to the ship and those on board. She becomes a moving metal haven of safety on a vast ocean under limitless sky.

For the expeditioners on their way to or from a stint on station, life on board quickly settles to a routine of meals, musters, visits to the bridge to watch the ocean slip by and chat with the crew, reading, watching movies or playing cards. Though it may sound boring, the sense of wonder and privilege means it never gets dull.

In these days of instant communication, it is hard to envisage a journey measured in days and weeks rather than hours. The voyage from Hobart to Antarctica takes at least a week, much more if travelling further west around the Antarctic coast. 

Cold comfort

For days, the ship ploughs south through grey waters. And then you feel the cold snap of the Antarctic Convergence, where the circumpolar current meets warmer northern waters, and everything changes again: wind, weather, temperature and wildlife.

Soon Antarctica throws out the welcome mat, as icebergs loom into view and expeditioners crowd the decks to view these mountains of the sea. As the Aurora Australis pushes further south, the unruly Southern Ocean is tamed by the weight of floating ice of all shapes and sizes and there comes a sense of peaceful, purposeful drift towards our goal.

Finally, after a week or more, there is a glimpse of the continent itself: if not its landmass, then the vast expanse of ice that extends from its shores all year round. The Aurora Australis greets Antarctica by pulling into a harbour or, more often, munching her way by ice-breaking into an ice-port where the ice becomes both dock and warehouse for loading and unloading personnel and cargo.

Annual exchange

A year’s worth of stores are exchanged for rubbish and recycling. Diesel fuel, essential to the function of the station, and to preserving life for its inhabitants in a land devoid of wood and often bereft of sun, is pumped ashore by the tens of thousands of litres. Station staff greet, meet and farewell one another.

After what might be a two-week stay, the orange shape of the Aurora Australis pulls away from Antarctica. The new station crew have mixed feelings as she disappears over the horizon: relief at being left to get on with their work, mixed with the sudden weight of their extreme isolation. She leaves them behind in a monochrome world of ice, sky and water, and makes her determined way to civilisation with passengers who look forward to home after 15 or more months away.

A voyage to Antarctica, particularly on board the Aurora Australis, is unlike any other on earth, and those of us who have done it are a fortunate few.

Story and pictures: Melanie Van Twest              

GP Melanie Van Twest was doctor on board an Aurora Australis voyage. 

MORE

Aurora Australis is Australia’s Antarctic flagship. Each year jobs are available at three continental stations and at Macquarie Island.  

Visit antarctica.gov.au for more information

RACV Cruises & Tours offers sightseeing day flights over Antarctica in summer. From $1140pp including RACV member 5 per cent discount. 

More racv.com.au/cruisesandtours or call 1300 850 884.

Written by Melanie Van Twest
September 20, 2017