In the afternoon on New Year’s Eve, three dozen passengers from the MV Akademik Shokalskiy walked town the gangplank and stepped on to one of the ice floes that had trapped the ship since Christmas Day.
They walked, carefully, along a pathway marked by small flags until they reached a relatively flat area of the ice covered in fresh snow. They formed a chain at one side, linked arms and proceeded to stomp, in formation, across the snow, compressing the powder under their feet. This is how you make a helipad in Antarctica.
Minutes before, we had been told that the Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, had failed to get through. This was the second icebreaker that hadn’t made it – the Chinese ship, the Xue Long, got some of the way through the ice on Friday last week before turning back. The only option left is to evacuate by helicopter.
Ben Maddison, a historian and author on board the Shokalskiy with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), had led the passengers on to the ice near the ship.
“I wanted people to participate in their own rescue, to create the conditions for the helicopter to land, a moment of activity so we’re not so passive in the face of events,” he said.
With arms linked, the 30 or so people sang songs – including a festive Auld Lang Syne – as they tramped down the soft snow for their rescue helicopter to land.
Whenever anyone’s feet fell a little too deeply through the uncertain surface, the whole line stopped to help them out, and then carried on across the field.
“It was like a choir – we were a big Antarctic choir in the middle of a rainstorm,” said Maddison.
The Shokalskiy was heading east around Commonwealth Bay, to the Mertz glacier, after a brief visit to the huts built a century ago by the scientist and Antarctic explorer, Douglas Mawson.
Just before Christmas Day, strong south-easterly winds began pushing the sea ice towards the Antarctic coastline, quickly forming a dense mass around the ship and pinning us in place.
When the captain issued the call for help, on Christmas morning, the ship was only two nautical miles from open water. Seven days later, after blizzards and more strong winds, the sea is 20 nautical miles away. This barrier of ice, now up to 5 metres deep in parts, has proved impossible to penetrate so far.
When we first got trapped, we were just over two weeks into our month-long expedition, from Bluff in New Zealand to East Antarctica, following in the spirit of Mawson, leader of the original AAE of 1911, repeating his wildlife, ocean and weather observations to build a scientific picture of how this part of the world had changed in 100 years.
The AAE was set up as a mix of adventure and science, of researchers alongside paying members of the public with an interest in climate and zoology, who wanted to venture where few others do.
Mary Regan, a Sydney-based consultant, holds a deep interest in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration – the time of Scott, Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. She also wanted to help measure climate change.
The moment she first saw the domed ice cap of Antarctica, during a visit to the Hodgeman Islands last week, she said it took her breath away.
“I thought, I’m really here. It was so majestic, so grand. There was that beauty of how we were there in this beautiful but tough, cruel environment. It grabbed me. I had tears in my eyes.”
The ship’s misfortune has not dampened her enthusiasm. Everyone is on board through some sort of love for Antarctica and not, she said, to tick off boxes. They wanted to experience the continent. Changes of plan, unexpected situations, these were all part of the adventure, she said.
Sean Borkovic, who has a recent masters in environmental management in Sydney, said he had always wanted to sail the Southern Ocean.
He recalled the Shokalskiy’s first approach to the frozen continent, almost two weeks ago, after several days of rough seas. We had finally made it to calm waters and, on a clear, sunny day, we approached the Antarctic landmass through a corridor of enormous, pure-white icebergs.
“The sunshine was a surprise,” said Borkovic. “But the stark nature was everything and more than I imagined.”
Maddison has visited the frozen continent 10 times but each time it has surprised him. “I feel like I’ve only been touching the surface – I want to come back again and touch it in a deeper way.”
During an excursion two weeks ago we all got into Zodiacs – tough inflatable rubber dinghies – and passed close to a decaying iceberg. We were with Maddison on the lookout for leopard seals.
The morning had started off grey and cold but the sun came out. Maddison took his boat and passengers far from the hum of ship’s engines, far from the other Zodiacs and well beyond the range of everyone’s radios.
“The ice floes were separated by big pools of water that were so still that they were like mirrors,” he said. “We switched off the engines and sat there, in complete silence, in between these glistening mirrors.”
For 12-year-old Robbie Turney, who has been begging his father, AAE expedition leader, Chris Turney, to visit Antarctica for years, it has been the trip of a lifetime.
“I’ve always heard stories of Antarctica in winter, I was expecting 80mph winds, struggling to stand,” he said. “It was different, it was warmer. If you’re walking or building you can do it in shorts and sleeves. It’s beautiful and white. It’s better than I was expecting.”
Last week, whenever allowed to venture on to the lumpy, sludgy ice floes around us, Turney has taken charge of constructing snow slides and snow men.
There have been trips on to the ice – blizzards permitting – for people to contemplate the stillness, watch penguins and investigate this desolate landscape that appeared out of nowhere.
“It’s this week of being beset in the ice that people will remember and people will be asked about,” said Maddison.
“A lot of people can’t remember what we did before this and this is what they’ll be asked about.”
As we have watched the weather and tracked the progress of the Chinese and Australian icebreakers, everyone has kept their spirits high and fingers crossed. It would be untrue to say no one has felt deflated, or worried.
But each turn of events has been met with, as AAE co-leader Greg Mortimer put it, an adventurous spirit. And we have held on to the fervent hope that our ship would somehow be freed, to sail back to New Zealand under our own steam.
Mortimer has told us that that was unlikely to happen. Instead, we needed to pack our bags and be ready to be evacuated by helicopter to the Aurora Australis, via the Xue Long, when the weather cleared.
From there we would sail to Australia, via the Australian Antarctic base, Casey. We would be several weeks late home but what a story we would have to tell.
Perhaps it was the isolation as much as the personalities, but this was a group of people who had grown strong bonds. Every meal this past month had been spent together. Films, games and countless trips on land and ice were shared in the same small groups.
In the past week, stuck in the ice, the AAE members each took turns leading lessons for others in everything from salsa dancing to yoga.
On New Years’ Eve, as the clock counted down to midnight, a hastily arranged choir belted out a song, written by AAE member and Australian Green party senator-elect Janet Rice. The song recounted the story of the Shokalskiy and the icebreakers. “Bloody great shame we’re still stuck here,” was the refrain.
“You often feel very close to people on an Antarctic vessel, and that’s as much to do with the place you’re in and things you’re doing, as the bonds you actually have,” said Maddison. “Because you’re remote and isolated, you huddle together more.”
With departure almost imminent, Maddison said he was emotional about leaving the Shokalskiy and, in particular, the spot where the ship had been stranded. The past few days, he said, had satisfied an enormous craving he had held for years.
“I’ve been through this body of water many times and always wanted to stop in it,” he said. “And I have, accidentally. I’ve always wanted the time to contemplate and notice it in a way I don’t have while in a ship.”
This had been Regan’s first trip to the continent but, like Maddison, her experience is not yet complete. “It’s met my expectations but not satisfied them. I caught myself saying the other day, “Next time I come to Antarctica … “
Borkovic said he had been humbled by what he had seen in the past few weeks. “There’s a quality to it that I expected but couldn’t appreciate until I was here,” he said. “It is such an extreme environment, the last untouched wilderness. I’ll remember this forever.”
[Image via AFP]