Monday, March 07, 2016

Vernadsky Base – Furthest South

[Kyle]At lunch, we were told that since we had skipped Pleneau Bay and proceeded to Peterman Island instead, Expedition would now be heading even further south than originally planned and we would be spending the afternoon visiting a working research base. Our furthest point south (probably ever) is to be at Winter Island (in the Argentine Islands) of Antarctica

Headed South... Whoo Hoo!!!

What is now the Ukrainian Vernadsky Base, started as a British Station in 1947, renamed Faraday in 1977. It was scientists working and using data collected here (and at Halley Base on the Antarctic mainland) that identified the hole in the ozone layer (1985). During the 1990's the British Antarctic Survey decided to dismantle the base (Halley is a more sophisticated set up, while Faraday required significant health and safety upgrades, and the expense of bringing it up to code was considered too high). When even dismantling costs were considered high, this gave a dilemma! A better solution was found with the sale of the base to Ukraine for a symbolic £1. The Ukranians now use the base to conduct several different types of atmospheric and climatic research. (The ozone measurements at Faraday, which go back to 1957, are the longest continuous record - and the Ukranians continue to take measurements from here, using the original equipment). {Maryanne: Of course a few days earlier I'd never heard of Vernadsky!}

Expedition’s crew seamlessly made it seem as if this stop had been planned all along. They are really good at this. I imagine there was quite a negotiation behind the scenes:

“Hey, Vernadsky! How ya doin’? It’s Expedition here. Listen, we’ve got a few people here who would love to see your station. Any chance we could pop by?”

“How many is a few?”

“A hundred and thirty-three. They’re real nice. They wouldn’t be any problem at all.”

“A hundred and thirty-three is a lot. I’m not su..”

“Did I mention we could pay you?”

“Pay us!? Where will we spend it? We don’t need money. We need eggs. Do you have any eggs?”

“Well, let’s see...We have four more breakfasts, We like to have enough for everybody to have two omelets each if they like… plus, there’s the cake…I don’t know if… ah, never mind, we’ll make it work. How many eggs do you want?”

“We want one egg per person.”

“ONE E… you know what? Fine! We’ll be right over.”

Expedition made her way through a field of giant icebergs and dropped anchor about a half mile from the station. The first group were just about to board the zodiacs when the ship started dragging anchor. Everything was put on hold until another spot was found and it was verified that the anchor was holding fast. Maryanne and I tried to pass the time by organizing our photos using the ship’s computers. We already had thousands and we were trying to stay on top of them.

By time it was our turn in the zodiacs, the wind had really picked up. Each of us had to make a well-timed jump to get aboard the boat in the three-foot chop. This is why we were required to wear waterproof clothing in the zodiacs. It was a wet, miserable ride. When we landed, Alex, the leader of the expedition team, got us all ashore and then handed over a big crate, the top layer of which was definitely eggs.

{Maryanne: They really did bring fresh eggs and fruit and vegetables to the base, although I doubt this was as a result of any negotiated cost, it sure was nice for the folks at the base that only get resupplies once a year, and made me remember our own welcome resupply at Clipperton island}.

We were then taken into the workshop by one of the Vernadsky staff in order to get out the cold while we waited for the rest of the group in the next zodiac. While we were there, he explained that he was an engineer and his main job was site selection for the base's instruments. He said the base houses 12 people year-round, and 17 in the Summer.

Once the rest of the group arrived, we were shown to their mud room, where we removed our boots so we wouldn't be tracking guano from the penguins outside all over their nice, clean station. (As an aside, we later learned that the Gentoo colony on the island is the southernmost one known.)

Serious (and not so serious) science in remote locations

We were taken down the hallway and shown one room after another, most of which looked like college dorms for students that were actually trying to study. At the radio control room, our guide proudly showed us a homemade (electric piano) keyboard he had made when the only other one at the base quit working.

At the weather room, Maryanne noticed a spinning board game style dial with various weather outcomes around the border. When she asked about it, the reply was, "The weather forecasts down here are terrible - no better than that - so we just spin the dial to see what will happen"

We were shown the ski and sledge room and then taken upstairs to their communal areas. There was a break/dining room with a big T.V on the wall. Next to that was a big, well-equipped kitchen. We noticed there were about 15 varieties of tea available.

Beyond that was the best part: The Faraday Bar. The story goes that, back when the base was British, the carpenter was sent wood in order to build a boat ramp and boat shed. He decided the station needed a pub more than it needed another boat shed, so he built the bar! He was sacked for doing so, but the bar has remained. Vernadsky used to (until a few weeks before we arrived) sell shots of vodka made at the station. They have since switched to making a pretty decent wine. A serving could be purchased for either $1 or a bra. We heard someone from Expedition that day paid with a bra, but we didn't see it. Regardless they keep a fine collection for all to see.

At a Bar in Antarctica! Surreal!
And the ship's resident musician picks up a guitar to entertain us more
(as if the views were not enough?)

They also have a souvenir shop, where we bought a station sticker as a memento. While I was going through the purchase process, I noticed that while the guy taking my money was being pleasant, he seemed really reluctant to smile. It was then that it occurred to me that we had seen almost none of the Ukrainians smile. It didn't seem so much that they were irritated by us as they just didn't do that unless a joke had been specifically told. The West Indies is much the same. People who smile too much there are thought to be a bit off. All of us, of course, we're so happy to be in this dramatic place and to be allowed to see a little bit of the lives of these adventurous men that we were all acting a little bit off.

After Vernadsky, we were transferred to Winter Island, just to the south. Along the way, we passed a big aluminum sailboat (Ice Bird) that was anchored and then tied stern-to in a tiny cove. Apparently hey had been disabled when their propeller was bent by ice. The guys at Vernadsky were helping them by lending their shop, their inflatable and a scuba diver. The season was ending fast and they needed to get fixed quickly if they weren't going to be marooned for the winter.

Further along at Winter island, we were deposited at Wordie House. Formerly part of the original Faraday base, it has since been restored and now exists as a historic site. We ambled through, imagining what it must have been like to be stationed here before modern cold weather clothing when the only source of heat was a big stove in the main room.

We left the building and climbed to the top of the hill behind, where we were rewarded with a view of the surrounding area.

This was to be our furthest point south. At 65°15', we were just 78 nautical miles (90 statute miles, 144km) north of the Antarctic Circle and 1485nm from the pole. This means the guys at Vernadsky don't ever see endless night. On their shortest solar day, the sun peaks just above the horizon for two hours and thirty-three minutes, climbing to an altitude of about one diameter of the solar disk. On the longest day, the sun sets for an hour and thirty-one minutes before rising again, never getting more than a degree below the horizon. (The difference between these two numbers is due to refraction in the atmosphere) For those of us living in more temperate latitudes, this means that on that day, it never gets any darker than it does for us about five minutes after the sun sets before it starts getting brighter again. For us, the day we were there, the sun came up at 5:36am and set at 7:18pm. They were losing about seven minutes per day as summer came to an end.

At the top, one of the others from the ship built a little snow penguin. In accordance with IAATO rules, no human-made structure was to be left behind, so it was necessary to demolish it before we left. When it came time to ask for a volunteer, Maryanne was admiring the view when the rest of us took a step back, so she got the honors, preserving Antarctica for the real penguins.

When it came time to return to Expedition, the weather outside had progressed to a full-blown blizzard. We could not actually see the ship when we set off. The wind had decreased somewhat, though, so making the transfer from the zodiac to the ship wasn't nearly as difficult as the other way around had been earlier.

The anchor was hauled aboard and Expedition retraced her steps back toward the NNE. We passed through the Lemaire Channel as dinner was served in the fading light.

During the evening briefing afterwards, it was announced there was to be a new contest for the best black and white photograph. Then the movie, the BBC documentary "Chasing Ice", was shown.

Afterwards, Maryanne went to our cabin while I followed via one last lap around the outside decks of the ship. Up on top of the ship above the bridge, which was closed, I witnessed an amazing scene.

The blizzard had intensified. Both radars were spinning away as expected and both of the ship's powerful spotlights were being trained in the direction of the water a hundred meters or so in front of the ship. The amazing thing was that there was so much snow falling that hardly any of the light actually made it all of the way down to the water. All that could be seen were two bright beams of reflected snow. I remembered when I passed by the chartplotter repeater earlier that the ship was traveling at 12.3 knots.

Twelve point three knots, in a blizzard, on a moonless night, with icebergs everywhere.

I had some idea what it must have been like down on the bridge. A few times a year, while flying, my First Officer and I encounter truly advanced conditions. While the passengers are completely unaware, with their window shades down and their DVD players playing, we are tasked with flying an ice-covered airplane through a blizzard to a slippery runway, knowing that we won't even see that runway until seven seconds before the wheels touch. The airplane's capable. We're well trained and capable. Even so, no matter how much experience we have, we are anxious enough in those situations to be in a hyper-vigilant state until we are safely stopped.

We were down watching a documentary with the window shades drawn and the bridge crew had been going through this. I had opened my window shade by going on deck and now I could feel the tension they must have been under. I knew I couldn't be of any use, so I went to our berth and tried to sleep. I didn't really let go of consciousness until I heard the engines spool down and the anchor being lowered to the bottom.

Even with the spotlights, it's hard to see what's ahead!

Good visibility, partly cloudy, atmospheric sky; Wind: NNE F6; Sea: slight to moderate; Air Temp: 3° C

No comments: