“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. Even onboard the Aurora Australis, deep in the Southern Ocean!
Our celebrations coincided with sighting the Antarctic pack ice so it was truly a white Christmas for us all. And it doesn’t matter where I am I always eat too much at Christmas, but this year was probably a record. Though I was not alone in that I assure you – the cooks did a wonderful job catering for us and making it a special event even though we were so far away from home.
We ate lobster, three different kinds of roast with all the trimmings, and a Christmas cake as big as a table. And yes, Santa made an appearance and gave out presents (we all had to sit on his knee first and after all the cake that wouldn’t have been fun!). I was somehow talked into acting as Santa’s elf and was called ‘little elf’ from that day on by many of the crew. Most of us spent the next day trying to sleep as the ship struggled to break through the thick band ice, which stood between us and Casey Station.
It was amazing to watch (and feel) Aurora Australis become a giant orange battering ram. The ship picks up speed and vibrates heavily as the engines work hard to force the ship through narrow cracks between ice floes. It is a slow, tedious process for the crew as small gains would be made until the ice would win a round and the ship would stop dead. It would then slowly reverse back so it could build up speed and charge at the ice again. Each battering attempt saw us make about a third of a ship length towards Casey.
For those working on the bridge and in the engine room it was a trying time, but for the rest of us it gave us a chance to keep an eye out for wildlife while on the bridge or gazing through portholes. I saw lots of penguins on the ice (Emperor and Adelie), seals (Crabeater and Antarctic) and so many snow petrels, cape petrels and also the very fast moving Wilson’s storm petrels flitting about.
Seeing pack ice like this is mesmerising and almost blinding and so is the sky. At this time of the year it is never dark in Antartica and there is only a slight twilight at about 2 am, when it is like someone turned the dimmer switch slightly. I found that twilight was a great time to rug up and go and stand on the monkey deck (a small open deck at the highest point on the ship) just to absorb it all. Once we were on the ice I started opening up my porthole – yes, it was freezing but breathtaking to stare out across the endless ice and watch a penguin or three!
We finally arrived at Casey Station very early in the morning on the 26th December and it was exciting to see the ‘Big Red Shed’ I had seen in so many photos. The all-important resupply began almost immediately, with the ship’s crane lowering a barge onto the water so it could begin taking cargo. Between the ship’s crew and the dedicated team of water-craft operators – the Deputy Voyage Leader coordinated about 100 tonnes of cargo a day – all lowered off the ship and then taken over water by the barge. It was incredible to witness those involved working so hard in very cold and trying conditions at all hours of the day and night to get the job done. There were small pieces of ice everywhere (‘bergy’ bits) and they can be very dangerous. I was so impressed with the dedication of all the crew and how everyone managed their fatigue and the shift work over the 8 day resupply.
Those on the Station were very happy to get fresh food as they’d run out of many things. The hot-ticket items seemed to be avocados and bananas. And I think the most craved was a cooked breakfast, which is something available on the ship but not at Casey Station.
Before the all-important refueling over water began (900,000 litres of Special Antarctic Blend (SAB)) some of us were lucky enough to climb down the long rope ladder attached to the ship and onto a rubber IRB to be taken across the bay so we could step foot on the White Continent.
It was very still, clear morning and this moment is one I will never forget. Not many people get to stand on this frozen land and to have done it is something that is still sinking in. The group I was with was then taken on a safety tour of the Station limits and we were able to eat lunch in the large mess on Casey Station that caters for about 120 people over the summer.
Later that day I returned to the ship, which well and truly had began to feel like home, and watched the resupply continue under a sun that would not go down.