Flying Emperor Penguin – H. Whelan

Flying Emperor Penguin - Credit: Howard Whelan

In the Wake of Mawson

When the ice-strengthened ship Akademik Shokalskiy became trapped in pack ice off East Antarctica over Christmas 2013, there was global media frenzy. Four years later, Zarraffa’s roving reporter once again attempted to reach one of the planet’s most extreme destinations – “The Home of the Blizzard”.

On the morning of 23 December 2017, fortune seemed to smile on us. We had celebrated crossing the Antarctic Circle (66° 33’ S), nudged aside large ice floes speckled with Adélie penguins and Weddell seals, before breaking through into open water.

Adelies and toboganning Emperors - H. Whelan

Adelies and toboganning Emperors – H. Whelan

Those on the ship’s bow cheered as the historic, ice-rimed huts built by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911-14 slowly came into focus against a backdrop of the heavily-crevassed, polar icecap.

I held my breath and glanced across the bridge to Captain Igor Kiselev. For much of the night he’d slowly paced between the chart table, radar and window closest to the wind speed indicator. In unison we picked up our binoculars and peered ahead.

This was my third attempt to visit Mawson’s Huts in Commonwealth Bay. In 1995, I reached almost this exact point on the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, a beast of a ship that had no trouble cutting through the ice. But as we approached the coast, the glassy waters began to ripple, and within half an hour, the wind was too strong to leave the ship.

Katabatic winds Cape Denison, East Antarctica - H. Whelan

Katabatic winds Cape Denison, East Antarctica – H. Whelan

In 2011, I made my second attempt, leading an expedition to celebrate the centenary of the AAE. Even before departing Hobart, Tasmania, we knew that ice conditions would be challenging. A year before, a massive iceberg designated B09B collided with the Mertz Glacier tongue, which protrudes 100 kilometres from the coast east of Commonwealth Bay.

When B09B hit, it broke off a piece of the Mertz Glacier (C28) that measured 78 kilometres long and 39 kilometres wide. These super-bergs, in turn, dammed up much of the ice that would normally flow past. Despite pushing deep into the pack ice for days, 110 kilometres was the closest we got to the huts.

This time, though, we’d made it through. Everyone was stoked. As we approached the anchorage, we had good views of some of the structures, including the cross erected in memory of Mawson’s two companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, who died on his expedition. It was the first time a tourist ship had been this close in seven years.

Megaherbs in flower, Col Lyall Saddle, Campbell Island - H. Whelan

Megaherbs in flower, Col Lyall Saddle, Campbell Island – H. Whelan

Captain Kiselev ordered the bosun to prepare to drop anchor, while I kept my eyes on the wind speed indicator. Suddenly it rose from 20 to 30 to 40 knots (nearly 75 kilometres per hour). The Captain held off anchoring and we both watched grimly as the wind continued rising to a shrieking 75 knots (nearly 140 kilometres per hour).

The Captain turned to me and shook his head.

“We must go back to open water and wait,” he said.

Commonwealth Bay had snookered us again.

Not surprising. From February 1912 to December 1913, Mawson’s scientists continuously measured the wind speed with the strongest gust hitting 320 kilometres per hour! To this day, it is recognised as the windiest sea level place on Earth.

Over the next five days, we tried again and again and again. On the 24th, the wind and fast-moving ice stopped us. On Christmas Day, we broke through into calm, but unsurveyed waters. Then the pack swept in from the northeast, forcing us to retreat to avoid becoming trapped.

Boxing Day saw us moving amongst spectacular, vast icebergs including B09B. On the 27th, we made several attempts to push through the pack to no avail. On the 28th, we got to within 20 kilometres of the coast before thick, rafting ice stopped us. Had we not pushed out of the ice on Christmas Day, we could well have been trapped for weeks.

Memorial Cross Cape Denison - H. Whelan

Memorial Cross Cape Denison – H. Whelan

Yet each day brought new wonders. The ship’s log, written by our doctor, Lesley Cadzow, records travel amongst grounded tabular icebergs and ice floes “where surprised Adélie penguins, crabeater and Weddell seals observed our progress.”

And, “groups of emperor penguins towered over watching Adélies, then tobogganed to the edge of a Wedgewood-blue bergy bit with its own swimming pool.”

“On Christmas Eve, a baby’s blush of sunset formed a backdrop to a pod of blowing and breaching humpbacks, while Antarctic petrels vied for our attention.”

On Boxing Day, the Captain brought the ship close to flat sea ice held fast between some of the super-bergs. With everyone ferried ashore, we walked (accompanied by penguins) to an ice-filled chasm. We returned in deteriorating weather, giving everyone a taste of an Antarctic blizzard. They loved it.

On a perfectly still, sunny day, we Zodiac-cruised amongst the ice with a family of orcas a dozen strong. The long-finned male kept its distance, as the females and calves swam around and between us, even diving under our boats.

Female Orca and pax in Zodiac - H. Whelan

Female Orca and pax in Zodiac – H. Whelan

On our return north, we celebrated becoming members of a small, elite group to have reached the South Magnetic Pole and in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands, we had day-after-day of spectacular wildlife encounters. Everyone had their favourite, but for me walking up to Campbell Island’s Col Lyall saddle was one of the best. In lowering cloud, dozens of magnificent royal albatross wheeled close overhead and young ones landed to practice courtship displays just metres away. Incredible!

Royal Albatross juveniles gaming on Campbell Island - H. Whelan

Royal Albatross juveniles gaming on Campbell Island – H. Whelan

As we pulled into the wharf in Bluff, New Zealand and bid goodbye to our fantastic expeditioners, I could tell that over the past 25 days many new friendships had been made and deep memories forged.

It brought to mind the words of the American poet T.S. Eliot:

“The journey, not the destination matters…”

Expeditions to Commonwealth Bay and other polar destinations can be organised through