K-Axis Day 32: Natural wonders

There’s one thing that I have to make an effort to do every few days. Go outside.

It seems a little ridiculous that I would forget to do something so obvious but when you’re surrounded by a big cold blue (or grey, or windy, or snowy, or grey windy snowy) ocean the warmth, comfort, and safety of the ship is where I spend all of my time. Also, because I work overnight there’s not a lot to see and no chance of rescue if you happen to slip over the side. My better judgement tells me that wandering around alone outside in the dark is not a wise decision, particularly when the weather isn’t good. However, I do get to enjoy some light at the start and end of my shift so every few days I remember to go out to the heli deck at the back of the ship and breathe some fresh Southern Ocean air and remember why I’m out here.

Often near the end of my shift the MIDOC trawl net is in the water and it has this most incredible capacity to attract seabirds. I find it quite marvelling that even though the net is sitting at 1000m depth and there’s no way you can see it, the birds know its there and that it means that there is a possibility that we will eventually haul up some food. So they cruise along behind the ship, patiently waiting for the net to appear. The MIDOC doesn’t pick up the volume of fish that a fishing boat would so its a relatively fruitless task but Southern Ocean seabirds seem to have all the time in the world.

Heading into the Southern Ocean for my first time a few years ago there was one bird I was dying to see. The wandering albatross. These birds are truly the king of seabirds and the grace with which they cruise around the ocean is extraordinary. After they leave the nest they spend the first few years of their life at sea, some even circumnavigating the Southern Ocean. They need wind to fly because they don’t flap their wings like smaller birds, they just stretch out their enormous wings and and cruise around the waves, twisting and turning to catch the air flow. I think its such a privilege to see them out here and I enjoy every moment I see them circling our ship and dancing among the waves. One of the expeditioners took a photo of two of them sitting in the water next to the ship yesterday while the MIDOC was in the water. One had a tag on its leg, which they traced back to the Crozet Islands. Now how is that for finding a needle in a haystack?

Being on night shift has its advantages and last night the clouds separated and we were treated to our first Aurora Australis for this voyage. It snaked its way across the sky in an intense ribbon of greenish-grey light and lit up the planets Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, which were all lined up in front of us in another rare celestial event. The International Space Station was also spotted by a few people as it passed over high above us. Unwilling to brave the cold and windy monkey deck at the top of the ship, I enjoyed it all from the relative comfort of the Bridge. Others have posted some of their photos on the whiteboard in the mess, which will no doubt evoke envy by those who were in bed.

We have also seen some beautiful sunrises and sunsets but not many. The clouds continue to cover up the sky most of the time and I’m either in bed or in the lab anyway. We’re turning around this afternoon and heading west again toward Mawson for the 3rd last leg of our marine voyage. We’re due to arrive at Mawson Station on the morning of the 19th Feb, two days before my birthday. That means there are only 8 days left and as much as we love our work, we’re all looking forward to reaching the end. I imagine there will be a collective sigh of relief when we’re done and the crew won’t see any scientists for a few days as they catch up on some well earned rest.

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