K-Axis Day 43: Snow day!

We’ve been at Mawson Station a couple of days now and today we’ve been treated to a blizzard, which means we’re all stuck inside the ship while the wind and snow howl outside our windows and our only view is white nothingness. Most people seem to be taking advantage of the lack of distraction by taking a break, watching a movie, reading a book, or catching up on some emails or work they’ve neglected over the past few weeks.

I haven’t written much recently because the last push to complete the marine science leg of our voyage expended pretty much all of the energy I had left to give. Weeks of continuous shifts and seemingly endless sampling stations had almost everyone at the end of their tether. As soon as the end is in sight it definitely gets a little harder to finish things off as the fatigue (both physical and mental) starts to take over. Our last two stations were cancelled due to bad weather (the only two stations to be cancelled in the entire voyage) so we all got a day’s rest before heading into the “Krill Box”, which was brought forward in our schedule due to some bad weather at Mawson, giving us an extra day to fill.

The Krill Box was the very last part of our marine science and involved us basically drawing a rectangle in the ocean and filling it in, like you would colour in a rectangle on a piece of paper. We went up, across, down, across.. etc from one end to the other. We were taking acoustic measurements the whole time and whenever we saw a swarm of krill (a big red blotch on the screen) we put the RMT net into the water and caught a bunch. Some of these krill were used for experiments that are still running, whilst others are being taken back to Hobart to live in the krill aquarium at the AAD. In addition to the krill catching, a group of us were taking water samples periodically for pigments, genetics, and phytoplankton species identification. This was again worked throughout the day and night and took us about a day and a half to complete. We had a strict cut off time of 8pm Friday night to complete operations so that the crew could be properly rested before arriving at Mawson, which was scheduled for around 8am Saturday. The marine science team had a small celebration to mark the completion of our project and went to bed exhausted and ready for a change of scenery.

During the last half day of the Krill Box I decided to stay up as late as I could so that I could transition off night shift back to days. Fortunately, the region at the bottom section of the box was heavily populated by krill, which meant that there were lots of whales around. I’d missed out on all the significant whale sightings during the voyage, including one where the ship passed through a massive krill swarm that was also occupied by about 100 humpback whales. They were everywhere and a couple even got close enough to snap at the RMT net when they brought up some krill onto the trawl deck. I hear it was “spectacular”, “extraordinary”, “amazing”. I was sound asleep. Tho I did get to see some video footage that another expeditioner took and it did look pretty incredible.

Anyhow, I did get to see a whole lot of whales and heaps of Antarctic petrels, as well as some other seabirds (the light-mantled sooty albatross was probably my favourite) while we were in the Krill Box. The last sight I was treated to before I couldn’t keep myself awake any longer was a humpback whale breaching over and over again. That was pretty incredible. It just jumped out of the water and spun around and did it at least 8 times while we cruised on past. It wasn’t worried about us at all. That was pretty special and it was nice to finally see something other than the inside of my lab or my cabin.

As I’ve said, we’re at Mawson now but we’ve got a few days of bad weather on the horizon so I’ll explain that another day.

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