6 January 2012

The Aurora Australis departed Hobart about midnight and now our tiny, orange ship is in the middle of a vast, blue, restless ocean.  We are about 46º South, the air and sea temperatures are both 12ºC, and we are travelling at just over 11 knots.  We have had our safety briefing, tried on our immersion suits (which keep you alive in water a few minutes longer) and climbed into the lifeboats which we will need if we have to abandon ship.  Now we are acquiring our ‘sea legs’, a phrase that makes wonderful sense if you watch our Captain standing on the bridge, his hands by his side, leaning into the swell like a skier, surfer or dancer.

This voyage has two equally important aims.  As well as making the commemorative visit to Commonwealth Bay, it is also the most significant Australian marine science voyage of the season.  Douglas Mawson would thoroughly approve of this.  He was first and foremost a scientist and was always trying to fit in a bit more science around urgent logistical or strategic goals.  The best way to commemorate Mawson and his men is to build on their impressive investment in science down south.

Thus today we did our first trawl and captured a pteropod as part of a study into the effect on zooplankton of ocean acidification due to human CO2 emissions.

This day 100 years ago, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition sighted land – ‘or what is land down here’, grumbled Captain Davis.  The Aurora had set sail from Hobart on 2 December, followed a few days later by the small steamer Toroa, both heading for Macquarie Island.

Off to the Antarctic at last, the dream of several years fulfilled, wrote Percival Gray, the Aurora’s second officer.  The ship presents a most extraordinary spectacle, piled high with sledges, baggage, motor sledges, flying machines, poultry, sheep, and everything in that sort of line that you can imagine … At 4 o’clock exactly, amidst cheering such as I have never heard before we moved off from the wharf.  It really was a very fine send off, hundreds of yachts and steamers followed us out to where we picked up the dogs, and the men of war dressed ship and cheered as we passed.  … We had a rattling good tea of eggs and strawberries.

The Commonwealth meteorologist, Mr H A Hunt, had warned them to ‘expect fresh south-westerly winds’.  The ship’s Morse lamp signalled to the station at Mt Nelson: ‘Everything snug on board, ready for anything.  Good-bye…’

Hunt was right and the ship wasn’t snug for long.  The south-westerly was fresh indeed.  Awful night last night, wrote Gray during their first full day at sea.  No sooner had we got out of the lee of the land than she started to roll pretty heavily.  The scene that followed can be better imagined than described.  Everything moveable of course rolled backwards and forwards, till their owners came and took charge.  At mid-night, a large jug of milk, and two pots of coffee had crashed over the fiddles on the table and were disporting themselves and their contents on the floor…

            The cook we have signed on is apparently a fraud, as he has made no effort to cook anything since the ship has been rolling.  We had no breakfast, and there is no sign of any dinner…. Nearly all the wretched land party are as sick as dogs, and are puking in all directions.

We are in those same south-westerlies, but we have an excellent cook on board the Aurora Australis and everything here is … well, shipshape.