Shipping Directly to the Ice Shelf
Despite the difficult sea ice conditions off the coast of Antarctica and our supply ship having to unload 150 km further away from the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica station than expected, the team has managed to unload the equivalent of five truckloads of supplies and equipment directly onto the ice-shelf.
Breid Bay & Crown Bay out
As many of you following this site would know, the annual unloading of the ship is always a major undertaking, and this year the task has certainly been challenging. Our usual unloading points on the coast in the past have been Crown Bay and Breid Bay. However this season, after doing reconnaissance while installing seismometers at the coast for the Royal Observatory of Belgium and bringing down waste containers to be shipped to Cape Town, we realized that it wasn't going to be possible to unload the supply ship at our preferred spots on the coast. Despite the late arrival of the ship this year, sea ice was still clinging to the continent, preventing the ship from reaching the coast in these areas.
Getting ready for the unknown
We came back to Princess Elisabeth Antarctica and discussed with Jan Kondrup, the captain of our supply ship, the Mary Arctica. He confirmed that he was finding difficult ice conditions at Five East (5°E longitude) - the place on the coast where the Norwegians, with whom we share the cargo space on the ship, usually unload. Jan recounted that he was barely able to make it through the one-metre-thick ice.
Using the satellite imagery available at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica station, we decided to try to unload the ship at 27°E longitude instead of 23°E. On land, this is about 120 km east of Crown Bay.
We awaited the call form the captain letting us know that he was ready to unload the ship. Thankfully, the whole team is like a well-oiled machine and, some six hours later, we were ready to drive to the coast in our tractors at a moment's notice.
On January 16th, the captain contacted us saying he is 30 miles from the coast. It was time to scramble! A first group of two Prinoth tractors and nine containers left for the coast immediately. Our mission: liaise with the station and the ship in order to find a suitable unloading spot. On the following day, a third Prinoth left with a second group on our heels. Unfortunately, the fourth Prinoth is broken down and awaiting spare parts. We'll probably have to wait until next season until spare parts can be sourced and shipped.
Both groups took full advantage of the 24 hour daylight this time of year in Antarctica as they made their way to the coast. The two groups met around midnight at the junction we usually pass when we travel to the Derwael Ice Rise with the glaciologists.
Dog's Head it is
On January 18th, the Mary Arctica’s captain contacted saying he was making his way through the ice at a place known as Dog's Head, located northeast of the Derwael ice rise. This means we'll have to cross the King Baudoin Ice Shelf - a very dangerous area littered with crevasses. Two skidoos drive ahead of the convoy to find a secure path through the crevasses. To make things more challenging, we have to make our way thick fog, which reduced visibility to just a few metres.
Then, 4 km away from the tip of the ice shelf, we begin to see the sun shining through translucent altostratus clouds and we can spot the ship's crane above the top of the ice shelf. At this moment we know we've made it! We quickly head back to the convoy some 95 km away and guide them through the crevasses. We stop at 11 PM and set up our camp 41km away from the ship, just in time to celebrate Kristof's Birthday. Our chief mechanic turned 41, and we shared a cake to celebrate.
On the 19th, we arrive at the unloading point at noon, just in time to enjoy our lunch with the ship's crew. Eleven hours later, we completed the unloading. All the heavy equipment and food supplies were secured on the ice shelf, including the new HB215LC-1 hybrid excavator Komatsu Europe International donated to the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica project.
To celebrate, we shared a few Belgian beers together, while the ship's band played a few songs for us on the ice. It was quite surreal to hear live music in the middle of nowhere on the coast of Antarctic!
A couple of hours later, we found ourselves alone again. We could hear the melancholic sound of the ship's horn as it slowly faded into the distance. This is always a very emotional moment for the unloading team, as well as for team members at the station who followed the unloading operations via the ship's webcam.
Tomorrow, a first convoy will head back to the junction and then come back to collect the rest of the equipment. We should be back at the station on the 22nd if everything goes according to plan. The weather is not ideal, but we know that the road from the junction to the Princess Elisabeth is well secured.
I, for one, am very happy about the way this whole adventure turned out. I am so thankful for the team I have. Rescheduling such a big unloading and pulling it off under such difficult conditions was not easy to say the least. Once again, we've proven Caesar right when he said that the Belgians are brave people!
Picture: Komastsu digger atop the ice shelf while we say goodbye to the Mary Arctica - © International Polar Foundation / Alain Hubert