At the start of 2015 I got a job with the Ecological Genetics group at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) in Hobart. As part of my role, I was given the opportunity to take part in the Kerguelen Axis (K-Axis for short) marine science voyage this summer. The overall goal of the voyage was to find the environmental and biological drivers of Southern Ocean ecosystem structure, especially the Antarctic krill-based food web that could become the largest single species fishery in the world. Bruce Deagle (AAD) and I were on board to use our DNA methods to identify the plankton present in the different parts of the Kerguelen Axis region (see the K-Axis website for more information on the voyage and my post for more info on our DNA work).
After a month of running transects in the Southern Ocean for marine science, we arrived in the harbour off Mawson station for its annual resupply. The original plan was that the marine scientists would get to go ashore for three hours or so over the course of the week we were there, but a blizzard with a maximum wind gust of 98 knots (over 180 km/hr) had other ideas. Some of the mooring lines holding the ship in place broke under the strain and soon after, with a reasonably loud crunch, we found ourselves on the rocks. Although the ship only sustained minor damage, it was deemed safest to take the expeditioners ashore once the blizzard had passed so the crew could check the ship as best as possible at sea before taking it back to Fremantle for a complete assessment.
Ice cave plus Mawson panorama by Laurence Clake
Every blizzard has a silver lining though, and we were able to spend over a week on station and experience the many delights Mawson has to offer. We saw lots of seals, Adelies and a few emperor penguins, went on iceberg cruises and Hagglund trips to the mountains on the plateau, and had not one but two auroras over the course of the week. Dave McCormack, who first wintered in 1974, gave tours through the old buildings and shared some of the amazing history of the station. Fun on station included trivia nights, bogan bingo, a farewell featuring a magic show and a gig by the Mawson station band ‘Black Ice’, not to mention just watching the world (and orcas) go by from the accommodation building. Plus I finally got the chance to check out the mosses of Mawson, with the added bonus of finding a book by Rex Filson from 1966 with some fantastic botanical drawings of the local moss flora. It may have taken 10 years, but it was worth the wait!
I really can’t overstate how grateful I am to the crew of the Aurora Australis for keeping us safe, the people at Mawson station for taking 60+ extra people in at a time the station was meant to be down to a winter crew of just 14, the logistics team at the AAD for arranging our ‘rescue’, the crew and expeditioners of the Japanese icebreaker Shirase for their warm hospitality, and the participants in the K-Axis voyage who became my de facto family-at-sea for two months. Cheers!
Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems (ACE) CRC
University of Tasmania