Dave of the Antarctic

I chat to Dave, an ocean modeller, about his recent scientific expedition in Antarctica.

dave gwyther interviewee
David Gwyther. Photographs by Dave.

How long was the trip, and how much of that time was spent at sea?

We left Hobart at the end of January aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer and returned to port mid-March. We sailed south from Hobart, towards the Mertz Glacier, where we spent approximately a week conducting science. We then made our transit westward to the Totten Glacier region (which is approximately south of Perth). We spent the rest of the time in the large bay near the Totten Glacier conducting science. In total, we spent close to 6 and a half weeks at sea. As you can imagine, there are very few places to dock down there – the only places we could have pulled into would have been the French research base, Dumont d’Urville, or the Australian research station, Casey. However, these locations were a large way off course for us, and were never in the plan to visit. We had to be self-sustainable for the whole time at sea. When you think about it, this is a pretty significant undertaking! For example, the cooks on board did an amazing job of keeping fruit fresh, even towards the very end of the trip. Apparently, they would go down to the storage room every day and rotate every apple in storage so that it would not rot!

boat view ice antarctica

How did you fare being on the boat? What personal challenges did you face?

The biggest challenge I faced was seasickness. I had only been on a large ship once before – the Interislander across the Cook Strait between the South and North Island of New Zealand. I got pretty sick, even though it was a short trip. So I had a fairly strong expectation that I’d get sick again this time! I visited the GP then the pharmacy in Hobart and got all of the seasickness meds I could. Following medical advice, I started taking the medications almost a day before we left port. However, almost as soon as we were out of the Derwent River I began to feel ill. As we sailed south, I just got sicker and ended up spending almost 3 days between the bathroom and bed! I wasn’t getting any better, and one of my mates decided he’d go and find me a seasickness patch. These patches aren’t sold in Australia but one of my friends had brought some from the USA. I put the patch on behind my ear, and within 2-3 hours, I was up, very hungry and feeling SO much better! Luckily, much of the voyage was spent within the sea ice, where most of the swell and waves were diminished. I learnt my lesson for the transit back to Hobart across the Southern Ocean – I put a new patch on, and actually had a fun time in the BIG waves on the way back!

boat view ice antarctica

Were there any hairy moments – storms, thick ice – where you were concerned for your safety?

There were obviously very strict safety procedures on board as it’s a dangerous work environment. There are high voltage electricity sources, compressed air, very heavy metal objects which if not secured could fairly easily tip over on top of you, metal winch cables under extremely high tension and so on. Also, almost everything on the boat is metal, so if you trip down the stairs, or lose your footing because you’re not holding the rail while the boat rocks, it’ll definitely hurt. I suppose the hairiest moment was on the transit back to Hobart. There was a big storm out to our west, and it was really delivering on the reputation of the Southern Ocean (‘Roaring Forties’, ‘Furious Fifties’, ‘Screaming Sixties’, etc). We had some big swell (something like 50 ft waves) which made it almost impossible to use the shower (you’d get knocked all around the cubicle) and very hard to eat dinner (the plate would slide around the table). Luckily by this point I had the seasickness patch on, so I actually enjoyed the rocking! But the crew and the marine technicians (who handle most of the difficult operations on board) were so experienced and so safety-conscious that I never really felt in danger.

What wildlife did you spot down in the Antarctic?

We were incredibly lucky with the wildlife we saw. We saw countless penguins; both Adélie and Emperor penguins. The Adélie penguins in particular are quite hilarious to watch as they comically shuffle over the ice. We also saw lots of seals – thousands of Crabeater seals and a few Leopard seals (which are one of the top predators in the region, so it was great to see them). We also saw lots of whales – mostly Humpback whales, but I was lucky enough to see a Killer whale. It breached just portside of the bow (front) of the boat and dived below the boat. That was a pretty exhilarating experience, as it was probably only 10 metres away. We also saw lots of other birdlife – Snow Petrels, Cape Petrels and Great Petrels, as well as Sooty and Wandering Albatross. Seeing the Albatross in the wild was pretty amazing. Interestingly, even when we were in the middle of the ocean, it seemed these birds would come and visit us. It was like they were just curious about this massive orange and yellow thing floating in the ocean! 

What was the most amazing sight you observed?

For me, hands-down the most amazing sight was the Aurora Australis. We saw several good Aurorae on our voyage, but one in particular stood out in my memory. We were on the nightshift, which meant we worked from a bit before midnight until just after noon. As you can imagine it was a very long ‘work day’, and made especially hard in that we didn’t get a whole lot of daylight. However, one benefit was that we saw some amazing aurorae! One particular aurora was incredibly bright and vividly green – we sat out on the bow of the boat and just stared at it. The other benefit of nightshift was that we had both the sunset and sunrise on our shift. Consequently, I got some amazing photos of the sun setting and rising over icebergs, penguins, sea ice and/or the Southern Ocean!

Aurora Australis Antarctica Southern Lights

In terms of the reasons for your scientific expedition, what were you there to observe/measure?

Well, the cruise was a collaborative, multi-disciplinary cruise. Some of the main focuses were on marine geology and sedimentology (to try to understand the geological history of the region, including the dynamics of the ice sheet in the last glaciation); oceanography (to try observe the properties of the water in the region like water temperature, and whether it could possibly be causing increased melting of the Antarctic ice shelves); seismic geology (to observe the sub-bottom layering and determine the past history of deposition) as well as marine biology and plankton studies. We even had a ‘yo-yo camera’, which we’d winch to the bottom of the ocean and tow. It would ‘yo-yo’ up and down and each time it came close to the seafloor it would take a picture. There were some amazing photographs of cold water corals, crabs, fish and octopuses. They were even lucky enough to get a picture of a fish hiding inside a coral. Getting this research done and photographing these things is pretty amazing when you consider the bottom of the ocean was perhaps 500 or 600 metres below us! 
I’m an oceanographer and so I spent most of my time either working on the back deck deploying oceanography equipment, or analysing output from the ocean model that we’re running. This was my first occasion working with oceanography equipment in the field and I feel that I gained a huge amount of experience from the opportunity. For example, we were deploying a small probe off the back deck, which we’d let sink to the bottom of the ocean. As it sunk, it would measure the temperature, salinity and depth. This data grants us an understanding of the structure of the water column, potentially answering the following questions: What is the density of the water present? Where did the water originate (is it from somewhere close to Antarctica, or is it water that has traveled from the North Atlantic)? How strongly stratified is the water column? Is this water that could be driving increased melt of the Antarctic ice shelves? It was a lot of hard (cold) work out on the back deck, but at the same time it was a lot of fun. It’s also rare for someone that spends most of their time on computers (such as an ocean modeller like myself!) to actually get hands-on experience, but I’m so pleased I did!

Did you happen to spot any vessels belonging to the Sea Shepherd or Japanese whaling fleet while you were passing through the Southern Ocean?

We didn’t see any Sea Shepherd or Japanese whaling fleet vessels. However, we did see the French research vessel (L’Astrolabe) and the Australian icebreaker (Aurora Australis). The fact that we happened to pass by these vessels – literally and figuratively in the middle of nowhere – is just astounding. The Southern Ocean is a ridiculously BIG place!

 icebergs antartica pink sunset prettyicebergs shadows antartica sunset pink pretty

Would you do it again?

I would absolutely do it again. I learnt so much from my time on board. In particular I gained a large amount of field work experience, which I feel has improved my understanding of how the ocean works. Next time however, I’ll make sure that one of my US mates brings me some of those seasickness patches!

 icebergs Antarctica scientific expedition

4 thoughts on “Dave of the Antarctic

    • Thanks Sheryl – although I have to admit, David did 95% of the work! I also loved reading about the trip and seeing his photos…makes me want to go to Antarctica too! 🙂

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