Ice breaker cruise
I was picked to go on a Sunday morning cruise on the Coast Guard ice breaker, Polar Sea. Poor Nik signed me up for the lottery for this special event, but he was not selected to go. It was a great trip! At 7:30 AM we lined up at the ice pier and waited to tell the organizers our names so they could check us off the list and prepare an acurate manifest. We waited until the crew let us on board and we climbed up the gang plank. After a quick safely briefing, the ship left the pier and we were on our way. The goal was to see some wildlife and get a little trip away from McMurdo for a few hours. It was interesting to look around the ship for a while too, but the real attraction was the scenery. Although Chris and I did take a break from ice breaking to get a cappucino at the ship's coffee shop. The ice breakers are based in Seattle and those guys take their coffee seriously.
As much as I enjoy being here, I always enjoy leaving McMurdo too, even if it is just to get a different perspective. From the ship we got a good view of McMurdo, Ob Hill, Hut Point, Castle rock, Hut Point Peninsula and Mt. Erebus. Everyone was excited, wondering what else we would see as we ventured away from McMurdo.
The ice in the turning basin and in the southern part of the channel was still very slushy and had many ice chunks, but as we made our way to the ice edge, the channel cleared of ice. The water was calm and dark that day. There was very little wind. Sometimes we would see ripples on the water from where a seal had been swimming. Looking ahead I spotted the whale's breath. Several people near me gasped. Then after a moment I saw the dorsal fins and we realized that they were minke whales. (Orcas have much larger dorsal fins.) As we got closer we could see the minkes swimming along the channel. Then they swim right up to the ship and dove underneath us. There are also orcas in the area, especially along the ice edge, but the orcas didn't feel like visiting that day. Besides the minke whales, we saw two adelie penguins and many weddell seals. And of course, the infamous skuas were checking us out to see what we had to eat.
When we reached the point where we turned the ship, they gave us a demonstration of the ice breaking capabilities. They pointed the ship towards the western edge of the ice and we rose right up onto the ice and then started to break it up from the weight of the ship. They did this a couple of times so we could see, hear and feel what it was like. A skua came and landed right where the ship was headed, completely unconcerned by what was about to happen. The whole process was much smoother than I expected, but they did caution us to hold on. I couldn't tell how much of the creaking came from the ice and how much was the ship. I thought we might get stuck, but of course, we didn't. As chunks of ice broke off, we could see the brownish greenish color of the sea ice algae.
It was a calm day, but I can imagine that the weather in the southern ocean can be rough. I was very interested in the doors on the ship which were very well sealed, heavy and appearently tough. I can imagine that these doors come in handy on occasion. Maybe they were designed to keep skuas out too.