A long, bumpy, beautiful commute to work

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Crossing the Southern Ocean and entering the Antarctic pack ice on Australia’s icebreaker Aurora Australis is a remarkable experience. For me, it’s been both a commute to work and a treasured opportunity to be part of one of the great journeys on earth. Let me quickly walk you through the experience so that this summer, when you see or hear of the orange ship heading out to sea, you’ll know more about what those on board are about to experience.

After boarding the Aurora in Hobart you settle into your berth, stow your gear in case the sea gets rough, and then head off to safety briefings. This can be the culmination of months or years of logistical and scientific preparations so excitement and anticipation is usually running high. After waving loved ones and civilisation goodbye, we exit the River Derwent and take a right. You now have days or weeks of crossing the Southern Ocean ahead. Time to work, keep yourself entertained, chat and watch the scenery glide by. The daily schedule revolves around three ample meals and, if lucky, the routine may be broken by the spotting of whales or albatross. Sea and sky change constantly providing shifting moods and textures, each subtly different from the last. Hours can be spent simply staring out windows.

With the beauty of the Southern Ocean, however, comes the beast. It’s not known for its calm, placid nature. Large seas can be plain scary, rocking and rolling for days on end. Sleeping can be difficult, as can simply moving around the ship safely. Lying back in your bunk to read or watch a movie is a common way to pass the time, though, as always, the view out the porthole is spectacular, if a little disconcerting at times.

And then the seas calm and something truly memorable happens. You enter the Antarctic pack ice. The ship slowly and cautiously moves its way into the sea ice that may stretch for hundreds of kilometres from the Antarctic coastline. My first sighting of the pack ice is a very clear and vivid memory. I can still smell the ship and feel the dry, chilly air, as I rushed out onto the deck to watch broken chunks of pack ice slide by the ship’s hull. This moment is still fresh and vibrant in my mind, even after 15 trips on the Aurora and years of working on, around and sometimes under the sea ice in Antarctica. Intrinsic to this memory is the orange hull of the Aurora seemingly effortlessly buffeting the sea ice aside on its course to the continent. Eventually, the ship navigates and pushes its way through to the coast and reaches one of Australia’s three Antarctic stations. One adventure closes while another, an equally fascinating one, begins.

Time spent on the Aurora has been an integral part of the broader Antarctic experience over the last few decades. It’s been a work horse for the Australian Antarctic program, a great platform for vital science and, perhaps most importantly for its passengers, a safe and comfortable moving home from which to experience the wonders of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. It’ll be sad to see her finish her work with the Australian Antarctic program, though exciting to see what new capabilities and experiences the next icebreaker will bring.

By Glenn Johnstone. Originally published in Lume Magazine Issue Four.

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