King Penguins alongside SA Agulhas in Antarctica, January 2012. Photo by Bjorn von der HeydenThis morning, Sat 3 March, an excited and joyful group of families and friends gathered on the dockside to greet the returning scientists, weathermen, technical and sailing crews returning on board the SA Agulhas from a three month voyage to Antarctica. Especially glad to be home were the overwintering team, many of whom were easily identifiable by their Paul Kruger beards and flowing locks. Emotional reunions took place with their loved ones from whom they had been separated for fifteen months.

 First on shore was a young Stellenbosch student who immediately went onto his knees to propose to his beloved – to the delight and applause of all onlookers.

Director of Southern Ocean and Antarctic Support, Henry Valentine, said the trip, the last of the SA Agulhas to the frozen continent, was one of the most challenging and he thanked all who had participated in it. Special attention was given to the “South African Ambassadors” in Antarctica for 2011, the SANAE over-wintering team, who were commended for their “courage, determination and dedication.” He wished them well in getting used to “traffic jams and shopping malls” after the solitude experienced over  the past year.

Abby Paton, team doctor at SANAE base, Antarctica, 2011Medical doctor, Abby Paton , one of the two women in the overwintering team,  described her year at the SANAE base, living with ten other people under physically challenging circumstances, as a extraordinarily “deep”  and life enhancing experience during which she  learnt “a lot about herself”. “It involved lots of very physical labour where all had to work together as a team and it was fascinating to see how one performs under difficult and sometimes stressful circumstances. The worst times were when team members were unable to get back to base as a result of stormy weather and those left behind had no means of communicating with them to find out if they were okay.” She added that the friendships formed will be life-long.

Asked about the long dark winter and the hours of daylight in summer, she said that there are only about two months of complete darkness, there being about four hours of twilight most days. Initially the six months of daylight was very stimulating but many of the team began to suffer from sleep disorders. The only wildlife they saw were the Snow Petrels which caused great excitement when they first appeared in summer, but the birds moved off after four months. There is a big Snow Petrel colony near to the SANAE base.

Abby has always wanted to go to Antarctica and felt a great sense of sadness on leaving the icy continent. Would she go back?  “I would love to but I need to get my career as a doctor in the public sector on track again.”

Alan Daniels, diesel mechanic on SANAE team in Antarctica, 2011Alan Daniels from Parow, a diesel mechanic, was involved in overall maintenance on the base. “It was an awesome experience. I was amazed at the adaptability of the team members, all very different personalities. We learnt much about compromising, respecting people’s boundaries, their strengths and their weaknesses. The members worked well as a team. One grew very close to one’s teammates. If any tensions arose they had to be sorted out immediately as we could not live with any bad vibes.” 

Asked how he experienced the seasons on the continent Alan said that the winters were the worst. When the bad gales and storms blew in it was impossible to go outside which could be very frustrating. One of the most critical experiences they had was when the “Smelly Line” which brings melted snow to the base, had a break in it and the ice that formed prevented the snow that had been melted down at the smelter from being transported to the base. The base, which has no other source of water, was running very short of this precious commodity. The team members had to go out in the severe weather, only able to be out for twenty to thirty minutes at a time because of the icy cold, to work on the pipe which ultimately took two days to fix.

In reply to my question as to how he felt about being home, he said that, like many of the others on board, he had mixed feelings. “It will be good to be back amongst family and friends – I particularly missed my family and the beach and, surprisingly, rain! It does not rain in Antarctica. I am also looking forward to eating my first avo and some fresh fruit!” Much to my surprise I discovered that the over-wintering team at the base is able to enjoy fresh fruit for the first five to six months of the year and for the most part have fresh meat and vegetables, canned food only being resorted to towards the end of their long stay.

Highlights of Alan’s stay at the base were the excursions from the base. “Midwinter’s day is a day of great celebration. All the bases on Antarctica send out invitations to their mid-winter parties to the other bases. “No-one goes, of course, but it is a great tradition! After our mid-winter party six of us spent the weekend camping in -30 degrees. It was great fun! We also enjoyed hiking over the mountains following the various GPS trails walked by previous teams.”

In response to my question about the pollution on Antarctica, he said the environment is still pristine. All waste is separated and placed into marked drums, including human waste, and these are brought back to Cape Town for recycling.

Emperor Penguins and Elephant Seals on South Georgia Island. Photo by Bjorn von der HeydenIt was the second trip to Antarctica for Nazeera Hargey , chief scientist on board the Agulhas. Her first voyage was with the German ship Polarstern. She is very glad to have been aboard for the last Antarctica voyage of the Agulhas. “It has been a very special trip. It was great to get to know the various teams of scientists on board. The young scientists especially were a lot of fun and full of great enthusiasm. The highlight would have been to go to the SANAE base but unfortunately we did not get this opportunity. However, our visit to South Georgia Island left most of us on an amazing high. After a visit to the whaling museum and two hours of hiking, the museum curator invited us in for homemade chocolate brownies and hot coffee and Milo. It was a perfect end to the day, especially as we had been walking in a hailstorm! The wild life on the island was superb – a great variety of seals and birds.”

The scientists on board were working on two big projects. One involves looking at the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ocean water and exploring the part it plays in the ocean and atmosphere. “Almost a third of the CO2 emitted in the world each year is absorbed by the southern ocean. We want to understand the dynamics of this.

Scenic South young scientists arriving home: Amy Weeber, Bjorn von der Heyden, (Jacky Gerson from the USA) and Amy Amy Harding-Goodman The second project involves studying ocean fronts – looking at depth profiles of salinity and temperature and using these parameters to see how the ocean is changing. We also had an atmospheric scientist from Wits on board who with his ‘snow camera’ was taking photographs of snowflakes as they fall. With these and his ‘snow counter’ we can verify satellite data.”


And our own young Scenic South Scientists on board – Amy Weeber, Amy Harding-Goodman and Bjorn von der Heyden? Well, we will give them a weekend to enjoy with their families before plaguing them for an article or two. Suffice to say for the moment that they found the experience “awesome”, “awe-inspiring” and “amazing”! We look forward to publishing their accounts.


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