The Ross Sea is very different in November and still absolutely fascinating. This is my fifth year down south and seventh cruise to the Southern Ocean, but it is my first time so early in the season.
I have previously been in the area between December and February, during the austral summer, so once we crossed the Antarctic Circle I always experienced 24 hours of light and just a few days of icebreaking to reach the polynya.
This time it's much different. We hit the ice edge at 64°S, a latitude which on earlier cruises brought us flocks of icebergs but no solid ice to break. We have already been breaking much thicker ice than usual for several days and still have a few more to go. Last night the ship had to stop due to a snow storm with sustained winds of 50 knots, zero visibility, and a wind chill of -25°C, and all of this was in darkness—for me surprising at this latitude.
The past few years we were often breaking ice around Christmas, and being surrounded by the whiteness of snow and ice even at sea seemed appropriate; now, perhaps because of the stronger winds and the lower temperature, the environment seems even more extreme, and the ship cutting its way through this surreal landscape feels to me again very special and mesmerizing.
Every morning after breakfast we have been taking turns to give seminars to our colleagues on our research and previous cruise results. We have this opportunity because after the time needed to set-up all our instrumentation everybody is waiting to get to the polynya where we can start our sampling and experiments, and our transit time from New Zealand is much longer due to the extensive ice coverage.
The ship becomes our home and here we celebrate some of our shipmates' birthdays, and this year Thanksgiving. For me this will be the first time to feast with turkey, gravy, and stuffing so far south and at sea.
Our science projects are also heavily impacted by the different time of the year and we are all trying to re-design our experiments to best represent the present conditions. This makes it challenging, for example trying to expose our samples to sunlight without getting our incubators completely frozen.
It's a different time of the year, but still the same beloved ship, the N.B. Palmer (almost a second home for me in the past few years), still the thrilling Ross Sea, and still an amazing adventure that, even if doesn't compare with the harsh journeys of earlier explorers, is continuously breathtaking and will give me a life-long collection of great memories.