Blog: ORCHESTRA cruise JR18002 across the Drake Passage

ORCHESTRA cruise JR18002 across the Drake Passage by Aimee Coggins

Aimee Coggins is currently taking part in an expedition across the Drake Passage as part of the ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transport) Project. She is part of the team analysing water for its carbonate chemistry.  This blog is about her trip and the team’s first glimpse of the land in the Antarctic Region… 

We are currently slightly over mid-way through our journey and nearing the end of the stations we’re scheduled to sample across the Drake Passage. We have travelled over 600 miles from our starting destination in the Falklands and are beginning to make our way back.

When you’re busy analysing your samples—trying to keep up with the pace the are coming in—It’s easy to forget quite where you are, although you’re regularly reminded by loose items like note pads falling off the desk with the not so gentle sway of the ship.  However, it’s when you take the time to look out the window or walk on deck that you’re truly reminded of your location by the sprawling ocean, the light sprinkling of snow and the petrels trailing the ship’s wake.

Photo by Morgan Dibb.

We run our samples 24 hours a day and I’m on the night shift which means I work 12-midnight to mid-day. Working at night has its perks but it’s often the case that seeing anything exciting like whales, ice-bergs and land means being woken-up in the day time.

A few day ago at about 20:00 (equivalent of the middle of the night for me) the phone rang in my cabin to let me know that after 11 days of a water filled horizons, land was finally visible! We were approaching an island of the tip the Antarctic Peninsula called Elephant Island, named so because of both its elephant head-like shape and because of sightings of elephant seals on its shore by early explorers. The island is most famous for providing refuge for Ernest Shackleton and his crew in 1916 after the loss of their ship The Endurance. Now the main discharge glacier on the island is named after the vessel in memory of their gruelling experience.

Despite the low visibility it was possible to see a craggy peak of Elephant Island rising through the mist. At this moment it’s difficult not to reflect on Shackleton experience. Visiting the Southern Ocean on the pursuit of understanding its dynamics and is capacity to buffer our world against climate change is an important task and the journey is still an adventure today.  The weather conditions are extreme and the region remains isolated, however technology and the incoming of the Southern Ocean summer make it somewhat less treacherous.

Photo by M. Humphreys.

In addition to the excitement of seeing land, the appearance of Elephant Island on the horizon indicates that we have reached our southernmost sampling station on the continental shelf and that we are at the point where we will be turning around to return home. On the way back we will be catching the stations we were unable to sample previously due to the extreme conditions that characterise Drake Passage and make the Southern Ocean such a unique place.

Aimee is a PhD Student at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses on understanding and resolving the contemporary Southern Ocean carbon sink.

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