Plan B

When the French ship L’Astrolabe departs Hobart for Macquarie Island later today I won’t be aboard. The passenger capacity of the ship is only enough for essential logistical operations (like refuelling and provisioning the research station) and personnel changeover. The week long sojourn at Macquarie Island ordinarily provides an opportunity for researchers such as botanists, geomorphologists and zoologists to undertake intensive fieldwork. The Aurora Australis has ample capacity, with 116 passenger berths, to accommodate round-trip research. Unfortunately, the Aurora was damaged during a severe blizzard in the Antarctic and the smaller replacement vessel can carry only 50 passengers.

Macca NF-22
Instead of traipsing through giant tussock grasses and Subantarctic bogs in bright yellow waterproofs, I’ll be sitting in front of a computer screen with dry feet.

So rather than collecting new data on the Macquarie Island vegetation I am going to Plan B, which involves methodically examining hundreds of photographs of Macquarie Island, dating from 1980 through until last year. This, hopefully, will reveal some long-term trends in vegetation change as well as a good picture of the current status of the vegetation. Combined with detailed data from long-term vegetation monitoring plots and analysis of satellite images covering the whole island at different time periods I will be asking what grows where and why? (or why not?).


The upside is that I won’t be on the notoriously seasickness-inducing L’Astrolabe in the 8 metre plus swells predicted south of Tasmania tomorrow!




Hurry up and wait…

The Aurora Australis recently arrived back in Australia and is currently in Fremantle for repairs to the hull which was damaged when the ship ran aground in Antarctica last month. Meanwhile, alternative plans for the season’s fourth and final Australian Antarctic voyage are being developed. With the Aurora out of action, another ship needs to be commissioned for the Macquarie Island voyage. I imagine finding a suitable ship at short notice is no small task. Consequently the departure date has been delayed and, depending on the capacity of the replacement ship, there may be some expeditioners who miss out.


It’s a case of “Hurry up and wait”. This catchphrase of military origins is popular in the Antarctic and Subantarctic. Typically, it’s waiting for the weather to improve and being prepared to take advantage of that weather window, if and when it occurs.

I’ve been waiting two years for that window to get an automatic weather station installed on the summit of Mt Elder (385 m.a.s.l.) during a resupply voyage when helicopters are available. Most of the weather data for Macquarie Island is from sea level, yet the weather can be very different at higher elevations. For example, there is often low cloud on the peaks which makes helicopter operations unsafe. Even if I do miss out on this trip I do hope the weather station installation goes ahead.

So far the only weather data I have collected is air temperature using a dozen miniature temperature loggers at different locations on the island. After 18 months in the field, these loggers will be returned to Australia on the upcoming voyage.

Wpt 10 Mt Elder
This temperature logger (on post on RHS) on Mt Elder has recorded air temperature for the past 18 months. Hopefully a complete automatic weather station will be installed here soon. Photo: Chris Howard.


The A-Factor

In Antarctic slang it’s called the “A-factor”. Experienced expeditioners will tell you that things rarely go according to plan in the Antarctic and Subantarctic. It is wise to expect the unexpected and to have a string of contingency plans. If your plans are inflexible, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

The Aurora Australis in the Southern Ocean, March 2013.

This advice has been reinforced by my own experiences over the past three years as I look toward another potential trip to Macquarie Island with dwindling optimism. My scheduled departure from Hobart on the Australian Antarctic Division’s icebreaker Aurora Australis in under three weeks time is now in doubt. Last week the Aurora ran aground at Mawson station on the Antarctic coastline during a blizzard. Thankfully the crew and expeditioners are safe and the ship has been refloated. Hopefully the Aurora is seaworthy to travel back to Australia for repairs to the damaged hull.

Under this best case scenario the Macquarie Island resupply voyage will be delayed. Macquarie Island is far north of the sea ice zone which limits sea access to the research stations on the Antarctic continent, so voyages to Macca are scheduled in the shoulder season, book-ending the Summer window of Antarctic operations. The March-April voyage to Macquarie Island is therefore vulnerable to any delays which accumulate during the Antarctic voyages.

Macca April2015 sml-39
Macquarie Island under snow, April 2015. Not good for looking at plants.

Such was the case two years ago, at the very beginning of my PhD project, as I watched my departure date repeatedly postponed. A string of delays due to the most extensive sea ice ever recorded hampering resupply efforts and the attempted rescue of the Akademik Shokalskiy which become stuck in sea ice meant that the Aurora Australis completed its Antarctic operations several weeks late. By late April 2014 the decision was made to employ the French vessel L’Astrolabe to undertake the Macquarie Island resupply. With around half the passenger capacity of the Aurora, all non-essential resupply personnel (that’s me) missed out on that voyage.

Antarctic sea ice cover grows in autumn and winter, and shrinks again each spring and summer. In 2013 (black line) and 2012 (red line), the ice reached the highest extents ever recorded, but it was only slightly above the historical average (blue line). Source: NASA via Wikipedia.

The following year I had better luck: after only minor delays to the departure we arrived at Macquarie Island in mid-April 2015 for a planned six days of fieldwork. However after a couple of days lost due to snow and an early return to the ship due to impending bad weather, we managed to squeeze as much work as we could into just two days, before spending three days on the ship waiting for the storm to blow over and another three days travelling home.

So after achieving two days fieldwork in the first two years of my PhD, I am lucky enough to get a berth on the 2016 voyage… which is now in doubt. It may well be a repeat of two years ago, where another ship is tasked with the resupply mission. If I’m in luck, the Aurora Australis will be repaired and make a late trip to Macquarie Island.

Southern Ocean NickFitzgerald -92 sml
The long route to Macquarie Island: icebergs and adelie penguins near Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica.

The Aurora Australis visits Macquarie Island every six months to resupply the research station and transfer personnel. Consequently the Macquarie Island fieldwork season is typically a six month stay from Spring to Autumn. Alternatively, researchers take a round trip, providing around six days in the field (if you’re lucky!) while the resupply operation is in progress. Sometimes tourist ships visiting the island during Summer transport researchers, providing a little more flexibility in scheduling field work.

My first trip to Macquarie Island was on one of these tourist ships – and things did not go according to plan. The planned trip was to take six days, including transiting via New Zealand. Instead it took 23 days to get to Macquarie Island via Antarctica and stopping back home in Hobart! This was partly due to undertaking a dramatic rescue in the Southern Ocean. The six weeks I experienced on the island in early 2013 inspired me to undertake this PhD project. At least I went into it well aware of the A-factor.

Southern Ocean rescue NickFitzgerald -11_sml
French solo sailor Alain Delord is rescued by the MV Orion after three days in a tiny liferaft in the vast Southern Ocean, January 2013.