Polar Ships

In the past week, I’ve had the chance to step onboard two polar ships: the icebreaker Polar Star and the polar research vessel Nathaniel Palmer, unfittingly named after a seal hunter. The Polar Star came from Seattle through Hawaii and New Zealand, which it left just a few days before we did. Its mission was to carve a channel from the ice edge (where I’ll be flying by helicopter soon) to Mc Murdo Station, about 15 miles (25 km) “inland”, in order for other ships to reach the station too. It arrived last week and stayed docked for a couple of days, a good time for us to come on board.

The Polar Star is a Coast Guard (military) ship. Inside, space and comfort seem pretty minimal, although there are common areas to relax such as a TV room, a tiny gym, and a coffee window where gourmet blends acquired during stopovers can be purchased inexpensively. This must be what it takes to keep up the morale in the rough seas of the Southern Ocean: as an icebreaker, the Polar Star does not have a long keel, and therefore easily rocks beyond 30º if the waves pick up. The few dozen Coasties aboard had a merry time on terra firma, but they’re now back to work keeping the channel open for the incoming resupply and fuel ships scheduled to arrive later this week.

Breaking 2 m (6 ft) of ice is not easy: often the Polar Star has had to stop, back up, and ram full steam ahead into the ice. This leaves its mark on the ship, and divers are on call around the clock to inspect ice and ship conditions and make any needed repairs. These are numerous, because the Polar Star was built over 40 years ago and is the last US icebreaker of its kind. So if it gets stuck, nothing can easily come and get it. There have been pressures in political spheres to rebuild a fleet of icebreakers like the US had in the past decades, but at this rate any new ship wouldn’t be ready to go before the mid-2020s.

In contrast, the 25-year-old R/V Palmer looks inside like a spacious floating laboratory. All labs are located on the main deck, which rocks the least in rough seas (imagine trying to pipet in a small tube without spilling during a storm). The analytical equipment is impressive! Any science team can propose to the US National Science Foundation to book the ship for a month or two and go wherever they want, provided their research is found to be the most compelling. The team will also enjoy a comfy TV/movie space, a reading room, a foosball, meals in a New Orleans-themed galley (the ship was built in Louisiana but never went back, its port of call being Punta Arenas), and a helicopter deck.

Above the lab deck are the bedroom cabins, then climbing three more decks one reaches the bridge, which offers a panoramic view of the surroundings. It’s a would-be navigator’s dream, with sounding charts, compasses, binoculars, and the captain’s chair in which no one else can sit. We climbed three more flights of ladders to get to the pilot’s cabin, which can rock back and forth meters and surprisingly lacked an emergency bucket.

The Palmer came here in the midst of a long cruise that took it from South America and counterclockwise around the Antarctic Peninsula; it will head to Tasmania next. All that traffic back and forth has really disrupted Mc Murdo Sound, which now features prominent pockets of open water in which rumors say some have seen whales peek out. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we get to see one in the next 10 days!