Don's diary: Left on the (Ice) shelf

February 20, 2004

From the helicopter, the view is magnificent: iceberg-punctuated sea to our left, the stark Vestfold Hills of Australian Antarctic territory below and the ice plateau stretching into infinity beyond. Landing next to a saline lake, we complete our work quickly, drilling holes in the ice and taking a vertical profile of samples and measurements from the water below.

Our pilot has disappeared with his camera, so we pack up and wait. Then it is back to the laboratory for long hours of analysis.

The laboratory manager is fed up with the number of kids who come to do "research" without their supervisors. They are wrecking kit and I end up acting as a surrogate supervisor. I am happy to do it, but I do feel that these kids are getting a raw deal.

Another day, another flight, this time by twin otter aircraft.

We are off to distant Beaver Lake (so-called because Beaver aircraft used to land on it), unusual for being an epishelf lake, a tidal freshwater lake overlying denser seawater at the landward edge of the Amery iceshelf. The pilot lands on the lake and gives us 17.30 as our pick-up time.

We drill through 4.5m of difficult ice and then struggle for two hours with a water sampler that doesn't want to play. After several modifications (and lot of bad language), we get a full set of samples to a depth of 110m. Call Davis Station on the radio but get no response.

Atmospheric conditions are affecting radio communications.

We wait in our bivvy bags on a windy, exposed lake as the sun becomes shrouded in cloud. By 19.00, we are very cold and decide to start walking as the plane may not appear. It's a 5km stretch of slippery, cobblestone-like ice to the nearest field camp, which comprises five red fibreglass hemispheres. Fortunately, there are two quads, so Malcom and Chad, my two postgraduates, return for the precious samples while I explore the kitchen. I am confronted by a mountain of dirty dishes and, worse, the only fuel I can find is in a 44-gallon drum, which I can't handle alone.

The camp's last occupant was a field training officer. I am unimpressed. A field camp should be an emergency refuge with a ready source of heat, food and water.

More problems as the boys return and bog one of the quads in a tide crack at the lake edge. Finally, after the air has turned blue with frustration, we get the damned thing out and, incredibly, after a few splutters, it starts. We agree to keep this episode to ourselves.

Wonderful night's sleep, lulled into slumber by the sound of the howling wind. At midday the plane appears. They had mechanical problems and had to return to base yesterday. Spectacular views of the Dragon's Teeth Mountains (actually they look more like Toblerone and should be renamed) as we roar skywards. The co-pilot gives up his seat so the boys can take turns at playing Biggles.

Party night at Davis, but the older I get, the more I detest the social life on station: listening to loud, thumping music and watching a bunch of blokes getting drunk. Did I really used to enjoy it? Now I prefer gazing down a microscope, listening to Bach and drinking whisky chilled by glacier ice.

Jo Laybourn-Parry is professor of environmental biology at the University of Nottingham.

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