After three weeks on board the German research vessel, Polarstern, we arrive at Drescher Inlet, a 20-kilometre crack in the Riiser-Larsen ice shelf 400 kilometres from the British Antarctic base Halley and 350 kilometres from the German base Neumayer. This desolate windswept snow desert is to be our home for the next four weeks. In three hours four tonnes of supplies, fuel, skidoos and five red fibreglass igloos (nicknamed tomatoes) are transferred from the ship to the ice by helicopter.
Our first (and vital) task is to dig the snow pits for the frozen food and the toilet. Boxes are stowed, generators started and, after a long afternoon, Gerhard, Horst, Joachim and myself sit down to our first meal together. Two of us are here to study seal behaviour; Gerhard and I to study a special group of micro-organisms, which are associated with ice platelets and accumulate in vast quantities under the sea ice.
Wake up to the sound of nothing, having struggled to try and sleep through a night as light as a summer's evening back home. Our first venture onto the sea ice to reconnoitre our study site: a sheet of sea ice up to four metres thick covering the inlet. The sheet also contains tidal cracks, deceptively covered with snow. Once a safe route is found we mark it with flags and soon a network of skidoo tracks is established. Crabeater and Weddell seals haul out to snore and belch the afternoon away. Many don't even bother to raise their heads as we screech by on the eight-kilometre drive from our camp to the edge - where the ice meets the open sea. Groups of Emperor and Adelie penguins scatter over the inlet, looking like tribes of punks with their moulting feathers.
First job is to deploy an array of traps in the water beneath the ice. These are designed to collect sedimenting particles that may be food for organisms living on the sea bottom, 400 metres below. Lowering 300 metres of cable, four traps and a current meter by hand is a rude introduction to life in the field. The rest of the afternoon is spent in the laboratory igloo analysing the carbon dioxide and oxygen content of ice and water samples. Later, ravenous after a day in the field, we devour an evening meal and share stories about the day's work. We stay up until midnight to watch the sun sinking towards the horizon. The sky changes into a huge mauve and turquoise backdrop for mirages of icebergs that make us wonder if we are actually floating out at sea. The snow surface is lit up as if someone has scattered millions of diamonds and the occasional ruby over the surface.
Back to the ice again today to look for new sampling sites. The skidoo breaks into a snow cave covering a pool, perfect for experiments. We hope to obtain information on how quickly microalgae and bacteria can grow in these ice-laden waters. As we work, flocks of pure white snow petrels fly across a royal blue sky.
Another trip to the ice. This time right up to the ice edge to lower an instrument through the water column to measure temperature and salinity. While we work, nosy groups of Emperor penguins swim and dive close by, occasionally jumping from the water onto the ice as if jet propelled. As well as the usual crabeater and Weddell seals, we are joined by a rather sinister looking leopard seal, her head all mouth and teeth. A little further out in the inlet, minke and up to 20 bottlenosed whales loll on the surface, gently blowing before diving beneath the ice to feed on the huge stocks of fish beneath us.
Late in the afternoon the wind suddenly changes direction and increases in speed, blowing the snow into drifts. After an hour it becomes clear that it is too dangerous to work on the ice.
The wind is relentless, battering the camp all night. Visibility is minimal and it is clear that nothing will happen workwise today. A day of drawn out meals, reading and the odd game of chess. By early evening the wind has died, the skies cleared and we look out at a transformed camp. All solid objects are now surrounded by drifts of snow; sledges, skidoos, equipment boxes half, or in some cases, totally buried.
Our worst fears are realised. The storm causes a large swell in the sea. This in turn cracks and breaks up huge floes of ice, which gracefully drift out into the inlet. The distance to the sea's ice edge has been cut in half overnight. An awe-inspiring and sobering sight when we think about how we have been driving and working on this platform. We have no choice but to pull out our equipment otherwise it, too, will soon be drifting out with the ice. Two aching and tired sea ice biologists eventually turn in to go to sleep. But at a temperature of -20C our minds aren't so much on going to sleep, but on how on earth to stay warm.
David N. Thomas, Lecturer in marine biology at the school of ocean sciences, University of Wales, Bangor.