Journey to Antarctica Aboard One of the World's Most Advanced Icebreakers
The RSV Nuyina (pronounced "noy-yee-nah") is Australia's new, AU$529 million (US$380 million) orange-and-white icebreaking behemoth, a vessel designed to provide Australia's Antarctic Program with constant access to Antarctica over the next three decades. In December, the ship embarked on its maiden voyage to the frozen continent at the bottom of the world.
I was on board the ship for 39 days, experiencing the tos-and-fros of the Southern Ocean and documenting the challenges and successes of taking the vessel to the Antarctic for the first time. The journey would see the ship's scientific instruments tested in the ice and allow it to perform its first ever resupply of two of Australia's research stations, Davis and Casey, on the eastern coast of Antarctica.
You'll come to find that pictures don't do Antarctica justice -- it's difficult to capture the full experience of living and working on a ship but it's even harder to convey just how it feels to be in the Antarctic. Particularly when that voyage comes at a time when scientists are warning the world we are at risk of losing what makes the frozen wilderness so special as a result of human-caused climate change an pollution.
Nevertheless, this photo essay is an attempt to do so.
Let's go back to a few weeks before I boarded the Nuyina. First, I had to do two weeks of quarantine.
I departed Sydney on Dec. 5 for a two-week stay in Hobart, Tasmania, about a two-hour journey by plane. My travel came at the height of the pandemic's third wave in Australia, as omicron cases began skyrocketing. Border closures made it impossible to move between different states, and just getting clearance to come into Tasmania required signed letters from the Australian Antarctic Division.
The airport was hauntingly quiet.
When I got to the counter, I asked the attendant how many other people were on the flight -- I wanted to be as safe as possible before going into quarantine because getting COVID-19 now would mean the entire trip was off. She laughed and explained that the plane was basically empty, except for one other customer. I went direct from the airport to quarantine, driving myself in an electric Toyota to my Airbnb.
I had an interesting quarantine experience. First things first: I set up my desk -- my trusty laptop and a second travel screen, the impressive Espresso monitor, helped to power through two weeks of solitude. Once I had the internet ready to go, I spent a lot of time playing Halo Infinite via xCloud. It held up pretty well!
The AirBbnb was a small unit on the outskirts of Hobart. There were quite a few Uber Eats options and, because I couldn't exit the facility, you best believe I was ordering smoothies every day.
During the stay, I was poked up the nose three times, to ensure I was COVID negative. That usually involved a lovely health care worker coming into the backyard, having a brief chat and jabbing the back of my nostrils before disappearing. They never brought coffee, though I asked.
During quarantine, I routinely ran from the back wall of the house to the bedroom. I didn't want to count exactly how many steps that was because I tried to run 10,000 every day and getting into the maths would have made that a lot harder. Imagine knowing you had another 300 circuits of the house to do!
I'd put my headphones in and listen to a Bill Simmons podcast (cheers, Bill) and just keep running until my steps tracker ticked over.
The backyard was fenced in, but one day an elderly couple came past and could see I was running in and out of the house. They shouted over the fence "are you OK?" Once I explained the situation, they said I was "crazy" and should just order in a treadmill.
Instead, I ordered in a pizza.
As Australian states began to reopen borders on Dec. 15, the Australian Antarctic Division decided to move me to a different facility where all the creature comforts of my Airbnb disappeared. There'd be no more smoothies. No more running from backyard to bedroom. No more Halo Infinite.
I was put in a small wooden box with a TV and a bed at a facility known as the Iron Creek Bay Farm Stay. Some members of the expedition took to calling Iron Creek "upshit" because the rooms were tiny, there were problems with spiders and the meals often turned up cold... or not at all. It was also smack in the middle of summer, and I had the pedestal fan constantly running because it got super hot in there.
We expected to board on Dec. 20, but then the word came down that the RSV Nuyina was experiencing problems with its alarm system. Our departure from quarantine was pushed back a day. Finally, on Dec. 21, I was out of quarantine and came face to face with...
The RSV Nuyina
Almost 70 people would spend the next 39 days aboard the ship.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all expeditioners boarded with face masks and gloves, while the high-vis orange vests you see above are safety requirement on the wharf. Another little fact: When walking up the gangplank, both hands must be free. And don't even try to bring alcohol on board. The Nuyina is a dry ship -- there's no booze allowed.
The ship pushed off the wharf on Dec. 23 at around 3 p.m. for its maiden voyage to Antarctica. It would have to cross 3,000 miles of the Southern Ocean, often described as a dangerous ocean with extremely turbulent waters.
While still in harbor, I explored the ship's labyrinthine interior and got my bearings. Perhaps the jewel in Nuyina's crown is its observation deck, which provides impressive 180-degree views. The panoramic view above shows the floor-to-ceiling windows at either side of the ship.
I would come to spend most of my time up on the observation deck while the Nuyina was at sea.
Table tennis was a big deal on the ship and, yes, it's pretty impossible to play in high seas. A table tennis tournament lasted most of the ship's journey and, as the tournament's finals came into view… the crowd built up.
I am not going to pretend like I know anything about this image -- it's a photo I grabbed while touring the engine room. I know those two light green units are definitely engines, but this is an incredibly loud space. It's also crowded with pipes and rails. During the tour, one of the engineers guiding us through the bowels of the Nuyina would stop and explain something to us. But if you're standing too far away, it's be near impossible to hear what that something is.
The sheer scale and complexity of the engine room, which was more labyrinthine than any other location on the ship, made me appreciate how impressive the Nuyina is as a machine.
Christmas Day 2021 was actually celebrated on Dec. 26. The ship was performing some critical tests on Dec. 25 and so Santa's arrival was delayed. But on Boxing Day, the ocean was rough. At one point, the crew thought we might lose all this cake -- even with the anti-slip matting. The pavlova was unreal. Shouts to the cooks.
Each cabin contains two bunks, a shower, some storage space and a desk with two seats. On the maiden voyage, I didn't get the full Nuyina experience because I had a cabin all to myself -- that's probably why it's so messy. I'm not going to make any excuses for the state of my cabin on this particular morning but I didn't want to lie to you and show you a perfect space. Most of the time, my cabin looked just like this, especially if I'd been sleeping poorly.
The iceberg cometh
I can tell you this: The open ocean is relaxing, but it does get a bit samey with all that water...
Early on the morning of New Year's Eve 2021, after six days sailing across the Southern Ocean, we spot the first sign of something different on the horizon: Nuyina's first iceberg.
A close-up of the 'berg reveals it's a bit of a trickster. When it appeared on the horizon, it looked to be a huge, solid block of ice. But as it pulled up next to the ship, it was a lie. Look at it! It looks so much like a halfpipe I expected Tony Hawk to be in the middle pulling off 900s.
It's hard to get a good feel for just how big the 'berg is in the image above, but this one rivaled the size of the Nuyina. The ship is about 526 feet long. That's about two-thirds the length of the Titanic, or 32 African elephants trunk to tail.
The iceberg was a revelation. I really began to understand the remoteness of the Southern Ocean. When the only thing you can see on the horizon is an iceberg as thin as a fingernail clipping, things just seem small. Even as the iceberg approached the Nuyina, that remoteness only ossified in my mind. Standing at the back of the ship and watching the iceberg drift by, I feel tiny. And the immense size of the icebergs pales in comparison to the immensity of the Southern Ocean.
Nature, very, very big... Human, very, very small.
An iceberg always draws a crowd. Even as they become more common, expeditioners always rush out onto the bulwarks with binoculars and long lenses to snap photos, no matter how far away the frozen beasts are. You can bask in the glory of some of these beauties -- an assortment of ice cakes, caves and coliseums.
If there are awards for Best Icebergs, this would be the winner for mine.
Jan. 5 was when it started to feel real -- encountering sea ice that had drifted into our path made it feel like we were getting closer to Antarctica. It was here that the first signs of Antarctic megafauna started to show up, too. While we'd been followed by the beautiful birds of the Antarctic, albatross and petrels, across the Southern Ocean, we started to see crabeater seals and Adélie penguins hanging out on ice floes.
Let's play spot the penguin! Can you locate the single Adélie penguin in the above image? I promise you there's one in here but it's quite small.
Photobombed by petrels.
You often see penguins hanging out on the sea ice, alone. It would always make me think of the wonderful question posed by Werner Herzog in his 2007 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World: "Is there such a thing as insanity in a penguin?"
On Jan. 6, the Nuyina reached Australia's Davis Station and prepared to carry out its first helicopter resupply in Antarctica. Here, two helicopters rest on the helideck -- which is heated to prevent it from icing up. If you sit on it, you can feel the heat coming through. It's relaxing.
Above, the RSV Nuyina from the air.
I jumped in a helicopter for a couple of laps around Nuyina as the crew prepared for the Davis resupply. It's another reminder of how mammoth the planet is -- the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic continent. The Nuyina is a big ship, but when you see it from the skies with Antarctica at your back, it seems minuscule. This image shows it anchored just off the coast.
After resupply was complete, we headed for Australia's Casey Station which lies 870 miles east of Davis. On the way, the Nuyina was confronted by much heavier drift ice -- the sea ice unattached to land. It's pretty easy for the Nuyina to sail through this stuff, pushing the ice aside thanks to a specially designed hull.
One of the best spots to watch the world go by is the crow's nest. It's the highest accessible point on the ship. On this day, Jan. 8, I set up my work desk as the ship punched through the ice. The Espresso monitor is usually beneficial for productivity while I'm on the move, but up in the crow's nest… well, the view makes it difficult to want to work too hard.
The internet on the Nuyina was also incredibly slow, operating at just 4Mbps and shared among 60-plus person crew. That means it's nowhere near good enough to play Halo Infinite, and it even struggles with small PDFs. I think on this day I was reading about Antarctic krill, one of the Southern Ocean's most important creatures -- and one increasingly under threat from climate change and ocean acidification.
As the ship cut through drift ice close on the way to Casey Station, we really upset this lone pinniped. The crabeater seal was just hanging out on a basketball court-sized chunk of ice, but as the Nuyina trundled through the ice and split it in two, the seal wasn't pleased.
Fun fact I learned from another expeditioner: Crabeater seals do not eat crabs. They love krill, though.
The beauty and majesty of the cetaceans you meet in the Southern Ocean are hard to capture on camera. Most of the time, you spot a fleeting glimpse of the gigantic creatures as they calmly swim by the ship. Other times, an expeditioner shouts from across the observation deck after noticing a plume of air expelled through a blowhole, and everyone races to a window.
Late in the voyage, a pod of killer whales was spotted in the distance. It was the only glimpse we got of the species during our time in Antarctica, and every expeditioner was keen to get their eyes on them. Unfortunately, no pics. I swear it happened, though.
Arrival at Casey Station
After a week of sailing through icy waters and skirting heavy ice, Australia's Casey Station appeared on the coast of Antarctica. But Nuyina wasn't the only vessel visiting Casey in January. A cargo vessel, the Happy Dragon, had been anchored in the bay since Christmas on its own resupply mission. It was thwarted by the unpredictable Antarctic: Sea ice conditions hampered the ship's ability to bring cargo to shore.
As Nuyina pulled into Newcomb Bay and we got our first glimpse of the station, conditions were poor. There was a lot of snow and, eventually, the continent disappeared behind a gray haze.
The chief mission of the Nuyina at Casey was to supply 1 million liters of special Antarctic blend fuel from the ship to the shore. Conditions like these were not conducive to such a mission.
Fortunately, conditions cleared up later on arrival, allowing for small boats known as IRBs to scoot over to the shore and begin preparations for the refueling operation. In the distance, you can see the famous "Red Shed" of Casey Station, where expeditioners eat, sleep and play.
During the summer months, up to about 150 people might call Casey home. In winter, a time when the sun doesn't even rise, that number plummets to about 20.
It might not look like much, but beyond the coastline lies Law Dome, which rises about 4,000 feet into the sky. Located southeast of Casey, the dome has been invaluable for glaciologists and ice core scientists to understand the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature rise since preindustrial times.
As expeditioners prepare to help out with the refueling of Casey, the media team begins working out how and when we might get off the Nuyina and put our boots on the ground in Antarctica. The word comes down that we have to be ready to go by 8 a.m. the next day.
To get to shore requires a ton of preparation. If your gear isn't completely new, you have to give it a thorough cleaning, vacuuming off all the muck from your shoes and bags. It's the "take it new or take it clean" rule, and its critical to ensure you're not bringing anything onto the continent that shouldn't be there -- seeds, for instance, could disrupt the local flora, or maybe you're hiding bugs in your clothes.
On the way to the continent for the first time.
On the day I went to Antarctica, I rose early with excitement. This won't surprise you, but Antarctica is cold -- however, during the first day temperatures sat between minus 2 and 3 degrees Celsius (28.4 to 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and it wasn't quite as brisk as I'd expected, if I'm honest!
I put on my thermals, then a sweater and jeans, balaclava and beanie. Over the top went the fluorescent yellow shell you can see above and then a life jacket -- just in case something goes wrong on the short trip to shore. That trip involved jumping into a small boat, known as a tender, with one of the Nuyina's two doctors and the other members of the media team. A crane lowered us off the side of the Nuyina, and then we sped to shore. The journey took about three or four minutes.
Is this what you think about when you picture Antarctica?
Stepping onto the continent for the first time at Casey wharf, my boot immediately found… a huge puddle of mud. This wasn't the experience I had built up in my head. I thought I'd be stepping onto pristine snow and hearing it crunch underfoot. I thought I'd be able to scoop some of it up and throw it at another expeditioner. But coming to Antarctica via sea is not quite as romantic as you might expect. You've just got to get a little further from shore to be wowed.
The CASEY sign here sits in front of the station's lower fuel farm. Over four days, the Nuyina's refueling team and the team at Casey were able to coordinate a delicate operation, running fuel lines from the ship across the water and up into the fuel farm. Expeditioners worked in shifts of four hours, checking the fuel line and ensuring no spillages. Some of them even push away floating icy bits that come close to the line and, though it didn't happen during Nuyina's refueling operation, shoo inquisitive Adélie penguins away.
The Casey station waymark, with the Nuyina in the background. Only 10,002 miles to Norwich City!
The Casey Station Red Shed and other buildings at the outpost. This photo was taken from up on Reeve's Hill. The cross on the left is a monument to the Hill's namesake. Geoffrey Reeve was a Casey expeditioner who died during a blizzard on Aug. 5, 1979. He was the first Casey expeditioner to die while serving in the Antarctic.
It's a little hard to see in this image, but there are hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of Adélie penguins lurking in the rookery at Shirley Island. This region is designated as an "Important Bird Area" for conservation purposes.
Researchers staying at Casey can, during certain parts of the year, travel across the dense sea ice that forms between the mainland and the island to conduct studies of the colonies.
Adélies provide an interesting reference point for climate change in the Antarctic and the rapid pace at which temperatures have risen. In a paper published in 2016, researchers argued that 20% to 30% of Adélie penguin colonies could see declines by 2060. That might even rise to 60% by the end of the century. Adélies, which are found across the entire continent, have proven themselves to be resilient during past periods of warming. Some researchers even argue that the penguins have benefitted from warming in the past because it exposes more rocky areas, like above, for the penguins to breed.
However, the speed at which humans have caused temperatures to rise is potentially problematic for the Adélie. Although more breeding areas might be available, a warming ocean and less sea ice could make tracking down food more difficult and present problems for reproduction.
Although not able to personally traverse the pack ice to get to the rookery, I sat on the rocks overlooking Shirley Island and often witnessed penguins making the long trek across.
I also got pretty close to some of the penguins around Casey. Adélie penguins are not shy. This inquisitive pair hung out near the wharf and even seemed to pose for expeditioners to take photos. There are strict rules that govern interactions with wildlife in Antarctica, and expeditioners are not to approach within 16 feet of penguins.
That doesn't stop them from approaching you, of course.
A photo of the rec area at "Splinters Bar" inside the Red Shed at Casey Station. The man on the wall is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
OK, that's a lie. It's comedian Glenn Robbins playing a character known as Russell Coight, the star of the satirical wildlife and survival show All Aussie Adventures. Look it up if you've never heard of it.
During my visit, the Casey Red Shed was bustling with activity. There was an engineer, parts sprawled out across a table, tinkering with equipment that would later be left on the ice to measure glacial features and beam them back to researchers. There was a group of tradespeople -- plumbers and carpenters -- getting really involved in games of table tennis.
And there was some really good food, too. I distinctly remember what bread -- freshly baked bread -- tasted like, after spending a few weeks on the ship where a lot of the bread had come from a freezer. There was also a coffee machine and blueberry muffins that were absolutely exceptional.
Inside the offices of the Bureau of Meteorology at Casey Station lies a dartboard. The dartboard is how scientists predict the weather.
Antarctica is notorious for its extreme cold, but even when the sun is shining, things can change on a dime. Everything that happens in Antarctica runs around the weather forecast -- yes, there are far more advanced systems than a dartboard being used to forecast each day (every day, two weather balloons are released from the station), but even that isn't a perfect science.
A view of the Nuyina from Newcomb Bay and a friendly Adélie penguin that decided to photobomb the photo. You can also see an IRB zipping across the water, likely checking the fuel lines.
About a 40-minute drive (in a specialized snow vehicle known as a Hägglund, for the Swedish brand that produces them) from Casey Station lies the Skiway, which ferries expeditioners across the continent and to far-flung outposts to carry out research work. This is a Basler BT-67, which is equipped with skis and can travel around 1,000 miles on a full tank.
When I was told I was going to Antarctica, this is the image that appeared in my mind. I imagined just… complete and utter emptiness and the horizon blending into the sky. This day, out on the Skiway, was probably the closest I felt to the Antarctica I'd read about in the accounts of Heroic Age explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. Fortunately, I wasn't suffering from scurvy or snow blindness, and other expeditioners were just a few short steps away.
At the back of the Red Shed lies a cross-country ski loop that's about a mile long. RSV Nuyina doctor Dane Brookes poses for a photo on it above. I chucked on some skis and headed out with Brookes and the Casey Station doctor on a perfect afternoon.
The loop is mostly flat and, out of practice, I made a few stumbles, but it's the best time I had in the Antarctic.
A clear and sunny day in Antarctica provides for stellar views. I snapped this photo while on the way back to the RSV Nuyina one evening, at about 5 p.m. During the summer months, the sun doesn't set in Antarctica. This poses some problems for sleep, though each cabin has blackout blinds.
If there's a hole in the ship, that's usually a bad thing. A porthole is never a bad thing.
Take it to the bank
That's not Antarctica you're looking at -- that's the ocean covered in thick "fast ice." This kind of ice is "stuck" to the shore (which is still a long way away from our ship in this particular photo). Fortunately, the Nuyina is able to punch through ice up to just over 5 feet thick and, on Jan. 20, the shipmaster wanted to put those capabilities to the test for the first time.
He sailed the ship to a region known as Petersen Bank and held it steady at the edge of the fast ice.
Slowly but surely, Nuyina pushed in. The shape of its hull forces ice to fracture and slip away underneath and to the side of the ship. The ship did have some technical issues on its maiden voyage and, at one point, it seemed it might not break ice at all. Though this does count as the first real ice "breaking" undertaken by the Nuyina, an AAD spokesperson called this "minor and informal icebreaking functional tests." Further tests are planned for the coming summer season and will measure just how capable the Nuyina is.
On the horizon, you can see a large iceberg trapped in the fast ice.
Feeling lonely? Just think about this little Adélie trying to make its way home out on the fast ice.
Cracking through the ice left a crooked trail behind the ship. In the distance you can see a bit of an ice bridge has formed. While the Nuyina sat in the thick pack ice, the bridge was occupied by a pair of Adélie penguins and a hungry leopard seal.
Once the informal ice breaking tests were over, the ship essentially reversed out of the hole it had made and begun the long journey back to Hobart.
But on its way, there were a few more stunning 'bergs to see. Petersen Bank forms a kind of iceberg graveyard, and on our way out, we'd see some of the best icebergs of the whole trip.
Of course, if you don't take a picture of yourself in the Antarctic with a giant block of ice behind you... did you really go to the Antarctic? 👍
By Jan. 22, most of Nuyina's obligations on the voyage had been completed. We started on the long journey home. While the voyage to Antarctica was exciting, the journey back was much slower and a lot more difficult, personally. There is a lot of ocean out there, and it would take a full week before we'd see land again -- sometimes, it can feel quite isolated and lonely. Especially in this day and age where, on land, you're constantly connected to the world via a device in your pocket, everything starts to feel a little smaller.
As we departed the continent and headed north, the last vestiges of the frozen world melted away. First the megafauna -- the penguins and the seals -- began to disappear. Whales became less frequent. Then the icebergs stopped appearing on the horizon.
Before long, we'd crossed 50 degrees latitude, then 40 degrees, and soon enough we were entering Hobart.
The RSV Nuyina arrived at the wharf on Jan. 30, under cloudy skies. In total, the journey lasted 39 days. It docked about three days behind schedule, thanks to some COVID restrictions and a few early technical problems. But the voyage was dubbed a success, and it achieved a number of significant firsts.
It was able to resupply Casey and Davis stations for the first time, commission scientific instruments in Antarctic conditions and map previously unknown regions of the sea floor.
For me, combined with the 15 days of quarantine, I spent 54 days away from home. I'd never been on a ship like this before and never spent a night on the open ocean. It's an experience I won't soon forget but, to be honest, it's not one I am itching to have again soon. The ocean doesn't suit me all that well. That said, I experienced something very few people will get to experience in their lifetime and I'm genuinely still trying to process the whole thing and put it into words.
Hopefully, the pictures paint thousands of words that I haven't been able to.
CNET traveled to Antarctica with the support of the Australian Antarctic Program