The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

An expedition to the land of ice
Trilochan Singh Trewn

THE Antarctic Ocean comprises of southern portions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans and their tributary seas surrounding Antarctica. It is also called the Southern Ocean. The flow of currents in the Antarctica is complex. Water cooled by the coastal ice masses of the Antarctica continent sinks and flows northwards along the ocean bottom and is replaced at the surface by an equal volume of warmer water. Flowing south from the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the meeting point of these is called the Atlantic Convergence. Here organisms and sea food like krill, corals, sponges, sea spiders, star fish, isopods, seasnails, barracuda and varieties of cod fishes are found in abundance.

At 1300-km northward extension of Antarctica towards the southern tip of South America in the Antarctica peninsula is claimed by Great Britain, Chile as well as Argentina. For the first time on January 30, 1820, Edward Bransfield, a sailor of Royal Navy, sailed through the Bransfield strait and saw the Antarctica peninsula. Since then, many nations have been operating Atlantic survey teams on the peninsula and the adjoining islands. In order to avoid complications, on December 1, 1959, an agreement was signed in Washington D.C, by 12 nations and was subsequently signed by India. Under the treaty, the Antarctica continent was made a demilitarised zone to be preserved for scientific research only. The agreement was called the Antarctic Treaty.


This treaty did not deny or support mutual claims of territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. But it did forbid all nations from establishing any military base, carrying out any military exercise, testing any weapon or disposing of any radioactive waste in the sea. The treaty encourages the freedom of scientific investigation and exchange of related information pertaining to Antarctica. The treaty banned all mineral and oil exploration in the area for the next 50 years and is extendable.

Antarctica is about 14,200,000 sq. km in area and is important as a region of international co-operation in scientific research. It is the world’s fifth continent and is roughly divided into two sub-continents, the east and the west. There are several permanent stations set up by countries like the USA, Chile, Britain, Australia, Norway, France, Russia and also India. There is more fresh water in the form of ice in Antarctica than in the rest of the world. Yet only 10-12 cm of rain falls per year in this region.

Almost every year during December, a ship hired by the Department of Geological Survey of India and suitably fitted out for the sea voyage to Antarctica proceeds to the Indian Antarctica base known as Maitri. Normally, our Antartican 25-member team comprises geologists specialists, doctors and other scientists. Some times, however, the Indian team ties up with some other team and joins them for the journey. For example on December 6, 1999, the 24-member 19th Indian team flew to Johannesburg in South Africa to join a German ship at Cape Town. But the detailed briefing for the challenging tasks ahead for our team is carried out at Goa only. The journey from Cape Town to Antarctica normally takes 10 days only. I have had an occasion to see the meteorologist of the expedition ship, Polar Bird, a 20-member crew ice breaker on January 4, 1997. This ship reached the Princess Adrid coast of Antarctica and its entire crew experienced 24-hour daylight day on reaching the destination.

The ship was provided with all necessities to allow the scientists to carry out their research and experiments throughout the year. Liberal provisions were made for food and daily necessities of life, including canned fruit, canned vegetables, cereals, condiments, fresh vegetables, frozen chicken and meat, eggs, assortment of wines, dry fruits, latest communication facilities, modern toilet facilities, mini hospital with X-ray. A well-stocked library was also provided.

Besides the official duties of the team their psychological, social and environmental needs are also catered to.

Occasionally, members of other foreign expeditions like Russian and Norwegian teams, which are camping not very far off, exchange visits with the Indian team. They have a high regard or the research work being carried out by the Indian team.

Nature’s spectacular beauty is laid bare as soon as the expedition ship approaches Antarctica, when the first iceberg is sighted at 56-57 degrees south latitude after about 3 weeks of sailing from Goa. The two Indian geologists whom I met and who have been to Antarctica confirm that sighting of sea ice was yet another new experience. Whenever the sea was still it was like a huge lake and the large chunk of ice appeared like a lotus in a pond. The concentration of sea ice gradually increases to such an extent that it becomes extremely difficult to navigate the ship. The captain of the ship has to often alter the usual course in search of a penetrable path.

It is breathtaking to watch huge pieces of ice floating in the mass of water. Weddel seals can be seen basking in the mild summer sun while Adele penguins, tiny and agile, come fearlessly walking close to the ship. They look curiously at the newcomers and their new companions for months to come. Penguins make nests of pebbles. They breed even in a temperature of —20°C. Ice fish and ice animals do not freeze below freezing point as there are certain elements in their blood which prevent freezing.

Sometimes blizzards in Antarctica blow at speeds of 60 knots continuously for two or three days. On June 4, 1997, the expedition ship got stuck in the outer edge of Antarctica for 27 long days.

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