Matie students on Antarctic expedition

The Maties in Antarctica, with Yaxuan Zhu from Aalto University

The Maties in Antarctica, with Yaxuan Zhu from Aalto University

Published Apr 6, 2024


Being dwarfed by a 30-metre-high ice shelf, making a braai in sub-zero temperatures and trying to sleep when the sun never sets were some of the matchless experiences of three Stellenbosch University (SU) students, who recently returned from a 58-day expedition to Antarctica via Marion Island.

Gerhard Durandt, Micaela Melim and Chanté van der Spuy – from SU's Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering – were among 10 scientists from various higher education institutions who spent more than eight weeks on the polar supply and research vessel SA Agulhas II.

They were part of the 63rd South African National Antarctic Expedition, on a voyage to restock the SANAE IV base during the brief Antarctic summer and drop off a new overwintering team to spend an extended period there.

Durandt, who is busy with his PhD in vibration-stress measurement and analysis, was well-equipped to function as team leader. This was his second expedition aboard the 134metre icebreaker. For Melim, a Master's student investigating motion sickness, and Van der Spuy, who has started her postgraduate study of propeller-ice interaction, this was their maiden voyage. And it got off to a slow start.

Scheduled to depart around December 14 last year, operational delays and heavy winds saw the 130odd passengers and crew only leave on the Day of Goodwill (December 26).

Choppy seas welcomed the ship into open waters, giving Melim “plenty of good data” for her motion sickness research, he said.

During the four days it took the SA Agulhas II to steam to their first stop, Marion Island, the SU team were able to identify issues with the ships sensors that would have resulted in false data readings.

Melim admitted that work on board was sometimes challenging because of the motion sickness.

“The low frequency movements of the ship tended to induce dizziness and fatigue, leading to a struggle with brain fog and maintaining focus.”

At times, the motion was so intense they found themselves sliding across the dining saloon's floor in their chairs.

Quite surprisingly, there were only a few icebergs visible when the vessel reached about 58º south, recalls Durandt. There was also not as much sea ice as on previous expeditions – possibly because of the timing of the trip, or possibly even global warming.

“We did see a few penguins near Penguin Bakta (Bay in Norwegian), but not the usual welcoming committee, and some whales in the water.”

SANAE IV, the South African Antarctic research base for the maintenance crew, personnel and researchers from around the world, is about 180km from the glacial ice shelf.

Durandt says the SU team were fortunate to spend a few days at the base. It takes 16 hours to travel the 180 km from the ship to base camp, and Durandt says the journey aboard a rudimentary “caboose” or snow caravan was extremely cold.

SANAE IV, the South African Antarctic research base

This snow mobile trip was one of Melim's expedition highlights.

“I am by nature an adrenaline junkie, and it was just a surreal feeling to drive in Antarctica. The vast, untouched landscapes stretching out as far as one could see, combined with the thrill of manoeuvring through the icy terrain, made for an unforgettable adventure.”

Although the outside conditions were punishing – Durandt said the lowest ambient temperature he recorded was minus 30ºC, factoring in a 40-knot wind – the environment on the ship and at the base was quite comfortable and required only a few layers of clothing. Of course, once outside, the team needed to wear thermals, ski pants and jacket and appropriate headgear.

Melim said she managed to get sunburned while working outside, and wore high-quality sunglasses.

“Who knew that the sun could be so potent in Antarctica?”

Melim said there was nothing typical about a day on the ship, as the sun never sets in Antarctica during summer.

The perpetual sunlight threw their sleep schedules into disarray, and Durandt says he would often only go to sleep at 3am and then miss breakfast completely. Melim says she always managed to start the day with a cup of coffee, be it at 8am or 3pm when she woke up.

As most of their time was spent at sea, the SU team kept themselves busy with their research and playing games or enjoying movie nights.

They even managed to organise a braai on the poop deck in freezing temperatures.

“You know us South Africans, always ready for a braai,” quips Durandt.

He also devoted some of his time to training for the 56km Two Oceans Ultra, taking place in April. “I never want to see a treadmill again!” Fortunately, there was also a sauna on board the ship for some well-deserved relaxation.

While there were many memorable moments, the time away also meant that milestones back home were missed. Durandt says he was unable to watch his wife’s defence of her PhD in electrical engineering via Microsoft Teams because he kept losing internet connection. It also meant spending New Year’s Eve away from loved ones.

However, despite this, the experience of being away from the distractions of everyday life and surrounded by ice and quiet was enlightening and humbling.

“You learn a lot about yourself when you are isolated like that,” he said.

Durandt explained that his research focused on the impact of high-frequency vibrations on the lifespan of the SA Agulhas II’s hull. The icebreaker was designed in the Northern Hemisphere to break ice, but it is used mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, where it encounters less ice but must navigate through heavier weather conditions. He is creating a “structural digital twin” of the vessel so that he can study the impact of these heavy waves in real time.

As Melim, who researched motion sickness, noted on her LinkedIn profile, the expedition was an incredible opportunity to be part of, one that “not only tested my limits, but expanded the boundaries of my research”.

Weekend Argus