Ice Songs

“O penguin, have you ever heard the bagpipes play? Have you ever watched knees freeze beneath a kilt of Scottish pride? Have you ever been tethered and sung for your freedom and inspired headlines far across the globe? Go. Collect your stones. Remain ignorant of the nuances of tonal music. Raise your beak in salutation so the photographer can pretend that he, too was really, truly THERE.”
 
While this sort of behaviour may not be condoned in Antarctica anymore, music is still very important down on the continent. From homegrown band nights to trippy wildlife soundtracks, there is far more for the ears to discover than the famed Antarctic silence.
 
Before leaving Christchurch I asked my musical friends to recommend music that would enhance the Antarctic experience. One thing I’d noticed was that all of the films of the continent were accompanied by sweeping orchestral tracks, designed to tap into one’s emotions and make one really feel in awe of the sights. In light of this, I decided I needed a soundtrack of my own in order to maximize the experience. Pieces suggested included Sibelius, Nielsen, John Cage’s string quartet, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica’, and, more bizarrely, ‘Antarctica’ by the Weepies.
 
Despite having lofty aural aspirations before taking off, Bryan Crump’s suggestion of an “Anti ice atmospheric track” featuring Abba, A-Ha, Aqua, or JPSE turned out to be closer to the mark. Upon landing on the ice and boarding Ivan the Terrabus to be ferried over to Scott Base we were serenaded by the Beatles’ good old Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an aurally interesting few weeks.
 
In our group we were lucky enough to have Sue Ferrar, who is not only the granddaughter of the geologist from Scott’s Discovery expedition, but also an accomplished musician. Her desire to travel to Antarctica was motivated by her family connection and she wanted to play her violin in the Discovery hut as a tribute to her grandfather. Listening to the violin articulate her version of the setting as the strains wafted over the hessian curtains at Hut Point was spellbinding. An improv musician, she let the violin tell the story she could see, and while she did so, people hardly dared to breathe.
 
The rest of our cohort were not so musically talented. The lad in charge of Christmas carols was not accustomed to celebrating Christmas on the summer side of the globe either, so while he was belting out the words to ‘Winter Wonderland’ we were all scratching out heads and thinking of the Beaurepaires ad. Sure, ‘Christmas on the Beach’ would have seemed a bit out of place on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’.
 
The local wildlife put our own caroling ambitions to shame, with the song of the Weddell seal trumping even the best of our Chrsitmas choristers. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Shooting stars ricochet under ice, strobing and zigzagging and bouncing off your eardrums inside of your brain in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little. Next time we’re playing a party game and I have to choose an animal that knows how to party, lemurs are out and Weddells are in, baby.
 
All in all, Antarctica offers a very interesting soundscape and one quite far removed from the one I imagined before going down there. While it’s not really the done thing to force penguins to listen to our musical preferences these days, I will be tuning in to see what else comes out of the ice in years to come.
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The Longest Day

PetePics_1003As the morning light seeps through the blinds in downtown Ashburton and stains the fridge golden, it’s hard to believe this is the same sun that stood watch over my entire Antarctica trip. It’s a good place to start a narrative though because although most of the trip was like an action movie on fast-forward playing out in a giant freezer, the sun stayed lazy and took its time.

During the summer months it never gets dark in Antarctica so in some ways it is like walking right into a Dali painting, the kind where the sky hangs like treacle and melted clocks prevent the future from ever happening. For my 14 University of Canterbury classmates and I that didn’t matter, because we had made it to The Ice for our two week field trip and were in no hurry to return home.

Upon arrival the first thing that struck me was the noise. Antarctica is renowned for its great silence, but we were welcomed by the rumbling engine of our C17 and serenaded by The Beatles on our way over to Scott Base. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an interesting few weeks.

After two days of field training at Scott Base we climbed into two Hägglunds and made our way out to the deserted ice shelf at Windless Bight. We were being treated to the ultimate polar experience, camping in the same sort of polar tents Scott and Amundsen used on their race to the pole. The weather must have been prewarned about our desire for authenticity because on day two the wind picked up, visibility dropped to 50m and the wind chill let us know what ‘cold’ really meant. Hunkering down and weathering the storm whilst reading the diaries of explorers who did the same was somewhat surreal.

Luckily the storm was short lived and we had brilliant blue skies under which to conduct our science over the next week. Measuring snow density, doing a seal census and doing a geological survey were all on the menu and designed to give us a taste of what field work in Antarctica is really like.

Spending a day out on the sea ice reading seals’ tags was a highlight of the trip and the closest we got to Antarctic wildlife, save the two very lost penguins who visited out camp at Christmas. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Their calls ricochet like electric guitars under ice in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little.

We did a lot of experimenting over the course of the trip, mainly with layering and unlayering clothes. While the nights required down jackets and inevitably led to frozen boots, the reflected light created a far better sun bed than any white sand beach and some days the sun felt warmer than back home. That may have had something to do with our black thermals soaking it up and causing us to pose as if we were in an advert for Speights as ‘Southern Women’, but being hot was not something I expected to experience in the coldest place on earth, not even in summer.

Back home in NZ everyone knows that summer equals sunscreen, and it’s no different in Antarctica. No different except for the fact that there is no ‘no burn’ time and protection is essential even at 2am. It was a bizarre feeling to be reaching to the SPF100 well past midnight and even stranger having to remember to dab it up into your nostrils because of the strength of the reflected UV rays. It was equally bizarre to be digging a snow cave at 1am and still have our pit lit up like a stage. We figured the whole sleep thing could wait until morning and the hyperactive sun did nothing to dissuade us from that view.

Santa, however, did. The next morning was Christmas and we were woken by his cherry ‘ho ho ho’ booming through our snow palace. It was time to get up and about, dig a Christmas table to sit around, partake in Shackleton’s finest whiskey and warble tunelessly about the white Christmas we no longer had to dream about. The Whiskey was a replica of the bottles found in Shackleton’s hut and perfect for making toasts to explorers past and present, especially given that we were celebrating exactly 100 years after Amundsen and Scott’s race to the Pole.

History played an important role in the trip and our last stop was Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. It was from there that Scott and his men launched their fateful expedition in 1911, bound for the South Pole. Packed full of artefacts that had been painstakingly restored, the detail of the place was astounding and the hut was full of memories, concentrated within the white landscape in the one wooden structure. Standing inside, the term ‘frozen in time’ took on a new meaning, but it was also a reminder that our time was coming to a close.
I was struck by the amazing light, where the shafts of sun seemed to hypnotise the dust, trapping it in limbo. That light has stayed with me as an indelible memory of my time in Antarctica and my longest day, even as the sun slides off the edge of the fridge and is gone.

Hanne Nielsen was a student on the University of Canterbury’s Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course over the 2011/2012 Summer, run by Gateway Antarctica. Article originally published in The Ashburton Guardian. Photo: Peter Wilson

DJ Seal

Whales sing underwater symphonies,
but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin.

Electric guitars ricochet under ice,
strobing and zigzagging and bouncing
off your eardrums inside of your brain in ways
that the drab speckling of their blubber
and rock-pool shine of their eyes
would never have you believe.

Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace,
enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh
to change the channel,
dare to experiment,
live a little.