Day 20: 20 January 2019

I want to whisper you a story, a parable if you will     something so urgent and unputdownably compelling you just have to listen.   

You see five days ago we lost our AUV. 

AUV stands for Autonomous Underwater Vehicle.  But is more than that, it’s brand new, unique, worth squillions, especially designed for this expedition - and our main search engine in the quest for Shackleton’s Endurance.

Most of the days when I sit down to write these blogs the words are just queuing up to get out, but the 15th January was not one of them.  In fact, it was like Shackleton struggling to describe what had happened just after the Endurance sank, ‘I cannot write about it’, he wrote.   

You see there is no handbook for what we are attempting to do;  down here we are pushing everything to its limit and sometimes we go a bit beyond.  When you are kicking at boundaries things can go wrong.  To paraphrase Shackleton’s favourite poet, Browning, our reach sometimes exceeds our grasp.

Also, of course, we are deep into the most hostile body of water on the planet, we are down in the very basement  and, what is more, we have kicked away the ladder.  When a crisis occurs in the Weddell Sea you cannot just reach for the phone and call for help.  Here we have to look to ourselves.

So let me take you back to our longest day.  It was 02.00 hours, the middle of the night, but this being the austral summer it was daylight outside with the sun just a few degrees above the horizon and casting long, inky shadows.  Down in the Ops-Room, there was quite a bit of nervousness as we were approaching an historic moment.  We were about to send our spanky new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV 9) under the ice for the first time, a mission for which it had been especially designed at huge cost by Kongsberg of Norway for Ocean Infinity the foremost deep-ocean search-and-survey company in the world. 

We had experienced some buoyancy problems with AUV 9 the previous day, but they had all been sorted and now it had gone through all its pre-dive checks without any irregularities.  Still, we were operating on the outer fringes of what was technologically possible and we were not completely certain that it would perform as instructed.  Because of this, it was not going to be a long mission, it was a trial,  but it was the first time that it would be diving under the ice and what worried us was that, once the floe closed over it, we  would be out of communications.  If something went wrong, we would not know it.

There were seven of us in the Ops Room at the time,  Claire Samuel, myself, and five guys from Ocean Infinity’s top-gun AUV squadron  (Chad Bonin, Blake Howard, Devon James and Espen Stange)  and on the bridge was the AUV team supervisor, Channing Thomas).  The launch had been successful and its buoyancy problems appeared to have been resolved.  At precisely 02.25 the AUV slipped under the ice and almost immediately we lost comms.  For 37 long minutes we waited.  Conversation was stilted, the jokes were lame, everybody was tense.  It reminded me of Mission Control in Houston when the Apollo 11 passed around the dark side of the moon and there was nothing they could do but wait.  Just as there had been an explosion of euphoria when the orbiter reappeared, so it was with us.  Precisely on schedule, at 03.02, its return vector line on the screens suddenly turned yellow, informing us that contact had been resumed.  There had been a tiny bit of drift, which had been expected, but it had followed to its operational profile and was heading towards what we called the loiter-box, where it would be de-briefed and re-instructed before embarking on the next phase, which again would take it under the ice.   Aware that this was an historic moment one of the AUV team, Espen Stange from Kongsberg (the Norwegian makers of AUV 9) clicked a photo of us all huddled around the screen.  You can see we are all smiling.

When disaster strikes it never comes at you like some great ocean-going liner performing a turn; no, it just comes out of nowhere and whacks you.  And that’s how it was with us.  An instant after the photo was taken it all started to unravel.  The screens registered a behavioural problem.  Somebody said ‘Uh-oh’. From 260 meters down the AUV had climbed to 167 meters.  Clearly it had taken matters into its own hands and had decided to abort its mission.  By itself this was not so unusual, hugely irritating certainly, especially when things were going so swimmingly, but nothing the AUV team hadn’t dealt with many times before. Channing on the bridge was informed and the boat crew was scrambled to perform a recovery.  At the door I passed my old friend Chad Bonin, a cheeky, charismatic Cajun from the Louisiana Bayou.  He was heading off to get kitted up in his polar gear to oversee boat operations.  ‘Wanna come?’  he asked, safe in the knowledge that there was no way I would venture into that little boat in the middle of the night, in this ice-clotted sea with the temperatures way below freezing.  It’s a young guys game.  ‘No’, I said, ‘I’m off to bed’.

I am not sure how much later it was but the next thing I knew was when somebody thumped on my door.  ‘We’ve lost the AUV’.  Just four and a half words, but at that moment I felt like Clubber Lang when he was lifted clean of his feet by a pile-driving punch to the guts from Sylvester Stallone in the final round of Rocky III.

I have never known a wreck project that has been more difficult to get off the ground, nor in which so many factors have had to be brought into perfect alignment - but also I have never known a wreck project that was more worth it.  It has been 6 years 5 months and 11 days since the brains behind this project first posed what Eliot called ‘the overwhelming question’:  Do we have the technology to find the Endurance?  But at that moment, as I dragged myself from my bunk, I wondered if that was it – was it all over before we had even started?

In the hours that followed everything humanly possible was done to find AUV 9.  There was one major unknown.  Was it trapped beneath an ice floe, or had it escaped into the open ocean.  If the latter, then we were in serious trouble because there was a 3 knot current running, everything was in motion, and there were floes everywhere as far as the eye could see in any direction.  AUV 9 could be behind any of them and we would never know it. If, indeed, it was ‘out there’, somewhere between us and the white horizon, then our chances of finding it were in freefall. 

While the technicians and data-analysts were brain-storming, the boat teams were out scouring the vicinity.  We also had drones buzzing the peripheries and, of course, as many eyeballs as possible behind binoculars on the highest point of the ship. 

There was, however, one thing which indicated that it was most likely under the ice.  AUV 9 is fitted with a beacon which communicates with the Ops-Room via the Iridium satellite network whose 66 satellites cover the entire earth including the polar regions.   A property of the Iridium signal is that it does not pass through water and therefore, since we were not receiving a signal, the greater likelihood was that AUV 9 must be trapped below an ice floe.  The trouble was that there were ice floes everywhere, and although the greater probability was that it was tucked beneath the floe beside us, we could not be certain.

At this point (midday) Steve Saint Amour and his team from the Eclipse Group launched their ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) and from the stern of the ship it set off under the ice.   But there were two obstacles;  first, the floe was 7km long and 5 km wide and the tether would only allow it to explore a tiny area;  and second, there was zero visibility.   It was a dog-eared old flow of multi-year ice that was in places 10 m deep and did not allow the passage of light.  The absence of light would normally not have been a problem as the ROV was fitted with powerful LEDs, but there was a complicating factor.  Steve, a quiet family man with a big appetite for life who builds ROVs in his spare time, explained it to me.  Directly beneath the ice there was what appeared to be a dense algae-like bloom below which was so thick it reflected the ROV’s  lights right back at the cameras.  ‘It was a pea souper,’ he explained, ‘I could have passed within 20 inches of the AUV and not have seen it’.

The whole day ground by in a state of utter frustration.  Nothing worked.  That evening I told my wife that I felt like Barbarina scurrying about the stage looking for Susanna’s pin, in the final act of the Marriage of Figaro.  She said I must not use that analogy as it made me sound pedantic, but that I could compare it to ‘chasing chickens’ as that was less pompous.

Our break came in the early evening when for some reason (which I have still not been able to fathom but had something to do with the drones we were sending out) the ship’s thrusters dampened down.  It was at that moment that our Chief Processor and Analyst, Julien Trincali, a lanky, dark-haired Normand with Italianate good looks,  who all day hadn’t left his post down in the On-line Room, picked up a ping.  A single, feeble, pathetic little ping.  It was AUV 9 struggling to communicate.  It was a turning point; that lone ping gave us a rough direction that confirmed it was indeed under the gargantuan floe beside us.   But more than that, it gave us back something that had been fast receding – Hope.

To be continued …