Day 21: 21 January 2019

I broke off yesterday at the pivotal moment when we received a single ping from AUV 9.  It transformed everything, including our spirits.  This next paragraph (which explains how position-fixing works) is really boring, so feel free to skip it.

Because radio waves cannot travel through water, we have brought with us an underwater acoustic system, that we call a USBL, which allows us to communicate with the AUV though a transceiver mounted on the end of a long metallic pole that can be lowered through a moon-pool, or opening in the bottom of the ship, to a distance of 2 meters below the keel.  The transceiver emits an acoustic pulse which is detected by the transponder on the AUV which replies with a pulse, or ping, of its own.  The time it takes for this exchange to take place gives us our range, or distance.  The transceiver also contains an array of transducers which calculate the vertical and horizontal angles of the response from the AUV’s transponder which gives us not just a bearing but also its three-dimensional position in relation to the transceiver.  The problem is that the transceiver head transmits/receives in a downward fan-like, or conical manner covering an angle of about 60 degrees.   If AUV 9 was under the flow then it would be nearly horizonal to the transceiver and thus outside its field of communication  And this is why the ping we had received had been so fugitive. 

We now knew that AUV 9 was under the floe but, for several hours, the wind had been intensifying and was now registering 35 knots and rising.  In addition the floes were racing along at up to 4 knots.  In such a wind it was impossible to dispatch drones and it was no longer safe to send out the fast recovery crafts (FRCs).  The fear now was that, in these conditions, the AUV 9 might bump along the underside of the floe and emerge on the other side without us knowing and be gone on the current into the vast white unknown.  It was imperative that we establish a better fix on the AUV.  What was needed were additional bearings, and to achieve that we needed to manoeuvre the ship along the edge of the floe.

But then something rather surreal happened.  The ship’s tannoy crackled to life.  It was Expedition leader John Shears telling us that if we wanted to witness the remarkable sight of a massive iceberg hitting a huge floe then we should all foregather immediately on the viewing-deck above the bridge.  Everybody was there including Julien Trincali with his co-analyst, Pierre le Gall, a young Bretton who always reminds me a bit of Tin Tin with all the Belgian reporter’s most likeable qualities.  They came over to me with expressions of disbelief on their faces.  ‘Of all the places the berg could strike, why did it have to be there?  It is exactly where we want to station the ship as a listening post for the next ping!’

The berg drove into the floe with a low crump and stayed there.  Julien and Pierre had no choice but to negotiate around it, but eventually, with the ship’s thrusters on low, they secured enough pings to establish four bearings  and, where they crossed, it gave a range, or distance to AUV 9 of 900 meters.  This was too far for the ROV to reach, the only solution was to use the ship as a battering ram to smash away the ice.  A red flag was placed on the floe at the position given by the two analysts and, at 22.53 pm, there was a whoomph and the whole ship shook as the Agulhas II charged the ice for the first time.

For the next three days, under the skilful guidance of Captain Knowledge Bengu, Ice-Captain Freddie Ligthelm  and First Officer Jacques Walters, the Agulhas II kept hacking away at the floe, pausing only at intervals to check bearings.  At first they worked along its margins, and then when they got closer they carved a huge V-shaped notch in the floe that was, according to Frazier Christie, a satellite imagery analyst from the Scott Polar Research Institute, the size of 114 football pitches.

At 22.30 on the 18th, when we were about 20 meters from the flag, the Eclipse team again launched the ROV and within a short time was once more back under the floe.  They were pleased to find that there was much less algae in the water than before, and also that the ice was much thinner to the extent that, when they tilted their cameras upwards, the frozen ceiling above had a luminous quality from the light that was filtering through. 

They could only have been about twenty minutes into the dive when one of the ROV pilots, Steve March, tilted the camera upwards and there, silhouetted against the back-lit floe was the unmistakable torpedo-like form of AUV 9 .  ‘We have a visual on the AUV’ said co-pilot Dave O’Hara in a cool, matter-of-fact Irish accent.  By that time just about the whole ship was in the main lounge where the ROV’s video was being relayed in real time.  The moment they saw the darkened cut-out of AUV 9 there was an eruption of undiluted joy that was heard by the staff in the galley three decks below.

What followed was pure drama.  We all watched on the screens as the ROV struggled to loop a strap around the tail fins of AUV 9.  Finally after twenty minutes of trying, it looked as if the rope might just hold long enough to draw the AUV back to the edge of the ice where it could be secured by the crew in a FRC.  But then the ship had to execute an evasive manoeuvre to avoid a piece of ice near the stern that was threatening the ROVs umbilical where it went into the water.  This drew in on the umbilical which in turn moved the ROV backwards and the AUV slipped free of the strap.  It took a few moments for the pilots to realized what had occurred.  ‘I cant see it,’ said Steve Marsh, more to himself than to his boss, Steve Saint Amour, who was managing all ROV ops on the deck outside.  There was a pause and then Dave said, ‘The fish [i.e. the AUV] has gone Mate.  Repeat, the fish has gone’.    There was a further pause for thought before Steve Saint Amour responded, ‘Then we will have to go chase it’. 

By that time the celebrations in the lounge had ceased and everybody was once again glued to the screen.   The unthinkable had happened.   AUV’s are not meant to sink.  AUVs are meant to be neutrally buoyant, or have a slight positive buoyancy;  but then we remembered that, the day before its loss, AUV 9 had been re-ballasted in order to give it the extra weight it required to dive.

Slowly it continued its descent and the ROV chased after it.  Twice the ROV’s manipulating hand grabbed it by its dorsal lifting lug, but the lug was small and the ROV could not quite achieve the purchase it required, and twice the AUV slipped away.  All of this of course was in slow motion, dream-like, as they were both all the time sinking.  It struck me as almost balletic, like a pas de deux from the ghostly Giselle.   

There was a little over 400 meters of depth at that point and when the pair reached around 350 meters, it was decided to give up and allow the AUV to settle on the seabed, the idea being that once in stationary state it should be simplicity itself to recover it with the winch.  This was until it was realized that they were still under the floe.  A meeting followed Steve and the Captain on the bridge, at which point it was decided to leave the ROV where it was so that the current could carry away the floe, and we would try again in a few hours.  In the meantime there was another problem – exhaustion.  If I can compare energy levels of the crew and technicians with the gas tank on an automobile, then at that moment they were all running on empty.  Everybody was stood down.  As for our beautiful new AUV, like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, it was left sleeping with the fishes.

And now we come to yesterday, the 19th  January.

Before breakfast Steve Saint Amour rallied his team.  It turned out that none of them had gone to bed.  There had been too much to be done to prepare for the next dive.  By 08.00 the ROV was on its way.  Bright skies, perfect calm, freezing cold.   For once everything that followed was text-book.  The ROV team put a sling around AUV 9 and slowly raised it to the surface where one of the small working boats took charge and towed it across to the ship where it was hooked by the crane.  There are 95 people on board the Agulhas II and, although nobody was counting, I am sure every single one of them at that moment was hanging over the rails at the stern where all the action took place.

I have heard it said (and believe it to be true) that the only time it is ok for a man to cry is in Rocky III, when, beaten to mush the Italian Stallion staggers back to his feet, wipes the blood from his eyes, jabs back at himself with two raised thumbs and says, ‘Common Champ, gimme your best is that all you’ve got?’ At which point Adrian screams ‘Rocky!’ and Bill Conti’s theme music starts to play.  This is when grown men everywhere just dissolve.  Women on the other hand just don’t get it. 

And that’s how it was yesterday morning.  After four days of ups and downs which left us all dangling by a severed nerve, the sight of AUV 9 rising up from the sea and then being swung over for a perfect landing on the helicopter-deck left all us guys with  lumps in our throats, looking the other way and blowing our noses. The women by contrast, I could not help noticing, were laughing and being all happy, they didn’t seem to understand that this was an emotional moment for us blokes.  John, our tireless and very British expedition leader (who had held everything together brilliantly), even gave me a kind of awkward man-hug. 

The person in charge of all back-deck activities, Claire Samuel, is not into theatricals of any kind.  She is a serious professional from Brittany whose idea of a relaxation is being alone in her cabin with a cup of tea reading George Sand; but, whether intended or not, what she put on yesterday morning was pure theatre.  I would not have been surprised if, at the moment when AUV 9 touched down, the hanger doors had suddenly swung open and out had come a marching band in shakos and braid playing ’76 trombones’ (as in the finale of ‘The Music Man’).  It was that kind of a moment.

So what was it that put us through all this? It was a software glitch. The one thing that was beyond our control.  Holly Ewart, an Ocean Infinity project-manager and a passionate young Londoner with a lovely personality, said it best:  ‘It was hi-end technology that put us in that mess, but it was human ingenuity, determination and professionalism at every level that got us out of it.’

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By the bye, did I tell you that today is also National Penguin Awareness Day?  No?!  Ok, well maybe I will try to get back to that one.  To be honest penguins haven’t much been on our minds lately.