On behalf of the 41st “overwintering team”, I’d like to welcome all our blog readers, and open this new chapter of the blog by briefly introducing myself:
Peter Jonczyk, surgeon, trauma surgeon and orthopaedic surgeon, born almost 58 years ago in Hesse, for the past few years I’ve been a consultant at a hospital in Ochsenfurt, Lower Franconia. After 30 years working in acute care hospitals, I’m now doing something completely different: I’m the station physician and leader of the Neumayer Station III. I’m no stranger to adventure – it seems to be in my blood: I’ve been to all continents except the Antarctic, mostly travelling by bike, and have had many exciting experiences along the way.
Photos: 41st ÜWI team in summer 2020, Polarstern pizza was on offer during the preparation period in Bremerhaven, along with Polarstern biscuits, penguin biscuits and Neumayer biscuits (Peter Jonczyk)
At the end of the preparation countdown, together with the rest of our 41st overwintering team (ÜWIs for short), I’m now standing in a place that some of us have dreamt of seeing for years: the Neumayer Station III. Only very few people have the chance to live here. The remoteness was immediately clear after the more than four-week-long journey to get here: hardly another human being far and wide, dangers lurking everywhere. Here on this continent, all time zones are represented – where else can you find that …?
The remoteness also offers advantages and a degree of safety, but more about that later ….
My commute …
is usually by bike, or I jog. On rare occasions, like an emergency, I take my car. But I’ve never gone to work by ship!
As Dr Klaus Guba recently reported here, due to the pandemic we couldn’t get to the station by plane and instead travelled non-stop from Bremerhaven on board the RV Polarstern (RV stands for research vessel). I first heard about this plan in August 2020, and I still remember how crazy it seemed. I love crazy! I’d never been at sea for so long and found it hard to imagine what it would be like. Now I know; it was the longest and most beautiful commute I’ve ever had!
The commute begins with … a lie-in!
The joint outward journey (the entire Neumayer summer team, the ship’s crew and we ÜWIs) began in strict quarantine in Bremerhaven from 12.12. The time in the hotel was pure pleasure for me: breakfast in bed watching the morning show on television, no alarm clock, time for myself, and at the same time, excitement that the expedition was really about to start. We weren’t allowed to leave our rooms, and the excellent food was left in front of the door. The news that our 2nd PCR tests came back negative was a relief for all of us; we could depart as planned. A first photo for the press: we were all standing at an open window waving to the photographers from afar. This is how I first met the person from the room next door, at a distance of 3 metres…
Over the gangway, and then over 14,000 km southwards
20.12.20, morning: an “isolation bus” takes the 37 crew members and then us 32 scientists to board the freshly disinfected Polarstern, and my heart beats faster as I cross the narrow gangway to begin my journey on board this legendary research ship. We’re all still wearing FFP2 masks for protection, and we’re only allowed to take them off in our cabins or when we’re eating. In the evening, as the RV Polarstern sets sail, sent off by a cheering crowd, I stand on the helideck, waving, and go weak at the knees: the journey to the 6th continent, which I have already registered as my home, has begun.
On 27.12, our 3rd PCR tests are passed on, contact-free, to an agent in the summery Canaries, and are then sent to Germany by air. We receive our negative results a few days later. In terms of logistics, like so many other things, it’s an amazing feat.
On board I notice how, at first, we all wear surgical masks and try to avoid getting too close to each other in the narrow corridors. At meal times, every other seat at the table is free, and in the numerous scientific meetings to discuss meteorology, bathymetry, the EDEN/ISS project, and many other topics, we initially sit at a distance.
But the transition to “anno 2019” conditions turns out to be uncomplicated! Christmas, New Year’s and crossing the Equator are all celebrated together in due style. There’s plenty of hugging and the social distancing rules are quickly forgotten. When it comes to the fear that there might be a lingering caution in our behaviour and in our minds, I can’t see it in myself of most of the others. It’s important for me to stress that here. As you can see, remoteness also has its advantages!
Photos: Albatross (Markus Baden), Flying fish (Markus Baden) and A whale surfaces (Peter Jonczyk)
is the colloquial name for the zone between the 40th and 50th parallels in the south, which is known for its frequent storms and high waves. After passing the Equator, it gets colder again and the water temperatures decrease daily from a maximum of 28°C. The flying fish of the tropics give way to various types of whale, and I can also see albatrosses circling the ship. The sea gets very rough, and as the safety rims are being attached to the tables, our electrical engineer, Markus, suddenly goes (unintentionally) sliding in his chair across the carpet to the next table, ca. 1 m away, which he can thankfully cling to. At night, we play chess in the hospital: Florian, our engineer and deputy station leader, and Timo, our geophysicist, have discovered a special sick bed on bearings that offset the ship’s motions, and now move the chess figures back and forth on the ‘gimbal bed’. Meanwhile, the ship’s physician has plenty to do: there’s a constant stream of seasick researchers and crewmembers needing help. I’ve known Petra for a long time, and it was her overwintering here a few years ago that gave me the idea of applying for the job. Now we have the chance to see each other again, and she can be inspired by the Neumayer Station all over again. Without her, I probably wouldn’t be here.
Photos: ‘Gimbal bed’ with chess players in a storm (Paul Ockenfuß), Waves wash around an iceberg, Tabular iceberg with life preserver, On the work deck and Seals chilling out and crane hook (Peter Jonczyk)
The first iceberg is announced over the ship’s PA system for everyone to hear. When I arrive on the work deck with other members of the team to see it, a shiver runs down my spine. What a majestic sight! All eyes are on it, as it silently passes by on the starboard side. How far north will it drift? The sea has now become calmer. I consider it a blessing that I can experience this here and now. This isolation and the long quarantine have made this situation possible for us. We’re entering a virtually corona-free corner of our planet, always taking appropriate precautions to ensure that it stays that way. Remoteness has its advantages!
The AWI (Alfred Wegener Institute) has a master plan for the eventuality that there is a corona outbreak, and there are enough medical supplies to ensure that we’re well prepared. But hopefully I’ll never have to use either the master plan or the supplies!
Icebergs are now sighted more frequently; on some of them penguins warm themselves in the sun. Sometimes a whole pod of whales swims by, and next to me on the bridge I can hear the cameras clicking.
We enter pack ice and, down on the work deck, I’m extremely excited to watch it float past us. Large sheets snap and turn over and I can see that it’s maybe up to 1.5 metres thick. Sometimes we have to ram a path through the compacted ice. In the RV Polarstern’s sauna, deep in the ship’s bowels, I listen to the ice grating along the side of the hull; it’s terrible and beautiful at the same time!
I’ve just settled in on the grande dame Polarstern and learned to love her, with her highly competent and pleasant crew, with her massive power (almost 20 thousand HP) from 4 main engines, with her double hull and her thick steel frame, her propellers measuring over 4 metres across … and we’re already there.
People waiting in unimaginable isolation
After a storm shifts our arrival from 18.1 to 19.1, we’re finally there. Using the bow and stern thrusters, the captain, Moritz Langhinrichs, deftly steers the ship to a spot on the ice shelf where the freight can be unloaded as quickly and safely as possible over several days. There isn’t an anchor; the power of the thrusters alone holds the ship to the edge of the shelf, clearly rising and sinking with the water level in the process. At the so-called ‘northern shore’, we see Klaus and Noah waving. In the middle of nowhere there are people greeting us with a friendly wave. Words can’t describe it…
In the ‘mummy chair,’ a basket that is hoisted by crane from the ship to the ice, technicians and the fuelling supervisor are the first to disembark. Fuel for at least a year has to be laboriously pumped onto container sledges via a supply line. While this is happening, the fuelling supervisor sits on the sledge and signals when the tank is full. This goes on for several days. Later, I’m hoisted over: it’s indescribable and I feel the ‘ground’ swaying slightly beneath my feet – or perhaps I’m just imagining it after more than 4 weeks at sea.
Theresa, our radio operator, had the foresight to bring a bucket of apples and oranges from the Polarstern’s dining room and gives it to Julia, who, after so many months overwintering without supplies from the outside world, digs her nails into an orange peel, and starts to beam as she sniffs it.
It really is happening. We last saw our predecessors all together via video chat in Bremerhaven, sitting in the lounge, and now I can reverentially (after all, they’ve already finished, and I’m only just about to start) see them, hug them and smile at them…
The journey with the Arctic Truck – it’s only 18 km to the station – takes ca. 50 minutes. The cranes used to build the station needed 1.5 days for the same journey. The small dot on the horizon turns into what looks like a landed space ship, as the Neumayer Station has often been described. The sky is deep blue and the moment is simply indescribable!
Video: Helicopter taking off at the station (Peter Jonczyk)
Here we are, the 41st overwintering team, consisting of:
Back row from left to right
Florian (deputy station leader/station engineer), Tanguy (cook), Peter (station leader/physician), Paul(meteorologist), Markus (electrical engineer), Lorenz (geophysicist)
Front row from left to right
Linda (atmospheric chemist), Theresa (electronic engineer/IT), Timo (geophysicist), Jess (botanist EDEN/ISS)
…for the overwintering originated during the alpine course. When it was clear that we would travel on the Polarstern, we naturally had to include her in the logo. Along with the station, she’s a very important part of our overwintering, and having fallen in love on the voyage, I’d like to dedicate this first blog entry to her. “No Polarstern, no Neumayer” is short and to the point, and I had the honour of experiencing it first-hand on board; it’s so true!
We have now all arrived safely and are focusing on our various tasks. The 40th ÜWI team gave us a warm welcome, with beds made up and chocolate on the pillows. The logistics team made up of technicians from the summer campaign is currently hard at work, and just a few day after our arrival, the first traverse started, led by the technical staff for the observatories…
But more about that in another entry…
I’ve intentionally written this blog article in the ‘I’ form, since it conveys my personal, loving relationship with the grande dame Polarstern (next year she’ll have been in service for 40 years!) better than the ‘we’ form. And it’s long, too; after all, love letters are long … I’ve also taken the opportunity to introduce myself in this way.
In the next blog article, in two weeks, Theresa will share more pictures of our 31-day-long voyage on the Polarstern, and will offer her impressions from on board. This once-in-a-lifetime experience deserves a second entry!
I look forward to receiving plenty of comments from you; after all, they’re what make a blog what it is.
Thank you to Klaus, whose blog articles I eagerly read, and who made the AtkaXpress so vivid!
On behalf of the 41st ÜWI team, I’d also like to thank our scientific supervisors, especially our coordinator, Dr Tim Heitland: you led us through the preparation period with great élan and brought us to where we are today.
Your Peter Jonczyk