Antarctic Thaw and Freeze: A Research Ship in Ill-Charted Waters

Interview |Author: Angel Petrov | May 23, 2016, Monday // 20:51|  views

Lt Javier Alonso L?pez De Sabando. Photo courtesy of Armada Espa?ola. Photos within text by BIO Hesp?rides crew.

The word "military" often evokes in one’s mind images of rifles, tanks, battles, and regrettably war and devastation. The armed forces do much more than that, having scores of scientists and doctors among their ranks, but also officers who stand ready to react in case of local or nationwide emergencies. In some countries, like Spain, it is also the military that sets the official time.

To realize this, one doesn't need to wait for a natural disaster to occur. Sometimes all it could take is a trip to the Antarctic.

Lt Javier Alonso L?pez De Sabando, who works for the International Relations Department at the Spanish Navy’s headquarters, is one of those people who not only know it but can give a myriad of examples. While his current duties have to do with communication between navies of other countries and that of Spain – by and large a diplomatic job – until 2012 he served as a navigation and manoeuvre officer at the BIO H?sperides, an oceanographic research vessel in the Antarctic, and took part in a number of scientific campaigns in the world’s coldest and southernmost area over a period of three years. 

Lt J.G. Alonso talked to Novinite about his experience on board the research ship minutes before delivering a presentation at the Sofia Science Festival earlier in May – a story about the Antarctic, a place where scientific and military life meet and quite often are largely intertwined. While the frozen continent surprises those rarely looking down the map with its 14 million square km (just three million km less than Russia), its unrivaled fresh water (75% of the total) and ice (90% of the total) reserves, and its constantly changing coastline, it is human relations and teamwork to cope with hardship that make it special. 

Photo credit: Crew of BIO Hesp?rides

Scientific programs run by a number of countries on the Antarctic depend on Hesp?rides

for logistics and equipment - and this includes universities, scientific organizations and institutions outside Spain. Although teams pursue separate projects and research, a spirit of collaboration marks much of their activity. Within one campaign, normally lasting five months (three months of work in the Antarctic and two more to reach it and get back), logistics provided by the ship are then used not only to do a single project, but sometimes for three or four. The campaign done last year even included as many as 12 projects bringing together 100 scientists from a dozen countries, Lt J.G. Alonso explains.

"There aren't many people out there in the Antarctic as you can imagine. If you have a neighbor nearby, your relations are really special. But it is also because of the spirit of life in the Antarctic, the cooperation between all the countries present there, because the resources are so limited. If you run out of gas and need to get some, everybody works together to help as much as they can. It is very beautiful to see how this is possible, that people from different places, of different background are capable of working together; and this is the only way things can be done there."

Named after the nymphs guarding the tree of knowledge according to Greek mythology, the ship assists Spanish teams in the country’s two bases, Gabriel de Castilla on Deception Island and Juan Carlos I on Livingston Island. It is the latter place where Bulgaria’s facility, St Kliment Ohridski, is located – which makes Bulgaria the most likely neighbour to come to the Spanish scientists’ help in case of need. Later on, during the presentation, explaining how important it is to have a nice neighbour, Lt J.G. Alonso adds: “Bulgarians definitely are, we have an unbeatable relationship.”

Challenges for both researchers and militarymen begin on the Antarctic well before arrival: it requires the skill of a good sailor to take the ship to the bay where Gabriel de Castilla base is located, as a narrow passage hinders a way to the spot.

It takes Hesp?rides nearly a month to reach the continent starting from Spain, but not before crossing the Drake Passage dividing America from the Antarctic. These are mythical waters for the sailors, and during his presentation Lt J.G. Alonso explains: “In the past, the sailors who were able to pass from one side to the other of the Drake’s passage, won the right to wear an earring.”

Overall, navigating in Antarctic waters is nothing close to a child's play –

the abundance of icebergs is far from being the only reason.

"The nautical charts, the ones we use at sea, are not very precise here as they were done many years ago by old teams and using old methods, and many areas haven't even been cartographed at all, there hasn't been anyone to conduct a precise study of the area."

"Add to this the fact that in the Antarctic - like nowhere else in the world - the land surface changes very quickly. The area that can be described as "non-sea" differs during the periods of thaw and freeze. The change in size is nearly double. This is why, every time you arrive in the Antarctic, you find yourself in a new world - with visual references to another land, with navigation that is more complicated than in other places.... And of course, one should never forget the extreme climate: in 10 minutes, a wonderful days with 10 knots of wind [up to 19 kph] turns into a storm with 60 knots [more than 110 kph].”

Nor is GPS positioning really trustworthy in the Antarctic. All of these can potentially turn even small transportation tasks into a risky venture. Whether on the ground or at sea, not all different countries’ teams have the means to move around, and the process is often coordinated among all the countries.

Sometimes this is also the case when it comes to leaving 

Lt J.G. Alonso recalls one moment he describes as “particularly dangerous”.

"The Bulgarian base was closed at the time, its opening period had ended and work there was not to be renewed before the next year. Scientists had to catch a plane as they were heading home, the only plane flying from these islands, but one that takes off from King George, an island other than Livingston, where the Bulgarian base is."

The Hesp?rides arrived to help - but had to drop anchor at a place located not quite near the Bulgarian base, where coastal waters are shallow. "So I took a Zodiac inflatable boat. The weather was terrible that day, it was bordering the impossible to get to that beach, but I did, breaking a propeller. There were nine scientists, I think the entire team, and all the samples they had collected. We all had to use the Zodiac to reach the ship in sea conditions that were all but good."

"We waited all night to see if the situation improved, but the last hour possible [to catch the plane] was near. And it was crucial to catch the plane as resources there were scant. So we [decided to have] a little adventure, it took a bit of courage, and the Bulgarians and the Spaniards went to the Zodiac, fought the waves and reached on time to get the flight. One should also keep in mind that if someone falls into Antarctic waters, life expectancy is five minutes." 

Politics cannot overshadow the spirit of coexistence and cooperation, even though as many as seven nations occasionally restate their territorial claims on certain Antarctic territories – despite the Antarctic Treaty, which for decades has provided for a strictly scientific use of the frozen continent. When asked if there have been violations of the treaty over his period on board the Hesp?rides, Lt J.G. Alonso shakes his head.

"In truth – no. It is certain that politicians, for motives that are lost to scientists and the military, create these conflicts, these claims are things of politicians and we understand too little of them. However, there has always been a spirit of concord among all of the countries present."


To a non-scientist, activities performed on board a research vessel may look obscure. But

25-year-old Hesp?rides is fit for studies of any branch of oceanography,

be they seismic or biological. Due to the diversity of campaigns, Lt J.G. Alonso finds it difficult to give precise examples at first. "Studies of ocean currents, tides at a global level and how they are affected by the global climate change; studies of deep-sea organisms, most of them unknown and many having application in a range of areas such as the pharmaceutics industry; the exchange of carbon dioxide between the sea and the atmosphere and what is the distribution of organic polluters around the world." It was precisely deep-sea organisms and their metabolism at 5000 m below sea level that PHARMADEEP, Hesp?rides' last campaign for the moment, was aimed at. "It is thought that some of the discoveries could be a great contribution in the fight against cancer," he adds during the presentation. 

To make an inventory of gadgets and facilities on board would be painstaking. To begin the list: four winches of scientific research; two bridge cranes; two oceanographic stores transporting logistic cargo; tools for seismic studies; multibeam echo sounders; a meteorological station; a computer net and a system processing scientific data from satellites in real time. There are several laboratories placed in the lowest decks, where ship movement has the smallest effect, he explains. One has refrigerators fit to keep water and sea bottom samples; another one is conditioned for work with radioactive isotopes which can also store generated water samples.

Listening to the lieutenant, one concludes that, on board the Hesp?rides,

divisions between what is "scientific" and what is "military" are rather blurry.

In truth, nothing is beyond the limits of the military personnel taking part in Hesp?rides: apart from navigation, they are used to assisting the researchers and giving an invaluable helping hand with their equipment. "There is no such differentiation on board, contrary to what one may think, and [no-one would ask] why a military person is making science. In fact, we, people in the military, have been making science throughout history."

A point worth remembering as it was a Spanish admiral, Gabriel de Castilla, who spotted the Antarctic for the first time in history, back in 1603, and it were military explorers who laid the ground of research on the frozen continent.

Scientists also need to show some military discipline when on board, though.

Participants in the campaigns need to adhere to special norms in force on board the ship related to the routine of meals and cleaning, safety when using or passing by an device as a small inclination of the vessel could result in pieces of equipment hitting one's feet. "It's not so easy to find a hospital in the middle of the Antarctic. You might put an end to a scientific campaign worth millions only because of wearing sandals."

As we are talking, it has been three weeks since the Hesp?rides is in Spain's exclusive economic zone, midlife overhaul. When her next campaign will be is still too early to say as details are yet to be announced about which project will be pursued and how. Projects can be proposed by the CSIC, a Spanish agency whose acronym stands for "High Board of Scientific Research", but also by universities in the country. The scientific community has to make an inquiry first, three years in advance - and then it takes time to determine what resources they will need and how much time they should be allowed on the Hesp?rides. The Commission for the Coordination and Following of Oceanographic Ships Activities (COCSABO) whose members are from both the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and the Ministry of Defence, plans the activities of the ship for the following year; while the Marine Technological Unit (UTM), responsible to the CSIC, is in charge of the maintenance of the scientific equipment which will be used. “It will surely be before the summer,” Lt J.G. Alonso concludes.

As one prepares to leave after meeting him, one isn't completely sure about understanding the scientific activities done on board the Hesp?rides; but a feeling of infection with the cooperative spirit in the Antarctic and on board the Hesp?rides makes up for the vacuum of knowledge. 


We need your support so can keep delivering news and information about Bulgaria! Thank you!

Tags: Spain, Bulgaria, Lt J.G. Alonso, Lt Alonso, Javier Alonso L?pez de Sabando, Hesperides, Antarctic


» Related Articles: