Trip Report: Breaking Ice in Antarctica

Adventure Photography Travel Trip Reports By Kühl Editor

Nicole Mautino is a midshipman at the United States Merchant Marine Academy and a member of the Navy Reserves. She recently served as a deck cadet on the US Coast Guard Cutter POLAR STAR as part of Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica.

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Though many people dream of traveling to Antarctica in their lifetime, I wanted to go for a very specific reason. It wasn’t just about going to Antarctica; it was about having the opportunity to be a part of the same operation my grandfather commanded 44 years ago.

In 1972, my grandfather, Commander Richard Mautino (United States Navy Retired), was the Commanding Officer at McMurdo Station and of Operation Deep Freeze and the Winter-Over Party. In recognition of his efforts as CO, the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names named a mountain in Antarctica after him, Mautino Peak.

If it weren’t for my grandfather, I would have never discovered Kings Point. It all started my junior year of high school when he gave me a pamphlet for the Coast Guard Academy. This peaked my interest in attending a Service Academy, which led me to Kings Point.

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my sea year than having the incredible opportunity to honor my grandfather’s legacy at McMurdo Station. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a full military deployment and sail with the US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2016.

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The Polar Star is the world’s most powerful non-nuclear ice breaker and is capable of breaking ice up to 21 feet thick. Its primary role in Operation Deep Freeze is to break a channel through the Ross Sea ice so McMurdo Station can be resupplied each Antarctic summer. Operation Deep Freeze is a joint service, ongoing Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA) activity in support of the National Science Foundation.

I joined the ship in November in the ship’s home port of Seattle, WA. After stops in Honolulu, Hawaii; Sydney, Australia; and Hobart, Tasmania, we headed for the continent of Antarctica and the purpose of our mission.

During the transit from Hawaii to Australia, we crossed the Equator where it meets the International Date Line. In true nautical tradition, I participated in a 3-day line crossing ceremony. I went from being a mere pollywog to a Golden Shellback. The ceremony finished with a swim call at the Equator, a truly incredible experience.

Swimming at the Equator and International Date Line
Swimming at the Equator and International Date Line

We spent a week in Hobart, Tasmania over Christmas. It was a remarkable port of call and rich in navigation history. I had the opportunity to send postcards from the same post office that Roald Amundsen sent a telegram to the King of Norway, announcing his first successful trip to the South Pole in 1912. We departed Tasmania at the end of December and headed south.

Although we were underway on New Years, I woke to a very beautiful surprise for my watch on New Year’s Day: the Aurora Australis (also known as the Southern Lights).

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Southern Lights from the deck of USCGC Polar Star

It was incredible to witness such a unique meteorological phenomenon. Since we were in a high latitude but still outside the Antarctic Circle, the sun was dipping below the horizon enough to create hours of twilight. This made it possible to see the incredible green and purple colors of Southern Lights on one side of the horizon with the warm colors of twilight low on the other side of the horizon.

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A few days later we encountered ice for the first time when we entered the ring of icebergs and floes caught in the currents that surround the continent. The icebergs were breathtaking: pristine blue-white chunks of ice floating peacefully, ranging in size from hundreds of feet long to over a mile long.

Iceberg

In the beginning of January, we reached the ice edge. McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island in the Ross Sea. Every winter the McMurdo Sound freezes over, and the ice extends well past the island, making McMurdo Station inaccessible by water. During the summer season the ice melts enough that it can be broken through.

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At 0800 on the morning of the 7th, we made the very first cut into the fast ice. The ice was 6-8 feet thick and extended for about 13 miles to McMurdo Station. The crew of the Polar Star lined up on the bow and the flying bridge to watch the very first cut.

Breaking ice is comparable to a controlled crash. The whole ship shudders and shakes to the point that screws loosen themselves and fall out of the ceiling and bulkheads. It took a while to get used to the loud noise and jarring movement. After over a month on the ice, I can now sleep through an earthquake!

An added benefit to the mission is Ice Liberty. The ship rams onto the ice and heaves to. The gangway is lowered onto the ice, and the crew is allowed to leave the ship and run around and play on the ice all day.

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Enjoying Ice Liberty in Spyfire Parka

If you're lucky, curious penguins waddle up to you or lazy seals let you take selfies with them.

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Every time we had Ice Liberty I saw penguins and seals right next to me. Whales would frequently pop up in the ice channel right next to the ship.

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During my first Ice Liberty experience I borrowed a pair of cross country skis from another crew member and spent hours skiing on the ice. For a while, I was the only one on the ice. I couldn’t believe how peaceful and relaxing it was to ski around and enjoy the view.

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After a little more than a week, we had successfully broken the channel to McMurdo, created a turning basin for the cargo ships, and broken out the area surrounding the ice pier. While we waited for the arrival of the cargo ships, we spent a few days in port.

McMurdo Station was more incredible than I'd imagined and had changed so much from the way my grandfather had described it. Before I left I looked at his old slides, and it was interesting to see what was different and what was the same.

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Penguins in front of Mount Erebus, 1972

I couldn’t believe a whole community of people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world lived on Ross Island working for a common mission. I met some very interesting people, military and civilian, who all were doing different things in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

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Penguins in front of Mount Erebus, 2016

In my free time I had the chance to see many sights, including a hike to Observation Hill, a visit to New Zealand’s Scott Base, and other hikes around the beautiful surrounding area.

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Visiting Scott Base in Flight Jacket

My visit to McMurdo was the highlight of my sailing period and was incredibly special to me, knowing that my grandfather had walked in the same place 44 years earlier.

What I really enjoyed about Operation Deep Freeze was how everyone came together for a common goal.

It's not about one specific military branch or one group of people: The Coast Guard breaks the ice channel, the Navy contracts the cargo ships to deliver supplies, the Air Force flies the cargo planes onto the ice, and everyone at McMurdo comes together to make it all possible.

This operation tied together serving my country, merchant shipping, and my interest in aviation, all while honoring my grandfather’s legacy in Antarctica.


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