Time to return home

After spending a second Christmas in Antarctic sea ice, the early explorers on board the RV Belgica realized they wouldn’t escape their icy prison without a fight. In addition, a second overwintering wasn’t an option as food rations were running out. For a long time, the Belgica’s men thought they would melt out by the scouring sun during austral summer, possibly aided by breaking of the ice under the influence of winds and waves. The weather was however not on their side, the edge of the sea ice far beyond the horizon, and the waves were too little for the ice to yield. The men had to work out an escape plan in order to regain their freedom.

Commander Adrien de Gerlache designed a plan in which the men would use ice saws to cut a canal through the ice, all the way up to a clearing of open water nearly one kilometer from the ship. Henryk Arctowski, the expedition’s geologist, surveyed the ice thickness along this stretch by drilling a series of holes. He observed that they would have to cut through ice between one and two meters thick. Eventually, the first saw hit the sea ice on January 14th 1899. To prevent the cut sections from refreezing overnight, the men had to work around the clock. They divided in two teams, with the day shift working from 8 am until 6 pm and led by the commander himself, whilst the night team was led by captain Georges Lecointe and sawed from 7 pm until 4 am the next day. The only person exempted from sawing was Louis Michotte, who kept the kitchen running and served meals 24/7.

One of the Belgica’s expedition members sawing through Antarctic sea ice.
Credits: De Gerlache Family Collection, Zingem, Belgium.

After two weeks of continuous sawing, on January 30th, the canal was just a few meters away from completion. What happened next was however the men’s worst nightmare. At first, the pressures in the floating sea ice were increasing to such a degree that the saws got stuck in the ice. Not much later, the sea ice started its counterattack. A fissure opened in the ice near the prow of the RV Belgica, running almost parallel to the men’s canal, forming a new freely-floating field of ice. Under the influence of the wind, the fissure widened, pushing the new icefield towards the canal. The canal shut in no time, closing the RV Belgica’s escape route.

The early explorers were left devastated and demoralized, but they had no alternative as chances to survive a second winter were slim. De Gerlache therefore ordered his men to continue sawing and attempt to reopen the canal. By the second week of February, conditions started to turn in favor of the Belgica’s expedition members. From the crow’s nest, the sea ice appeared to rise and fall. For the first time in nearly a year, the ship was under the influence of ocean swell waves. This did not only mean that the rolling waves might destabilize the ice and reopen the canal, but also that they were getting closer to the edge of the sea ice.

Part of the canal cut through sea ice by the crew and scientists on board the RV Belgica.
Credits: De Gerlache Family Collection, Zingem, Belgium.

In the morning of February 12th 1899, winds and waves caused the banks of the canal to part and a waterway opened just wide enough for the RV Belgica to pass. De Gerlache ordered to fire up the engine, but the stern of the ship was still frozen solid in sea ice and unable to move. In response, captain Lecointe precisely calculated the amount of tonite and the distance at which to place it, in order to blow up the ice. This was however not without risk as the explosive could puncture the hull and sink the ship. The denotations shook the entire ship and shattered windows. The ice around the RV Belgica was pulverized, and to the explorer’s relief, the hull remained untouched. For the first time since March 1898, the RV Belgica could set sail. After a month of carefully navigating through drifting sea ice, the RV Belgica passed the edge of the sea ice on March 14th 1899, ending their yearlong Antarctic imprisonment. A 14-day voyage across the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean followed, before the RV Belgica reached the harbor of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America.

The RV Belgica carefully sailing through drifting sea ice after its yearlong imprisonment.
Credits: De Gerlache Family Collection, Zingem, Belgium.

After 39 days of collecting seismic and bathymetric data, sampling seafloor sediments, subaerial rock outcrops, and jellyfish, observing whales and seals, measuring geothermal heat flow, forecasting Antarctic lows, highs, and winds, and flying drones and helicopters, the research activities of our PS134 RV Polarstern expedition have come to an end. This year’s Polarstern expedition turned out to be one of the most successful Antarctic shelf expeditions so far, partly due to favorable weather and absence of sea ice, but most importantly, because of an exceptionally motivated group of jovial and talented crew and scientists. This landmark was accordingly celebrated with a delicious barbeque on the ship’s working deck, followed by an auction of various rarities, from chocolate bars to rocks, pistachio’s to handcrafts made from old Polarstern parts, and the last fresh tomato to historic sailing charts, eventually raising €3100 for the Children’s cancer ward of the university hospital Rostock in Germany.

A bunch of happy PS134 scientists after finishing their Antarctic research activities.
Credits: Christoph Bogner.

As the RV Belgica 125 years ago, we are currently crossing the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean towards the Strait of Magellan, a well navigable sea route in southern Chile separating mainland South America to the north from Tierra del Fuego in the south. This sea strait will constitute the final leg of our expedition, and will provide us a scenic welcome in inhabited land after spending nearly 11 weeks at sea. Soon we will reach the harbor in Punta Arenas (Chile), where our expedition officially ends.

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