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Special Report: Heard Island Operations

So, what are we doing here? A few weeks ago Australia landed another summering expedition on the island - a group of 38 with a wide range of tasks - broadly in five groups - birds, mammals, botany (terrestrial and aquatic), survey and heritage. They took down everything they needed - from huts, to food, to power, to communications, to scientific equipment, to showers, to toilets.

Our mission was to bring a number (20) of them home after the completion of their programs but to also bring back a lot of accumulated rubbish. Part of the Management Plan for the Island is a clean up of the site - the weather is not at all kind to anything left on the island - for example a reasonably intact building in the summer of 1999/2000 was totally destroyed in a storm sometime in the ten months between visits. Last summer and in the first part of the current summer a considerable amount of work had been done in identifying and keeping aside old material of cultural value for restoration back in Australia, but to also pack other rubbish for return for disposal in Australia - remnants of old buildings - iron work, wall panels, scaffolding, radio masts, bottles, cans, insulators, empty fuel drums, marine debris, etc. This material had been gathered up, packed into metal caged pallets, strapped into bundles or put into large canvas/hessian bags - all set for airlifting onto the ship.

After we had put down the anchor and steadied the ship the two helicopters from the shore (Aerospatiale Squirrel AS350B for those interested) flew out to have a look at the prospect of putting sling loads of cargo directly onto the front decks of the ship. They decided against it for safety reasons. One of them with the Field Party Leader then flew out and landed on the ship for a meeting about working arrangements. Gordon had worked with the Field Leader before - is there anybody he doesn’t know in this game?

Then it was down to business. The Voyage Leader, one of our Communications specialists and three of the ships’ crew flew ashore for various bits of work. In the meantime Gordon arranged for the fruit and vegetables we have been carrying to be brought around from the hold and made ready. When the Ships crew came back from their inspection of the cargo on shore, there was another hurried meting on deck to finalise the plan. One of the helicopters started a series of flights to the ship carrying cargo from the shore to the ship. This was done in nets on a wire under the helicopter - sling loading as it is called. The pilots were ‘long lining’ which means they were using a long wire under the helicopter rather than a short strap from the cargo hook. This was in part to avoid some of the turbulence in the immediate vicinity of the heli deck. Sling loading is a quick operation as long as the loads are prepared and you have a slick ground operation. We were quite close into shore and there was only five to six minutes between each load coming out to the ship - lifting around 400-500 kgs at a time.

When the cargo was dropped on the deck, the deck crew (expeditioners and crew) moved it around to the front of the ship where another gang took over and used the crane to lift the cargo into the various containers or spaces which had been set aside. The helicopters could move the cargo faster than we could stash it away so the hangar gradually filled up with stuff.

Apart from refuelling breaks and meal beaks the work continued into the early evening on our first day. The weather held up remarkably well with only a few times when we had to stop for snow showers or if the wind got a bit too strong.

The winds in this area can be very fierce and come without warning, so in the evening we pulled up the anchor and cruised off the coast all night for as comfortable a ride as was possible and to keep the ship away from any danger should there be a sudden weather change.

In the morning the weather in Atlas Cove where we had been the day before was not very nice so we moved a kilometre or so around to Corinthian Bay where it looked to be much better. But even there it was a bit too windy for safe operations and we also had snow squalls coming through. So while waiting to start flying operations the deck crew got to stacking all of yesterdays cargo into containers on the front of the ship. This went on till around 1100 when the weather improved, and the hangar was empty. So flying operations began - starting with ferrying some people from the shore - those who were coming home with us.

And then by arrangement Gordon had a trip in - and took OzGold and me with him. He had to see the Field Leader, also the doctor about quarantine matters, the Communications operator about postal business and the field Ornithologist and a Heritage person about nothing in particular ‘because I know them’ but also about the original 1947 flagpole site - I’ll try and tell you about that matter some other time. He also took the opportunity to walk around the whole station area looking at the work that had been done and taking lots of pictures.

Flying had to stop for a while because the wind came up quite strongly and there were heavy snow squalls. It was so windy Gordon tucked us into his rucksack where it was nice and warm. If we’d been in the open I don’t know where OzGold and I would have got to. There have been instances at Heard Island where items of equipment had been blown many hundreds of metres along the island.

In the mid-afternoon we started again - Gordon took us back to the ship and the cargo work continued. It just seemed to go on and on. And then it was done - in between snow showers, wind breaks and time out for shifting things on deck. All the new people (20) were on board, together with both helicopters which are coming back to Australia with us and many, many tonnes of cargo.

Most of the cargo is rubbish - from the old station buildings, most of which had been so damaged over the years it was pointless keeping them there and the wind was only going to blow the bits all over this place. The Heritage and conservation people had already done extensive surveys and had set aside those things which might best be preserved either in place or to be brought back to Australia for preservation and display – this heritage material covered stuff from the early sealing occupation of the island and from the first era of scientific work in the early 1950s. The rubbish, also from those era, included old iron work, building panels, empty drums, drums of various wastes, building materials, electrical and plumbing fittings, bottles, old broken plates, cups, metal implements and so on. Scrap wooden material is being burned progressively on site and the ash will be brought back.

We also brought back quite a lot of scientific specimens - including mosses, various plants, kelp, small invertebrates, soils and the like which the scientists had been working with these last few weeks. We also brought back two ‘water tank’ huts which had been fitted out as sleeping accommodation for the expeditioners on the island and were now surplus to the needs of those remaining on the Island for the balance of summer. Read about these unusual huts at

When the helicopters were landed on the deck, they had their blades removed and were then rolled into the hangar for the trip back to Australia. When that was done and all the cargo was firmly lashed down to prevent damage, it was time to lift the anchors and slip quietly away. By 1900 we were on our way - it had been 29 hours since we first arrived at Atlas Cove. During that time we had taken 20 people off the island and a huge amount of cargo in something like 100 flights. It was quite an effort.

So the Heard Island operation was done in less than half the time which had been originally allocated. Mind you we were really blessed by the weather. The pilots and station people said it had been the best two weather days in the three or so weeks they had been on the island.

This has been a rambling account. Thank you for bearing with it. There are probably lots of other things I should have told you about but haven’t, and some of that was deliberate.

While OzGold and I were on the island we saw a few birds flying about but only one animal on the ground - a baby elephant seal but we couldn’t get too close. We could see some penguins in the distance, and there were a few plants and tussock grasses around. It would have been nice to have had more time to explore.



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