A journey to the other side of the world

Article written by Inès Ollivier, on the 29/12/2021

My journey to Antarctica began on November 11th, 2021, when I boarded a plane to Paris to spend a week with family and friends before the departure. A week later, I was back in Paris to catch the plane that would bring me to Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. It took 3 planes, two stopovers in Singapore and Melbourne, 17 000 km and approximately 30 hours of travelling to finally reach destination. Well, not quite yet… but a first step towards the white continent.

The purpose of this travel was to go on field mission for my PhD project. I stayed at the two research stations Dumont dUrville and Concordia to install and maintain instruments measuring the water isotopes in the polar atmosphere and collect snow samples to study the exchanges of water isotopes between the atmosphere and the snowpack at the diurnal cycle. These data will be used to better understand the water cycle dynamics in Antarctica and the climate signal imprinted in the snow.

I travelled with a group of about 40 people, scientists, technicians, some will be staying a year and others, like me, just a couple of months. In the empty airport, the authorities welcomed us already knowing that we would be only passing by before leaving for Antarctica. Hobart is one of the entry gates towards Antarctica, and France have historically been going through this town during polar expeditions, as of Jules Dumont d’Urville with his crew when they discovered the Terre Adélie.

After landing, a bus led us to a hotel in the city center, not so far from the harbor, where we spent the following two weeks in strict quarantine. Because of the covid pandemic, the French authorities put in place a period of isolation for each Antarctic expeditioner, to prevent the virus entering the continent and risking the lives of the people already on the station. There, the possibilities to evacuate a sick person are very limited, as well as the hospital capacities to treat severe illness or injury.

It was nighttime when we arrived in Hobart, so we couldn’t see much of the area, but at least the refreshing smell of wet eucalyptus in the air. Once at the hotel, the staff escorted me to my room, home for the next weeks. Starting from this moment, I was not allowed to go outside, to see other people, to get too close to the guards. Nevertheless, the room was very nice and comfortable, kind of a small apartment. A lounge area, with a couch and a coffee table, a corridor and a big double bed and bathroom. It was on the ground floor, and there was a window and a door close by the bed with a view on the outside. I could see some trees, and from time to time a guard passing by. Of course, I couldn’t open the door to enjoy outside, but I was allowed to open the window a bit to get some fresh air inside. The food was brought three times a day and deposited outside my room on a chair by the door. I had to wait a couple of minutes before opening the front door and grab the food that I could eat inside my room.


My hotel room, the view on the outside

During the following days after our arrival, we took a covid test and when the result came negative, we were allowed to go outside once a day, for 30 minutes, in a small, dedicated area. I enjoyed this moment, where I could walk a bit, and sometimes even do a bit of running! Otherwise, I kept myself occupied with work, reading, exercise or knitting. The first week went relatively slow, the challenging part was to not be able to go outside when I wanted, but during time slots fixed the day before. The second week flew by, and in no time, I was out!

A bus came to pick us up at the hotel and took us to the harbor, where we discovered the icebreaker that would take us to Antarctica: l’Astrolabe. It was not the first time I was seeing it, but still the same strong feeling of excitement to board it and ship towards the white continent. The marines warned us on the dock that it was going to be a rough crossing, the ship will be moving a lot, especially since it has a flat bottom to move through sea ice. We spent the first night in Hobart’s Bay, safe from the waves, and the next day we started moving towards south. A couple hours later, the waves were already 45m high, and I was not
able to stay longer at the bridge of the ship, so I went back to my cabin. I almost got sick, but layed down and didn’t go out for the following 26h. The doctor came and gave me some fruits to eat, the only food I had during that time. After this, I was feeling better, and hungry, so I went to dinner and could enjoy the rest of the crossing.


L’Astrolabe through the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic pack ice

A day before the arrival, we started to see some pack ice, sea ice broken into pieces. The ship went through it and continued its route. We passed by some big icebergs, saw some whales along the way, it was just incredibly beautiful. We arrived close to the continent at sunset, and spotted Dumont d’Urville just before going to bed. A last night on the ship, before setting foot on the ground!


The ship at Dumont d’Urville, Dumont d’Urville research station and an iceberg