by Melanie Duchin

February 18, 2007

It’s now Monday afternoon and we’ve been with the Nisshin Maru for more than two days. Luckily the weather is holding – it’s calm by Southern Ocean standards with light winds, relatively calm seas and this morning there was even a patch of blue sky here and there. But we are still at 73 degrees south latitude and it is getting late into February, which means the clock is ticking and at some point soon, this area will start freezing over in earnest. There’s pack ice 14 miles to the east of us and 20 miles to the southwest of us, and things can change so quickly here in terms of temperature and wind that ice conditions can change radically in a matter of hours.

The Nisshin Maru (and the Esperanza, since we are shadowing it and the fleet) drifted 30 miles to the north in the last 24 hours. Thankfully, the overriding currents flow north, pushing the disabled ship, the whaling fleet and us toward open water. But 30 miles is an insignificant distance given the size of the Ross Sea, an area that will be completely frozen over once temperatures drop.

We are in regular contact with the whaling fleet to provide updates on ice conditions.  They’ve thanked us for the information and have kept us posted on the progress of repairs on board the Nisshin Maru.  One of the things they’re trying to fix is the ship’s heating system. They’ve been working on an unheated ship for days and that won’t change until the system is fixed.  It’s gotta be a nasty situation. In my experience, having spent a decent amount of time at high latitudes, being perpetually cold is a form of stress that affects not only your body, but your mind and spirit as well.

I’m feeling increasingly anxious and agitated as the days come and go and there is no movement on the part of the whaling fleet to get the disabled Nisshin Maru out of here. My agitation is not due to boredom or wishing I could be doing something else. I know from experience in the Arctic that at high latitudes, autumn can be a sudden flash of time that delineates summer and winter, and winter can come on suddenly and violently.  We’ve been here for over two days, waiting on stand by, even though we have the equipment and expertise to tow the Nisshin Maru out of Antarctica.   What are they waiting for?  

The Nisshin Maru still has, according to media reports, 1,000 or more tons of fuel on board, and the whaling fleet has hundreds of people dispersed between its seven ships. I can’t say in strong enough terms that this is not the time to be bobbing around like a cork in the Ross Sea.  No matter how I try to think about it, I cannot understand why a decision was not made days ago to hightail it out of here as soon as possible. The Nisshin Maru first put out its mayday alert at 5:40am on February 15. That was over four days ago. They’ve waited long enough. It’s time to start heading north out of these treacherous waters. Every click of the clock increases the risk that this slow motion disaster will take more lives and lead to an environmental disaster.

The Nisshin Maru and Oriental Bluebird near Antarctic ice

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