CHAPTER 3: Odyssey Circumnavigation of Antarctica.

Odyssey Circumnavigation
of Antarctica.
3.1 Introduction
An agreement between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Hydrometerorological Services (HMS) of the earstwhile USSR, for conducting a series of Meteorological Rocket Soundings of the Upper Atmosphere at Thumb Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in India, was signed in the year 1970. Professor P.R. Pisharoty, my Research Adviser, became the Project Scientist of this programme. Under this joint Indo-Soviet Meteorological Rocket Sounding Programme, a team of 10 Russian specialists headed by Dr. A.V. Fedynski arrived Thumba in South India in the second half of 1970 and set up all the essential equipment by the end of November 1970.
Regular flights of the standard M-100 Meteorological rockets from Thumba, consequently, commenced on 9th December 1970. Professor P.R. Pisharoty sent me to Thumba to learn a general know-how of the M-100 Meteorological Rocket Soundings independently. In its second phase, the Indian specialists took over this charge from the Soviet team and started accomplishing the task of weekly firings of the meteorological M-100 Rockets independently. After getting essential training in the M-100 rocket system, I returned to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India as the first stock of the M-100 Rockets got exhausted.
Under this joint Indo-Soviet Meteorological Rocket Sounding Programme, there was commitment that the Hydrometerorological Services (HMS) of the USSR would provide an opportunity to one or two Indians to work at the Soviet Rocket Launching Stations, and to participate in the Indian Ocean Expedition of the Soviet Scientific Research Vessels, and also to carry out a long-term work at the Soviet Antarctic station ‘Molodezhnaya’ in Antarctica. In the beginning, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) committed itself to send its personnel to work at the Russian Bases in Antarctica and participate in the Scientific Expeditions, but at the nick of time the IMD withdrew from its former commitment mainly due to the harsh difficulties involved in this challenging task.
3.2 Solitary Volunteer
Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai, the then Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Director of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), had a keen desire of sending someone from India to the Soviet Rocket Launching Stations, especially the one in Antarctica, so as to avail of the rare opportunity provided by the Hydrometerorological Services (HMS) of the USSR. But none was ready for this venture because it involved great dangers and risk of life. The IMD had already withdrawn itself from their earlier commitment. Prof. P.D. Bhavsar, Scientific Co-ordinator of the ISRO, sent a telegram from Moscow to Professor P.R. Pisharoty suggesting him my name for participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition. On the suggestion of Professor P.R. Pisharoty, Professor K.R. Ramanathan and Prof. P.D. Bhavsar, I immediately volunteered for this venturesome assignment in order to respect the wish of Prof. Vikram A. Sarabhai and to bring credit to the PRL and ISRO and to our country ‘India’ as a whole.
3.3 An Extract from an Indian newspaper ‘The Tribune’
It may be befitting to insert herein an extract from the column news of a standard Indian newspaper, viz., ‘The Tribune’ whose Head Office is in Chandigarh. This extract is as below:
USSR attempt to get scientific data about the
South Polar Ice-Cap
Moscow, November 7,1971 (AP)
"The Soviet Union yesterday launched its most ambitious attempt to gather scientific data about the South Polar Ice-Cap. The Soviet news agency Tass reported from Leningrad that the diesel-electric ship Navarin set out from the Finnish Gulf port yesterday carrying equipment and foodstuffs to be used by members of the expedition. Some team members, Tass said, would set out, leaving Leningrad aboard several ships.”
“Another part of the research team will fly from Moscow to the port of Fremantle in South-western Australia and then will sail to Antarctica. The programme of the expedition, the biggest ever in the history of Soviet research in the Antarctic, envisages a large volume of observations started in previous years”, Tass said.
“Personnel of the Meteorological centre ‘Molodezhnaya’, the observatory ‘Mirny’ and the ‘Vostok’ station in the Pole of Cold will implement a broad range of scientific research”, Tass said.
The agency said, “the expedition would choose the site of a new Soviet station on the shore of the Amundsen sea. The station would then dispatch tractor-driven sledge trains deep into the icy continent”.
3.4 Preparing for the Antarctic Expedition
The aforesaid newspaper extract provided us with some relevant information about the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition in which I was going to participate. I was supposed to work at the Soviet Antarctic Meteorological Centre ‘Molodezhnaya’. Accordingly, I was to join that part of the research team which would fly from Moscow to the port of Fremantle in South-western Australia and then would sail to Antarctica.
I had to get prepared, for participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition, at a very short notice. Moreover, there was panic, due to the Indo-Pak conflict for the liberation of Bangladesh. For those reasons, I could not buy many of the essential things needed for our Antarctic Expedition. Under great difficulties, when I went home (Village & P.O. Bhana, District Hoshiapur, via Dasuya-144205, Punjab, India) to take the consent and the blessings of my parents, I was welcomed by a perfect black-out and the danger signals of the sirens.
My condition may be described like the one who had to fight not at the Indo-Pak border but at the South Polar Ice-Cap against the awful blizzards and the cryogenic environs of Antarctica where no Indian had ever wintered over earlier. Inspite of the fact that the Indo-Pak war of 1971 was going on and my mother was in the bed being extremely sick, my parents Sardar Mohinder Singh Sehra and Shrimati Satwinder Kaur did not stop me from going to Antarctica. They rather encouraged me to go ahead with the Antarctic Expedition and explore the South Pole.
3.5 Aboard the ship ‘Professor Viese’
With the blessings of my respected parents, Sardar Mohinder Singh Sehra and Shrimati Satwinder Kaur and my Research Advisers Professor Vikram A. Sarabhai and Professor P.R. Pisharoty, I left for Antarctica and boarded the Russian ship ‘Professor Viese’ from the port of Fremantle, Perth, Australia. The Scientific Research vessel ‘Professor Viese’ belongs to the Arctic and Antarctic Scientific Research Institute, Leningrad, earstwhile USSR, decorated with the honour of Order of Lenin. The Vessel constructed in 1967, has been specially designed for polar operations.
The vessel ‘Professor Viese’ is a floating Institute, carrying on the investigations of seas and oceans. The vessel has 29 well-equipped scientific research laboratories, a photo-laboratory, and an experimental workshop. The up-to-date instrumentation of the laboratories enables a wide range of investigations in air and water spaces to be carried out by the expedition members to and from Antarctica. Oceanographic projects are carried out primarily while in the Antarctic and near the Antarctic waters. Meteorological work is carried out throughout the voyage. During my stay aboard this vessel, I spent most of my time in visiting its various scientific laboratories and collecting useful scientific data.
Although it was my very first sea voyage, yet I never felt any sort of sea sickness. I really enjoyed my Journey to Antarctica to my fill and also collected a lot of useful scientific data. The ship ‘Professor Viese’ had a displacement of 6934 tons, overall length 124 metres, maximum width 17.5 metres, depth of beam 11 metres, maximum speed 18.6 knots, service speed 16.5 knots and a range of 15,000 miles. There were 29 scientific laboratories with an area of 620 square metres and scientific staff of 80 persons. The ships crew had a strength of 86 persons. The up-to-date instrumentation of the vessel ‘Professor Viese’ permits the navigation in different conditions. The rolling dampers reduce rolling during the storm to the minimum. The strengthened hull of the vessel permits it to move in hard ice conditions. The air conditioners provide a good micro-climate in every part of the vessel.
The Deputy High Commissioner of Australia in Bombay, Mr. T.V. Holland, had granted me Australian visa subject to my personal meeting with him. As prescheduled, I called at his residence. He told me a lot about the horrors of working in Antarctica and said that before a man is finally selected for participation in an Antarctic Expedition, he is thoroughly medically and psychologically screened in order to determine his adaptability to the extreme climate of Antarctica and after having passed all such tests, he is imparted a special training on how to survive in Antarctica in difficult times. He advised me that I should have also undergone all such tests and training in my own interest lest an adventure should become a misadventure. I did not realize the depth of his advice till I boarded the scientific research vessel ‘Professor Viese’.
On board the ship ‘Professor Viese’, I suffered from mild giddiness for a day or so. On this, the expedition group leader Dr. Ananjev called in the Doctor who asked me to name and count all the diseases I had suffered from since my birth. I told the Doctor, I never had any disease, whatsoever, till the ship started rolling due to stormy weather. He gave me some tablets and I thought that the Doctor would go after that. To my great surprise, he insisted me to produce my ‘Adaptability Certificate’, the very name of which I had heard for the first time. He explained me all that whatever the Australian High Commissioner had told me in Bombay regarding thorough medical screening and special training.
When I showed the Russian Doctor my International Health Certificate, he smiled and remarked, “Wintering in Antarctica is not a joke, my friend. This certificate is meant for posh cities of the world and not for Antarctica which demands from an individual utmost in physical and mental stamina with mature judgment so that the man may act quickly in order to survive there. You are, therefore, advised in your own interest not to participate in this Expedition because you run a great risk of life without having undergone the compulsory medical tests and special training”. I, then, requested the Doctor to let me go ahead with the Expedition at my own risk, may be at the cost of my life. I was then asked to sign a document that in case of some mis-happening in the Antarctic, I and only I will be fully responsible and none from the Soviet side. This is how I was permitted to take part in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition.
3.6 The Antarctic Arrives
It was summer time when we reached Antarctica but the air temperature was always below the freezing point. Also, it was that period when one could not make out whether it was morning, noon, afternoon, evening or the night unless one consulted one's wrist watch. "It is really that fairyland where even the fairies do not dare dwelling" were my remarks at the first sight of that place. In fact, in Antacrtica, the mother nature presents itself in the most beautiful form and it looks like a fairyland, indeed. The first thing which I saw on reaching Antarctica was a series of huge ice masses standing in the frozen ocean commonly known as ‘Icebergs’.
3.7 At the Antarctic Observatory ‘Mirny’
We stayed for quite some time at the Soviet Antarctic observatory ‘Mirny’. Here, I learnt a great deal about the Soviet Antarctic exploration and research. During the second International Polar Year, 1932-33, a modest Soviet Antarctic Expedition was planned, but it never materialised. It was as late as February 13, 1956 that the Soviet flag was first hoisted over Mirny station located at 66* 33' 05'' South latitude and 93* 00' 58'' East longitude, its height above the sea level being 35 metres. The scientific work being done at the observatory ‘Mirny’ included meteorological, aerological, actinometrical, ozonometrical, synoptic weather service, geomagnetic, seismic, ionospheric, cosmic rays, aurora, earth currents, glaciological testing of a thermobore, submarine biological, and medicine observations, etc.
It was in January 1956 that the first Soviet Antarctic Expedition led by Mikhail Somovoi approached the Antarctic coast near Haswell Island to establish a base for scientific investigation and build an observatory. This observatory was named ‘Mirny’ after one of the ships of von Bellingshausen and Lazarev, the early explorers of the Antarctic (1820-21). In 1956-57, this settlement consisted of some 20, well-appointed huts, supplied with light and heat by a central power plant. A powerful radio station guaranteed communications with other stations in the Antarctic and with Moscow.
Strong and continuous winds together with the character of the terrain on the minute section of rocky shore jutting out from the glacier caused all the huts to be covered by a thick layer of snow after several years. Now, one has to descend two or three flights of steep stairs before entering a hut. Not a sound reaches down there from the surface, when it thaws, streams flow from the ceilings of the rooms. They are diverted by various, clever devices under the floor, where a lake forms beneath each hut.
3.8 At ‘Vostok’, the Pole of Cold
The annual resupply tractor train from Mirny to Vostok, a distance of about 1500 km, starts around 10th January and arrives Vostok around 20th February every year. This tractor train is the primary means of resupply for the inland station ‘Vostok’. However, there are small sledge-fitted aircrafts which carry all expedition members who have to work at Vostok. On 12th January, I accompanied Dr. Ananjev, the station Director, aboard an 11-14 small aircraft to Vostok. It took us about 14 hours flight time from Mirny to Vostok with some trekking on the way. Flying in an 11-14 small aircraft on the route of the annual resupply tractor train, easily visible on the ground, was followed as a road from Mirny. I stayed at Vostok for quite some time and then returned to Mirny by the 11-14 small aircraft fitted with sledges instead of the wheels, for going to the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ in Antarctica where I was to work for the whole year.
Vostok Station located at the Geomagnetic South Pole in Antarctica is the coldest place on earth inhabited by man, at one time having recorded a temperature of about - 90°C. The smallest and the most remote station in Antarctica, ‘Vostok’ is located on the earth’s Geomagnetic South Pole at 78 0 27' S, 1060 48' E at an altitude of 3488 metres on approximately 3700 metres of ice. The air is perpetually drier than in the world's worst deserts. During the polar night, the temperatures drop so low that they would normally freeze carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere which condenses at -78.5°C. The altitude starves lungs of oxygen and the normal rate of heartbeats nearly doubles. Here, about 15 men winter over each year, isolated from contact with the outside world for more than nine months, half of this time in utter darkness.
The Soviets maintain here active meteorological, ionospheric and geomagnetism measurements and also conduct cosmic ray studies with neutron monitor and auroral observations during the polar night which runs from April 23 to August 18. Glaciological work is also carried out. The medical research programme at ‘Vostok’ is extensive with studies of the physiological adaptation to isolation and climate. While at ‘Vostok’, I felt that man kindles his warmest international relations in the coldest regions of the earth.
3.9 At the Antarctic Station Leningradskaya and the New Station Site ‘Ruskaya’
From the observatory Mirny, some of the expedition members, especially those who had to go to the other Antarctic stations such as Leningradskaya, Bellingshausen, Molodezhnaya, Novolazarevskaya, etc., including myself, changed over from the scientific research vessel ‘Professor Viese’ to the freighter ‘Navarin’ which sailed to ‘Punta Arenas, Chile’ in order to take some fresh food provisions, etc., and to refill fuel and fresh water. The icebreaker ‘Navarin’ sailed along the Antarctic circle through Ross sea and Amundsen sea, in order to resupply the station Leningradskaya (69* 30'S, 154* 23'E), and also chose the site of a new Soviet station ‘Ruskaya’ on the shore of the Amundsen sea. From the new site, tractor-driven sledge trains were dispatched deep into the icy continent for research and investigation of the surrounding area.
As the very name of an expedition, especially that of an Antarctic expedition implies, every member is always very active and is kept too busy even when one is aboard a supply ship. To keep me busy aboard the ship ‘Navarin’, I was taught helmsmanship and, therefore, steering the course of the ship for about 4-6 hours daily became one of my jobs. In the rest of the time, I would study the Russian language and assist the staff members in other miscellaneous jobs. The ship ‘Navarin’ called at the station Leningradskaya and also at the site of the new station Ruskaya where we stayed for quite some time.
3.10 At Puerto Percy and Punta Arenas, Chile
The supply ship ‘Navarin’ first reached Puerto Percy, Chile which is a small island with a small number of government quarters and provisions for the ships to refill fuel. Here the empty tanks of ‘Navarin’ were refilled with the requisite fuel and then the ship called at the free port of Punta Arenas, Chile which is said to be the southernmost city of the world.
Punta Arenas, Chile, being a free port nearest to the Antarctic, is in fact, the centre of operation of the Antarctic expeditions of many nations. Expedition vessels under various national flags, often, call at this port. When I visited the city in order to post some letters and reports, to my great surprise, I met some Indian businessmen there. I was told that there was a Sindhi colony in the city where more than 20 Indians were dwelling. After refilling fresh water and loading fresh food supply, etc., ‘Navarin’ sailed back to Antarctica.
I still remember a very interesting anecdote which happened with me while I was walking in the world’s southernmost city in Punta Arenas, Chile, where our ship Navarin had gone to take a stock of fresh food provisions, water and fuel, etc. On seeing Sri Guru Nanak Devji’s picture in a shop, I just suddenly stopped outside there guessing that this shop must be belonging to some Indian businessman. My guess was right because promptly came a voice from inside the shop saying, “Sardarji, Andar Aa Jao! (Please, come inside)”.
I entered the shop and was given a very warm welcome by the Sindhi busnessman who was owning that shop. He gave me a high tea party inside his shop and talked to me a lot in our mother tongue ‘Punjabi’. On a question asked by him as to how I was there and where I was going, I told him that I was a lone Indian participant in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition which was, in fact, a scientific Expedition to the South Pole, and that the Russians have told me that I would be the first Indian ever to winter over the South Pole and circumnavigate and explore the Antarctic continent with my participation in this Expedition. I also told him that our ship “Navarin” had called at the free port of Punta Arenas in Chile there to take fresh water, all the food provisions, and fuel, etc., for its expedition members.
He could not understand about this scientific Expedition very much and he remarked, “Isda matlav aih hoya ke hun Punjabi lok South Pole ate Antarctica vich bhi ja ke rahen lag pai han. Ih daso ke othe ja ke tusin kadha business karoge, ate isda kee faida hovega! (Does it mean that now the Punjabis have started settling at the South Pole in Antarctica also. Please tell me as to what business you will be doing there and what would be the anticipated profit from that business).” I just could not help laughing, Ah-h-h-h…..!
I then again explained to him that it was only a scientific mission and that there was no monetary benefit involved in this scientific Expedition except that I will be able to use the scientific data collected from the South Pole and the Antarctic continent for my Ph.D. work and that our country ‘India’ will be benefited from my Antarctic explorations by sending some regular Indian scientific Expeditions to Antarctica in furture for which my work would provide the necessary inputs and inspiration. He was happy to learn it and remarked, “Iston pahlan tan asin koi bhi Bharti othe janda nahin dekhiya. Ate tuhanu hi pahli var South Pole te jande dekh rahe han! (We have not seen any other Indian going there before this, and obviously you are now the first Indian going to the South Pole to winter over there)”.
3.11 At the Soviet Antarctic Station ‘Bellingshausen’
Russian Antarctic exploration dates back to the expedition of Admirals Bellingshausen and Lazarev in their notable circumnavigation of the continent in 1820-21, which greatly supplemented the delineation of the probable coast drawn by Captain Cook on the basis of his voyages of 1772-1785. Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev sighted the continent of Antarctica while sailing around the world on a research mission in their small ships, ‘Vostok’ and ‘Mirny’ in January 1820.
The Soviets have now honoured their pioneer Antarctic explorers by establishing four Antarctic stations after their names and those of their ships, viz., ‘Bellingshausen’ at 62* 12'S, 58* 56' W, opened on February 22, 1968; ‘Novolazarevskaya’ at 70* 46' S, 11* 50' E, opened on February 18, 1961; ‘Vostok’ located on the earth's Geomagnetic South Pole at 78* 27' 48" S, 106o 48' 24" E, at an altitude of 3488 metres on approximately 3700 metres of ice, opened on December 16, 1957 and closed temporarily from January 21, 1962 to January 23, 1963; and ‘Mirny’ at 66* 33' 05" S, 93* 00' 58" E, opened on February 13, 1956. Each of these stations is a wintering station.
At the beginning of 1968, Soviet polar explorers built their Antarctic station called ‘Bellingshausen’ on Waterloo, a small island near the Drake strait which separates Antarctica from South America. It is just next door, about 100 metres from the Chilean station ‘President Frie’ built later.
The freighter ‘Navarin’ called at the station ‘Bellingshausen’ which was resupplied with the fresh food stuffs, fuel and all other requisites, and the wintered-over staff was replaced by the new staff members. The old staff members saw some new faces after a lapse of about a year. By way of welcome, a sort of Diwali was celebrated there. All that was observed is difficult to be expressed in mere words here.
Besides meteorology, geophysics, geology, and medicine, oceanography is also a subject of scientific research at the Soviet Antarctic station ‘Bellingshausen’. Some biological work is also going on. It is a wintering station for about 20 persons. There are about 6-8 well appointed huts and a diesel-electric generator for producing electricity. The station stands on a bed of bare rocks ending in monotonous ridges. I collected some rock samples from the station campus and also saw some fur-seals, weddel seals, penguins, polar skuas and petrels at the nearby open sea coast.
3.12 At the Chilean Antarctic Station ‘Presidente Frei’
Afterwards, I visited the Chilean Antarctic station ‘Presidente Frie’ situated in the immediate vicinity of Soviet Antarctic station ‘Bellingshausen’ and I was told that at ‘Presidente Frei’ also, about 20-25 persons winter over every year. Most of the scientific work being done at the station ‘Presidente Frei’ comprised meteorological investigations. This Chilean station consists of quite a few huts interconnected to one another which gives a general view of a single well appointed house incorporating a diesel-electric power plant as well. The ship then called at the station Novolazarevskaya located at 70o 46' S, 11o 50' E in order to relieve the previous wintering team and also give fresh food provisions to the station. The ice-breaker ‘Navarin’ was also assisted by her sister ship ‘Ob’ in various relief operations.
After completely circumnavigating the Antarctic continent, the diesel-electric freighter ‘Navarin’ reached the main Soviet Antarctic station Molodezhnaya which being the headquarters is known as the Soviet Antarctic Meteorological Centre. This was the station where I was the Project Scientist during my participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition, and where I carried out meteorological rocket soundings of the upper atmosphere during all the period I worked there.

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