The Üwis, who are flown in by aircraft under normal circumstances, are on board this winter as extra cargo. "Due to Covid-19, we decided to take them on the ship. Since it is sailing directly from its home port of Bremerhaven to Antarctica this season, we can be sure of arriving virus free," explains Heitland, who is now responsible for organizing the South Polar expeditions as Expedition Leader and Medical Coordinator at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, which operates Neumayer III.
The further south the Polarstern ventures, the more demanding the voyage becomes. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is notorious among seafarers for its storms. Moreover, many ships have been endangered by icebergs that have broken away from the ice shelf. The closer you get to the Antarctic continent, the greater the likelihood that the sea will freeze over. At this point, the Polarstern must be navigated with great care. Its design as an ARC 3-class icebreaker means that it can sail through ice up to 1.20 meters thick at a speed of around four knots (approx. 7.4 kilometers per hour). If the ice cover becomes thicker, however, or if floes pile up to form meter-thick pressure ridges, the only way to navigate through is to search for cracks or other weak spots in the ice. The last resort at the Polarstern's disposal is to ram the ice. It repeatedly backs up, then uses the full 20,000 horsepower of its four engines to charge into the ice and break it up meter by meter.
The ship finally docks in Atka Bay, about 20 kilometers from Neumayer III. There is no quay, but the huge edge of the Ekström Ice Shelf serves as the unloading point for the ship's cargo. "The edge is up to 14 meters high and must have a sharp slope so that the ship can dock directly alongside the ice shelf," explains Heitland, who will be traveling to Antarctica for the third time in 2020. After testing the stability of the ice shelf, the ship's cranes hoist the fuel tanks and containers beyond the ice edge.