The lengths I go to, to recover my payload: Finding a white balloon and white payload in snow

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A new sport has taken hold at Casey, evoking the same, if not more, excitement than the Australia Day swim or the annual ping pong championships – balloon hunting.

Every day, the Bureau of Meteorology releases radiosondes attached to weather balloons to collect vital upper air data. Unfortunately what goes up must come down so the current met team have been exploring the options for tracking and recovering the balloon.

How hard can it be, after all? We’re only looking for a white balloon attached with white string to a small box 9 x 6 x 7cm big, against a backdrop of white snow and ice. Did someone say needle in a haystack? Ever thought of a different colour scheme? Perhaps some fluoro spraypaint?

Never to be daunted, met observer Janet and the most fearless trip leader on station, Emma, assembled a crack team of balloon hunters who suited up, loaded up on the carbs and set off on mission impossible.

The Hagg was skillfully negotiated along melted roads as far as possible, and then the balloon hunters set off on foot. Interestingly, all the balloons found were within a 20m radius of their GPS coordinates. We found this out the hard way on our first mission getting within 30m of the coordinate, deciding we couldn’t see the balloon, walking another 10km searching, before heading back for ‘one last look’. Luckily for us, that walk involved spectacular views over Casey station, iceberg horizons and some impressive crevasses.

After our first successful mission and balloon recovery, the team was pumped to rescue more balloons. So when the good news came in that there were three more within extended station limits, the baloon hunters geared up again. Sometimes in sport, things just go right and it started in the ‘sweet spot’ that day with two fast balloons. Unfortunately, despite exhaustive searching, the third balloon could not be found, with a vast melt stream suspected of stealing it from our turf. But as Meatloaf once said, “Two out of three ain’t bad,” and we did find a long-lost bivvy bag. Once again, the amazing views and the chance to get off station for a walk was all worth it.

Big thanks must go to the operational gurus Allan and Sharon for their indulgent support, and James and Ian – our field training officers (FTOs) – for cracking the GPS coordinates with their ‘Get Smart’ ice axe computers. Most importantly, to the inaugural Casey balloon hunting squad: Abrar, Ange, Donkey (Glenn) and Kev. Big thanks for your help guys, we couldn’t have done it without you. (Except maybe you Kev, seeing as you never found that last balloon.)

For the rest of you out there: training has already started for next summer’s balloon hunt and sign up will be at the beginning of the season. So get excited balloon hunters!

Ange, Janet & Emma examine GPS and maps

Ange, Janet & Emma examine GPS and maps(Photo: Janet Shelley)
Landscape photo of snow and small rocky hills

Where are you balloon?(Photo: Janet Shelley)
Barely visible weather balloon probe in the snow

This is what we’re looking for(Photo: Janet Shelley)
Abrar holds a found weather balloon in the Antarctic

Abrar holds our first balloon(Photo: Janet Shelley)
Melt stream terrain to find weather balloon

Slightly harder terrain on the second mission(Photo: Janet Shelley)
Emma holding up balloon probe in celebration

Emma doesn’t waste time(Photo: Janet Shelley)
Glenn holds up balloon probe

You can keep that string Glenn(Photo: Janet Shelley)
A landscape shows vast ice plains with three expeditioners looking for lost weather balloons

Emma, Kev and Glenn admire the view, er, conduct the search.


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