Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Tenth Anniversary: Antarctica: Jan/Feb 2006

Antarctica - January 21st - February 8th, 2006

'The Spirit of Shackleton' trip:
'For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.'
Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist.

Weather: Freezing! What did you expect!

Bird Total: Nearly 90 species seen
Plus: Nearly 30 mammals seen
Plus: Icebergs; Glaciers; et al!

A Trip Down Memory Lane - 'To the Uttermost End of the Earth'!

This time 10 years ago I was cruising around the Antarctic ocean, aboard the MS Explorer, which is sadly no longer with us, having sank down there a year later. It remains my number one trip of all time. The following extracts are taken from my personal log. I was in my 'Spike Milligan phase' frame of mind at the time, so apologies.

Wednesday, 18th January:
I travelled down with a friend of mine, Steve. It took the best part of a day to get to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, via Madrid and Buenos Aires. We checked in to a very nice Hotel Albatross. The weather was fair/cloudy. Steve and I found a nice little restaurant and we finished off our first night with a few beers in the local Irish Bar. Well, you have to, don't you?

Thursday, 19th January: 
Spent the day sight-seeing around Ushuaia and ended up much as last night, in the Irish Bar. Weather was coldish and windy.

Friday, 20th January: 
After breakfast, we spent the day visiting the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. It was quite windy early on but soon warmed up due to the brisk pace that 'Tanky' (Steve) was setting. We didn't have a map but it was soon clear that the trails were clearly marked out (arrow signposts - Doh!). It was here that an English girl came up to us and asked if we spoke English. She had lost her bearings. I looked around but couldn't find any. Tanky pointed her in the right direction. Her name was Andrea and she was down here to go to Antarctica. S'funny we said, so are we. The Park was a great start to our holiday. We got back about 3-ish. I was ready for a beer but Tanky suggested a walk around the National Maritime Museum - the old Prison. Very interesting but felt very gloomy. I kept looking for a way out. Quite a warm evening. Checked in to the Irish Bar.

Tierra Del Fuego National Park

Saturday, 21st January: 
Very, very hot - must have been in the 70's. Damn. Where's my summer gear? And we were armed with all our baggage, after having to check out of the Albatross. And we weren't due to embark until 4pm. 'Ah! Gracias, Amigo! We can leave our bags here?' Top man. So we walked the streets of Ushuaia until, what does that poster say? '1ra Fiesta Provincial de la Cerveza' A Beer Festival? Here, in Ushuaia? There is a God in Heaven! They only had 3 beers and most of the stalls were food areas but we manfully soldiered on. We dragged ourselves away to pick up our luggage and the coach, to take us the 400 metres or so to the jetty, where we embarked on to the MS Explorer. Our room was small but adequate - somewhere to stow our gear and get our heads down. We headed out to sea at around 6pm. Dennis Mense introduced himself and his team and proceeded to give us all the necessary and important information that we should know whilst at sea. Which I can't remember now but I believe was important. I do remember being introduced to the Bar Staff. This was followed by a mandatory lifeboat drill. 'Life-vest? What life-vest?'

Sunday, 22nd January:
'Channel about 1 1/2 miles wide, hills on both sides above 2000’ high…scenery very retired – many glaciers, uninhabited, beryl blue, most beautiful, contrasted with snow.' Charles Darwin’s journal description of the Beagle Channel.

Morning Position: 53°55’S 063°37’W
Weather: Wind 35kn from the North; Air temp. 9°C; Water temp. 7°C

First full day at sea, heading toward the Falkland Islands (anyone from Argentina reading this I meant the Malvinas). Oh dear. Seas very, very rough. I was an Air Force man, not a Navy man. Pass the pills, Vicar! Even Tanky felt dodgy. I managed to go on deck about 1.30 in the afternoon to photograph a few seabirds. Southern Giant Petrel and a Black-browed Albatross. The temperature was around 9 degrees. I even managed Dinner. The evenings at sea, between landings, were taken up by very good and informative lectures by Dennis's team.


Monday, 23rd January:
'The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean.' Ernest Hemingway

Morning Position :51°19’S 060°41’W
Weather: Wind 10kn from the South west; Air temp. 13°C; Water temp. 9°C

Rain at first, then sunny. Felt much better this morning. Even had breakfast. Even managed to keep it down. We had reached the Falklands! Land. Thank God. We touched down first at West Point Island. Saw our first bird colonies, Albatross; Rockhopper penguins (lesser crested) and Giant Petrels. Fired off lots of photos. I wasn't sure whether I was doing it right - this was a new camera. Where's the manual? Ah yes, first, take off lens cap. In the afternoon, we went to Steeple Jason Island. Here we saw a Gentoo penguin colony (white earmuffs). Yes, I did listen some of the time! Ahem - we even saw some Black-Browed Albatross - 95% of which nest here, you know. In the evening we had the postponed Captains Cocktails. Tanky and I dressed for the occasion. Excellent start to the trip! Happy Rorke's Drift day.

Black-browed Albatross

Tuesday, 24th January:
Stanley has been the capital of the Falkland Islands since 1845, when the seat of government was moved from Port Louis. The choice of the site was dictated by the need for a secure and accessible anchorage for the sailing ships of the Royal Navy and was not universally popular; one contemporary reference describes it as 'the most miserable bog hole' in the Islands.'

Morning Position :51°41’S 057°49’W
Weather: Wind 15kn from the West; Air temp. 17°C; Water temp.8°C

It's Tanky's birthday! That called for drinks in the Mess! We also arrived in Port Stanley. Very hot day. A very nice, but talkative, lady gave us a tour around part of the Island. A stop at a farm where we were shown how to cut peat and how to shear sheep. So I went off to photograph some stunning Red Meadowlarks. One of our missions down here is to have a beer in a Port Stanley pub. Mission accomplished. We departed Port Stanley over lunch and headed out across the Southern Ocean towards South Georgia. We almost immediately spotted some Pilot whales and a Wandering Albatross. In the evening Tanky received his Birthday cake - with an embarrassed look. He proceeded to eat most of it - you know what to do, old boy! He also got a rousing chorus from everyone. For his birthday, not his appetite. We, of course, retired to the Bar for celebratory drinks. Another good day.

Port Stanley

Wednesday, 25th January:
'The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.' Coleridge

Morning Position :52°21’S 051°30’W
Weather(0800): Wind 35kn from the North north East; Air temp. 5°C; Water temp. 6°C

Early morning wake-up tannoy call, by Dennis - 'Ding Dong!' Ship's Log up: Latitude: 52degs 28.9S Longitude: 50degs 19.7W. I looked on my specially purchased Antarctica map. Where were we? The hell I know. Course was 100degs and speed was 14 knots. The weather was fair to sunny. En-route to South Georgia. Attended my first lecture: 'Glaciers' by Fritz - 'Keep those bl**dy birders out! I like ballet but I don't write down the ballerina's names!' Ahem. Also, by Callan - 'Wildlife of South Georgia'. Both excellent! However, don't ask me any questions on them. I spent some time on deck and spotted Brown Skua; Wandering Albatross; Southern Giant Petrel, Grey-Headed Albatross. Then finished the day off with an excellent documentary on Shackleton. Seas very rough, but managed to stay in bed all night.

Southern Giant Petrel

Thursday, 26th January:
'I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife,
And all I ask is a merry yarn, from a laughing fellow rover,
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick is over.' John Masefield

Morning Position :53°08’S 044°29’W
Weather(0745): Wind 2kn from the East south East; Air temp. 5°C; Water temp. 4°C

Ship's Log: Lat: 53degs 16.2S; Lon: 43degs 10.9W. Course: 100degs; Temp: 5degsC; Speed: 9 knots; Weather: Choppy with rain. Thanks, Dennis. We crossed Shag Rocks at 1600 hours. That's 4pm. Or 8 bells. I still can't find us on the map. Seas still very rough. I attended the first lecture today - Callan's experiences of working on Bird Island. But then I was hit by a fierce attack of torpor, with lashings of stupor. So I crashed out in my bunk for a few hours. Sorry. Then an announcement over the tannoy: Whales off the Port Bow! Bugger - where's my camera? Where's my clothes! I got up on deck just in time to miss them. Bugger! Allegedly, they were Right whales and Fur seals plus numerous birds. Ok, where's my pep pills? I managed to sit through some more lectures: Shannon talking about Seals and explaining the difference between something and something else. Sorry, Shannon. Then Bob talked to us about South Georgia. At least I managed to stay awake. We had a rendition of 'Australia Fair' from our Antipodean friends as it was Australia Day. Don't give up the day job, guys. Dinner. Beers. Bed.

Baby Fur Seal

Friday, 27th January:
'Who would believe in penguins unless he had seen them?' Connor O’Brien

Morning Position :Fortuna Bay, South Georgia
Weather(0745): Winds light; Air temp. 5°C; Water temp. 3°C

No tannoy. What happened to the Ship's Log? Where are we? What's that lump of rock out there? Oh, it's South Georgia. Or 'Heaven' as Callan waxed lyrical. Weather is poor. Time to get my layers on. Dennis then squealed over the tannoy that the seas were so rough that we would be unable to land on Salisbury Plain. Salisbury Plain? 'Tanky, are we back in Blighty?' says I. 'No, you numpty, South Georgia!' said him. With the morning session a washout we eagerly awaited and anticipated an afternoon trip to Fortuna Bay. Fortuna-tely (sorry), the weather cleared up enough for us to land. Great afternoon! We saw King penguins; Skuas; Fur seals and Elephant seals. The weather was changeable all day. Oh yeah, we saw some Reindeer as well.

Elephant Seal
Saturday, 28th January:
'…in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man…' Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Noon Position :54°10’S 036°42’W
Weather: Wind 10kn from the West; Air temp. 6°C; Water temp. 2°C

RED LETTER DAY! Really nice day this morning. The ship stayed at anchor overnight which made for a pleasant - and calm - change. Good night's sleep. Apart from Tanky's snoring. We were given the option of a trek across the mountain - in the wake of Shackleton down to Stromness; or to stay on board and view the stunning scenery; Fur seals and King penguins. I opted for the photo opportunity. Tanky opted for the walk. I waved him goodbye, armed with a British stiff upper lip and bags of pluck . 'Good luck!' I shouted. 'Don't forget to write!' He held up 2 fingers. He either meant 2 songs or 2 jokes. Or something else. We landed at Stromness and immediately trekked up to Shackleton's Waterfall. Then the highlight: Grytviken in King Edward Cove and Shackleton's grave! Bob gave a toast to 'The Boss' and we drank down some very fine old Rum. Well, it tasted like Rum to me. There was a very fine old Museum here and a splendid Church. Back on board we gorged ourselves on an outdoor BBQ and again retired to the Bar for beer and medals. What a fantastic day!

Sunday, 29th January:
'More and more I am coming to believe that our alienation from the natural world is at the root of much that has gone wrong in the modern world, and that if Nature has anything to teach us at all, her first lesson is in humility.' Sharon Butala

Noon Position :54°37’S 035°56’W
Weather: Wind 5kn variable; Air temp. 8°C; Water temp. 2°C

Woke up to a very sunny morning, docked in Gold Harbour. Two trips again today. One in the morning to GH and then Cooper Bay in the afternoon. On GH we saw Petrels; Gannets; Seals - Elephant and Fur; penguins - King and Gentoo. Quite a few Kings here. At least a couple of dozen. No, no, my calculator is wet. Someone said over 25,000 pairs. Twenty-five thousand! And all wearing Dinner Jackets! Mind that smelly penguin poo! There were loads of young, hairy, brown ones - in a crèche, who were called 'Oakum Boys'. I forget the reason why. Then it was off to CB in the PM. Here we saw Gentoo and Macaroni (greater crested) penguins, plus one Chinstrap. I even saw the fabled South Georgia Pipit! No photo, though. We finished off the day with a topside look at the Drygalski Fjord with some amazing Glaciers.

One or two King Penguins

Monday, 30th January:
'Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide wide sea!' Coleridge

Noon Position :57°19’S 039°35’W
Weather: Wind 5kn variable; Air temp. 3.5°C; Water temp. 2°C

Weather - fine and sunny again. It's a tough job down here, but someone has to do it. Steaming to the South Orkneys. We had been reliably informed that we would get there just after breakfast, tomorrow morning. Another good lecture today - from Bob, talking about Antarctic Heroes. Callan depressed us by letting us know about Albatross v Longline fishing. Longline fishing 1 Albatross 0. I never did like fishing. And fisherman I always thought of as strange. A bit like train-spotting. Or stamp-collecting. Wait a minute - I collected stamps in my youth! Scratch all that. Today I saw my first whales - Mincke; Sei and Fin. At least that's what I was told. All I could see were some brown blurs and a few spouts. Personal note: must buy a better camera with a longer lens. Our first icebergs floated by today as well!

It really was that blue!

Tuesday, 31st January:
'All lessons in enchantment begin with nature: with animals that exhibit 'pure soul'.' Thomas Moore

Noon Position :60°44’S 044°44’W
Weather: Wind SE 10kn; Air temp. 1°C; Water temp. 1°C

Weather - calm with some cloud. We duly arrived at the South Orkneys - just after breakfast. This Captain's very good. Well, he is Swedish. He can drink too, seeing as how we kept seeing him in the Bar every night. We were allowed to land at an Argentinian Scientific Research Station - 'Orcadas'. The whole place was surrounded by seals. And seal poo. I'm not sure I could spend 2 years in this place but the guys here didn't seem to mind too much. Apart from their Doctor, who went mad and tried to burn the place down. This place reeked of history, so I bought some stamps. Sailing on, we saw some spectacular icebergs. We were then told that we were heading for Elephant Island. I hoped to get some good shots of it, as we passed by.

Killer Whales - Orcas
Wednesday, 1st February:
'We had a curious sense of isolation at this time, for we knew that no living person would dream that we were stranded on Elephant Island. They would imagine rather that we were in the south of the Weddell Sea. Thus there was no hope of rescue. We were in a world of our own, we had only ourselves to look to, and the world was completely cut off from us as though we had come from another planet.' F.A. Worsley

Noon Position :60°57’S 054°08’W
Weather: Wind SSE 5kn; Air temp. 1°C; Water temp. 1°C

RED LETTER DAY! Weather - fair and fine. Seas calm. Which meant we had a chance to land, yes land, on Point Wild, Elephant Island! To walk in the footsteps of Wild and his men! Where Shackleton left his brave 22 while he and 5 other brave men sailed away. And where there was a Chilean plaque planted to commemorate the guy who rescued them. Bleah! Bob wanted to take it down. I'd have passed him the hammer. Also caught a glimpse of a Leopard seal and a white Fur Seal. We definitely needed to sink a few beers to celebrate this day!

Elephant Island

Thursday, 2nd February:
'An Antarctic expedition is the worst way to have the best time of your life.' Apsley Cherry Garrard

Noon Position :63°48’S 057°18’W
Weather: Wind E 5kn; Air temp. -2°C; Water temp. -2°C

RED LETTER DAY! Arrived Antarctica. We docked off Devil Island and saw our first Adelie penguins - 'white eyes'. Climbed a very dodgy hill - 'only take you about ten minutes'. Hmm. I'd get your watch checked. Anyway, it was worth it, for we were rewarded with magnificent views over the ice strewn Erebus and Terror Gulf. Sailing on, we headed for Brown Bluff, where we came across a pod of Killer whales! Every camera for himself! Fantastic! A pod of about 8-10 females with young. They were young coz they were yellow. Tyson did the unthinkable and got closer, in a zodiac. He had asked for some volunteers. Not me, I'm a coward. I stayed safely onboard the Explorer and, just to be certain, stood behind several people. Hopefully got some good shots, tho'. We then arrived at Brown Bluff and climbed another steep hill. Will I never learn? But again, another great view. Saw more Adelie/Gentoo penguins. It was a little cold for me today, so I would have liked to have gone straight back to the ship, but we had to go for a little tour around the bay in the zodiac first. My fingers and toes were freezing! But wait, what was that? A Leopard seal! Attacking some Adelie penguins! My fingers were suddenly warm again, as I got my camera out. Great for us, not so great for the penguins. I reeled off some shots and then, as I looked through my lens, the Leopard looked straight at me. From 6 feet. And I'm in a zodiac. And he's big. I mean really big. Then I noticed his teeth. What's that smell? Oh, and we also saw an iceberg turn over, right near us. Another great day.

Leopard Seal attacking Adelie Penguins

Friday, 3rd February:
'The ice was here, the ice was there
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!' Coleridge

Noon Position :64°33’S 061°54’W
Weather: Wind SW 10kn; Air temp. 3°C; Water temp. 2°C

RED LETTER DAY! Woke up to a superbly sunny day. I thought it was supposed to be cold down here? Better buy a t-shirt from the shop. The sea was again very calm, as we ventured deeper into the Continent. We arrived at Nansen Island. Then, over the tannoy: 'Humpback whales off the Starboard Bow!' Bugger - I'm in the shower! 'Tell them to hang on!' I cried. Camera in tow, dressed in just jeans and t-shirt - thanks to the Shop - I raced upstairs to the Poop Deck. Or the Crow's Nest. The top deck anyway. Damn - five-deep at the bar. Then someone shouted 'Whales at 1 o'clock!'. One o'clock? How come they're surfacing at eleven o'clock then? Still, gave me an opportunity to get to the bar first. Yes! The Humpbacks then duly obliged and gave us a show. I gave my other camera, which had a movie function in it, to Darlene, while I took the stills on my main camera. Darlene? Didn't I mention her before? Oh, surely I did. No? Sorry, Darlene. Please meet Darlene, a very nice girl from Toronto. Together with her friend Andrea - who we met earlier. As the average age of all the passengers was high, Tanky and I made firm friends with the girls and a couple of other youngsters - Tim and Ian. Where was I? Oh yeah, the whales. I hoped I had got some further good shots. After all, I had been reading the manual. After lunch we landed at a place called Almirante Brown. Here we saw Seals; Blue-Eyed Shags; Gentoo penguins and amazing glaciers. We hiked up another hill, this time with plenty of snow and ice and tobogganed down it on our backs! I went up for another run and beat my first time by 3/10th of a second. We ended another perfect day with another BBQ.

Humpback Whale

Saturday, 4th February:
'Big floes have little floes all around about 'em
And all the little diatoms couldn't do without 'em
Forty million shrimplets feed upon the latter
And they make the penguins and the whales and seals much fatter!' Griffith Taylor

Noon Position :54°37’S 035°56’W
Weather: Wind SSE 5kn; Air temp. -1°C; Water temp. 0°C

We awoke to find ourselves in the Lemaire Channel. Today was to be our furthermost point south: 65degs Lat. This was at Pleneau Island, where we found it to be very cold with light, needle snow. However, there was no wind and the sea was calm. Great views. Very low cloud cover, which made for some good shots. We went ashore and spotted Chinstraps; Skuas and Antarctic Terns. Tanky and I climbed a hill where we found the South Pole! We promptly got out the Flag and the Duck (Quackleton) and photographed the evidence to take back home. The South Pole! We saluted and congratulated each other. Much to the bemusement of Shannon. She tried to tell us that this stick wasn't the South Pole. We then had a zodiac tour among the icebergs, some spectacular ones as well. We also saw Crabeater seals lounging around. Toes were again very cold. Made mental note to put on 4th pair of socks. There's now a sock crisis. In the afternoon, we sailed back up the Channel to land at Port Lockroy, a British base, that was refurbished into a museum and gave us a great insight into life as it was. It was the southernmost British Post Office and where we were told our Passports were to be stamped. Ah, stamps! Bought some more, as they had run out of t-shirts. Only XXL left. Ian was very happy. Bob had asked us earlier if we could raise the Cross of St. George as there were 3 Scotsmen living at the Base. Our pleasure. Another good photo opportunity. Callan didn't seem too pleased and took great delight later, in telling us that the flag now graced a penguin nest. Cheek!

Crabeater Seal

Sunday, 5th February:
'Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take,
but by the number of moments that take our breath away.'

Noon Position :62°58’S 060°33’W
Weather: Wind W 15kn; Air temp. 1.5°C; Water temp. 0°C

Weather - cloudy. Arrived at Pendulum Cove in the South Shetlands, where some lunatics went for a swim. 'Come on, where's your spirit of adventure?'. Sorry, I've reserved this morning to re-arrange my sock drawer. Later on, we found ourselves in Deception Island at Whalers Bay where there was a magnificent view of 'Neptune's Bellows' and the remains of a whalers' station. Some fine examples of rock geology. Alas, our final zodiac trip was on us, in the afternoon, with a visit to Hannah Point on Livingston Island. Here we saw a great abundance of most of what we had seen before. By this time, although it was a fantastic sight, I was a bit penguined-out, so I tried to concentrate on getting a good shot of the Blue-Eyed Shag. Then I just sat down, on a penguin-poo'ed rock and watched the Gentoo; Macaroni and Chinstrap penguins interact with each other. Then, unfortunately, it hit me that this was it and that this time next week I would be back at work. Bugger. Back on board, we sailed for Ushuaia and, after the Captain's Farewell Dinner, as we didn't have to get up too early next morning, Tim and I drank ourselves into oblivion until 2 in the morning, as we steamed through the Boyd Strait bound for Drakes Passage.

Chinstrap Penguin

Monday, 6th February:
'I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross.' Robert Cushman Murphy

Noon Position :60°05’S 064°16’W
Weather: Wind N 15kn; Air temp. 5°C; Water temp. 4°C

Seas very rough. So was I. Got up around 10-ish to find that England had beaten Wales in the 6Nations rugby. Any Welsh on board? We were in the Drake Passage and, although it was rough, I found that it took twice as much energy just to stand up straight, let alone walk around. Today we were entertained by all the Lecturers as they talked about their life; their universe and everything. 'Twas very good. Today was a bit strange, knowing we were heading home. Early night.

Tuesday, 7th February:
'I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth. I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world. But they did not die in the furious waves. Today they fly in my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind.' poem by Sara Vial inscribed on the albatross sculpture at Cape Horn

Noon Position :55°28’S 066°32’W
Weather: Wind S 8kn; Air temp. 9°C; Water temp. 9°C

We passed Cape Horn early this morning and got up to get a photo of the extremely rough seas, as we passed by. Eh? Wait a minute, wot rough seas? It was a mill-pond! What's all the fuss? We had a good talk and debate, chaired by Dennis on the Antarctic Treaty and what should be done for the future. Then after lunch we had a disembarkation briefing, a raffle and an auction. In the afternoon the crew gave us a final recap of what had happened. There were thoughts by Shannon; another fine talk by Bob; a misty-eyed Callan; a cheerful Fritz; enthusiastic tales by Steve; Heidi and Tyson. Well, maybe not a cheerful Fritz. As we neared the Beagle Channel, the Peale’s Dolphins came out to greet us and followed in the ships wake, for a while. We finally rolled in to Ushuaia and docked.

Most people bade their goodbyes to one and all, as tomorrow morning we were dis-embarking and all would be chaos. What a journey! Did we really do all that? Surely, it must have been a dream. After dinner we were allowed off the ship and with shaky legs and fevered brows, we wondered where to go?

The Irish Bar of course.