Archive for November, 2008

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November 30

November 30, 2008

I’m starting to think that the Drake has a false reputation- it’s once again just a gentle rolling out on the sea, with the water appearing like a rippled mirror. Despite warnings of storms and fifty knot winds, we seem to be sailing on a big lake, and it seems a little too coincidental to be plain luck.

We didn’t rush out of bed this morning, and I missed breakfast which was not the best for my poor, abused tummy after last night’s antics. Activities for the day were low-key, and began with sitting on the couch in the foyer feeling completely out of whack. They then continued with skipping a couple of lectures (a BBC documentary I wasn’t in the mood for), attending a couple of lectures (one from Aaron about living on the bases down here, which got me incredibly enthused, and one from Jim about orcas, which included some amazing clips of the animals teaching their young to hunt by picking a seal off an iceberg and putting him back repeatedly. The seal wasn’t eaten, but I can’t imagine he escaped without massive emotional scarring and a huge therapist’s bill) and more sitting on the couch, where I was desperately trying to finish “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, which I’d picked up from the library at the beginning of the trip. I’m afraid I failed in this task, but ended up making a sneaky book exchange anyway, so I can finish it off in the next few days.

Due to the fantastic weather, we arrived in Tierra del Fuego very early, so the afternoon and evening was spent anchored outside the entrance to Ushuaia’s port, waiting for a pilot to guide us in.

The fun really began at six thirty, when we had our final briefing and launched into the farewell cocktail party. All of the guys on staff dressed up in pants and shirts, some even a tie, to kick the mood off, and the champagne flowed. Dan and Pablo treated us to some Flamenco guitar and husky Spanish singing and seemed to get most of the girls swooning. For once, there was no rush down to dinner as many lingered up in the lounge. When we did get there, though, the farewell dinner was absolutely delicious, and Tom and I sat at an awesome table with Pablo, the young Argentine historian on staff, Olle, a wizened old Antarctic expert who can spin a great story, and David and Vicky our kayaking buddies. The Swedish group put on a performance of a rather long folk song about the Tango, which David and Vicky suggested we top with a charming rendition of Waltzing Matilda to represent the Australian quotient. The catering staff were paraded out before dessert, and whoops and cheers abounded. Everyone was having a great time.

After the meal it was time for the photo slideshow and competition, and I think everyone was impressed with the good quality of the photos taken on board. There were many “ooh”s and “aah”s as the images flashed up on screen to a mellow sea-themed soundtrack designed by Jill, and I was pretty chuffed that more than a handful of my images made it in there. The wine was then cracked open and the music turned up, and we even had a bit of dancing in among the shenanigans. Borika, Kim and I rocked out to the musical stylings of Aaron’s laptop, which included tunes ranging from average to classic. It was another late night for me, and an even later one for Tom, and from the number of people around and the number of photos taken, I don’t think anyone really wanted to come to terms with having to disembark tomorrow.

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November 29

November 29, 2008

I was in a zombie-like state for most of the morning following the effects of a rare mix of chemical inputs last night. As the last peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula began to sink beneath the horizon, I’d been offered a cigar on the back deck by Sascha, one of the Dutchmen we’ve been kayaking with all week. I stuck it between by teeth and stood in the breeze and the pale light, discussing his internet marketing business with him before falling silent as the continent disappeared.

The cigar made me feel a little woozy and light-headed, and following it with an Avomine at dinner had resulted in me speeding on from after “The Pink Panther” (only slightly enjoyable – both Steve Martin as Clouseau and Kevin Kline as his police chief turned in exceptionally poor and insensitive caricatures of Frenchmen), and then staying up late babbling to Shaun, Eleanor and Will in the Panorama Lounge about nothing in particular – in fact it was a remarkably boring conversation about the relative standards of road signage in various countries. Sin embargo, I was still somehow awake at one o’clock.

The principal side effect of motion sickness medication is extreme drowsiness – not actual fatigue, just an inability to stay awake – and as a consequence I was asleep until nearly eleven o’clock the following morning. I awoke just in time to enjoy an excellent presentation by Olle Carlsson, the ship’s resident “Antarctic Character”, and young dreadlocked Argentine Pablo, on the Swedish expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula led by Otto Nordenskjold in 1901-1903, just after Scott and before Shackleton. Nordenskjold was a naturalist and glaciologist who had already done interesting work in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego prior to attempting Antarctica, observing the geological record to support a theory of much greater local glaciation about 20,000 years ago, and exploring the famous “Milodon Cave” near Punta Arenas in Chile. About half of Torres del Paine is named after members of this expedition.

In Antarctica, Nordenskjold and his team of young Swedes were beset by many of the same problems that were later to face Shackleton in 1915. Their boat, captained by the whaler Larsen (of Larsen Ice Shelf fame) was crushed by pack ice, and they were forced to camp on ice floes for weeks before eventually making it to land and establishing permanent bases. Two groups of them became separated and were only reunited by great good luck, meeting by chance while transiting overland between two remote points on the peninsula. At Paulet Island they left behind a cache of supplies that Shackleton’s group would try, and fail to reach more than a decade later. It was a pretty enjoyable talk, in any case.

I was able to stay awake for lunch, but afterward I napped again for several hours, intermittently reading sections of Arthur C. Clarke’s “At Childhood’s End”, a 50s sci-fi classic. Somehow I roused myself for another slice of the Quark Educational Programme at five o’clock, with Expedition Co-Leader Jill giving a talk on the plate tectonics of Antarctica, and on the basic types of rock found in the area. Interestingly, although the eastern half of Antarctica is relatively geologically stable, and rests on bedrock, almost the entirety of its western half is just a layer of permanent, grounded ice, covering a couple of small archipelagos of islands which terminate in the Antarctic Peninsula. Whereas the massif of the eastern half contains some of the world’s oldest rocks – as old as 3.7bn years, or almost comparable to Australia – the western side is also geologically new, having mostly been formed within the last billion years by volcanism. Mt Erebus itself, Antarctica’s tallest peak at about 4km, is an immensely active volcano, and over the last few decades has erupted an average of ten times a day.

The expected horrors of the Drake Passage had signally failed to materialise, and the Nova still rocked only gently on the infinite blue ocean around us. Unlike our experiences on the southward trip, there were relatively few types of seabird flying in our wake, just a single large flock of cape petrels and the occasional black-browed albatross. We were gliding at a greater than expected pace back to Ushuaia.

I can’t really explain how I felt at this point too clearly. There was a palpable sense of it being the beginning of the end permeating the ship, ever since we’d lost sight of land. The expedition staff were enjoying their reduced responsibilities on the Drake, and the passengers, faced with the impending end of the cruise, seemed actually to be ratchetting up the intensity of their interactions, if anything. Everyone seems as much as possible determined to be “friends for life” with everyone else, which is maybe a little optimistic, but certainly makes for a nice atmosphere.

After dinner, the staff had scheduled a screening of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” which almost the entire complement of passengers decided to boycott. It just isn’t much of a film, really. We tried to get the expedition team to change the film – perhaps to something more appropriate like the Antarctic documentary “Eight Below”, but our spokesperson was politely informed “This isn’t a democracy” and no changes were made. I suspect that now the meat of the journey is over, the team is beginning to tire of making allowances for their charges!

With Ocean Nova Cinema turning out to be a tedious washout, we all moved to the Aft Saloon a.k.a. the Library, and brought some of our smuggled bottles of wine down with us. It turned out to be an entertaining evening – some of the expedition team, and the lively Mancunian Kate from catering, joined us with their own drinks, and we talked away deep into the night. The ship turns out to be infested with personal politics, likes and dislikes, to a disturbing degree – I could hardly pass five minutes’ conversation with any of the staff without finding out about some difficulty they’d been having with a colleague. Real dramatic crucible stuff, and it gives you a bit of an insight into the kind of dynamic that might produce a mutiny on another ship. Of course, I won’t describe anything specific in case by some chance there’s Quark people reading this (but you lot need to tone down the incestuous goings on!).

The passenger contingent on this voyage is apparently much younger than is usual – there are probably twenty or so passengers around the age of thirty or younger – and some of the less battle-hardened members of the expedition team are enjoying the vibe. At about midnight, as the supply of drinks started to run out, two staff went upstairs and boldly pilfered a few more bottles of wine from the unattended bar in the Panorama Lounge, and we kicked on for another two or three hours, until finally the group began to shrink around half past two. After another half an hour of quiet conversation, I was surprised to find myself – again – last to bed.

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November 28

November 28, 2008

I couldn’t think of a better day or way to say goodbye to Antarctica. We pulled in to our last day of landings in the South Shetland islands this morning with something I’ve been looking forward to immensely- Deception Island.

Deception Island is so named because from most angles it looks like a closed, circular mass but is in fact a sunken volcanic caldera, the interior lagoon of which can be accessed through a narrow and offset channel called Neptune’s Bellows. The island was used as a shore-based whaling station for a long period and retains all the old buildings, not to mention piles of whale bones strewn across the beach. As the volcano is active, the interior lagoon is occasionally heated dramatically, like one big hot spring, and has been known to get so hot it literally boils the paint off ships.

The day was clear and crisp, and we had a beautiful view sailing through Neptune’s Bellows. We stood out on deck and watched as the solid wall of rock approached, watched as the perspective kicked in and it gave way to separate masses of rock, watched as we glided through into the sheltered caldera. From our vantage point on the ship, we could see the old, rusting buildings dotted along the shoreline at Whaler’s Bay and a slight mist rising from the rocks around the lagoon- I was very eager to get down there.

The bay was a heaven of urban decay- perhaps more on the decay side than the urban side, but still. The beach was littered with derelict buildings of many functions (silos, huts, hangars and factories) and with rowboats, bones, tools and rubble. Wildlife accepted these things like part of the natural landscape, but as I’d been days without seeing desertion or disuse, the sight of a penguin waddling along past vats and pumps was strange to my eyes. Of the buildings, the silos were particularly impressive and looked like huge rusted-out tin cans piled against each other at various angles. Inside the silos, echoes built up and reverberated like a ghostly choir around our voices, releasing through the pinprick holes letting strings of light penetrate as far as they could into the darkness. The eerie places were once used to store whale oil.

It was the colours of the island that really caught me- the greying old timber of rowboats, the peeling turquoise paint of the huts, the bright orange of the silos, the occasional yellow blob of a shipmate. Because of the heat generated by the volcano, the landscape was very different to that on other parts of the peninsula- the beach was completely free from snow and the rocky circle of the caldera lip was mostly exposed. The shoreline steamed around the zodiacs and debris.

After a thorough exploration of the buildings, I took to walking along the beach to Neptune’s Window, a high saddle connecting the internal coastline to the external. I passed by abandoned rowboats guarded by lazy seals and vertically trapped whale bones sticking out of the rocky soil before plodding up the small hill to the viewpoint. The saddle provided an excellent contrast of views, seeing first the littered tragedy of Whalers’ Bay and then the natural beauty of the black sand beaches, red rocks and pale ocean on the back side of the island. The little inlet on the far side of the saddle was home to a multitude of flocking birds, identifiable only as specks far below to my eyes. I spent a fifteen minutes or so watching the clean blue water roll gently over a minuscule black sand beach encircled by towering cliffs.

Halfway back to the landing point, it became apparent that the Polar Plunge – the ritual immersion of tourists in Antarctic waters – had begun, and I wandered up to watch while waiting for Tom to catch up and provide me with some courage. The utter ridiculousness of stripping off on the cold, pebbly beach to a red bikini didn’t pass me by without notice, but we both had a go. The first six centimetres or so on the shore was actually quite warm from the volcanic activity, but diving into the single-degree-Celcius water beyond that was an amazing experience, kind of like being punched out, I think. The water temperature instantly knocked the sense out of me and my hearing stopped working for two minutes or so. After we came out, towelled ourselves off and dressed, we both felt rather warm, but my muscles ached and I longed for a sleep.

Back on the ship, we took a sail over lunch, and spent most of the time relaxing in the lounge.

That afternoon, we sailed to Half Moon Island and took what was possibly the most beautiful landing of the entire trip, and certainly the most beautiful paddling. Despite being further north again of Deception Island, Half Moon by contrast was covered with deep, pristine snow and ice, and glowed fluorescent white against the dark, clear water. We launched our kayaking from a different spot to the majority of the landers, and were able to slide the kayaks straight off the round-pebbled beach and into the water.

Half Moon is a semi-circular island lying three sides in the lee of the Aitcho islands and the much larger Livingstone island. Paddling in the perfectly calm water around the brilliant white ice piled up on top of the black rocks was an experience I’ll never forget. The sun was shining and spirits were high, everyone was happy and we couldn’t believe our luck with the weather. We circumnavigated the island, stopping to investigate surging channels into the rock, to take many a sterling photograph and to drop the hydrophone and listen to a wailing leopard seal in the distance.

We were all just plainly ecstatic by the time we arrived back to our starting point, and after Dan saying just to take the trip back to the beach at our own pace, Tom and I decided to make it a race. We did get an appreciable head start, but before long Sacha and Alicia were gaining on us, and gaining fast. We were nose and nose for a while, but we veered off course a little and heard the scrunch of our competitors’ boat hitting the gravel just parts of a second before ours. We got some help from Tommy pulling our nose onto the beach, and freed ourselves from the kayaks- beaten, exhausted and utterly thrilled. Dan showed off his Eskimo rolls- no mean feat in the freezing water- before we all got in the zodiac to be whisked off to the boat amidst cheers and grins.

We had a lovely dinner and a relaxing evening, deciding to call it an early night. I crawled into bed at ten thirty having given up on The Pink Panther, which was playing in the lounge. I was hoping to beat my room-mates to sleep for once but failed- I guess Alicia was just as tired as we were!

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November 27

November 27, 2008

At the campsite at Damoy Point, there was little to choose between the pale light of the late, late evening and that of the early, early morning.

The night before in the tent, I recall falling asleep to a couple of chapters of “Endurance” lying on my back, waking to the sounds of my own snoring (and several echoing snores from around the site), flipping on to my side, and then slipping once more into a repose unbroken until I heard Aaron’s voice at 4:45am — “You awake in there?”.

As I opened my eyes to the sight of the surreally bright walls of the tent around me, I observed that my right side was chilled from its contact, through the foam bedroll, with the snow platform below us. This was despite it having been, overall, warm enough in the tent that I’d slept with my sleeping bag partially unzipped. Torres del Paine was colder than Antarctica! I was slow and awkward in the confined space as I struggled out of my layers of bags and clothes. Around the tent, the movements of everyone else on the site sounded extremely close, as if we were all shouting and shuffling around in the same small room.

We should’ve travelled lighter. For some reason I had brought a whole host of unneeded crap in my repacked rucksack, including diary and pen, two books, a waterproof satchel, three weeks’ worth of rations … actually I didn’t bring the rations, but you get the idea. It was so early, and I was tired.

My rubber boots rested, still upright, at the bottom of the ice depression we’d carefully crafted by the main door of our tent, to make taking our boots off that much easier. The right one was full of beautiful, freezing ice crystals from a brief, ill-fated venture into the snow along the shoreline the previous night – I’d stuck my whole right leg up to the groin into a soft deep drift, and had to take my boot off outside just to extract myself. Not a high percentage option. My waterproof outers, pants, and longjohns were also still thoroughly damp from the wet Zodiac ride out to Damoy. State of gear: suboptimal. State of self: cold, and desperately needing the toilet, but manfully refusing to use the Porta-Potty positioned around the back of the old British hut nearby.

Once we’d struggled into our outer shells and out of our tent, actually dismantling it was quite easy – we just needed to kick down the snow covers on the tent walls, pull out the poles and the ice axe anchoring it at the back, and roll the thing up. I was pretty impressed with the design of these expedition tents, which is about one mark simpler than that of the hiking tent we’ve been using for our own purposes all year.

Our gear collected, we were Zodiac’d to the Nova by an impressively cheery Jim from Vancouver, a short hop since the crew of the ship had already brought it around from its anchorage point to meet us in the bay. On our way out, I observed at least one new truck-sized berg in the water, perhaps an outcome of some of the tremendous cracks we’d heard from the ice wall in the Antarctic silence of the previous night.

(Antarctic silence: the epic kind of silence that is punctuated only by the constant clamour of snoring campers and of penguins making booty calls to each other.)

Once on board, I disobeyed instructions and went straight to my cabin to use the bathroom and change before the campers’ debriefing in the Libro-Saloon. Désiré was wheezing contentedly on his bunk, the lucky recipient of a night free from his younger cabinmates.

In the library I found everyone else, still bedraggled and camp-weary, listening to Aaron’s instructions for hanging out the stuff to dry. Mountaineering ropes had been ingeniously criss-crossed about the low ceiling of the room, and soon we had them festooned with sleeping bags, tents, and other bits and pieces. In one rather too hastily shoved together tent bag, I found about three kilograms of ice.

In conversation with the other campers, I found out that I’d had probably the best night of sleep of anyone on the excursion, which I put down to the gruelling kayaking expedition of yesterday afternoon. Max referred to it as “high winds and chop”, but I’ll call it as I see it: two and a half hours of paddling, with over an hour of that into a turgid one metre swell amongst a thick field of ice chunks, facing into a forty knot wind, receiving a mouthful of freezing salt water with every stroke. I could’ve slept on nails last night, so a soft bed on snow in practically full daylight presented no problems! Either way, I’m still feeling the pleasant, warm ache of the exertion in my shoulders.

At six o’clock in the morning I was too tired to stay up, but too awake to go to bed, so I pumped myself with several cups of the ship’s free hot chocolate in the Panorama Lounge, and made diffident conversation with Butch and Dorothy from outside of Derby in Western Australia, who revealed to me that they were, terrifyingly, always up and about at this hour.

At breakfast I’d still had no more sleep. Dan was doing the rounds getting people to sign on for the morning’s kayaking, though, and in a fit of earnestness I not only agreed, but persuaded Max to join us again as well. We were advised to get ourselves onto the first Zodiac so that we’d have time for a quick hike at the landing point before a shore launch, and so after breakfast we went off almost immediately to suit up into our ridiculous drysuit+PFD+spray-skirt outfits,

It has been enjoyable to be down there early on the side ramp of the boat, crowding up with the other kayakers, and we are developing a sort of team camaraderie based on the fact that we’re, well, probably having a better time than anyone else as kayaking is clearly the coolest adventure activity the cruise offers!

Aside from Max and myself, the other kayakers are:
— Henk and his two grown up sons Sascha and Marc, from Holland, on a Boy’s Own expedition
— Alicia from California, works in advertising, and is one of Max’s cabinmates
— Vicky and David from New Zealand, fortyish/fiftyish, experienced paddlers, and constantly proving themselves fitter than everyone else to boot!
— Sheila and Will from the US, another parent and child combination

The landing point for the morning was Neko Harbour, an incredibly beautiful spot, even by the exacting standards of the last few days. On our left, a triangular inlet was guarded on one side by a huge, dynamic ice wall about forty metres tall, furrowed with massive crevasses and rising up into a blistered, gargantuan glacier, and on our right, a boulder-laden shore gave way to a soft, steep expanse of snow with a handful of penguins populating it. Guarding the inlet was a deployment of icebergs, and as we approached in the Zodiac, we saw a car-sized chunk of ice drop with a crash into the water at the foot of the ice wall, sending out a large, silent ripple.

We were warned to stay well away from shore – if very large bergs calve from the glacier, they produce tidal surges that can flip a Zodiac parked by the water’s edge fifteen or twenty metres up on to land, and are practically guaranteed to wash anyone else standing there away. Taking this advice, and still dressed in our absurd kayaking equipment, we followed the path up the snow hill carved out by Natalia ahead of us. We had to pause a few times to make space for filthy Gentoo crossing our human path on one of their smaller, but no less well-defined penguin highways.

It was an invigorating walk in knee-deep snow to the lookout point halfway up the hill, from which one could look down onto the top of the huge ice wall I described a moment ago. The depth of the blue colour in the glacial crevasses was extraordinary, and the whole ice feature looked a little like a patch of cracked, drying desert mud – only so much more pure and beautiful, and so much larger.

Seeing a snow ridge above us, Vicky, David and I thought we’d climb still further up, but after fifty metres of ever deepening snow, and a shouted warning from Natalia about “crevasses up that way” we let reason prevail. Coming back down from the viewpoint en masse, we saw a good opportunity to toboggan down a steep fifty metre slope of snow, and obtained permission from Natalia to do so. Unfortunately, just as we were about to take off, Kayak Master Dan came up in the opposite direction to collect us for the paddle, and forbade the kayakers to toboggan in our $1100 drysuits! Bit of an outrage, I’d say.

As on other days, the kayaks had been brought to the shoreline in a Zodiac, and having been both the first paddlers up and the first back down again, we waited a while for the stragglers to catch up. While we waited, we saw a hapless Gentoo mother try time and time again to roll her egg, which had been dislodged from its pebble nest, out of an icy puddle in an adjacent depression. Every time she had dragged it halfway up the short slope, it would slip out from under her claw and slot straight back into the puddle. One could only assume that the poor chick inside was already dead from the cold, and I’d hate to think how much more energy the mother was about to expend on the barren egg, the result of a year’s worth of work from her perspective.

Once kayaking had commenced, we made slow progress around the harbour, travelling along the shoreline away from the ice wall for safety reasons. The expedition team became quite excited at one point by a mysterious, sudden and persistent surge in the water level – in the space of about five seconds, the water level inexplicably dropped by about a metre, and didn’t return. There was no sign of what activity – presumably something huge and glacial – might have caused this change.

We continued, circumnavigating various large bergs, and passing under a smaller, less active ice wall quite close to it. Conditions were fine, only slightly breezy and a great relief compared to yesterday’s trials. Rafting up and relaxing, Dan dropped his hydrophone for our benefit again, and we got a mini-lecture about the different submarine sounds made by various species of seal. Leopard seals make a sound not unlike a flute being played underwater, whilst the amiable Weddell seal has a whole vocabulary of honks, flutes, growls and squeaks meaning different things.

We’d been paddling with the light wind to this point, and as we turned about to beat back into it, things became much more tiring. Satisfying though, as Max and I were making far better time than we had been on other days, and we seem to be developing a bit of an understanding. At what seemed like a location just before the first point we’d passed after launching, we were picked up by Aaron in his Zodiac. But even after we’d boarded the dinghy it took a full five minutes at a decent clip to return to the Nova, so I was glad we hadn’t undertaken to do it all ourselves.

Over lunch, Max and I ended up chatting with Harrison, the brashest American on board, and Kim, the Kiwi doctor. Harrison turns out to be a really nice guy, a Floridan with a lot of hilarious stories to tell about his years as a fried chicken chef for his dodgy college fraternity. He had us all in stitches with an anecdote about being drunk in a bar in Dunedin: another punter had called him outside for bumping into him, and then been set upon by an enormous bouncer – in Harrison’s words “I decided I didn’t really want to fight the guy any more — so I got some chips and passed out.”

The Nova had a fair distance to make up before our afternoon landing, so I was able to take a much-needed break. I recall being laid out half-asleep on one of the dividing sofas in the Panorama Lounge with “Endurance” sitting open in front of me, and also a brief spell in my cabin.

By the time we were approaching the landing point, the weather had completely changed. Heavy, heavy snow was falling as we took the dinghies to Useful Island, another hilly place populated by penguins, and named by the French expedition under Gerlache. Gentoos and Chinstraps were in abundance on the lower territories, fouling up giant swathes of the countryside with their red, mud-like guano, and also camping under the few signs of human intervention in the place, like a little shack and observation point at the top of the hill.

But at the summit, all was peaceful. Giant blobs of snow were cascading down all around us, damping the sounds of conversations taking place even a few feet around us, piling up on the ground faster that one could imagine. After five minutes perched on a rock looking down at the vague outlines of the landing point on the shore below, my boots were already near enough to being buried in white.

I walked the limits of a long ridge at the top of the hill, on a path that was variously mushy, and carved through deep snow. There was something private and meditative about the place. I spent about fifteen minutes experimenting with throwing myself into the drifts of snow, just sort of flooping about and enjoying the feel of the place, of the silence and the huge snowflakes falling onto my cheeks. Aside from rocks and the occasional yellow Quark penguin, the only landmarks were the snow-covered skuas, standing like hermits any which where, apparently not keen to take off and fly in the conditions. Those skuas that weren’t squatting alone on exposed rocks were lurking in the penguin rookeries, waiting for a parent to have a lapse of attention for just a moment so that a precious egg could be stolen away.

Returning to the hilltop buildings to find Tommy and Max chatting quietly with Pablo, I enjoyed a lot more quiet time, encouraged to simply meditate and take in the astonishing purity of my surroundings by the fairytale falling snow. Meanwhile we were joined by a few others, including Borika and Dan.

We waited, and waited in this white. I made another circuit of the hilltop alone, following a lower trail. Eventually it was nearing the departure time of the last Zodiac, so we began to make our way down the hill, when someone had the bright idea of making up for the disappointment of being forbidden to toboggan at Neko Harbour by bum-sliding the rest of our way down. Heavyset and tall Dan went down first, slowly, carving out a quicker run for the rest of us. Max proceeded much faster, and inadvertently pulled off a complete rotation towards the end of her slide. I was determined to break all speed records, and didn’t do too badly. To simply charge into a wall of snow at the end of it all was hilarious, as well.

When we reached our return Zodiac, it lay in the shallow water under a layer of more than an inch of fresh snow. It had been a magical afternoon. In the evening, after another abundant dinner, we relaxed in the Libro-Saloon over a few glasses of red wine with some of the other younger passengers. I’m not sure when I made it into bed.

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November 26

November 26, 2008

This evening we marred the perfect, flat, white and undulating snow with our khaki tents, in the middle of nowhere with only a decaying emergency hut to mark our spot. And it may just about be the coolest thing I’ve done.

The day in general was somewhat of a record as far as good days go, and started with an earlier wake-up call for breakfast before our first stop of the morning- a landing at Port Charcot on the coast of Booth Island, a miraculous little spot where Charcot had his men erect a hill-top monument.

We landed at a little bay on the side of the island, Tom and I in the first zodiac, and hopped out onto a sparse trail of footprints and flags laid down by a couple of the staff. Our first walk was around the base of the hill to an almost closed-off bay filled with small icebergs and a little colony of nesting Gentoos and a few Adelie penguins. Adelies must be my favourite penguin, as when they get cold they stoop over a little and stick their heads out, looking like mafia bosses with their black-and-white coats and bright blue eyes. Gentoos, by comparison, are like the rats of the Antarctic, they get in absolutely everywhere and populate at all costs. They’re the dirtiest of the penguins, but the cutest to watch waddle.

The real star, however, was the bay itself, a stunning mix of floating white, pale blues and small pools of deep black where the ice had failed to congregate. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of scenery I’ve seen in the Antarctic.

We had a lot of time left, so decided to climb the second trail to the hill summit to look at the monument. The trail was a little tough, slogging through knee-deep snow at times and sliding across slippery, ice-covered boulders at others, but we followed it easy enough as we zig-zagged upwards. The monument was basically a big pile of rocks, once having a cross erected on it, but that now lay on its side in the snow, and the vantage point provided a marvellous view of the little bay. Tom and I lingered at the top, along with Jim and Pablo (two expedition staff), Borika and another lady I didn’t much recognise. As we hung about, Jim expoounded on his theory that Charcot’s men who erected the monument had made a complete transition from human to penguin, and had built the rock pile to attract women in the way of the Adelies- and that it seemed to have worked with only a hundred year time gap judging by our presence.

We walked a little of the way down before deciding that was the boring option, and instead took quite quickly to toboganning down the curves on our bums. We managed to get quite wet, but had started a trend- Borika followed suit as we made our way down the slopes, giggling and screaming and bumping in to each other all the way down like the kids we are. It was great fun!

It was a zodiac back to the ship then, and as the weather had turned out quite nicely as we sailed back north through the Lemaire channel, we decided to hang out on the back deck and soak up the scenery. The ship had come on to some sea ice, and had to crunch it’s way through some small bergs. The noise it makes as this happens is extraordinary- a wailing, cracking, scraping sound in an unnatural pitch. We hadn’t been out on deck long before the most amazing thing happened- a small avalanche dropped from the peak of the mountains as we passed the narrowest point in the channel. It was quite a bizarre experience, as when the snow started falling it seemed just like something to watch as a stroke of luck, but as a thick white wall of snow and ice came careening toward the ship, it became evident that we would rather soon be expected to participate in it. Thankfully, all three of us out on deck realised what was about to happen and grabbed hold of something before a vicious wind laden with ice flew past and pelted us, making an eerie screeching, scraping noise as it did and covering us with small pebbles of ice. It was utterly incredible! We let out whoops and cheers as we trudged back inside, looking like drowned rats but with massive grins on our faces, to report, gossip and share photos with the rest of those who had seen it. Only one other person got caught on the front deck, but she made it in before the wall of ice hit.

It seemed impossible to top, and I wandered about the ship grinning and waving and exclaiming “avalanche!” occasionally, even through lunch. There was a little kicker just before the main course was served though- a pod of Orcas spotted off the starboard. After some initial peering though windows we went out on deck for a better look, and I caught sight of dorsal fins looping through the water some way off into the distance, managing to even spot the white mark below the head on one of the whales.

Tom was keen on the kayaking in the afternoon, but I opted out as I thought it might be too challenging. Tom was instead to be teamed up with Kayak Master Dan for the trip, which was good because it meant he didn’t have to paddle a double alone in potentially rough waters. After the kayakers and climbers had set off there were only forty or so of us left on board to hear a presentation from the manager of Port Lockroy, an old British station used for espionage during the war and converted after a period of disrepair into a museum for the tourist trade. The manager had been bestowed with the task of restoring the derelict building after pressure on the government from IAATO to either get the station functional again or spend the money to decommission it properly. His first-hand accounts of the restoration in the middle of nowhere with only three men were quite intriguing.

The presentation was followed by a visit to the base itself, now a museum, which was interesting enough, though I think I liked the Ukrainian one better, they seemed to have more of a sense of humour. The base was built on a very small island, chosen because it was free from penguins, and shortly after they built the penguins moved in. The place was, well, rather smelly, not to mention completely crowded. I had a look in the museum and gift shop but ended up committing to very little, just posting a postcard to myself, which is an odd experience.

We had our own private zodiac shuttle set up between the base and Jougla Point, where there were some funky whale bones, yet more Gentoos and a few Weddell seals to gawk at. The whale bones were particularly impressive, relics of a whaling station built there many moons ago. The snow was deep, so we only had the opportunity to view two sets- a giant ribcage emerging vertically from the land and some smaller, curved bones, possibly the rib bones of a small whale type, littered through the shoreline pools and jumped over and about by penguins.

I managed to hitch a ride back to the base as the kayakers pulled in and I caught up with Tom before he hit the museum. He reported high chop and a headwind, which made me rather glad I’d passed on the opportunity. He was also soaked through. Our return left us with a few hours in which to eat dinner and prepare for the part of the trip I’ve been most looking forward to- the overnight camping.

We set off for the campsite in a zodiac at 8.30pm, gliding over the smooth seas in sunset… okay, so maybe it was more like getting soaked from head to toe as the chop crashed into the bow of the zodiac in the midday-brightness sun. Though this promised a wet night due to the inferior quality of our waterproofing gear, it failed to quell our high spirits, and as we reached the shore (after a brief period in which everyone debated exactly where we ought to try to get ashore) and scrambled up the snow-cliff by the ocean, I got pretty excited.

Unfortunately, it’s not really the sort of thing that translates well to the page. In purely utilitarian terms, the night kicked off with a demonstration of tent construction from Aaron and Jim, an explanation of the toileting system (which involved the use of a flag and a concealing hut) and the handing out of shovels and equipment, after which we set to work. In order to set up the tent in the deep snow, we had to first stomp down a platform, which we evened out with shovels. The tents then went up in the usual way tents do, paying attention to holding the damned thing down so it didn’t blow up the snowhill and into the crevasses. Instead of using pegs,however, we tethered the windy end with an ice axe and tipped snow around the flysheet to weigh down the rest. Only a small amount of squabbling from the participants resulted in the camp being set up by quarter past ten, and Aaron insisted on “quiet time” beginning at eleven, which didn’t leave as long before crawing into bed.

What was actually so wonderful about the experience was the aesthetic. The canvas was completely blank. Someone had built a hut a long time ago- a green wood hut that looked like it had been in better shape, then the Argentinians had added their own little orange hut bearing their flag. Then came our tents- and the rest was white and only white. Barely any difference in the colour at all, just a solid sheet of white. Amazing.

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November 25

November 25, 2008

I began today tired after staying up well past midnight last night to enjoy our traversal of the icy, spectacular Lemaire Channel. Not only were the gauntlet of thousand-metre silent white mountains separated by dozens of glaciers incredible, the ship’s manoeuvres in a tight channel packed with bergs and icy flotsam were breathtaking tambien. To boot, it was my first ever post-midnight daylight. Pretty bloody great.

The morning weather was awful. We were scheduled to visit the only Ukrainian base in Antarctica, acquired relatively recently from the British for the nominal fee of £1 (and the much greater saving implied by not having to painstakingly clean up the site), a place called Vernadski Station. We made a short seven mile hop from our overnight anchorage to nearer the station, and after breakfast, ready to board the Zodiacs in our parkas, scarves, gloves, and waterproof outers, a horizontal blizzard was cutting across the sky leaving the assistants from the crew, and the Zodiac drivers, looking forlorn indeed, as we staggered onto them.

Fortunately, our proximity to the station meant that we arrived in reasonable shape to the mooring point, a ramp of wooden sleepers on the ice, to the cluster of metal-clad buildings about it, and to its cramped front foyer. Here, it was not easy for a dozen people to divest themselves of rubber boots and coats all at once, but we managed.

Our guide around the station was called Maxim, a Ukrainian who I’d guess was somewhere around my age, wearing the man’s haircut that seems to be mandated by Antarctic living conditions – hair short on top for ease of maintenance, and facial hair mid-length and scraggly for both warmth and, again, ease of maintenance. A slightly feral, very manly half-piratic look that a lot of the ship’s crew and expedition team also wear.

The interior of the base’s main building was, in a word, ship-like. The corridors were narrow and organised for easy cleaning, and the rooms were very, very full of the accoutrements of their respective purposes. Through one doorway we saw a medical clinic with many shelves’ worth of fifty year old medical texts – Kim, our New Zealander doctor buddy from on board, remarked that they probably had all their new medical info on electronic media.

We also saw specimens of krill in small jars – populations and patterns amongst the tiny crustaceans that are the bottom rung of the Antarctic ecosystem are one of the Ukrainians’ principal topics of research – fancy meteorological gauges of which I understood very little, and beakers full of sampled water and ice for analysis. A sign on the wall with a little red pushbutton attached read “AFTER EIGHT PINTS OF GUINNESS, PUSH PANIC BUTTON”. Above, a ladder led to a loft called the “O Zone”. Their DVD collection: several shelves of survival and plain horror films. “The Shining” in particular made me wonder a litle about the psychology of life on an Antarctic base.

Having had our perfunctory, though interesting tour, the real point of our visit was made plain as Maxim took us up a flight of stairs to the infamous Vernadski Bar, where the largest bra in the southern hemisphere graces the wall along with many others. Reportedly, when the first contingent of Ukrainians was left here for the winter a few years ago, they were given supplies for construction and research, and strict instructions on how to spend their time. When their colleagues returned in summer, they found little research had been carried out, but an excellent, polished and shaped wooden bar had been installed! Since then, consistent effort has been required to divert the base’s inhabitants away from their successful tourism sideline and back on to a pure, monastic regime of scientific inquiry.

Truly the World’s Southernmost Tourist Trap, the Vernadski Bar included annexes in which vastly overpriced t-shirts, souvenir badges, and other memorabilia were sold, and a post office for extra-slow outward bound mail – all of which is routed via the Ukraine for maximum efficiency.

We visited Siberia earlier this year, and so we were hardly surprised to learn that the Ukraina-Vernadskians distill their own vodka. Transplanting anyone from a Slavic culture to a remote location just seems to have that effect. We bought two shots of surprisingly decent moonshine from the jovial bartender and washed them down with pieces of pineapple, and then Max earned another by donating one of her currently rather outsized bras to their behind-the-bar bra collection – not the one she was wearing at the time, I hasten to add!

The custom made vodka was over fifty percent ethanol, so one shot was more than enough for me at only about half past ten in the morning. Through the window, I could see a black storage silo on which someone had painted a Vernadski logo with some Cyrillic text and an ironic palm tree silhouette. In the other room, a worn pool table. On the P.A. — Ricky Martin, “She Bangs”. Gallows humour is evidently the bedrock of human relations around the base.

As we moved to leave the area and allow some of the later arrivals from the Nova a little base-space, I discovered someone had coopted my size 11 rubber boots, a problem I solved by nicking some other poor sap’s size 10s. So be it. We were to have a short “Zodiac cruise” — a jaunt around icebergs and Antarctic shorelines in one of the Nova‘s black dinghies – before returning to the ship.

Vernadski Station is in the Argentine Islands, an archipelago of tiny, barren islands with an average elevation of less than ten metres above sea level. They’re basically volcanic atolls covered in, and surrounded by ice, and most support little in the way of life – even the penguins seemed to be avoiding most of them.

We zipped around a little photographing icebergs in the marginal weather, and then rounding the corner of one of the low-slung isles came upon a small sheet of brash ice, disordered chunks of assorted glacial and non-glacial ice that collects or forms on the surface of the water in a jumbled mass. Excitingly, on one of the larger chunks of ice, we could see a leopard seal and a baby seal pup as well.

We pulled in for a closer look. Michael, the expedition team’s nerdy-looking, sardonic bird expert was driving the Zodiac, and pulling up to the soft edge of the ice he gently throttled the dinghy’s outboard, carving out a small channel in the broken white surface. As we scraped past the larger chunks, they growled against the bottom and sides of our boat.

Michael seemed pretty excited as we watched the seal parent and child interact, sometimes playing, sometimes apparently breast-feeding through the two mammary slits on the mother’s lower abdomen. We were later to learn that to see a leopard seal together with its young at any sort of age is practically unheard of, and that, in fact, most aspects of the behaviour of these creatures remain pretty vague to naturalists. When Quark see things like this, they still report their observations to the scientific community.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch, a fairly pedestrian hamburger combination with the now customary massive buffet sides and dessert. Meanwhile, through the dining room windows, the perpetually astonishing Antarctic landscape, all ocean and bergs and rocky outcrops, every surface that receives snow covered by an ancient glacier, glaciers a mile wide, glaciers a metre wide, continued to bob past eliciting occasional gasps from the passengers.

I’ve moved on from “The Terror” to reading Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredibly Voyage”, the most famous account of Shackleton’s ill-fated 1915 Trans-Antarctic Expedition and its eventual outcome, so I talked about that a bit over the meal with Alastair and Laura, two Dutch tourists who have also been reading the book. Pretty amazing stuff – Shackleton and his men so far have been trapped in practically untenable makeshift campsites out on the treacherous pack ice of the Weddell Sea, miles from land, for several months, their ship Endurance having been smashed by the pressure of the ice that surrounded and trapped it as winter came in, and there’s a lot of book to go.

Yesterday our kayaking expedition had to go through a little hell of its own, as we were (somewhat terrifically!) pursued around a placid bay of icebergs by a “playful” half-tonne leopard seal, shooting in and out of, and under our rocky little kayaks and occasionally butting them. Personally, I found the whole thing quite thrilling, but there was certainly a bit of a frisson of danger associated with the possibility of being knocked into the water and having your face bitten off by an unpredictable seal.

As a result of yesterday’s episode, I had a bit of a job to persuade Max to give the kayaking another go today. But after a bit of a chat we got our slightly ridiculous combinations of drysuit-Star-Trek-knickerbockers, spray skirt, flotation jacket, and warm hat back on and presented ourselves at the ship’s Zodiac dock for departure. We got ourselves on the first boat to our afternoon landing point, Petermann Island, so that we’d have enough time to wander around on shore a little before beginning our paddle.

Petermann was a wholly different place to the Argentine Islands. In the background, a pretty large hill rose up off the land. Around the landing point, a simple unadorned rock onto which we splashed in our leather boots, Gentoo penguins had built one of several rookeries, so the smell of penguin guano was again pervasive.

Penguins are certainly one of nature’s filthiest creatures, I am discovering. I can’t think of too many other animals that actually revel in sliding around chest down in their own shit, to the point that their otherwise pure white feathered chests are actually painted quite brown. When they’re not rolling around in their own muck, they’re stealing from each other’s nests, abusing skuas (fair enough, I guess), and screwing each other!

Despite its horribly unhygienic lifestyle, every penguin is also imbued with a charisma that stems from its inevitably comic pattern of activity. Out of water, they waddle laughably when they are not falling over to propel themselves chest-down through softer snow. When not moving, they’re cawing pompously to the sky or straining to scratch the right side of their skull with their front left claw. They can look daft, mean, friendly, lonely, and convey all the rest of the gamut of Chaplin-esque, mime-esque emotions by their stances and body language.

We marched onward through deep snow from the landing, following a trail of red markers to our promised first sighting of Adelie penguins. As the first passengers onto the land, it fell to us to stamp about the place broadening and hardening the path for those that would follow. Around us, penguins tobogganned slowly between the rookeries that dotted the bottom of the hill, their locations defined by the existence of bare rock. It’s hard to bring an egg to hatch if it is laid on the snow, so the penguins clamber up, sometimes to impressive heights, to build their nests on any available bare ground, which they then labour to keep clear as the season progresses.

On the point of a congested bay of ice, where a few larger chunks of ice were corralling a whole host of smaller bergs, we found the Adelies. There were many of them, nesting in and amongst the Gentoos without fear or favour. Adelies are one of only two species of penguin that live actually upon the Antarctic ice flats , the other being the Emperor penguin. However, unlike the Emperors, they have to move to bare ground to nest. They are curious-looking little critters, a bit smaller than Gentoos and Chinstraps, a bit more rotund. When recumbent and warming their eggs, they form themselves into a pointed ellipsoid shape reminiscent of a rugby ball, as if setting themselves up for a punt kick on their little mounds of pebbles. When standing, they frequently suck their necks into their bodies and hunch, gangster-like, in little posses.

Among the Adelies and Gentoos was a third species of bird, the blue-eyed shag, also black and white. These were in the process of painstakingly constructing a nest from any organic matter that could be found, including moss and kelp. As we watched, one parent endlessly returned small clumps of fibre from one part of the island or the shore, reinforcing the site as the other continued to warm their precious young. Beyond this scene, the larger bergs crashed into each other and apart again with the rise and fall of the swell, opening and closing the entrance to the little bay.

Scientists report that the populations of Gentoo and Adelie penguins on Petermann Island, which has continuous observational data going back to the 1920s, are rebalancing. The number of Adelie mating pairs is dropping off quite rapidly, as they are out-competed by the Gentoo, historically fonder of slightly warmer climes. This has been interpreted in various ways, one of which is as further evidence of oncoming climate change.

It was nearing time to begin our kayak. We returned to the landing point and beyond, to where a spare wooden cross had been planted on a hillside cairn. It would’ve been a remote and romantic sight, had their not been a large group of penguins nesting on the cairn and its surrounds, somehow mocking the solemnity of the monument. Down on the pebbled foreshore of another small bay, the kayaking group’s five red double kayaks had been drawn up on shore and were awaiting our attention. Given that earlier, several other passengers had been joking persistently about our leopard seal nemesis from yesterday coming back to “finish the job” today, it was quite unnerving to see another of these huge animals lazing quietly not ten metres from where the kayaks were grounded, as if lazily waiting for us to resume the water.

Launching unsteadily from the rocks and making as quickly as possibly for an open section of water on the left of the bay, from which Dan instructed us to swiftly shot through a channel between a large, flat berg and the rocky promontory. As we paddled as quickly as we could manage down this narrow passageway between rock and ice, Max got a bit of a fright from the motions of the berg on our right, and from the fairly vigorous swell of icy water beneath us, and decided she might be better off in the safety Zodiac.

Having deposited Max safely with Aaron for a nice private Zodiac cruise, I was left to paddle the double kayak alone. This has both its upsides and its downsides – on one hand, you’re in total control of your own destiny, and have no one with which to communicate regarding bearing or speed. You’re also able to take off pretty quickly with less weight and no need to coordinate. On the other hand, the doubles are pretty heavy, and aren’t designed for solo paddlers, and the lack of weight in the front of the craft tends to mean it flaps up and down on incoming waves a little, and gyres from side to side requiring extra steering. Still, nothing to complain about.

We continued further out into open water in a disorganised bunch, and passed an incredible iceberg on our left, with a long line of ice pillars underneath it that reminded me of the Parthenon. The dynamics of iceberg evolution create some pretty incredible effects. For example, a floating iceberg melts slightly faster above the waterline than below it, so they tend to develop long “tongues” or shelves beneath the water’s surface. But the process of melting, collision and breakup also results in balance shifts that can cause the whole berg – perhaps the size of a block of flats – to suddenly roll over, throwing the already-formed ridges up into the air on a crazy angle. On many bergs, you can see multiple different melt ridges from different epochs of their histories.

The unpredictability of bergs also meant that we’d been instructed to keep away from them by Dan – at least the height of the berg’s distance at all times the rule of thumb. You wouldn’t want to be flipped up into the air and broken in two by a suddenly rising ice tongue, I suppose.

We paddled along with the coast on our left navigating a field of medium-sized bergs, then taking some silent time in a scree of smaller, broken ice fragments, that scraped dully and heavily against the size of our kayaks as we moved gently through them, making me feel like the ornament in a cocktail. At times, the thickness of the ice field meant I had the odd problem of having to pick a spot in the water to insert my paddle.

After we’d come some way against the breeze, Dan O had us turn our kayaks and raft up, creating a super-vessel, which we then attempted to sail back downwind with the flats of our raised paddles as sails. This was only moderately effective; it was more interesting when he pulled out his hydrophone, dropped the mike into thirty metres of water, and we all had a listen to the hubbub of thousands of pieces of ice melting, cracking, and colliding all around the bay. There was a weird, unidentified white noise over the top of everything else, that could have been an equipment malfunction or perhaps some ambient phenomenon.

Splitting the raft and paddling back downwind, we passed our original landing point and entered a wider, less populated section of the bay, the water opening up to our right as we passed another point. In the distance, across a ridge of land, we could see an enormous lineup of wandering seracs and overturned bergs, several of which were wider at the top than at the (visible) base, seeming to defy physics.

(A serac is a huge remnant column of ice that has calved from a glacier scored with crevasses, and continues to march around the ocean on berg-back, or in the pack ice. They have the same sort of aura at a distance as the monoliths of Stonehenge.)

We continued on until it was time to return, and Max having been run back to the ship already by Aaron in the safety Zodiac, he collected us all with our kayaks in tow to save the trouble of paddling all the way home. I was exhausted. Having returned to the Nova, we were forced to wait for ten minutes or so as a floe of large pack ice chunks, loose in the bay, floated menacingly around the side access ramp before one of the Zodiac drivers became impatient and used his outboard to flush it away a little. I haven’t been as glad to be able to pee in some time as I was when we finally clambered back on board and I could rush to my cabin to struggle out of the drysuit and into the bathroom!

At the evening briefing, we were congratulated by Brandon on having experienced another “special day” — with emphasis on the unusual sight of the breastfeeding leopard seal in the morning – before a cavalcade of short talks on geology, history, biology and birdlife. Olle Carlsson concluded the session with an amusing joke about ugly Norwegian women going to heaven.

The exhaustion continued as dinner came on – Max and I were seated with Tommy the Swede, thirtysomething Californian grade school teacher Zenie, Elsa – whose job it is to “go to remote sites in Australia and stick her instrument in the ground” — and another slightly older Australian called Earl. Topics of discussion: the Mafia, travel, and the lateness of our dinner, which we believed to be provoked by our table’s location at the very centre of the vortex of dining room activity.

To cap off dinner, two of our fellow passengers, Asa from Finland and Mark from Holland, who had both just turned thirty, were ritually humiliated, Asa by a choir of engaging Swedes, and Mark with a racy rendition of a Happy-Birthday-esque song by the Filipino caterers, which had a jangly guitar accompaniment and a lot of requests for kisses from the waitresses.

But the day was not over (and nor is this epic diary entry!). At around half past nine, we got back into our gear one more time, for a super-late Zodiac cruise around Pléneau Bay. There was, of course, quite enough daylight for our needs. Max and I were amongst the first off the ship, getting into a Zodiac under the control of Dan the Kayak Master again. Pléneau is a wide mouth of water that captures a fair share of large bergs. Conditions had worsened since the afternoon, and there was a strongish wind blowing as we took off on a circuit of the bay, Dan having consulted birthday girl Asa as to her preferred direction of travel.

Asa turned out to have bad karma – we soon struck a wave face on and everyone on her side of the boat was thoroughly doused with ocean water in the process. The motion of the craft was a little more cautious after that, but we were still getting wet with every errant ripple on the bay’s surface. We spent perhaps one magical hour circling the smorgasbord of epic bergs all around the bay, with snow blowing down from their encrusted summits onto the choppy waters, forming a greasy patina of half-ice. Around us, glacier-covered cliffs loomed., and the air temperate was very cold by the standards of the trip so far. Round one side of the bay, a few disconsolate-looking Adelies were huddled on the top of some bergs, not nesting, just resting on the exposed ice.

The day would, I thought, eventually have to end. But even after we’d been ferried back to the Nova by Dan (without me ever getting drenched, I might add, although Max couldn’t say the same) and changed into some dry, warm clothes, we still found a couple of hours to join in a little celebration of Asa’s 30th birthday in the Panorama Lounge, which produced a handful of very silly conversations amongst the passengers.

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November 24

November 24, 2008

I have a new admirer- a three metre long, 600kg predator, the owner of an evil grin filled with blood-stained, sharpened, conical teeth and a persistent demeanor. And he’s coming after me.

This entry is rated M for graphic violence and coarse language

Our afternoon’s kayak was intended to be a nice long paddle along the coast of Lemaire Island examining glaciers and cormorant colonies, but instead we headed off first to the left, where Tom’s sharp eyes picked up a sleek shape darting out of the water to grab a penguin from a floating iceberg, leaving behind a trail of blood. Our kayaks, ten tourists in doubles and Dan the Kayak Master in a single, gathered around the iceberg, where our sleek leopard seal comrade started to play with his catch, a sweet little Gentoo.

The seals can’t eat the skin of the penguins, so before this seal could enjoy his meal, he had to find some way to get it out of its packaging. As he was distinctly lacking in opposable thumbs, he could only do this by grabbing the penguin in his teeth and alternatively tossing it in the air and slamming it against ice walls. We watched him do this for a full forty minutes, the penguin becoming progressively more bloody and less intact, intestines coming out in one direction and feet hanging by a thread in another- a grisly and gruesome sight.

I had somewhat wondered exactly how long it would take the seal to eat his meal, and what he was planning on doing afterwards, but I didn’t need to wonder long. I had my eyes (and camera) peeled on where he’d last surfaced and tossed about his catch, sitting tensely in my kayak, but not overly perturbed. Before I knew it, there was the seal- jumping across the nose of our kayak, just metres from my face, smiling maliciously with his cold eyes looking straight at me. A string of expletives leapt from my mouth and, after that, he didn’t leave us alone.

He started swimming under our kayaks, getting more and more confident, grazing one kayak, scraping under ours then actually bumping Dan’s. That was more or less the trigger to gang up on him- we paddled close together and rafted up, pulling each other’s kayaks next to ours and holding on tight while the seal swam under and round, teasing us by surfacing just in front or just behind our raft and always, always smiling with those hideous teeth. He was so persistent, in fact, that we couldn’t break the raft to paddle out of his territory, and had to get a line from the safety zodiac and be towed out. Only once we saw the seal turn around did we break up and set off on our merry way.

We pulled around the corner, past an amazing, towering chunk of black rock drowned in snow. The water was so calm it reflected like a black mirror from above, and when you looked down it was all the way to the dark depths beneath. Halfway up the mountain here were a colony of blue eyed shags, hanging about, preening themselves. I was looking forward to getting a close look at some rather tamer wildlife, but didn’t much have a chance before the water broke in front of us and the seal surfaced, teeth first, throwing himself along our kayaks. We wasted no time and rafted up again, this time right next to the zodiac. There were many theories about the seal, people saying he was “just playing” and people saying that we looked like red penguins in our kayaks and he was trying for second lunch. There are reports of leopard seals attacking humans- they don’t often kill due to the disparity in weight between penguin and human making the latter a little more difficult to skin, but are more than capable of leaving horrible flesh wounds.

Thankfully, our safety zodiac was right there with us this time, and he called over all the other zodiacs, full of our fellow passengers who seemed to rejoice in photographing our panic. The other zodiacs distracted the seal, who jumped up on an iceberg to show off to the newcomers. I’d had enough of him, though, and bailed out, hauling myself into the zodiac and shaking a little with either the shock or the cold, I’m not really sure which. Tom, the brave and hardy soul, continued on by himself in the kayak. The seal mostly gave up on the kayakers after that, lending credence to my personal theory about his persistence- I was the first he chased after and the one he hung about teasing- I think he could smell my fear and was after me!

The rest of the group continued a little further down to a glacier, while I hung out in the zodiac with Aaron (the driver), and Kate and Andrea (two girls from the restaraunt making the most of their free time). The four of us got some wonderful shots of the kayakers before they turned around toward the Argentinian base. Meanwhile, we nipped back to the boat to drop off the girls, who needed to start on dinner, and for Aaron to relieve himself of his need to relentlessly bounce up and down on the zodiac with his legs crossed- no peeing over the side in Antartica, it’s against IAATO regulations. By the time we got back to shore, I had but a quick moment to run up the stairs, take a couple of photos and grab Tom for the trip back to the boat.

So that was the afternoon, and by no means either the end or the beginning of the day, which seem to be getting longer and longer as we get further into the trip.

The day began in the usual way with breakfast, after which we had a shore landing and our first shot at kayaking off Cuverville Island. We were running a little late, so only had five minutes or so to wander about the shore taking some snaps of the gentoos and stunning scenery before the safety briefing and kayak adjusting. Not long after that, we were in the water.

The kayaks they have us in are far better than the ones we used in Turkey, very stable, roomy and, with all our equipment on, dry. We did some orienting ourselves near the rocky shoreline at first, then, when everyone was in the water, we all headed off around the bay, weaving in and out of floating icebergs. It was very tranquil- smooth clear water, giant, only slightly threatening chunks of ice and just the splash, splash, splash of kayak paddles and penguins jumping in and out of the water to be heard.

The colours in the ice are utterly incredible. There’s a few sorts of berg about, and the colour changes depending on how old the ice is as a result the glaciation process. All bergs are produced by glacial crevices snapping apart as the glacier reachers the shore. The glaciers, in turn, are produced by the prolonged squeezing out of air from snow, and the air (along with other impurities) is what gives the ice the colour. Most of the bergs are of fairly young ice, and are predominantly white with a pale blue in the cracks and folds, though some of this variety are very blue, almost iridescently so. The older bergs looked strained and forced, like ice made in the freezer, but somehow much more compact-looking. This type are a dark, translucent blue. There is a third variety called “jade” icebergs, as they are formed from frozen marine ice containing tiny phytoplankton which lend a green, striated colour- we’ve yet to see these, though. Fingers crossed.

We were in the water for only an hour or so in the morning, and loaded directly out of the kayak into a zodiac when we were done, me in an incredibly inelegant flopping seal manoeuvre over the side, but most people managed it with more style. We were then scooted back to the boat for lunch, and Tom and I both could barely wipe the grins from our faces.

We made it back from the afternoon jaunt in time for dinner, though the skiers weren’t so lucky. They’d been out in the snow for about five hours, and walked in to the dining room at nine o’clock (just when most of us were finishing up), looking haggard and worn. They did recover after a hot meal and a hot shower, though, and we learnt at the recap that they were possibly the first humans ever to trek the path they did- which Elsa complained later was not the plan when they had set out, but the scoping of suitable pathways from the boat left a little to be desired.

The ship kicked on well in to the night because we were crossing through the Lemaire channel, our narrowest and possibly most dramatically beautiful point, around midnight. It was worth staying up for and it certainly laid the Patagonian channels to waste, with towering black-and white, rock-and-snow mountains rising 1000m directly out of the channel- so steep they must be near impossible to climb. Small bergs blocked our path and crunched against the hull as we pushed through them in the hazy but functional light- we’ve definitely reached the point of twenty four hour daylight, though from about 11pm until about 3pm the light wanes a little from the midday strength. It was wonderful to be out on deck with almost all of our fellow passengers, all dressed in our yellow parkers and marvelling at what must certainly be the most elegantly beautiful place on earth. I went to sleep smiling.