A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Antarctic 10/11/19

 

 

Our last dispatch saw us safely arrived in Ushuaia, waiting to board the Quark Expeditions ship Ocean Endeavour, which would (hopefully) take us to Port Lockroy. All things going well, we aimed to arrive on base by the 10th of November.

We set sail under dark, snow-filled skies, heading along the narrow Beagle Channel through the deepening evening. At some point through the night the motion of the ship shifted, sliding us around in our bunks. We'd entered the Drake Passage. As a sailor, I'm aware of the notorious reputation of the Drake and felt it wasn't really showing us its full potential, but that's not a position shared by others in the team. Here are Lauren's thoughts about the "Devil Drake":

Imagine you're around five or six years old, under a blanket, off from school with a sickness bug, being fed soul-warming soup and litres of Lucozade; let the nostalgia wrap you in security and comfort. Now, take everything away except overwhelming nausea and weakness. Welcome friends, to the beginning of the Drake Passage.

In the night waves crashed against the ship, and a squeaky "Vicky, is this normal?" escaped my blanket cocoon. Morning came and I sat up ready for the day; that was the first of many errors. I stumbled to the bathroom and my eyes widened at the green shade that had swamped my face; just make it to breakfast, just make it to breakfast. Crawling, I made it to a table and cradled a hot tea, still unable to raise my gaze fully to eye line. The feeling was increasing and I was unable to hold any kind of conversation. My body temperature felt like it could melt the ice outside, and I needed to escape to the safety of my bed immediately. I made my excuses and walked as fast as my weakened legs could carry me back to my cabin. I dived into my blanket nest and buried myself so deep to hide from the endless rocking of the ship and let sleep wash me away to a more static place. The day continued with failed attempts to make mealtimes and conversations, and I succumbed to about 18 hours sleep altogether.

Why do people do this? Let me fast forward you to the next day. Barrientos Island, in the South Shetland Islands, a sparkling white paradise with the sun-glistened snow at every angle; home for hundreds of gentoos and a sprinkling of chinstraps. There was gift giving of pebbles, theft, friendship and love amongst this monochromatic community and amid the chaos, we stood silently on the beach. Surrounded by crisp, snow dusted mountains, a sparkling sea and the chorus of these incredible birds, the experience of the Drake, not even twenty-four hours before, was carried off in the breeze to become a memory far into the distance.

And it really has been incredible. We're so fortunate to have this opportunity; to share the experience of the guests onboard the Ocean Endeavour making once-in-a-lifetime voyages; to take part in tours with experienced and knowledgeable guides, and to revel in the absolute awe of such an elemental location. Over the following few days we continued southwards: to the Melchior Islands, tucked between Anvers Island and Brabant Island; Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest gentoo penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula; and the Gerlache Strait, where we spotted a family of orcas swimming by the ship.

Then, the day of reckoning arrived, with plans to spend the morning in Neko Harbour, and attempt passage through the Neumayer Channel towards Goudier Island in the afternoon. Neko has been a well-used stop for ships visiting Antarctica from the very beginning; for cruise vessels, it's a rare chance for guests to make a landing on the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula, rather than on one of the many islands, and take in the stunning monochrome backdrop of rocky peaks and ice-blue glaciers.

The area has a darker story, however, as we learn from Justine, the ship's historian. Neko, with its safe anchorage and readily available glacial ice, was a haven for the factory whaling ships, which processed some of the many thousands of whales hunted in Antarctic waters. The whale oil proved invaluable in greasing the wheels of the industrial revolution, in Europe, North America, and elsewhere, generating astronomical profits for ship owners.

Its a sobering reminder to us all that, though we may wax lyrical about the pristine, untouched wildness of Antarctica, humans have had a huge impact on the continent and its wildlife since it was first sighted two hundred years ago. It's only with concerted global effort we are now starting to see the recovery of whales, and with continued international cooperation that we can preserve the remarkable environment and unique wildlife of Antarctica.

The day itself was soft and grey and still, with a steady fall of snow reducing visibility to a minimum. We join the guests for a zodiac cruise through the icebergs, then hiked to a viewpoint overlooking a huge fractured glacial snout, a jumbled mass of precariously balanced ice looking ready to tumble into the bay. A beautiful last day before our cruise experience turned into the hard work of opening up a base that had been secured and snowed in for the winter.

We tucked into an epic last lunch on the ship, fuelling up for the task ahead. It seemed touch and go as to whether we'd make it through, with ice starting to push up the channel from the south towards us, slowing the speed our ship could safely make. We packed up our gear, and moved it down to the equipment bay, ready to load a zodiac at the first possible chance. Warm outer layers were thrown on, then off, then on, then off again as we balanced immediate readiness to leave the ship with the risk of getting too warm and sweaty as we waited, before stepping out onto the ice.

Several last meals later...

A last minute stand-down, as ice choked the southern end of the Neumayer channel, blocking forward progress. Leads opening up through the ice, and closing again just as quickly, gave no guarantee we'd make it in to Goudier Island, let alone the safe return to the ship of the expedition crew acting as our delivery drivers. Ocean Endeavour turned for clear water to the north. Plan B, anyone???

Six am, knock on the door. Grab your gear, cos we're going. Right now. Wind and waves and ice and snow have all conspired, and we won't be returning to Ushuaia (at least not for now anyway, Lauren). The Hurtigruten ship MV Fram has pushed further south through the night to avoid big swells around the South Shetlands, and it's steaming our way. Wrapped up against the cold, we bundle into a zodiac, and before we're really properly awake, we're on a brand new ship, facing a brand new breakfast buffet. At least we're now heading in the right direction again.

To be continued...

Vicky


We'd like to pass on our heartfelt thanks to the Quark expedition team, and the crew of the Ocean Endeavour for their help, and to their guests for their great company; it was lovely to spend so much time with you all. And thanks also to the crew onboard MV Fram for taking in a bunch of polar hitchhikers, and helping us make the next steps on our journey to Port Lockroy.

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