Day 5 out of Svalbard

We get a door knock at 430 am (before our alarm is set to go off) – there’s a possible sighting. By the time we’ve scrambled into our outdoor gear, grabbed cameras and bolted onto the deck, the sighting has disappeared from view. Sigh…

With the sun rising, however, there are some great landscape views – a foreground of pancake ice, mountains, and the occasional glimpse of the sun (sunburst!) through layers of cloud. It looks great! The reflections are amazing!

Pancake ice

We have an early lunch of meat, potato and vegetable (including mushroom – yuk), omelette, beetroot and salad, ahead of our first zodiac ride! YAY!

We gather on deck while the crew launch the zodiacs. Kyle and Shem have to distribute our diverse range of people between the two craft. Perhaps this time it’s a little easier as several people, including Jacqui, have opted out of the excursion (Jacqui has a cold and felt cold at lunchtime, even though she was layered up, so was worried that she might be feverish). Michelle, Jane, Helen, Kate, Shem, Jim and I watch as the others clamber into Acacia’s zodiac, taking possession of mountains of gear, and zoom away! We’ll be in the second zodiac with Jens with a lot less gear!

Descent into zodiacs is so much easier with a short set of metal steps and glassy smooth seas. I might even be able to manage this without falling over! One at a time, we descend the steps, unencumbered by gear, and engage the “sailor’s grip” with our Expedition Leader when we step aboard the zodiac… Or we should. My right shoulder is … problematic – possibly an after-effect of falling on the ice in Iceland, or falling off the dog-sled. It’s gotten progressively worse over the last few days. I can’t raise my arm, don’t have any strength in my grip, and reaching with my right arm hurts like hell! Jens is very confused when I refuse to take his right hand, reaching out with my left hand instead for the “sailor’s grip”!

The water is very tranquil and while we don’t happen across a polar bear, we do see a couple of walruses. One is perched on a very small piece of ice – someone suggests it looks rather like a kid on a boogie board. We don’t venture too close! Elsewhere we find three walruses hauled out on a larger iceberg together. It appears to be mother and two calves – one nearly full grown and another half-grown (based on their tusk length, anyway). The ‘mother’ walrus expresses her irritation with the older of the two calves by reaching over the top of the younger calf and trying to stab into the older one’s side with her tusks. Ouch! No wonder so many of the walruses we’ve seen have had lots of scars!

Young seal recoiling from mama’s discipline

Acacia took her zodiac in close for some shots of a seal on the shore. Unfortunately, someone in her zodiac wasn’t happy with their shots, or angles, so when she moved the zodiac around it agitated the seal so it disappeared from view. If they’d stayed still, maybe we’d have had the opportunity for a shot.

The approach of our two zodiacs disturbs a big flock of sea birds on the water so they take off, only to settle again a little distance away. We continue towards them and this time are better prepared with our cameras when they take off again.

Sea birds in flight

Despite the incredible mirror appearance of the water (wonderful reflections), the captain calls the zodiacs back to the Freya, as a weather front is coming in. How peculiar when it is so still – perhaps this is the “calm before the storm”!

As we head back towards the Freya, we’re still optimistically hoping to see polar bears on the shore. Jens has previously told us to look for “yellow chickens in the snow” (?) so when Helen, without her glasses, sees a “big yellow thing” in the distance, she’s rather excited. Unfortunately she’s doomed to disappointment when I observe that “that would be the Freya!” A big yellow thing, indeed!

a “big yellow thing”

We return to the Freya without incident (and no further “polar bear” sightings). I learn from Helen’s example (she has a dodgy knee and struggles using her leg strength to get her up the first big step from the side of the zodiac to the platform) and use my arms to haul myself up rather than relying on leg strength. Safely aboard, no dramas (phew)!

Dinner tonight is Bloody Mary soup (Virgin) (i.e. Tomato soup) and a main course of pork steak with potatoes, broccoli and a red wine jus. Yum!

Day 4 out of Svalbard

Oops! I’m a bit out of sync with the FB memories that are appearing on my account from two years ago…

The differences between our last photography trip (Antarctica and South Georgia) and our last C4 trip are very obvious. South Georgia has the highest density of biodiversity on the planet: wall to wall wildlife. Our last C4 trip was in the Masaii Mara during the migration – again a plethora of wildlife sightings.

But the starkness of this reality also adds to the experience. Wildlife sightings are few and far between. A polar bear plodding along relentlessly in solitary splendour in the wilderness, the only other visible life for miles and miles and miles against a backdrop of sharp, crisp desolate landscapes – different types of ice, craggy rock faces, reflections – is a reasonable depiction of life in this neck of the woods!

We sit down for an early lunch of soup and pancakes with cream and strawberry jam. Some walruses have been spotted on the sea ice, so we’ll be heading off the ship again. As Kyle observes “if we were in Africa and a leopard was spotted, we wouldn’t be sitting down to lunch before going to see it!”

Into our Immersion suits and muck books and we’re walking on sea ice again, following behind Jens, with Acacia taking up the rear. Both of our Expedition Leaders are carrying firearms and maintaining constant vigilance as we walk along in single file. We can see a group on skidoos moving away from us in the distance. As the crow flies, we’re actually not that far from Longyearbyen, even if it does feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere!

 I’m walking along towards the end of the line when, all of a sudden, one of my feet disappears into the ice up to the knee. I’m terrified that the rest of me is going to follow through the ice, so of course I’m floundering around trying to pull myself clear. Kyle comes back to help me, and I stick out an arm for him to help me up before realising that I can’t get myself up from this position with one foot still trapped! It’s not a good look as I scramble onto hands and knees and lever myself up. Sigh! How awkward! I feel like a stranded whale, hate that I’ve drawn attention to myself, and now I’m nervous about every step. It seems as though I’m not only unable to negotiate hard ice, but struggle with slushy ice as well. It’s not my trip, is it?!

I struggle along in the ice, now anxious about my footing. We approach a walrus, resting near the water’s edge. Jens stops, then motions us to line up quietly alongside him facing the walrus. We follow this procedure to move gradually closer to the walrus, though being very sure to leave him with plenty of room so he doesn’t feel threatened.

When the male decides he’s had enough, he dives into the water. We then follow Jens to another spot using the same protocol of walking single file, then lining up at right angles to take our photos, then getting back in a single file again. Somehow I end at the front of the queue, right behind Jens, which is NOT where I want to be – I would much rather be trudging along in lots of other people’s footprints. I try to motion Mirella, immediately behind me, but she doesn’t understand what my problem is, so I’m stuck at the front till the next time we stop. AAGGHH!

A group of walruses is hauled out, positioned with awful irony in front of a wooden seal skin drying rack. It’s rather like they’re thumbing their noses at the hunters. The solitary male we’d been photographing before emerges from the water to join the group, using his tusks for leverage to haul himself out of the water. That’s probably about as exciting as the “action” gets. I stand by my description of walruses as “giant brown turds lying on the ice”. When we can see them, all they seem to be doing is lying around – just like male lions!

We’re greeted on our return from our icy trudge with hot chocolate drinks and macaroons. Yum!

Later in the lounge, Jim is having an SMS conversation with an Australian friend who is currently in London, with our Aussie girls providing appropriate Aussie vernacular for him to use. The friend comes to the conclusion that we must be “bogans from the ‘Rith” (Penrith). I’ve never been called a bogan before (nor heard Penrith referred to as the ‘Rith’)! It’s been a long time since I lived in Sydney!

Dinner tonight is Pesto gratin with chicken and mushroom risotto and Fruit cocktail with after dinner mint and cream… Mmmm delicious!

Svalbard … and a polar bear

Facebook has been showing images from our exciting expedition out of Svalbard with C4 Photo Safaris two years ago, so I’m taking the opportunity to share some photos with some commentary from my trip journal…

We settle into a routine on board the Freya, with time on the deck and the bridge interspersed with social time in the lounge and delicious meals. Lunch is a tasty vegetarian soup.

Today our Expedition Leaders bring out “Immersion Suits” for us to try on and take to our cabins.

Similar ultra-warm three-layered overalls are regular features in Svalbard tourist operations. Both Better Moments with the skidoo trips, and Husky Travellers with the husky sleds, kitted us out in similar gear for their trips. The overalls are warm, wind-proof and waterproof, and go over base layers for when we’re out on the deck – and particularly when we’re in the zodiacs or on the ice. They have an excessive multitude of pockets, zips and Velcro fastenings. I wish the overalls had been available on the Polar Pioneer – they would certainly have made our time in the zodiacs in sleety, unpleasant conditions more comfortable! They would also have been handy in Iceland, where I was frequently cold, despite multiple layers.

It feels like all our wildest dreams are coming true when we’re rounded up because of a polar bear sighting! OMG! On the SECOND day!!

The massive polar bear is living up to Shem’s description as a “white wanderer”, striding out as though he has places to go, people to see, along the shoreline. From a distance, the bear looks as though he’s sat in a fire and burnt his bum. Jens explains that the bear has been marked by scientists with an identifying number – 15. Despite our hopes for interaction, the bear has minimal interest in the ship, casting the occasional glance in our direction, but continuing on determinedly, oblivious to the excitement and cacophony of shutter clicking on board. We continue to follow the bear until he heads out of sight over a hill.

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a hypercarnivorous bear whose native range lies largely within the Arctic Circle, encompassing the Arctic Ocean, its surrounding seas and surrounding land masses. It is approximately the same size as a Kodiak Bear (large!) (Ursus arctos middendorffi).[5] A boar (adult male) weighs around 350–700 kg while a sow is about half that size. The polar bear is the sister species of the brown bear, but has evolved with many body characteristics adapted for cold temperatures, for moving across snow, ice and open water, and for hunting seals (which make up most of its diet). Most polar bears are born on land, but they spend most of their time on the sea ice. Their scientific name means “maritime bear”. Polar bears hunt their preferred food of seals from the edge of sea ice, often living off fat reserves when no sea ice is present.

The polar bear is classified as a vulnerable species due to expected habitat loss caused by climate change. For decades, large-scale hunting raised international concern for the future of the species, but populations rebounded after controls and quotas began to take effect. For thousands of years, the polar bear has been a key figure in the material, spiritual, and cultural life of circumpolar peoples, and polar bears remain important in their cultures. Historically, the polar bear has also been known as the white bear.

The polar bear spends many months of the year at sea, so is classified as a marine mammal. It is, however, the only living marine mammal with powerful, large limbs and feet that allow them to cover miles on foot and run on land. Its preferred habitat is the annual sea ice covering the waters over the continental shelf and the Arctic inter-island archipelagos. These areas, known as the “Arctic ring of life”, have high biological productivity in comparison to the deep waters of the high Arctic. Polar Bears are found primarily along the perimeter of the polar ice pack, rather than in the Polar Basin close to the North Pole where the density of seals is low, and tend to frequent areas where sea ice meets water to hunt seals. Fresh water is limited in these environments because it is either locked up in snow or saline. Polar bears are able to produce water through the metabolism of fats found in seal blubber.

The Arctic is home to millions of seals, which become prey when they surface in holes in the ice in order to breathe, or when they haul out on the ice to rest. Polar bears hunt primarily at the interface between ice, water, and air; they only rarely catch seals on land or in open water. The polar bear’s most common hunting method is called still-hunting: the bear uses its excellent sense of smell to locate a seal breathing hole, and crouches nearby in silence for a seal to appear. The bear may lay in wait for several hours. When the seal exhales, the bear smells its breath, reaches into the hole with a forepaw, and drags it out onto the ice. The polar bear kills the seal by biting its head to crush its skull.

The sightings continue with a solitary bearded seal watching us from an ice flow.

The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), also called the square flipper seal after the rectangular shape of the foreflipper, is a medium-sized pinniped that is found in and near to the Arctic Ocean. Its generic name derives from two Greek words, (eri and gnathos) that refer to its heavy jaw. Barbatus is a word of Latin origin meaning “bearded” and refers to its most characteristic feature, the bushy and bristly whiskers.
Bearded seals are the largest northern phocid (earless seals). They attain a length of about 2.4–3.7 m and a weight of about 225–454 kg
.

Bearded seals feed on a variety of small prey found along the ocean floor, including clams, squid and fish. Their whiskers serve as feelers in the soft bottom sediments. Adults tend not to dive very deep, favouring shallow coastal areas no more than 300 m deep. Pups up to one year old, however, will venture much deeper, diving as deep as 450 m. A summer study found that seals fed on invertebrates such as anemones, sea cucumbers and polychaete worms. The same study found that sculpins and arctic cod made up most of their summer diet.

Dinner is salmon with a seafood sauce, mashed potato and pureed peas, and chocolate brownie with ice-cream on biscuit crumb.  Yum yum!

Memories of a Husky Travellers Dog Sled Adventure

Two years ago, we were in Svalbard. Photos have been popping up in my Facebook memories, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reminisce, thanks to my trip journal from that time…

We’re joining Husky Travellers, one of the small dog-sled businesses in Svalbard. Unlike some of the larger companies, this is a small “family” business, owned by Norwegian-born Tommy Jordbrudaland and his wife, Janne Soreide (who is a university professor in arctic marine biology!)   !  

Kate and I are waiting excitedly when their van, with Jane, Michelle, Jacqui and Kay already inside, pulls up outside the hotel.  Our guide for the day, Jessica, gets out to greet us. Husky Travellers is based at Tommy and Janne’s home, about 10km out of town (40 dogs together is fairly noisy!) so we’re soon speeding along the road, running parallel to the frozen-over lake.  Several vehicles pass us in the other direction, mostly large 4WDs with trailers.  Jessica waves and toots the horn at one and gets the same response from the occupants.  The big local dog sled race, the Trappers Trail Dog Sled Race, is being held today – and the other car is Tommy heading into town to prepare for the start of the race.  (The Husky Travellers’ team of ten dogs ends up winning the open section.)

We pull up outside Tommy and Janne’s house, greeted enthusiastically by the dogs, in a yard inside a chain-link fence adjacent to the house.  We go into Tommy and Janne’s house where Jessica sorts us out with gear – the ultra-warm multi-layered Immersion overalls with big, fur-lined hoods, gloves, thick fluffy hats, boots, and a Husky Travellers buff to protect our faces against cold.

Then it’s outside, where Jessica briefs us on the important bits of the sled – the brake and snow anchor – with emphasis on not letting the dogs get “caught up in the traces”. It is not just a matter of all aboard and hang on! Getting the dogs sorted out is quite an operation for Jessica and Janne.  While we stand around, they go into the yard and retrieve several dogs at a time, bringing them out and harnessing them to the sled lines.  There is an order according to the dogs’ pack hierarchy in which they must be hitched. The dogs are very excited, and very vocal in expressing this, so it is absolute bedlam. Some of the dogs are given more latitude, and are let off their chains to make excited circuits of the sleds, pausing to sniff, and accept admiring pats from the spectators (us).

Then, the moment of truth arrives:  we have to take control of our dogs and sleds.  I am piloting a sled with 7 dogs, with Kate hanging on as my passenger.  The others are also paired up on their sleds.  The drivers have to stand on the brake plates to hold the sleds motionless, then reach down and haul in the snow anchors (metal claws secured to the sled on a length of rope that you throw out into the snow when you come to a stop, to hold the sled secure) when we’re ready to go. Jessica is on the lead sled, carrying first-aid provisions, a flare gun and a rifle – required by law when leaving the town boundaries due to the threat posed by polar bears. 

There is no easing into this experience.  Once Jessica’s sled starts to move, the other dogs are lungeing forward, eager to be following. With the anchors in, and the brake off, they’re instantly running flat out, and casting frustrated looks back at me when I’m easing on the brake, trying to moderate our speed so that we don’t run up the bum of the sled in front of us.

This is not for the faint hearted. Although the dogs aren’t travelling particularly fast, you have to maintain your balance with your feet in confined space: the width of the runner down either side of the sled, with a narrow rubber foot grip on top. Accommodating the footing changes required to brake and handle slopes is difficult as there really isn’t space for two feet on one runner (god help someone with big feet trying to even get ON the sled!)  Although the dogs can apparently haul up to 350kg, we are encouraged to ‘help’ them by scooting with one foot on uphill bits, and even getting off and running when the snow is deep. In these circumstances, it is difficult to find your footing to get back ON the sled while the sled is moving. I talk constantly to the dogs, encouraging them, and scooting to help them in the snow. There are two “scooting” techniques in operation:  a steady dab, or a high intensity double-pace motion.

After a good run, we come to a halt in a valley, and Jessica does a bit of reorganisation, taking one of ‘our’ dogs off the line to add to one of the other sleds, and rotating our roles.  Jacqui comes onto ‘our’ sled in the role of ‘driver’, with me on the back, Kate goes in tandem on the back of Jessica’s sled.

When we come to soft, fluffy snow on an uphill stretch, our dogs seem to be struggling (and there’s one less now).  I’m doing the high intensity scoots, balanced by Jacqui’s steady dab.  When we’re going up a steeper hill, I lose my balance and fall off the runners, only to be dragged along, clinging to the bar.  While acting as a human snow brake, I’m desperately trying to regain my footing so that we can keep the sled moving forward.  Finally I have to let go and yell “Stop! Stop!” Ouch!  I’m now mired in that deep snow. (At least the sled behind us didn’t run over the top of me!) I drag myself out, miserably, stagger back onto the sled stopped about ten metres ahead, and do my best to help the dogs get over the hill.  My shoulder is aching.

We arrive at our main stop in the Scot Turner Glacier and see another group of people cross-country skiing in single file with dogs.  It is possible to do a two or three day xc ski tour with dogs, presumably sleeping in tents (or maybe huts??) on the glacier.

Jessica digs a box out of the snow in preparation for the next phase of our trip.  This is where we will leave our backpacks and hats and instead don yellow caving helmets and lights to wear into the ice cave. Perhaps this is the “igloo” described in the blurb about the tour in which we are supposed to have lunch? 

Our dogs come off the traces and are chained on a chain line. We have the opportunity to ‘help’, but it’s probably more of a hindrance, as we’re confused by what are probably perfectly logical instructions (if you know what you’re doing).  We aren’t quite sure where each dog is meant to go on the line (again, they have to be in a particular order). Jessica seems to be impatient with us as she organises the dogs, and also goes down the line to give each of the dogs a snack reward. I pat each of ‘our’ dogs to thank them for the effort.

Kate and I are reluctant to go into the cave:  entry is down a steep, snow filled gully.  The others (more agile than us) are sinking down fairly deep into the snow as they go down into the gully. I’m actually more concerned about getting back OUT than going down. Jessica assures us that it will be okay: she’ll dig out steps and help us, and a 180kg guy had managed to get into the ice cave.  Okay, we’ll give it a try.

Jessica digs us out a ‘lounge’ from the snow in the wall of the gully, and we’re fairly comfortable (and out of the wind) for our lunch – freeze-dried K-rations, reconstituted by adding hot water from a thermos.  There are two or three different stew-like meals with rice to choose from.  It was tasty, but very filling:  none of us ate all of our allocated servings.  Lunch also includes some chocolate, and a local favourite, the hot blackcurrant cordial drink that we’d already tried with Better Moments the day before.

Lunch in the gully – Jessica digs us out a “lounge”. Serves freeze dried K- rations that are reconstituted by the addition of hot water from a thermos. Quite tasty but too filling – did not eat it all! Also had chocolate, and hot blackcurrant drink.

While we’re relaxing outside, Jessica takes a shovel to dig out the entrance to the cave, and create some steps for us.  It’s time to go in… The ice-cave is a meltwater cavern under the glacier, which can be explored in winter (or in our case, very early spring) because it’s still frozen. We squeeze through an ominously narrow opening, and take advantage of some of Jessica’s handiwork, negotiating a series of steps she’s cut out of the ice to descend maybe 10 or 15 metres.  There’s a rope to hold onto, to use like a banister as you go down the steps.  You’d better believe that I’m holding on tight!  The steps are uneven, with some big ones being particularly difficult for people with knee flexibility issues!  If getting down is a trauma, at least you can use gravity to drop down from one step to the next (even if it does hurt like hell)!  I’m more worried about getting back out again afterwards!

The cave is spectacular – and so different from our Iceland ice-cave experience (which was much more open).  The walls on either side show layers of hard compressed ice, with layers of more coarse crystallised water, and even stalactites hanging from the season. Our headlamps catch the beauty as we follow along behind Jessica.

We pause at several spots along the way to take photos as we continue to descend. I’m walking at the back of the group as we continue to descend. We finally get to a chamber that is wider than the corridor we’ve been traversing. Jessica asks if we’re all okay, and encourages us to speak up if we’ve had enough.  With one eye on a narrow metal ladder descending vertically into darkness, I volunteer that I really have had enough and I’m scared shitless (terrified of falling, but particularly of having to go down – and up – that ladder, to be honest). The others may be  happy to continue into the depths (it’s not like there’s an exit at the other end), but I’m thinking that 1) we still have to get out, 2) we have a long way to travel back on the sleds and 3) my shoulder is really hurting.

Fortunately for me (I’ll never know whether we were, indeed, intended to go down that bloody ladder) Jessica’s reaction is to start back.  She sticks close to Kate and me as we climb back out of the cave, even offering strategic shoves from behind to get us up the biggest steps. Returning on the sleds, I spend some time tucked in with Jane in Jessica’s sled.  After while I stand on the back with Jessica and even help scooting the sled up hill.

We come to a halt at one point because another dog sled company in front of us has stopped. It seems as though one of their dogs is tangled in its harness.  Another dog sled team from the same company as the one with problems stops behind us and the leader gets off and runs past us through the snow to check whether they need help.  While this is happening, Jessica has an issue with our teams coming in behind.  She is angry when one of our sleds starts to overtake the other: it’s really dangerous. As it later emerges, Michelle and Kay aren’t heavy enough to stop the sled, even when they both have their feet on the brakes. Snow is around them up to knee deep and the dogs aren’t slowing – they didn’t have any option but to try to overtake. 

When we get going again, the dogs are eager to run,  knowing that they’re homeward bound.  

Wow! What a day! Exhilirating, frightening, exhausting, amazing!

An Antarctic Adventure: All good things must come to an end – Days 18, 19 and 20

15 December Friday

That our adventure was coming to an end was confirmed by our on-board activities today. There were no landings, no Zodiac cruises. Instead we had a Disembarkation briefing in the bar, and organised to pay our accounts and tips with Kathryn. Gaps in the schedule were filled with documentary screenings in the lecture room, ahead of “Captain’s Farewell Drinks” in the bar. (Cheers!).

Dinner was a little bit ‘posh’ with blue tablecloths and cloth napkins. The meal was delicious – lamb cutlets, and crème caramel for dessert!! Mmmmm!

The highlight of the day had to be the “Favourite 4 Slide Show”, painstakingly compiled by Chris and Jess. By time everybody’s photos were included (and some did not seem to be able to count to 4), interspersed with bits of video, it was fairly long, but everybody was appropriately appreciative and engaged until the very end. There was lots of appreciative applause at the end for the Brays’ efforts. Good job!

16 December Saturday

We picked up the pilot at some time during the night, placing the bridge off-limits to expeditioners (not that too many people would be lurking around at 2 am).

Liz’s wake-up squawk box announcement gave us an hour to get organised for breakfast, recognising that our luggage had to be left outside our cabins before we went for breakfast.

After Argentinian customs had checked passports while we were at breakfast, Robyn announced that they were available for collection from the bar. Each one was marked with a sticker of our tag number to aid identification. I noted with some concern that the mysterious white docket that I’d received on entry to Chile at Santiago was no longer in my passport. (Was it supposed to be there?! Hopefully I wouldn’t need it again.)

Unwanted clothing was dispatched to Robyn’s office for distribution to the Russian crew; our Muck Boots went back into storage via a chute into the Lecture room. On the deck above, Dr Peter fed the boots into the hole in the deck while Steve caught them at the other end:  an efficient process. I donated my mid-length Muckboots to the “Polar Pioneer”, not envisaging that I’d have any use for them. In the scheme of things, they weren’t that expensive, after all.

When we were finally cleared to leave the ship, it was to discover our luggage neatly stowed on the wharf, under the watchful eye of a member of the crew. All the members of the Expedition Team were also there, so there was some milling around while we thanked and farewelled them after a marvellous trip.

Having heard that it was Liz’s first trip as Expedition Leader, I particularly wanted to congratulate her on her performance. A big thumbs-up expressed everything that I could possibly say:  she’d done a marvellous job!

Having negotiated all the farewells, it was then time to sort out airport transfers. Many of us had pre-booked and paid for transfers.

One lady stood near the group with a piece of cardboard, with about a dozen expeditioners’ names written on it. When people identified themselves, she pointed them in the direction of a nearby bus. My name, along with many of my fellow expeditioners, wasn’t on the board and the transfer lady didn’t speak English. Was this our transfer or not?! (Mine wasn’t scheduled – according to my paperwork – until later, so did I have to wait for it? Our Disembarkation Instructions mentioned “various shuttle vehicles” arriving from “0745 – 0900”) Sigh… certainly seemed like typical, chaotic, disorganised South American arrangements!

Fortunately, Robyn managed to sort everything out, and we all embarked on the one coach (so much for “various”) waving goodbye to the expeditioners who hadn’t booked transfers as the bus crawled slowly down the wharf. They would have to walk to the taxi rank, across the road from the end of the wharf. We seemed to go on a miniature tour of the town, before stopping at the tourist information centre to drop Ron off. Then it was on to the airport.

Passengers departing the Ushuaiia dockUshuaia Airport is small, and (surprise, surprise) disorganised. We were clearly so early for our (noon) flight that it wasn’t even listed on the departures board. But, with a coach-load of (surely not unexpected) tourists clogging up their limited departures space, you’d think they’d have had some sort of strategy, wouldn’t you? The queue, interspersed with locals trying to check in for their flights, went from one end of the terminal to the other.

After a while, someone in charge decided to move all the tourists to the side so that they could process the locals (who were probably trying to check in for earlier flights, anyway). The lucky ones who’d been at the front of the queue before this side-tracking occurred managed to check in (and took off to the coffee shop upstairs). The rest of us were left standing beside the check-in races with our suitcases, wondering whether they’d even remember to tell us when we COULD check in. Sigh! (I have not had the most wonderful experiences with South American airports!)

Finally, with check-in quiet (except for all of us tourists bunched beside the races), the LATAM staff gestured for us to come to the counter. Finally:  into the queue, checked in without too many dramas, and upstairs to negotiate a fairly lacklustre security check before heading to the gates. More waiting, but at least there were plenty of seats!

… On board LA 7738 and we were on our way from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, with a stop at El Calafate along the way, a flight of 2632 kilometres We probably left late again – punctuality doesn’t seem to be very important. David was sitting in the same row – we had a seat between us (nice to have a bit of room to spread out). It seemed he was one of those lucky people who could fall asleep at the drop of a hat (very handy when travelling), so I kept myself occupied by reading via my Kindle App on my iPad.

When we reached Calafate, it was to disgorge large numbers of locals, while a few tourists stayed on board. It still seemed weird to be remaining on board while people departed and then loaded from this stop. (The whole “don’t do your seatbelt up while we refuel the plane” instruction was rather scary! I presumed it was so that, if there was an accidental ignition while the refuelling was taking place, there was one less thing to worry about before getting the hell off the plane!) Yikes! How often does THAT happen? (Presumably it HAS happened that they would even HAVE such an instruction!).

There weren’t as many people getting on the plane at Calafate as had departed, so we had a few vacant rows around us. David settled down to sleep again. As the plane upped its revs for take-off, I was distracted from my Kindle long enough to observe that there seemed to be smoke or fumes drifting out of the panels above my head! What the hell?!! When I looked around, nobody was reacting at all (Was this NORMAL?!). Once we were climbing, the stream of smoke dissipated, but it sure made me uneasy about the plane’s reliability.

This, however, wasn’t the last plane incident to give me the creeps! At one point on the same flight, the engines seemed to cut out. We must have been flying along for at least a couple of minutes without the engines making their usual noises. Huh?! Once again, I looked around to see if anybody else was reacting:  nothing. I was scared (again), but given the lack of reaction from anybody, I went back to reading my iPad (there was nothing I could do, after all).

After we deplaned (finally) in Jorge Newbery, Buenos Aires, I was comparing notes with David and discovered that he was also freaked out by the plane engine stopping. (It wasn’t my imagination!)

“But you were just calmly sitting there reading,” he accused.

(No, actually not calmly!) It was the strangest thing – I cannot come up with a sensible explanation. My only theory is that maybe pilots can use the updrafts from the Andes mountains to keep the planes at altitude, and save on fuel. (?) It was very, very odd!

We wallowed around the airport until finally we found the right area for our gate. Jorge Newbery is largely a domestic airport, servicing flights from different parts of Argentina, but also other South American countries. (The main international airport is Ezeiza International Airport (also known as Ministro Pistarini International Airport).) Perhaps because of the predominance of South American flights, we had difficulty in determining exactly where we had to go for our connecting flight.

Five of us from the Polar Pioneer were on the same flight, so waited (and waited and waited) in a licenced café near the departure gates. People started queueing at the gate. When the queue kept lengthening, we wondered whether we should be joining it. (There had been no notice about the gate being open.) Phil found an English-speaking staff member for LATAM who told us that the flight had been delayed, and there was no point in our joining the queue – we would be told when there was any news. Many of the people in the queue remained there – apparently they had booked discount flights, and had tight connections that they were unlikely to be able to keep. Lots of unhappy people! I was somewhat concerned that if the flight was cancelled, we’d all be stuck here overnight with no accommodation, and struggle to make our connection for our International flights out of Santiago next day.   (!)

We were still waiting as the time for our flight’s departure (20.20) ticked past, but eventually grateful that the flight hadn’t been cancelled. We reached Santiago close to midnight. At least we were now on faintly familiar turf, knowing that we wouldn’t need to pay the reciprocity fee (having already paid it), and where to join the queue for immigration. (We expected a wait – and got one – although it wasn’t as long as last time.) That accomplished, it was then on for the suspense of discovering whether or not our check-in luggage had arrived. Though my bag was one of the last out, it was, at least, there! (PHEW!)

The Customs people weren’t very interested in our luggage, beckoning us to the scanners without even looking at our declarations. It’s one way of processing people quickly, but probably not particularly good for identifying smugglers!

We were booked into rooms at the Holiday Inn Santiago – Airport Terminal (literally across the road from the airport). We ran the gauntlet of the crowds of taxi drivers looking for fares, and left the terminal. While I was looking for a pedestrian crossing so that I didn’t have to bump my wheeled duffle up and down kerbs, David shot across the road. Hold on! I pointed back the other way, but he thought I was pointing at the overbridge (which would’ve required us to retrace our steps in the terminal), so ignored me! Sigh… I followed him… At least at this time of night, there was no traffic to speak of.

Check-in was reasonably efficient, and it wasn’t long before I was in my (very comfortable) room. Munchies sourced from my carry-on, shower, bed (aaahhhh)!

17 December Sunday

I was up early (I never sleep well in hotels when I’m in transit). Breakfast was a delicious buffet. Phil and Marilyn were there, but no sign of David, so I joined them for a while. David lobbed in after they’d already left to return to their room, having made tentative arrangements to meet me in the lounge area later.

When we were waiting for them to join us in the lounge, a message came in on David’s phone about a Qantas flight delay (3 hours). It was luck that he’d even turned his phone on – I’d been using the hotel Wi-Fi to access cricket footage on my iPad that I wanted to show David, which prompted him to turn on his phone. As our flight was due to depart at 13.35, it potentially presented problems for us in checking in for our flight. Would we check out of the hotel, go to check-in for our flight and be turned away for being “too early”? If that happened, where would we and our suitcases go in the meantime?

We decided that David and Phil would go across the street to check out what was going on, and work out how best to proceed, leaving me to mind our group’s luggage. This turned out to be an excellent strategy, as the guys discovered a packed and chaotic check-in, and a secret preferentiale (priority check in) hidden away upstairs. They were also able to establish that, with David and I both travelling on Business Class tickets, we would be able to access the LATAM lounge, and Phil and Marilyn would be able to accompany us. Sounded good!

We crossed the road to the terminal (this time using the pedestrian crossing), and battled our way through the doors. Inside, to the right, check-in was chaotic, so we were VERY glad to have the option to by-pass it. Upstairs, the preferentiale area was quiet. We were the only passengers at about 10 check-in counters. Behind us, however, there was a lengthening queue to go through the ‘private security screening channel’, where you negotiated the passport formalities to leave the country, and put your carry-on luggage through the scanners.   

David was checked in first, without too many problems. I let Phil and Marilyn go next – bad mistake! They checked in, and joined the end of the ‘private security screening channel’ – apparently people from economy check-in were being sent up here because there was a massive back-log downstairs. Hmmm… So much for priority check-in!

By the time I reached the check-in counter, the security queue had doubled in length. (What must it be like downstairs?!) Everything related to my check-in seemed to be going smoothly, and then, all of a sudden, the printer ground to a halt. Despite the best efforts of the LATAM/Qantas staff, nothing happened. After 10 minutes of agitated efforts to encourage the printer to reset, the staff member presented me with two options:  I could go downstairs to check in (hell, no!), or I could take a seat and wait until the airport technical staff came to fix the machine. (Despite there being 7 or 8 empty counters alongside this one, he couldn’t use them as they were assigned to other airlines.) Sigh…

I sat… and waited… and waited … and waited. All the time, the queue through security got longer and longer. (I did wonder whether it would have been quicker to check in downstairs, but then I would probably have been held up even longer in the security queue.)

Finally, the airport IT guy came (while I crossed my fingers that this was a fault that could be fixed) and after about 10 minutes, the LATAM guy came to escort me back, and complete my check-in. By the time this was done, the security queue was almost out the door:  There had to be 60 or 70 people, maybe 10 of whom (including me) had any right to be there! Of course, it being a South American facility, there was only one counter open.

The queue crawled forward. The passengers behind me had two small children who decided that it was good fun to run around me. (Maybe their parents hoped that they would be so tired when they got to their flight that they’d go to sleep.) I was tired of standing.

When I reached the head of the queue, a US gentleman was in front of me at the counter. I think we were both taken aback when a very well preserved woman with a designer handbag, bustled up to the counter from further back in the queue, engaging the officer while ignoring the US guy. I guessed she was concerned about missing her flight (weren’t we all?)

The US guy stood back politely, while she yelled and gesticulated at the officer (who listened politely, but sternly pointed back to the line). In the queue, the locals (well, the people who could understand what she was saying) started yelling as well. She ignored them, and beckoned to another lady behind me in the queue. The second (equally well-preserved) lady came forward, yelling at the first. This provoked more indignant Spanish-language yelling around me. The officer continued to shake his head, gesturing towards the line. Chaos!

The officer clearly wasn’t going to let them jump the queue, despite their voluble protests, so the two ladies finally had to admit defeat and return to the line. Surrounded by muttering fellow travellers, it was probably not the most comfortable experience for them. (I hope they missed their flight!) The US guy was processed quickly, and I was (finally) able to present my own passport.

Latham Santiago loungePhew! Accessing the LATAM lounge was much easier! When I entered, however, I was surprised to find only David (who’d met up with another ex-ASG70 traveller, Ron.) The LATAM lounge staff would not allow Phil and Marilyn (who were travelling on economy class tickets) to enter the lounge with David, despite the assurances we’d received from the staff downstairs. As it wasn’t a Qantas Lounge, their standard arrangements didn’t apply, even though we were travelling on Qantas tickets. (Had we chosen to go to the American Airlines Admirals Club Lounge, with whom Qantas also has an arrangement, Phil and Marilyn would have been allowed in as our guests – and I would have been able to enter on the strength of my Qantas Club membership, regardless of my class of travel … If only we’d known!)

The LATAM lounge was enormous, with two levels providing heaps of facilities, including grouped lounge chairs with power outlets, dining areas, buffets, sleeping lounges, kid zones and showers. I had plenty of time to relax, shower, eat… I did feel sorry for Phil and Marilyn, though – if the security queue was any indication, they probably didn’t have a peaceful time at the departure gate!

It was a great relief when we received the boarding call for flight QF928. Boarding proceeded smoothly, and I was pleased to take my seat in the upstairs cabin. Once take-off and all the associated work was out of the way, the Business Cabin Manager came around to introduce himself and to apologise for the delay. The delay had been caused by an extremely late departure from New York on the Friday (the flight had been ready to leave on schedule, but as a result of congestion, holiday season and snow had left about 4 hours late).

I wasn’t surprised when, later in the flight, the Business Cabin Manager returned to advise me that I would not be able to make my connecting flight from Sydney to Canberra. (I’d already worked this out when we left 3 hours late! The anticipated arrival time would have left me with 20 minutes to negotiate the Border Force formalities, then I’d still have to check in for my domestic flight and get across to the domestic terminal. Nah, was never going to happen.)

When the flight arrived in Sydney, a member of the ground crew was standing at the gates with sets of written instructions and information for those who would miss their connections (about 20 people going to Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane). The guy in front of me was complaining about how cheap Qantas was – that the allowance for meals wouldn’t even get him a decent dinner. Ridiculous! Some people just like to be difficult: Dinner had already been provided on the plane, after all!

To cut a long story short:

The baggage handlers in Santiago apparently loaded back to front (a common problem, apparently, according to the Qantas ground crew in Sydney), so all the priority luggage came out last. This was particularly irritating, as all the priority travellers (who’d exited the flight first) were waiting, while the carousel filled with the bags of those who had not yet left the plane. (Great!) When my luggage finally arrived, I negotiated Border Security without drama, though I couldn’t take the fast-track lane because I’d been “in contact with … wilderness areas or freshwater streams/lakes etc. in the past 30 days”, and been in “South America in the last 6 days”. Regardless of David’s more cavalier approach (ticking “no” to everything), I’d watched enough “Border Security” to know how serious a “false declaration” could be! The Border Security guy was more interested in what Department I worked for than in opening my checked bag, especially when, while he was looking at my card, I explained that I’d been to Antarctica, subject to all sorts of biosecurity protocols (and only worn gumboots on landings), and the only place I’d been in South America was airports and airport hotels.

I transferred to the overnight hotel (Holiday Inn, Sydney Airport) in a crowded shuttle bus, along with the other fellow-sufferers, including Dr Peter, Lynda, and Ron.)

Next morning, check-out and the transfer back to the airport went smoothly. The scanner was unable to read my initial boarding pass (my seat was apparently allocated elsewhere), but it was easily fixed and I made it aboard my flight. My checked bags came off the flight in Canberra reasonably promptly, and I walked out the door and straight into a cab. (One advantage in being on an early flight – not too much competition for taxis – it’s too early for people coming to Canberra for meetings.)

Photo album for this trip is on my Flickr account at https://www.flickr.com/gp/jeaneeem/kr50HF

I also post Antarctica photos on my Instagram account (jeaneeem). Please feel free to check ’em out!

Thank you for your interest. I hope to publish the journal and photos from my next trip soon.

An Antarctic Adventure: Sea Lion Island – Day 17

We landed on Sea Lion Island and relaxed watching weaners play-fighting on the beach before discovering a Penguin rookery.

14 December Thursday

Conditions had improved sufficiently that, after an early breakfast, we were able to make a landing on Sea Lion Island, the largest of the Sea Lion Island Group of the Falkland Islands. The island has breeding colonies of Southern Sea Lions, and Southern Elephant Seals, as well as Gentoo Penguins (2800 pairs), Southern Rockhopper Penguins (480 pairs), Magellanic Penguins, Southern Giant Petrels, Striated Caracaras and Sooty Shearwaters.

Some took the opportunity to walk to the Rockhopper Penguin colony, over the top of the hill. Jacqui and I took a seat on a nice, comfortable piece of drift wood, to watch the world go by. Except for the weaner Elephant Seals duelling near the water, it was very peaceful!

Seals fighting on beachRobyn encouraged us to go and check out the Magellanic Penguins who nested in tussocks near the lagoon. We clambered over the rocky ridge to the lagoon and walked along the shore in the direction Robyn had indicated. A seal in the lagoon (which must have been very shallow) was lolling on its back – obviously not floating. Along the shoreline, birds, and other seals were camouflaged in the vegetation.

Gentoo Penguin with two chicksWe didn’t discover the Magellanic Penguin nests (though we did see a few penguins), but we did discover a small Gentoo Penguin rookery, and they had chicks! Awww, so cute!  One parent was looking after a very cute pair of chicks. As we watched, a Striated Caracaras (or maybe it was a Skua) swooped in on the nests and made off with a chick. As it flapped away from the net, another bird tried to nick the kill. Jacqui got some photos. I managed one blurred shot of a big brown bird flying away.

While we were quite happy sitting on our log, watching the world go by, Robyn soon came over and offered us an early Zodiac back to the ship. Another two expeditioners were also ready to go, so we donned our life jackets and headed to the Zodiacs. The wind had picked up, so it was a little dodgy getting off the beach. We managed it (though probably a little wetter than we had been on the ride in). By the time the others had returned from the Rockhopper rookery, the conditions required stern departures from the beach.

An Antarctic Adventure: Stanley, Falkland Islands – Day 16

We were lucky to go ashore at Stanley, and deteriorating conditions gifted us an unexpected experience in returning to the Polar Pioneer.

13 December Wednesday

We were still at sea when we woke this morning; the seas were still unruly; but the good news was that we had made excellent time overnight, and were closing in on the Falkland Islands ahead of schedule.

Gary kept us entertained with another presentation, this time on “Falkland Island Birds”, then, around lunchtime, we passed through the Narrows and into Stanley Harbour. Yay!  Land Ho!

After some negotiation with authorities, the good news was that we would be making a landing at Stanley. With several options available to us, we decided as the photography group that we would stay ashore for dinner – at one of the local pubs – and get the last Zodiacs back to the ship afterwards. For those who would prefer to dine on board the ship, there would be earlier Zodiac options.

We discovered today that Nikon Thomas and his family would be leaving the “Polar Pioneer” for an extended stay in East Falklands. Their 7 or 8 large suitcases had to be transferred from the ship to the shore via zodiac – quite an undertaking!

My own descent into the zodiac was less than graceful. Halfway down the gangway, I lost my footing and slid to the bottom, landing with one leg crumpled underneath me on the metal platform at the bottom. Neither Liz, who was driving the Zodiac, nor the crew member, seemed to even notice that I’d fallen. Perhaps they thought it was my usual way of descending the gangway! Liz was holding out her hand, and I scrambled awkwardly to my feet. (Who’d have thought that my hiking shoes would have less grip on the slippery steps than my Muck Boots?!) That hurt!

I had a brief moment of worrying which leg to lead with in stepping onto the Zodiac (what if the crumpled one wouldn’t hold my weight?) I just stepped – I’d have to step from one foot to the other, anyway. My leg went out from under me again and I was in a heap in the bottom of the boat (but, at least, aboard). That hurt (too!)! My fellow Zodiac passengers were sympathetic, and Nikon Thomas asked me if I was okay. I explained that I already had a dodgy knee.  Ouch.

The transfer was bouncy and wet, and we were pleased to experience the novelty of leaving the Zodiac via a wharf! Liz stepped agilely onto the dock, secured the Zodiac, then helped us ashore. After divesting ourselves of our life jackets, we walked through a Port Security building, each accepting a “Day Visitor” pass, which we had to return when we came back to the wharf.

There was another change to our plans:  conditions were such that the Team couldn’t allow us to stay ashore so late, so we would be going back to the Ship for dinner. Conditions were deteriorating, and we didn’t want to replicate the experience of a much larger cruise ship, whose 200-odd passengers had had to be billeted in Stanley for several days when conditions deteriorated so much while they were ashore that they could not be transferred back to their ship.

Chris had arranged for another special excursion for the photography group:  when we got outside, there was a mini-van with local driver waiting for us. He would drive us to the best site for wildlife – home of a Magellanic Penguin colony – near to Stanley, Gypsy Cove. The rest of the expeditioners had the options of exploring the township (including a museum, Government house, shopping, or heading to one of the pubs, the Globe or the Victory), taking a cab or hiking out to Gypsy Cove.

On the way, we stopped at the side of the road to photograph a pair of geese and their goslings, and a wreck in the bay. At Gypsy Bay, a board walk with viewing platforms looked down on the beach. Nobody was allowed onto the beach, as the area was seeded with landmines during the Falklands War. As the signs explained: “Although this area is believed to be clear of mines, it is possible that a mine may be washed ashore from a nearby minefield. Please be careful. Do not touch any suspicious object, but place a marker nearby and report it to the JSEODOC, Stanley.”

It was a pretty area (except for the threat of landmines). Across the top of the hill was a ridge of rocks, surrounded by flora – green, olive and yellow grasses, little yellow daisies and low-lying red bushes. On the beach, the Magellanic Penguins were gathered around a little inlet – like a little bathing area. Along the beach, a pair of ducks escorted their six ducklings beside the water. We walked along the boardwalk, observing geese higher up the hill.

Magellan’s Penguins gathered on shoreOur guide took those who were confident of their footing off the boardwalk to check out some nesting birds in the cliffs above the beach. While we were waiting for them to return, we said hello to the amazing Canadian ladies Barb and Joc LeBloc, who had walked to Gypsy Beach from Stanley Harbour. They had time for a quick look, then had to turn around to head back!  Wow!  What a great effort.

Our next stop was at a point beyond the airport to check out some seabirds at a lighthouse. As it was blowing a gale (apparently the norm in the Falklands), and a challenge to keep our feet, I decided to stay in the van. I wished we’d spent less time here, and more time actually in the township of Stanley. I wanted to see, for example, an iconic sign with street markers pointing around the world that featured in the Aurora brochures (actually we drove past it on the way back to the dock, but there was no time for stopping to be back on time.)

When we got back to the dock, it was to discover i) that all our fellow expeditioners (regardless of the arrangements for “early” or “later” Zodiacs) were congregated under the sheltered walkway at the pontoon, having all been rounded up by Liz and Team and ii) the “Polar Pioneer” was no longer parked offshore. (!!)

As Liz explained to us, the wind had increased to 60 knot squalls and the “Polar Pioneer” had dragged anchor. After two further attempts to anchor in Inner Harbour (the second seeing the ship drag at alarming rates), the Captain fired her up and headed to Outer Harbour in search of a safe anchorage.

The move to Outer Harbour, and the worsening conditions, made getting back to the “Polar Pioneer” on the Zodiacs unfeasible. But, of course, Liz had a back-up plan:  Aurora Expeditions’ Falklands shipping agent, Sullivan Shipping, arranged for the assistance of the Falklands’ Coast Guard. Their pilot ship, the “John Davis”, was small enough to load us, 10 at a time, from the pontoon, and take us back to our ship.

Each transfer would take some time, so being at the back of the queue we had time to kill. Chris, Jess, Rob and some of the girls made tracks to the closest local for a beer. Michelle and Jane went to check out some of the shops (looking for souvenirs). I popped into the visitors centre with Jacqui, in the hope that I might find some nice, small souvenirs. In particular, I was seeking a cloth souvenir patch, but very few places seem to sell these any more. No luck.

One group of 10 at a time, the expeditioners were shepherded from the covered walkway to the end of the pontoon, and stepped easily onto the ship, making their way to a comfortable cabin. When it came to my turn, I was the last one in the group. When I got to the “John Davis”, one of their crew stopped me from boarding, saying they already had 10. Huh? Surely our Team can count to ten! I probably looked more than a little pissed (someone obviously couldn’t count!), but I wasn’t going to argue.

I was irritated at having to walk out to the end of the pontoon, and then having to walk back again. When I was almost back under the cover, they were yelling at me again, “No, come on!”

My response was “You didn’t want me in the first place, so I’ll wait for the next one!”

But, no, Liz shepherded me back. I was looking anxiously at the ship, which was pulling away from the wharf.

“I can’t jump across that gap!” I told her.

Fortunately, the pilot ship sidled back to the dock, and a very apologetic crew member helped me aboard. The rest of the expeditioners in the cabin cheered as I came in. Obviously as they’d prepared to depart, the crew member had gone through the cabin and realised that there was an empty space. He didn’t have to apologise – I understood that they were helping us out in difficult circumstances. It didn’t matter now.

Our trip to Outer Harbour was comfortable – and we were very grateful that we weren’t out in the Zodiacs in these conditions! The gale force winds made it VERY rough!

When we got to the “Polar Pioneer”, the “John Davis” pulled in beside the Zodiac deck. We then had to follow the crew member around the outside of the cabin then, with his assistance – and that of our Russian crew, step thankfully on board our ship. Hey, why couldn’t we travel like this, to and from the ship every time? It was a lot easier than the Zodiacs!

Admittedly when the “John Davis” crew member said “follow me” and stepped onto a narrow ledge going around the outside of the cabin, I was terrified. My first step, where I was watching my feet while my hand went blindly up to the roof, feeling for the rail, was really scary. Fortunately, the handrail ran the length of the cabin roof, so it was then a matter of sidling along the side of the deck, moving hand over hand on the rail, then stepping, with assistance about 30cm up onto the rear deck of the “Polar Pioneer”.

Crew member guiding passenger along deck of John Davis pilot ship to board Polar Pioneer I headed back through the ship for our cabin, for a quick shower, then grabbed my camera to get some photos of the “John Davis” thrashing through the chop towards us. I recognised that the crew would not want me and my camera in their way, so headed towards the rear of the ship on the main deck, and found a spot, amongst the lashed down kayaks and gear, where I could look down on the Kayak deck. The next load of expeditioners included Jane (who grinned with relief when she stepped ashore – obviously having been anxious about that transfer, just like I was), Chris, and Jess. All safe and accounted for!

An Antarctic Adventure: Sea days on the way to the Falklands – Days 14 and 15

Another sea day, with more unpleasantly large seas and more presentations.

11 December Monday

It was a sea day (actually, the South Atlantic Ocean) on the “Polar Pioneer” as we made our way towards the Falkland Islands. For the photographers, the presentations from Gary (“Whales”), Steve (“History of Whaling”) and Chris (“Pioneering Arctic Expedition Sailing” – about their adventures in their Junk-sailed yacht, Teleport) broke the monotony of editing thousands of accumulated images. Then, there was another “Recap” in the bar.

By evening, however, the wind had blown up out of the west pushing waves and swell onto the bow of the “Polar Pioneer”. We ricocheted down the corridors, and held on tightly as we descended to the next floor for dinner. Chris joined our usual gang for dinner, having belatedly realised that we were always the first table in our dining room to be served each night. I made it through entree at dinner, but was starting to feel hot and yucky, so decided that getting horizontal on my bunk was probably the priority!

Conditions actually seemed worse than our Drake Passage crossing, with the motion pushing us from one end of the bunk to the other and also side to side. Jacqui and I decided not to even try having showers, as it was enough of a challenge to stand at the bathroom sink, let alone washing all over while holding on with just one hand! Nah, forget it!

12 December Tuesday

Another sea day, with more unpleasantly large seas and more presentations. Today, Peter (“Living and Working in Antarctica”), Liz (“Blubber and Fur:  Mammals in a Watery World”) and Robyn (“A Year with Emperor Penguins”) presented. It was also the last day to enter the “People’s Choice Photo Competition”, sponsored by Chris and David, and to submit our “Favourite 4 photos” for the Expedition slide show. Chris and Jess would be very busy in the next couple of days putting together the slide show, interspersed with video clips and overlaid with backing music.

There was much promotion of the “Great Antarctic and South Georgia Quiz”, to be hosted by Steve and Gary in the bar, with rewards of Toblerone chocolate as the lure. Given how well we have been eating, we probably didn’t need chocolate!

An Antarctic Adventure: Secret Salisbury Plain and Elsehul – Day 13

An exclusive landing on Salisbury Plain became more exclusive when deteriorating conditions meant the rest of the expedition couldn’t go ashore after breakfast.

10 December Sunday

Surprise, surprise, nobody was missing when we met up the next morning (we really were a punctual group!) Okay, we’d be going ashore, but conditions would be challenging – our first ’surf landing’. (Glad I’d opted to wear the ship’s Tall Muck Boots rather than my own Mids!) The descent into the Zodiac was dodgy at best, and the trip across to the beach bumpy. I was anxious about negotiating the ‘surf landing’ but the only real difference was having to rotate out of the Zodiac into deeper water (above the knee) and wade ashore.

Salisbury Plain is a broad coastal plain in the Bay of Isles on the north coast of South Georgia. It was discovered by Captain Cook during his second voyage of 1772-1775. It lies between the mouths of Grace and Lucas Glaciers and is renowned as the breeding site for up to 100,000 King Penguin pairs, making it the second largest King Penguin colony in the area, and one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, conditions were such that our landing was at the opposite end of the beach to the rookery. The area is renowned for being exposed to the weather, particularly the large wells that surge off the ocean, so it’s not always possible to even land here!

After we were ashore, Chris decided (with our concurrence) that we wouldn’t walk up the rookery, as the walking would take much of the time ashore that we’d been allocated. We’d stay in the area closest to the landing area, with the intention of visiting the rookery in our post-breakfast landing with the rest of the expeditioners.

If the far end of the beach was renowned for its penguin rookery, the rest of the area was clearly “Fur Seal turf” – there were hundreds upon hundreds of them – everywhere. The occasional dabs of white from the penguins mingling with the seals as they made their way to and from the water did little to break up the predominant brown of the seals! That the Team had managed to find us a thin sliver of beachfront that was safe enough for us to land (being not totally clogged with Fur Seals) was very fortunate. To be honest, I think we were very lucky to get ashore at all!

King penguins in front of a rocky shore covered by seals, with ship anchored in the background Despite our disappointment at not approaching the rookery, there was plenty to keep us occupied. Our group was the object of much curiosity from King Penguins, Skuas, and weaner Fur Seals. Three or four penguins at a time would stand watching us, providing possibilities of great photos, with the awesome backdrops of beautiful aqua-blue sea, low-lying cloud hovering around the surrounding mountains, and the “Polar Pioneer” floating sedately at anchor off the shore. Rotund weaner Fur Seals, with their big, shiny black eyes edged curiously closer. Chris, who was one of the photographers lying on the ground (I don’t lie on the ground because I know I Photographer Chris Bray regarding a weaner seal who has moved on top of some of his gearwon’t be able to get up quickly if there’s an emergency) seemed to be a beacon for the weaners, with one particularly curious one moving right up and leaning on his shoulder (perhaps checking out his camera settings LOL!). When Chris swapped cameras, putting the one with big zoom on the grass beside him, the weaner wriggled a flipper on top! (Fortunately Chris was able to extract the gear before any damage was done!). There must have been something about Chris’ gear, as the camera and lens rescued from the weaner (and left lying on the grass while he moved elsewhere) soon drew the attention of a couple of Skuas, who pecked at the bright red cleaning cloth attached to the camera until Chris tucked it underneath where it couldn’t be seen.

Issy moved slightly further afield to photograph the King Penguins beside the nearby lagoon. While I was watching, about a dozen King Penguins started walking towards her in single file. It looked like she should have an amazing depth of field shot, with King Penguins filling the frame, but Issy told me later that she was so flustered by the opportunity, that she totally stuffed her settings and didn’t get the shot she wanted. 😦

With conditions deteriorating, the Team called us back to the Zodiacs, cutting short our planned stay:  we had to go NOW!

If some of our previous departures had been a little hairy, this one was downright scary. To start with, because of the conditions, it had to be a ‘surf departure’; effectively, the waves rolling in on the beach meant that it wasn’t possible to safely reverse the Zodiacs off the shoreline with a boatload of passengers aboard. So the rear of each Zodiac was pointed towards the beach, with the Team struggling to hold them steady. With waves crashing on the bow of the craft, we had to wade into the water and climb in the usual way. When it was my turn to board, I looked up to see Chris aboard, beckoning encouragingly. The Zodiac shifted and I waded into the water following it. The water was getting deeper, the craft rising up and down a metre or more at a time so the side of the buffer was at my eye-level. There was absolutely NO way I could get onto the side of the craft, even if I dived head-first! (And why was Chris already in the Zodiac, rather than lending whatever assistance he could to his photography clients on the shore?! So much for “women and children first”!  LOL!)

“I can’t!” I cried in frustration.

Perhaps the Team realised that they couldn’t expect us to do a Fosbury flop to get into the Zodiac and pulled it closer to the shore – or maybe there was a calm period when it wasn’t rising and falling a metre at a time – but somehow I – and the rest of the photography group – managed to get aboard our Zodiacs – probably at the expense of the Team. Steve and Al, for example, were holding the Zodiacs steady in waist-deep water, and Al had to be hauled aboard head-first after he’d shoved the final Zodiac off the beach!

The trip back to the “Polar Pioneer” was very rough, and our return didn’t go unnoticed:  there were a couple of expeditioners on deck to witness our return… Secret no more. We were instructed to say, if anybody asked, that we’d had a “photography workshop”, though how exactly this was meant to placate anybody when it was obvious we’d been off the ship was anybody’s guess! Regardless, we didn’t talk about going ashore at Salisbury Plain.

We turned our tags, and geared down so we could go to breakfast. Having experienced the conditions – and the real struggle to get us on-board the Zodiacs – Jacqui and I speculated that there was very little likelihood of another landing on Salisbury Plain. Conditions had definitely deteriorated significantly since we’d first landed on the beach at 5am, and the idea of 5 or 6 boat-loads of people departing the beach in conditions worse than we’d experienced on the return seemed ludicrous, if not downright reckless!

Through the course of the morning, Liz made several announcements – we were waiting to see if conditions improved enough to allow us to land on Salisbury Plain. The winds at over 20 knots pushed a dangerous surge in on the beach, making it patently unsafe for Zodiac operations. With conditions continuing to deteriorate, Liz finally had to announce that we would not landing. People were not happy. Word had spread about the photography group’s expedition, and people refused to recognise that conditions had deteriorated so that a landing was no longer an option. Liz found herself repeatedly having to calmly explain exactly why “if they could go ashore, why can’t we?”. I was sorry for our non-photography friends who’d missed out on the Salisbury Plain experience (and sorry that we, also, had missed out on the chance to see the rookery)!

The Team worked very hard to placate those disgruntled expeditioners. As Liz later explained, our Zodiac cruise in Elsehul Harbour was the third option, after the previous two didn’t pan out because of adverse conditions. Right Whale Bay, for example, was even rougher than Salisbury Plain had been. We were grateful for the Team’s persistence, and the skill of Captain Sasha in navigating to find a sheltered anchorage for the ship!

Elsehul is a small bay on the north coast of South Georgia. The name dates back to the period 1902-12 and probably was applied by Norwegian sealers and whalers working in the area. It was discovered by sealers in the 1780s, with old tryouts, abandoned on one of the beaches, providing evidence of their presence.

As usual, the bulk of the photography group was on deck promptly, and at the front of the queue for the Zodiacs. Michelle had been quite vocal about her desire to be in the same craft as Chris this afternoon, as she wished to seek his advice. Unfortunately, when Kathrine was given the okay to start loading, there was no sign of Chris so our group was moved aside. This allowed the crew to continue loading the Zodiacs. Equally unfortunately, when Chris did arrive, loading was such that he ended up in the other photography group craft, anyway. (Michelle was very disappointed!)

We finally boarded Dr Peter’s craft at about 1.30. I rather liked his calm, laid back style. He was a little disconcerted when I described our boat as an “all-girl boat”, but graciously accepted the designation of “honorary girl” in the spirit in which it was intended.

Elsehul is the site of a large Macaroni Penguin colony, which we viewed with amazement from the Zodiacs. The colony was located amidst green tussocks and moss-covered rocks, on a steep slope maybe 50 or 60 metres above the waterline. For flightless birds, obtaining food would require a feather-ruffling steep descent with the final tens of metres down even more steeply sloped rock faces. And then, having got to the water, fished for food and returned, another arduous climb to the nests! By web-footed creatures who could only use their flippers for balance! Bloody hell!

As we motored further around the harbour, we found another Macaroni colony on an even more stark hillside – just bare rocks! Neighbours to the Macaronis were a variety of birds. Blue-eyed Cormorants made their nests on rocky ledges in the cliffs above the water. At the top of the cliffs, Grey-headed, Black-browed and Light Mantled Albatrosses made their nests amid the tussocky vegetation. We spent some time watching them soar on the updrafts, and adjust for a landing. We observed that they were lowering their feet as a way to dampen their speed in the winds on the peaks of the ridges – it wasn’t so much a ‘missed landing’ and ‘going around’ to try again, so much as a deliberate action to slow them down – like lowering the flaps!

Dr Peter steered the Zodiac through a clump of kelp so we could tentatively nose into a cave. To our surprise, it had an occupant – fortunately not a fierce band of Fur Seals – just a Sheathbill perched up high on moss-covered rocks.

Fur Seals demonstrated that it wasn’t only the Macaronis with rock climbing abilities, with some resting on rocky ledges in improbable spots 10 or 15 metres above the water. I would have liked to have seen their climbs and, equally, their descents! Pretty impressive efforts with flippers!

The hardy kayakers paddled through thick tangles of kelp to check out the dense populations of Fur and Elephant Seals on the little beach. No wonder we were Zodiac-cruising, and not landing:  this was high density housing for seals! Considering that in the 1820s the population of Fur Seals had been almost completely wiped out by sealers, it is impressive to see how nature can restore itself without the interference of human greed!

King Penguins moving single-file into the waterThere was the usual seal activity all over the beach – lots of seals (Fur AND Elephant) just lying around, male Fur Seals trying to manage their harems and maintain their territorial claims, Fur Seal pups wandering, clumping in groups, or staying close to their mothers. The location of the King Penguin colony on the slope behind the beach meant the penguins had to negotiate the territories of the crazy Fur Seals to get to the water. The standard tactics seemed to be to move, single file, in groups, and traverse – single file again – from one side of the beach to the other along the waterline. A queue of 10 penguins waited their turn at the water’s edge to dive in, while on the other side of the beach, another group walked single file along the shoreline.

South Georgia Pipits put in some cameo appearances, popping up frequently enough that we were excitedly trying to capture their images, and then they’d flit off somewhere else a second later! In one spot we saw five, which is pretty impressive for a bird that was just about wiped out a few years ago! It’s a credit to the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) that we were able to see so many. The Pipits were almost extinct as a result of predation by the rats and mice, which had been introduced to the islands by seafarers. Working with the Government of South Georgia, the Trust began a Habitat Restoration Project in 2011 with the aim to remove every single rodent from South Georgia and its outlying islands by 2015. Over a three-year period, three helicopters dropped 290 tonnes of rodenticide over an area of about 1050 square kilometres, specifically targeting the glacier-free parts of the island where the rodents lived. In 2015, scientists reported that the South Georgia Pipit had nested for the first time in living memory on South Georgia!  Because of this program, we were discouraged from putting anything on the ground – particularly open bags (which a rodent could crawl into or out of)!

Male seal forcibly holding smaller female under waterWhile we were watching some Pintail Ducks on the rocks near the shore, a young male Elephant Seal was in the shallows imposing his will and using his strength on a young female – he almost drowned her by forcibly holding her underwater. Every time he released her, her head came above water, mouth agape, and nostrils distended. When he finally gave up ‘playing’, she struggled to crawl away onto the rocks, and was barely moving. We suspected she might have had internal injuries. Sometimes it’s hard to be a passive spectator – I think we would’ve liked to have zoomed in in the Zodiac and shooed the big bugger away!