Saturday, February 20, 2010

One Traveler's Perspective on Antarctica

Feat in the freezer

February 20, 2010
Kind of blue ... a king penguin colony on Salisbury Plain. Kind of blue ... a king penguin colony on Salisbury Plain. Photo: Elaine Canty

Roy Masters rides the swell on a maiden voyage past giant icebergs and Shackleton's resting place. 
My long-time fascination with the exploits of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton led me aboard the MV Plancius on a three-week journey to the Antarctic Peninsula, via the remote and windswept Falkland and South Georgia islands. Shackleton didn't reach the South Pole - his ship was trapped and crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea - but he ranks as one of history's great leaders, returning to rescue his crew without the loss of a single man.

Among the Antarctic hero's greatest achievements on that ill-fated 1915 expedition was an incredible 15-day dash across the Southern Ocean in an open boat with five crew hammered by a hurricane, in constant danger of capsizing. I was keen to see a little of what he saw, not follow in his footsteps. Yet only eight days into my voyage, I, too, find myself tossed around in those same seas off South Georgia in a small open boat in a force-10 gale and a three-metre swell with nine terrified companions.

We land at Cooper Bay after breakfast, in overcast conditions but little wind, to see nesting macaroni penguins and the rare South Georgia pipit, Antarctica's only song bird. We're back on board our Zodiac (an XL-sized rubber ducky) and on our way to another beach to see elephant seals when the sky darkens suddenly and a strong wind blows up. Our driver turns us around quickly and heads back to the ship, anchored a few kilometres offshore, as the storm gathers with frightening and unpredictable speed.
We watch with a mixture of anxiety and admiration as the driver of a Zodiac ahead of us unloads his nervous passengers and - in a desperate acrobatic feat - shoves an aged and rotund passenger on to the ship's landing platform while executing his own reverse flip back into the Zodiac.

By the time we get close to the mothership, the wind has reached 90km/h and we're pitching and rolling too violently to tie up. Two ropes - forward and aft - must secure the Zodiac and the driver can't leave the rudder, which means the forward-most passenger must catch a rope flung seawards by a sailor on the ship. For 90 minutes, 10 of us huddle on the floor of the Zodiac, swamped by waves and lashed by sleet, shakily singing songs as our heroic driver and his fellow Russian sailors on the Plancius attempt to tie us alongside.
The ship changes position three times before we can edge alongside, riding the swell. A young Swiss banker on our boat secures the forward rope. Our driver points to me - at that moment I'm the closest one to the landing platform on the Plancius - and he urges me to leap across as the next wave crests. I clear the one-metre gap the instant before it becomes three metres and climb the ladder shakily.

I turn to see no one has followed. Part of the landing platform broke away as I leapt on to it, forcing the Zodiac back for another circuit in the mixmaster seas, my wife and friends on board. "I remember thinking: 'Thank God, one of us had got off to tell people at home,'" my wife tells me later but at the time I feel incredibly guilty that I'm safe and they're still at sea.

Just as Shackleton had left his main party behind when he set out in the lifeboat James Caird to South Georgia, the storm leaves most of the Plancius's passengers stranded on the beach. Another Zodiac behind us on approach to the Plancius is swamped when it's ordered back to the beach. Several of its passengers are treated for hypothermia, crew members climbing into emergency sleeping bags to share precious body heat.
The Plancius weighs anchor and sails to the lee side of an island, positioning itself between the shelter of the winds and the beach where the main party is stranded. All 10 Zodiacs are employed for three hours to ferry about 80 people in calmer waters back to the ship. The tour company's motto has worked: "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst."

We had already missed one highly anticipated landing at Prion Island, where the wandering albatross nests, when the two-day journey from the Falklands to South Georgia was turned into three by a fierce storm.
Then a pre-breakfast excursion to Stromness, the abandoned whaling station on South Georgia to which Shackleton walked at the end of his historic journey, was cancelled because of force-seven winds.
Some of the "birders", as the loose collection of South African, American and German bird enthusiasts are called, had been agitating for more landings.

We'd had only two landings on South Georgia, the expected highlight of the voyage. Our first landing is at Grytviken, an abandoned whaling station that now serves as the administrative headquarters of South Georgia with a permanent staff of six. This is where Shackleton is buried and it appeals to the histories and the birders. We stand around "the boss's" final resting place with a plastic cup of rum each to pour on his grave.

This cemetery must be one of the few in the world with a white picket fence and gate to keep out the fur seals, creatures that are surprisingly aggressive and unlovable in the wild. Fur seals and mean-looking leopard seals are the only Antarctic creatures that seem to be wary of humans. Giant elephant seals lie about in slothful piles and all breeds of penguins waddle about quite oblivious to delighted human onlookers with their huge lens appendages. Bird and seal co-exist peacefully on land; it's only in the water the penguin is prey.

Our second landing, at Salisbury Plain on the northern coast of South Georgia in the Bay of Isles, is in brilliant sunshine. Here we find a mass of 300,000 king penguins sharing the beach with yapping fur seals and giant skua birds trying to steal penguin eggs.

We round Cape Disappointment, so named by Captain Cook when he discovered South Georgia was an island and not the vast southland he sought. And as we near Cooper Bay at the southern tip of South Georgia, the birders are anxious to see the pipit, a small brown bird found nowhere else. Though the forecast had warned of gale-force winds from the east late in the day, the sea is calm when the Plancius anchors. But in the Antarctic, you get what the weather gives. The gale comes in the morning and from the opposite direction.
Two days after the storm, when we sail past the South Orkneys and the cruise director indicates the weather is unsuitable for a landing, there are no dissenters.

A Falkland-South Georgia-Antarctic Peninsula voyage covers a huge distance, a 4000-nautical-mile (7400km) loop from the Argentine port of Ushuaia. In between a dozen scheduled landings, there are many hours on board: playing cards, listening to lectures from experts on wildlife and history, watching for whales, studying birds and icebergs with binoculars.

As we approach 60 degrees south we pass tabular, or table-top, icebergs as big as aircraft carriers, dwarfing the orca and minke whales that occasionally follow the ship. Sunset at 11pm has everyone reaching for their cameras to capture the Disneyland display of glorious apricots, blues and white.

We spend a perfect afternoon in a Zodiac cruising through scattered ice floes in Cierva Bay, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, near the spectacular Neumayer Channel, observed by a few well-fed leopard seals, each nearly 400 kilograms and stretched out lazily on its own small berg.

Here we find small but unmistakable evidence of glacial retreat. Our driver scoops up an unusual chunk of ice from the sea - crystal-clear with all oxygen crushed from it, like an enormous raw diamond. It's a block of metamorphic ice that for 100,000 years or more had been locked in the vast Antarctic ice shelf, now broken free, gathered up, taken aboard ship, chiselled into bite-size pieces and splashed respectfully with gin and tonic.

In the glistening white and impossibly turquoise landscape of the Antarctic waters, the overwhelming feeling is a sense of intrusion into a vast, still land of monumental physical forces.

Some of the beauty, however, is on a human scale. It is impossible to look at penguins without smiling or ascribing human qualities to them. They have not learnt to fear humans and are endearingly trusting. Visitors to colonies are asked to respect this by maintaining a distance of at least five metres. I add six more species to my penguin repertoire: the impossibly elegant king penguin, the pot-gutted gentoo, the comically angry-looking rockhopper, the little adelie, the flamboyant macaroni and the try-hard chinstrap. Whatever the species, the smell of a penguin colony is uniform - dead possum - and the racket is like thousands of kids blowing through comb and paper.


No comments: