Friday 2nd March 2012

By this morning, all signs of the storms had disappeared. Around midday, I spotted another ship on the horizon. How weird to see that ugly thing and not an iceberg! It looked so out of place and messy. Oddly enough, I actually felt that my space had been invaded.

(A perfect day, with the most intensely blue ocean I have ever seen)

(Soaking up the perfect day on the monkey deck)

(And then a space invader arrived!)

Beautiful sunshine, barely a breeze, lots of people outside, some sunning themselves on the monkey deck, above the bridge. And then we were treated to a spectacular display by a pod of dolphins, darting inches below the surface and leaping out in unison. Wow! They then split up into smaller groups and porpoised all around the ship, to gasps of delight from the onlookers.

(The 'official' dolphin spotters on duty)

(The entertainers have arrived)

(Some passengers lazed about….)

(…some passengers hung about….)

(…and others monkeyed about on the monkey deck)

(…while the crew continued with their daily grind out on the decks…)

(…and way down below, in the galley.)

(Meanwhile, I was making plans with the ice I had imported from Antarctica as a gift to my family)

This afternoon I heard someone yell ‘Land ahoy!’ We could just make out the shape of Table Mountain! Word spread through the ship like wildfire and passengers rushed outside in their hordes to squint at the barely visible landmark. Home -  we are almost there! People started saying their farewells as we all know that tomorrow morning, when the ship berths, things will get hectic.

(Land ahoy!!!! Moving closer and closer to the mountain was an awesome feeling, filled with anticipation and excitement)

A few hours after spotting the mountain, we were able to get cell phone reception. What bliss, to be able to have a loooong conversation with one’s loved ones! All over the ship's decks people wandered about with one arm glued to their ear, yakking away.

(My first call home!)

(The heli-deck, or 'cell phone paradise')

(The sun has almost set, but who needs light for yakking? That was the longest call home ever!)

All the while, Table Mountain was getting bigger and bigger. The ship proceeded to her allocated spot near the harbor where we would lay anchor for the night, before heading into the harbor with a tug boat early tomorrow morning. What a spellbinding view of Table Mountain and the coastline! Darkness fell and the landscape was transformed into millions of tiny lights, like glowing embers in a fire.

(Our last and exquisite sunset on the SA Agulhas, just outside Cape Town harbour)

Back to the future….

…Civilization.

And we are almost touching it again. The thought was followed by an involuntary shudder.

After three months in some of the most pristine and isolated places on earth, I wondered what it would be like to once again, see the evidence of man’s ‘progress’ on this earth. The vehicles, roads, noise, smog, litter, colours, buildings, landscaped gardens, crowds. Not to mention the high speed at which we conduct our lives.

 

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean –roll!

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

Man marks the earth with ruin  –  his control

Stops with the shore.” 

(Lord Byron, 1788 – 1824. Yes, yonks ago!)

 

Then I started wondering how it would feel to step off the Little Red Boat for the last time? I was jolted by the realization that once again, she had become part of me. By now, to a large extent, my internal rhythm was dictated by hers and it was all about to come to a sudden end. How does one say farewell to a ship? Memories of my first voyage on this ship in December 1986 mingled freely with memories of this voyage. It seemed that time was irrelevant. The only important thing was the connection between me and her. There was a sense of having completed the circle.

Feeling overwhelmed, I walked her decks, up the steps, around and down…soaking in the detail of her lines, sights and sounds for one last time…remembering how safe I had always felt aboard her, even in the worst of storms, such as the ones we braved in 1986. Indeed, I was not the only one who felt a deep sense of nostalgia and loss. I know of some big, strong men who have sailed on her dozens of times, who shed a few furtive tears at the end of this last Antarctic voyage of their trusted and well-loved ship, the SA Agulhas.

 

Tuesday 28th February 2012

The ship is bucking wildly. Much of our stuff is still lying on the floor in the cabin (I am sharing with two others) and will just have to remain there until after the storm.  At dinner tonight, my chair slid to the right and so did I, until I landed on the lap of the diner next to me. It is quite a thrill to see the huge waves hit the dining room portholes as well as the portholes on the level above.  

(Lurching into the swell, water, water, everywhere!)

I have just been to the poop deck, at the back of the ship, one level below the heli-deck.  When the ship dips down, one looks straight into a 10-metre (30 feet) wall of almost black water. It is both terrifying and exciting at the same time. We shrieked when it looked as if the water was going to crash over the deck, smashing us in the process…Luckily, it didn’t! According to an experienced sailor, the waves will indeed crash over the deck before the night is over. Suddenly it started to hail, but due to the strong wind, it came at us horizontally!

(A great big wall of black water rises ominously above the poop deck)

We have been forced a little off course to cope with the swell and to make life on the ship a bit more comfortable. That means the ‘corkscrewing’ motion is lessened, much, to my relief!

(An albatross, as grand as ever, not perturbed by the storm)

Friday 24th February 2012 – A whale of a day!

This morning, for hours on end, there were literally dozens of whales all around us  -  I did not know where to look first!  I confess that I am not very good at whale identification, but after poring over my guide book, I think it safe to say we saw humpbacks, sperm whales and Southern Right whales. There may have been a few minkies there too. Some of them were very close to the ship. In all the excitement of seeing whales popping up everywhere, I unfortunately did not manage to take very good photographs!

(Gotcha! I think these are Minkies)

Later on in the day, we passed a ‘black’ iceberg.  In fact, about half of it was a blueish- black colour and half was white . I think that as the submerged part eroded away in the water, it became top-heavy and must have tipped over, thus exposing the blue-black portion from below. It was the first time I had seen something like that. For what it was worth, I did ask the officer of the watch if we could sail a bit closer to take a better look at it…. My request did not even vaguely pique his interest. In fact, he looked at me as though I were mad. Pity.  It was worth a try, though.

(Black iceberg with Sooty Albatross in foreground over a steel-grey ocean)

(A weathered ice berg with beautifully-rounded edges)

(Silver horizon, with the dark shadow of the storm cloud looming above)

(Black and blue sky and silver horizon glows in the distance)

(Oops, I meant to publish this photo earlier. It is of the last sunset in the ice. The beam of light is extraordinary!)

 

Pictures – South Georgia to SANAE

(Reflections in a mirror sea)

(A lenticular cloud, just after leaving South Georgia)

(The LRB at sea)

(Pack ice)

(A petrel reflection)

(Reflection of clouds in a mirror like sea)

(Late evening sun, heaven and water merge imperceptibly)

(Reflections of birds in a calm ocean)

(Pack ice on the way back to SANAE)

(Textures in the ice)

 

Pictures – South Georgia

(Arriving in Cumberland Bay, at Grytviken Whaling station, South Georgia)

(View of the LRB in the bay at Grytviken Whaling Station)

(Church in South Georgia at Grytviken Whaling Station)

(View of the bay through the church window)

(A walk in the mountains)

(Yes, I know I am seriously cute, but I can also bite!)

(A personal hero, Shackleton's grave, with that of Frank Wild to the right, in the whaler's cemetery)

(The James Caird, in which Shackleton and 5 others sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia)

(Would you apply for this job?)

(Young elephant seal relaxing while moulting king penguin preens itself in the background)

(The Little Red Boat with penguins in the foreground)

Sunday 15th January 2012 – On South Georgia

On Sunday morning, 15 January,  I step outside. And then gasped, my jaw dropping to the deck. Sure, I had read a bit about it here and there, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted my eyes: a slice of South Georgia.

What must it have felt like to chance upon this island say, 150 years ago?

Captain Cook and his landing party were the first people to go ashore. He described the place as ugly, barren and inhospitable. Given his priorities, I can understand his descriptions of barrenness. But how could he possibly have been blind to the astonishing beauty of this place? Perhaps he was just super-peeved that he had only arrived at an island, and not at Antarctica!

A poetic description

In 1946, Niall Rankin described South Georgia in these words, and I will not try to outdo him:

"If you were to take a giant carving knife, slice along beneath one of the highest mountain ridges of Switzerland, just where the huge glaciers tumble into the valley below, and then drop your slice of mountain, dripping with sugar-icing, into the sea, I think you would get a fair idea of the place.

For it is long and narrow, and everywhere the snow-covered mountains rise straight from the water, reaching, near the centre of the island, to a height of over 9 000 feet [3 000m]. Seen from afar on an early spring day, South Georgia is a breathtaking sight and one not easily forgotten."

We entered the Eastern finger of Cumberland Bay and then sailed into and anchored in the smaller, King Edward Cove, where the remnants of Grytviken whaling station are still to be seen, along with a few ship wrecks dotted about.  Ahead of me was the most peaceful scene imaginable. It even looked cosy and inviting. Had we sailed back in time?

We waited. Calm water. Quiet.  Looking out and into this world from the past. The rusted whaling station machinery barely hinting at its grotesque past. It was almost eerie. If we had entered this bay a hundred years ago, the water probably would have been red from whale blood and the stench of death and boiling blubber would have choked us.  From an ecological point of view, I thought about the destructiveness that had come from the combination of man's greed and inventiveness. When this combination is put to work, even on a small scale (compared to our modern technological abilities) but with such great intensity, disaster usually follows.  And so it was that when the elephant and fur seals were almost wiped out, they turned their attention and ingenuity to whaling. Between 1904 and 1966, 175 250 whales were killed at the 6 whaling stations on South Georgia. Certain species still have not recovered and probably never will.

We were waiting for the British Administrator to come aboard our ship. Our SA Weather Services people were going to hand over about a dozen buoys that the British would deploy later in the year and we were to be briefed on the rules that applied on the island during our visit. This included washing our boots in disinfectant before disembarking, to avoid spreading any alien life forms onto the islands.

While waiting, I scanned the environment with my binoculars and discovered, to my utmost glee that the dark lumps all over the place, that appeared to be moving,  were various species of seal and the little stripey things were actually penguins. OK, now I really could not wait to get ashore!

Eventually, a rather skinny but surprisingly stable gangplank was lowered from the side of the ship and we climbed down and into the rubber ducks to be taken ashore.

We only had about 4,5 hours on the island, before we would set sail again and by all accounts, there was too much to see and do. So, first stop was the post office, to post a few letters. I was in such a hurry, I even bought postcards and forgot to post them. Then,  a  quick wander through some of the rusted and gigantic whaling factory equipment. One lone King penguin walked around on the pathways as if he were a person, going about his normal routine. It was a very peculiar sight.

We walked up to the church, which was pre-constructed in Norway and then erected here on the island and consecrated on Christmas day, 1913. It is apparently one of the least-changed of all the buildings on the island.

Stepping inside really was like going back in time. Just the smell of the wood, the simplicity of design and the beautiful mountain vistas visible through the windows, had me utter another 'wow'. I went up the steps to ring the church bells, a loud and joyous sound!

From there, a group of about 7 of us went for a hike in the mountains behind the whaling station, to be able to see over into another bay, edged with lakes. We walked in a valley between two ranges, the mountains on our left rising vertically into the clouds. The wind blew the clouds around  and kept exposing different snow-capped peaks. There was a stream with ice cold, delicious water; there was lots of thick and saturated moss, plenty of scree to traverse on the uphill bit at the end. The wind gusted.  It was cold, invigorating. It snowed.  It was perfect. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The view on the other side of the mountain seemed to confirm that!

Later, back at Grytviken, we set off to walk to the whaler's cemetery where Shackleton lies buried, along with his right-hand man, Frank Wild, whose remains were only buried there in November 2011. (A fascinating story, but for another day!) Getting to the cemetery was a challenge of a most unexpected kind. There does not seem to be much of a path, not that it would have mattered much, as the entire area is occupied by fur seals and elephant seals. We stopped to plan our route and to discuss what to do if we were chased. The advice was "RUN!" I am not sure if that was sound advice. Where I come from, Africa, there are few animals that can be outrun by man. And running will usually guarantee your demise.  It took a long time to get to the grave, as I could not stop marveling at all these creatures, all their activities and noises.

As Ernest Shackleton has long been one of my personal heroes, it meant a lot for me to stand at his grave and pay my respects, so to speak.

Then I spent some time conversing with the King penguins en route to the museum. Most of them are in moult and appear to be rather depressed, not being able to do much while Nature takes her course.  Nontheless, it was awesome to get close enough to observe them.

The museum is not very big, but it is superb, by any standard. It is a great pity that we had so little time on the island, as I could easily have spent an entire day engrossed in the many and varied museum exhibitions, from geology to biology, from modern explorations to Shackleton and his generation, and of course, the art of whaling.

The whalers became so expert, that it took a mere 20 minutes to 'process' a whale. There are many photographs of the whole process. But I did not really want to look as they sicken me. One photo that is now, unfortunately, imprinted in my brain, is of a huge whale lying on its side, with 3 men in gumboots, walking on top of it, inside its flesh. Each man is carrying a long pole with a curved blade at its end. With this blade they cut and separate the external  layer of blubber from the inner layer of flesh. This is called 'flensing'. At the other end of the photo is a huge winch, pulling up the whole gigantic piece of outer flesh that the men had cut loose.

Another museum display states that the largest animal ever found on earth was a blue whale of 34 meters in length. You guessed it. Yes, it was killed, right here.

The hours passed like minutes and then it was time to return to the ship.

The sun and clouds over the mountains encircling the bay gave us a spectacular farewell, with an especially beautiful play of light on one of the glaciers that we passed, where it tumbles down into the sea.

Sunday 15th January 2012 – Arriving at South Georgia

Where is this place?

South Georgia is located at 53°30'-55°00' S and 35°30-38°40' W. It is about 170km (100 miles) long and 2 to 40km (1.2 to 24 miles) wide. Half of the island's land area is permanently covered with ice and snow. The mountains are surrounded by ice fields and many glaciers which run down into the fjords. There are a few sheltered bays, about 20 lakes and numerous streams and small rivers that run through the valleys. My guide book states that there are no permanent inhabitants, but there is a British Government Officer stationed at Kind Edward Point, and the British Antarctic Survey operates permanent research stations at two places. There is also a curator at the South Georgia Museum at Grytviken.

Although the islands were first sighted in 1675 by a sailor who had been blown off course, it took another hundred years before anyone went ashore – during Capt James Cook's second voyage around the world. Cook named it for King George III, but considered the place to be ugly, barren, inhospitable.

Captain Cook continued, sailed along the southeast coast, hoping that he had discovered the elusive Antarctic continent. When he turned the corner, he realized that he had only discovered a long, narrow island and named that corner Cape Disappointment. Understandably so!

Sealing and whaling in 19th and 20th centuries

Once word got out about Cook's discovery and the fact that there were plenty of seals, the sealers started arriving in South Georgia. When the fur and elephant seal populations had almost been wiped out, the whalers arrived, at the beginning of the 20th century. There were 6 onshore whaling stations, with the Norwegians dominating the industry. Over-exploitation decimated whale populations and financial returns started to dwindle. By the time the Japanese took over from the Norwegians, there was little left to exploit. The last station to close was Leith Harbour, in 1965. After the peak sealing period of the previous century, sealing still continued, but at a slower rate. Despite that, between 1905 and 1964, another 498 870 seals were killed.

The five main whale species that were hunted included Blue, Fin, Humpback, Sei and Sperm whale. In the period 1904 to 1966, no fewer than 175 250 whales were killed.

After the collapse of the whaling industry, the main focus on the island became science and subsequently, fishing in the krill-rich seas around the island. The island still boasts some of the greatest concentrations of birds and seals in the world.

For the birders and animal lovers…

For the birders, let me mention that there is an endemic passerine on the islands, namely the South Georgia Pipit. My guide book (by Shirihai) also states the island is extremely rugged and although not of direct volcanic origin, its rocks derive from a series of volcanoes that were active 110-140 million years ago but the islands themselves are the product of the Gondwana split. About 57% of SouthGeorgia is glaciated, with the Allardyce Range forming the central spine and dominating the landscape. The highest peak is Mount Paget, at 2 934m.

According to my guide book, 30 bird species nest on the island, including 4 species of penguin. The island is an important breading site for a variety of albatrosses, including the Wandering Albatross. The Antarctic Fur Seal and the Southern Elephant Seal also breed here as well as as a small population of Weddell seals. Grey-headed, Black-browed and Wandering Albatross face severe threats to their survival, due to the increase in longline fishing. Fortunately, bottom-trawling has been banned  in South Georgia waters. In 1993, the South Georgia Maritime Zone (SGMZ) was created to enhance protection of the entire marine ecosystem around the islands. It includes a distance of 200 nautical miles around South Georgia and South Sandwhich Islands, within which all fishing vessels must be licensed. Strict regulation of all longline fishing has reduced incidental bird mortality to acceptable numbers, i.e. to about 30 birds per annum. About 8 or 9 whale species frequent these waters.

Sir Ernest Shackleton lies buried on this island, in the whalers' cemetery.

 

Saturday 14th January 2012

After leaving South Thule, we left the relative protection that we had been enjoying from being on its leeward side. Between here and Cape Horn there are no more rocks in the ocean to protect us from the swell, which is now about 5 meters and on the increase. I can hear the wind screaming outside and see the white caps on the surface of the water, which means the wind speed is at least 20 knots. Going upstairs to the bridge one has to hold on to the banister tightly, all the way up there. This amount of swaying is not very delicious. The seabirds around the ship are incredible to watch, in fact, almost hypnotic. It is as if they can see the wind. Their timing is immaculate and they soar about as if it were totally effortless. ..

Tomorrow we shall arrive at South Georgia and spend the day on the island. I can barely wait!