Ciara, Katherine, Simon and Stu go south on Seal - February/March
This morning we have been afforded the opportunity to see a glimpse of the food chain in action. Sitting in the raised saloon, we have a commanding view of the shoreline here at Dorian Cove and are surrounded on all sides by a sprawling penguin colony. Juvenille penguins are honing their new found swimming skills in the relative safety of the shallow waters, feeding on the krill in the water.
The young penguins, however, have to be vigilant as a
leopard seal patrols these waters. From a distance we have seen the seal lurking and yesterday it chased the pengiuns onto the shore. This morning, however, the hunt was successful and to a cacophony of alarm the seal took off with a fresh kill in its mouth. The response of the penguins on shore was then to simply turn their back and face away from the scene. A couple of
hours later and the seal was back. This time he took another penguin close
to the boat and after playing with the penguin until it was dead. The seal
lost interest and left the body floating in the water, where it is now. A
seemingly pointless killing but the food chain is not wasteful and what the
seal has chosen to ignore, will become a meal for the skuas just as soon as
they notice the tasty morsel.
One morning ritual on board is looking at the latest weather predictions and
planning our journey accordingly. As the end of February is upon us, we have
been looking more at the longer term forecasts looking for the right gap in
the weather for the dash back to South America. The decision this morning is
that our weather window opens on 1st March. Two days time! TWO DAYS TIME!
The end of our wonderful journey is starting to appear on the horizon with
alarming speed. We would like to stay a few more days as our flight out of
Puerto Williams is not until Friday 9th but the weather dictates our
schedule and we have a choice to get North in relative comfort or wait a few
days and get a real pasting. A fairly simple choice really. One upside is
that we may get an opportunity to visit Cape Horn and maybe even take a walk
around. We will then have a couple of days to potter back to Puerto Williams
with a stop or two along the way before reality finally catches up. Boo!
One of the highest value things about this trip has been the collective experience of Hamish and Kate in Antarctica. They have been able to take us to idyllic anchorages and suppliment our experiences with information, stories and anecdotes that complement everything that we are seeing for the first time.
One recurring theme in our many and various discussions has been the pressures that are being exerted on this near pristine environment. We are currently at anchor Dorian Cove (roughly 65 degrees South) and, looking out of the saloon window, I can see a former British Antarctic Survey (BAS) hut standing proud on concrete stilts 1m - 1.5m high. Hamish remembers on his last visit, in 2000, the hut being stood on near permant snow, with no sign of the stilts. The permanent ice cover close to the hut (maybe 20-30m in height) has receeded several metres in the same period of time.
My point? Only that in seven years there seems to have been a measurable change in the snow and ice cover on the Antarctic peninsula. This may be compelling evidence in support of the great global warming debate.
Yesterday, we were at Port Lockroy, a fantastically well rennovated and preserved early BAS hut that has the dubious accolade of being the most visited site on the Antarctic Peninsula. This year 16,000 visitors came to visit, mostly cruise ships disgorging hundreds of passengers at a time. Last year, visitor numbers stood at 10,000.
But these various and varied pressures on this continent may prove to be largely irrelevent in the shadow of a growing practice of large scale krill fishing. Notably Norweigian an Japanese organisations are hoovering up more than 100,000 tonnes of krill per year (this equates to filling around 8 or 9 football stadiums to the top of the stands each year). The krill are principally being turned into pellets for farming salmon and for other animal feed. No one quite knows what impact this might have on the Antarctic ecosystem but we do know that krill are near the bottom of the food chain and support penguins, whales, albatross, petrels and seals. Take away the krill or put pressure on the supply of krill to marine organisms and the whole food chain could come tumbling down. The results don't bear thinking about.
It has been a great priviledge to be able to visit Antarctica. It truly is a spectacular place but there is no escaping the fact that since mankind has started visiting here less than 100 years ago, the pressures on this fragile (if hostile) environment appear to be growing. I hope that as mankind, we can recognise the risks to this environment and do what is necessary to allow this continent to be kept in good shape for the future. I would hate to be saying in my old age that I was one of the lucky few who got to experience Antarctica before this spectacular environment was destroyed by our collective stupidity. Food for thought!
We are currently snugged down in a small inlet next to Vernadsky Base. Originally, the British Antarctic Survey base, Faraday, it was given over to the Ukraine government and famous, amongst other things, for being where they originally invented the ozone hole: But I am a little ahead of myself.
Here's a review of what has been going on for the last few days... whale, whale, penguin, seal, seal, seal, skua, whale whale, seal, seal, whale, penguin, skua, whale, whale, whale, penguin, penguin... you get the picture. We really are pottering around in animal soup!
The variety of the wildlife is spectacular to the point of it being
impossible to put into words. (You will just have to come here yourself to
understand properly!) We have been seeing several whales every day until
yesterday (which was was only a nine mile passage) but were sated by an up
close look at a gentoo penguin colony and Blue Eyed Shags washing in the
sea. As you may have been aware from other blogs, some of our whale
encounters have been up close and very personal, with humpbacks, content
from a successful winter feeding, spending time to eye curiously, a little
grey yacht full of humans. Wondering what on earth they are doing bobbing
around down in Antarctica. What has been great with all of our elongated
interactions with whales is that they have all been with the engine off and
the boat stationery in the water. It has been the whales who have chosen to
stay and watch us and when they have satisfied their curiosity, they who
have chosen to leave. Amazing to spend time with such amazing creatures. The
whales, however, are just the big ticket items, we have seen tiny Wilsons
storm petrels, dancing on the water, feeding; we have seen a leopard seal
swimming around with a seal carcass gripped firmly in its mouth, cormorants,
skuas buzzing penguins and picking on a shag, the list of such experiences
is already extensive and grows longer daily.
One of the advantages of being on a 56 foot yacht is the opportunity that is
afforded to stop and drink in all that goes on around us. We have seen a
number of cruise ships, all on impossibly tight schedules, ferrying people,
en masse, too and from penguin colonies and archeological sites and then
transported at speed to the next site of interest. It is sad to think that
they will miss out on the many amazing experiences that has become our norm.
The weather over the last week has been exceptional, today at Vernadsky is our first real overcast day and the boat is under a thin blanket of snow. I think all of us have been grateful for a day to take stock and internally process everything we have seen in the last week. Even today, waiting on weather, we have been to visit an early Falkand Islands Dependency (British Antarctic Survey) hut [Wordie House pictured, right]. Probably more at home as an allotment shed, this hut
was home to six men and teams of dogs, right through the Antarctic winter. Hardy chaps indeed.
Right, I'm going to indulge myself in an afternoon nap right now so this is me signing off!
Just another hum drum day. Great sailing, sunshine, stopped to play with a humpback whale up close. Sailed between two icebergs, stood on Antarctica. Other than that, kinda samey!!!
Each day the trip goes on, the more I realise how privileged we are to be visiting this part of the world.
Oh and Happy Birthday to my brother Andy... erm. The card is in the post... soon!
Not only have these crazies dragged me screaming and kicking across the Southern Ocean, for a second time, they have now got me (not very) calmly sitting on top of an active volcano. What are they trying
to do to me.....HELP!
We arrived at Deception Island this morning to the most spectacular
welcoming committee. Humpback whales, Gentoo penguins, fur seals and a giraffe! OK I lied about the giraffe but the rest were all there swimming around, not at all bothered by our presence. (They must have a poor sense of smell!).
We have spent the day looking around an old whaling station in the caldera. Have I mentioned the active volcano that we are sitting on. Amazing to imagine what life must have been like living this far South! We were introduced to fur seals (who seemed only medium pleased to make our aquaintance). Skuas, who really couldn't care we were here, and a solitary gentoo penguin who couldn't quite decide whether he least liked us, the fur seal or the Skua's.
A brief stroll down the beach revealed sand that was too hot to touch.
And warm sea water. Have I mentioned the active volcano we are sitting on?
We are resting at anchor, which is not the best holding for the anchor, so Hamish has indicated that anchor watch is the order of the night. Anchor, schmanchor, we will be on volcanic eruption watch!
That's about it for this update. More from the South in the next few
days... if we're not on the moon tomorrow.
So I'd been there, done that and wasn't doing it again but yet here I am back here, doing it again, back in the Southern Ocean. So what is it all about second time around?
I am trying very hard not to draw analogies to the monotony of the Sahara and I am going to duck superlatives such as malevolent, angry, tempestuous and such like. It is a large expanse of empty
ocean, it is cold and it is inhospitable oops, I can't help myself... description, description. It is big and grey and it moves around... but I could be describing an elephant. This is hopeless.
Analogies are quite difficult from my first visit. Racing from Rio to
Wellington and Sydney to Cape Town, were each a 6 week thrash. It was cold,
monotonous and we took whatever weather came at us and we tapped into mental
reserves most of us probably never knew we had. The race boat was cold and
wet, we were preoccupied with going fast and where everyone else was in the
fleet and the food? Forgettable although the efforts of the chef du jour
This visit is almost none of that, for a start our track is perpendicular.
We are only sailing the equivalent of London to Stornaway or 10% of a BT
Global Challenge leg. We waited in Tierra Del Fuego to dodge the worst of
the weather. We are living in a warm comfortable boat, we have a rolling
watch system that affords us more time in our bunk than on deck, the food is
great and to cap it all, late this evening or early tomorrow morning, we
will be at anchor in Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands.
One or two days ago (it seems so long already) we had a 24 hour thrash in
Force 9/10 Westerlies and for just a while the routine felt almost race
like. No one slept particularly well bouncing around in our bunks, the boat
got wet. There was a general lack of interest in food. It was cold and we
slipped into that eat-sleep-sail kind of race routine but that really was
the only close analogy - ok I'm going to mention it... apart from fashion!
This year's fashion in the Southern Ocean seems to have something of a retro
feel to it. Ten years ago, like today, it is all about Goretex and fleece
with a smattering of rubber and leather. The only place where red, goes with
black, goes with pastel blues, goes with green, goes with yellow goes with
stone - yes stone colour. Where are the team from Queer Eye For A Straight
Guy when we need them?
So in concluding this rambling missive, I have finally found what I was
looking for. The common thread comparing the Southern Ocean then and now is
that it is a big old fashion nasty where Trinny and Suzanah and the Fab 5
would fear to tread! Now if you will excuse me, I'm going off to clash!
8pm on Wednesday and we are as snug as a bug in a small inlet in Picton
Island, 20 miles East of Puerto Williams, with rain lashing down. First
day sailing, a gentle downwind run. Great to blow the cobwebs off and
start to get used to all the sails and string.
Bowled over by the wild life, Magellanic Penguins, Black Browed
Albatrosses, Skuas, White Chinned Petrels, Magellanic Cormorants to name
but a few. And we haven't even gotten to the 'big' wildlife areas yet.
Still looking like we will head out into the Southern Ocean on Saturday,
once the wind has come round more to the West, can't wait!
Love to write more but the sun is over the yard arm and a washing up bowl full of popcorn has just arrived on the saloon table and my glass is full
of Argentinean beer!
I start this update with an apology to Merino sheep. If you are a merino sheep and wandering around your pasture feeling a bit of a chill, because you have been sheared, it's because I have just bought a small mountain of Merino wool thermal clothing. Apparently it's the new polypropylene (this year's black if you will). Funny the inventive might of mankind has only brought us full circle back to the same materials that the original Antarctic explorers used to keep warm nearly 100 years ago. Let's hope it works!
So, it was slightly scary to be contemplating only a few weeks before the off. Well as of now, it's only about five days and three hours before the plane whisks us off in the general direction of South, South and then a bit more South.
So packing. Here's the dilemma. We are going to be sailing, we are going to
be shuffling around Antarctica, we are going to be touristing in Chile. When
we leave it will be around 8 deg C and winter. We arrive in Santiago where
it can get above 30degC in February (ie summer) and we are going to be in
Antarctica where it could be below zero with spectacular winds and wind
chill (also summer?). I'm wondering if what I really need is a 20 foot
container and just bring everything I own! Some how, I have to pack clothing
for all those eventualities into something close to 20kg of luggage. I need
a sleeping bag and I am electing to bring a camera and video camera. Lets
just suffice to say. I'm not quite done packing yet.
I thought that, a) to scare myself further and b) for your reference, I
might give you a broad idea of what is on my packing list. This is the forty
seventh version of my packing list and is now pared down to what I believe
is the bare minimum. So here goes:
Boots (Dubarry), foulie bottoms, smock type foulie jacket (Both Henri
Lloyd), goretex socks, thermal diving gloves (with dry suit seal), deck
shoes, fingerless sailing gloves.
Two heavy weight merino wool tops, two light weight merino wool tops, one
pair of merino wool longjohns (all Icebreaker), two thermal ski tops, one
fleece mid layer (salopette type), one pair of down mittens with goretex
outer, one pair of woollen liner gloves (Icebreaker), one thin fleece
pullover, one thick fleece pullover, one neck tube, one woolly hat. five
pairs woolly socks (mostly Smartwool).
Goretex ski pants, goretex ski jacket (North Face), ice boots (North Face),
non slip spikes for boots (in case we encounter ice!)
Jeans, two pairs of shorts, swimming shorts, four T shirts, underwear,
Sleeping bag (Big Agnes), wash bag, first aid kit, sun block, contact
lenses, sun glasses (x2), ski goggles, Camera and lenses, camera batteries,
battery charger, additional memory card, card reader, monopod, monocular,
video camera, handheld GPS, cables and adapters, day pack, water bottle,
“Three weeks today, We will be in Santiago”. If I say this too quickly, I start to hyperventilate. Before Christmas, this all seemed like months away, today, it seems like days!
The holiday spirit has given way to Antarctic Mania here in Edinburgh. The flat is slowly being overtaken by all things Antarctic. As I type this, The Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica sits by the side of the keyboard. By the side of my bed there is a book called “A Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife” by Hadoram Shirihai. In the living room, Admiralty chart 4063 of South America,Drakes passage and the Antarctic Peninsula is laid out over a foot stool and next to it the Admiralty Pilot for Antarctica (NP 9). KO is reading Terra Incognita by Sarah Wheeler and I have just devoured Antarctica on a Plate by Alexa Thomson. (Both highly recommended for the armchair traveler). But it doesn’t end there, I am fresh from watching Eight below and I think March of the Penguins or Ice Age will be next! Preparations are definitely in full swing!
I rummaged in the loft this afternoon and dusted off my sailing gear and my ski gear. (Thankfully no obvious mouse damage to report). What available floor space in the flat isn’t covered in Antarctic literature is now covered with piles of gear. Right now the pile of must have’s is considerably larger than the maybe take’s. There will need to be a rationalisation. I think I need to make a list.
Curiously, the cold seems to be starting to stalk me. I just got back from Cairo where I was wearing a fleece in the evenings. Edinburgh is all wind and rain this evening to the point where I may not actually wear shorts tomorrow! To cap it all I returned home to find the pilot light out on the boiler so the flat is cold too. It’s a sign I tell you a sign!
In spite of all the armchair research, I still don’t know quite what to expect. I am expecting shock and awe but I don’t know if I will be shocked first or whether I will just start with a lot of awe! will I be cold, in spite of all the fancy shmancy thermal clothing? Will I sweat like a race horse because the temperature isn’t that far removed from a Scottish winter? Just how many layers of clothing will I have to wear to the airport to get the airline to accept my baggage?
Three weeks barely seems like enough time to be ready.
Happy New Year (If it is your New Year).
Ground Rush and Packing Issues
Suddenly, it has rushed up on me and it is now less than a month until we start to head South. Flights were booked over the holidays (Edinburgh – Paris – Santiago – Punta Arenas – Puerto Williams, with Air France, LAN-Chile and DAP) and that is really the last piece of the jigsaw, we really are going to Antarctica in a few weeks time….yoikes.
There is now just one small outstanding matter: Accumulating all the bits of kit and stuff that a little sojourn like this requires and packing it in a bag that an airline might actually want to carry. The reality is that I could amass 25kg of cameras and other gadgetry before even thinking about sailing gear and just what exactly does one wear in Antarctica? I have no clue. The interweb tells of the coldest temperature ever recorded ( -89.2 deg C) [ more thermals then] and the strongest wind ever recorded (320 km/h – that’s about force 41 on the Beaufort scale as we know it) [a good hat required too]. But then it says that the peninsula can be above zero and wet (sounds like an Edinburgh winter). So the executive summary is to just pack all the clothes I own and every conceivable thermal object one can buy…so that’s about 30 kg of clothing! (and a good book for the days when I just don’t have the right outfit to wear). I might end up having to wear most of it, just to be allowed on the plane. So, anyway, if you see a large chap wearing around 10 layers of clothing, waddling through an airport in snow boots, sweating profusely, don’t be alarmed, it’s just me!
Ha, as I was writing this the glove pixy’s arrived with another piece of essential kit, thermal drysuit gloves (Pervy gloves to give them their proper name)….never leave home without them! Or more to the point, never sail in the Southern Ocean without them, another ticked box!
When a once in a life time opportunity comes along to see and experience something truly out of the ordinary, do you carry on with real life, content to dream adventurous dreams or do you sign up and live the adventure?
I am looking forward to sailing with new friends and being reacquainted with old ones. I am looking forward to dusting off my own (rusty) seamanship skills and to the overriding simplicity of life onboard a yacht.
I’m looking forward to leaving real life behind (for a while); to seeing the beauty of Tierra Del Fuego; to being exposed to the wildness of the Southern Ocean and to experiencing and understanding more about the Antarctic environment.
Reservations? Only that I can still remember what it is like to try and poo, sailing in the Southern Ocean!
I will be content to return home again a little re-energised (if a little unsettled) and clutching some great memories and perhaps a great photograph or two.