Blogging from a ship in Antarctica, Paul Goldstein reveals what journeying in the Antarctic is really like...
Our regular contributor Paul Goldstein is currently on the Akademik Ioffe sailing around Antarctica. He'll be updating us regularly on ship life as it makes it's way through the Southern Ocean.
On February 27 over a hundred people boarded the gently angled gangway of the Akademic Ioffe. Despite the acres of digested prose there was still a semblance of trepidation and palpable powerful portents of delicious, delectable, dramatic dramas ahead. Conversation with new neighbours was stilted, anxiety mixed with impatience ? for many this patient pilgrimage has lasted years not months.
Have you been short-changed, have your dreams been realised, that is your decision, but I have an inkling that this expedition may have superseded even the wildest expectations. Everyone will have their own particular memories, their own personal vignettes that barely need images for endorsement. For some it could be the first Humpback, for others the morning approaching Stonington, surely some will vote for the haunting morning at Pleneau or the afternoon at Danko, but whatever crowns the tree is a subjective table topper, this has been more a sum of its parts: every landing made, every Zodiac excursion maximised and then the honeyed weather that transforms a good expedition into a great one.
Then there is you, you all possess the crucial assets of passion, sensitivity and patience - the holy trinity of characteristics crucial for a proper journey down south. Even as the ship heads through a snow-filled storm it is impossible not to reflect on those critical moments. Maybe the memories are more distracting ones: that moment with the Gentoo, that second where an albatross swooped past your cabin, or just those views, each one indelibly printed on a burgeoning personal mainframe. Imagine, if you dare, that you had mistakenly booked onto a monstrous carbuncle of a Cruise liner, every one of those memories or highlights would have been compromised, corroded and finally neutered. Fortunately you did not; you have completed every excursion, made every landing, worshipping the icy nave, crypt and cloisters in this cathedral of ice from your rubber pews. You are now the small ship ambassadors, ordained from the precious, priceless pulpit below 66 degrees. This utopian continent sheds her secrets guardedly, it is not prisoner to CNN, Facebook or the insecure nonsense that is Twitter. It only really delivers to those that respect it, it is a savage but precarious Eden, thank you for keeping it that way. Mine is a humble pen that fails miserably to flatter this magical place but it would take a Thesaurus of Biblical proportions to do justice to it.
This has been special, and I speak for all staff. Even this morning I marvelled as a warm burnished sunrise lit the distant swell. An albatross fittingly flitted across the dazzling Jacob?s ladder: it was beautiful, mesmerising and intoxicating, adjectives that have been liberally sprinkled over the past ten days and it is not all by co-incidence, we know where the thanks must go for that.
Ten days ago, although it seems like ten weeks, we embarked in Ushuaia. We started with a rainbow ....we ended up with a pot of gold.
It is imperative that this dubious literary bolt is not fired early; some adjectival powder must be kept dry for the Nautical finale tomorrow night. Today, however has not been without incident. The Drake rumbled beneath the hull, rogue waves crashing into the sealed superstructure. This is the most fickle stretch of water on the planet and as waves mounted the bow it was sobering to think that the Drake was still not really showing her teeth.
Today was also a day of reflection. As people pored over laptops mindful of the encroaching timetable there was no disappointment, just an almost smug satisfaction that so much has been achieved with no-one short-changed. A few lonely albatrosses flew in patterns off the stern – enough to keep the fauna DNA honest but with storm doors closed and the squall now fully adult, it would be gilding it to say it was an avian extravaganza.
Then of course there was Victoria; the girl who manages the gangway with marvelous matronly zeal, who’s historical knowledge knows no bounds or no end. This afternoon she spoke and her talk led unerringly and inexorably surely to wooden constructions but astonishingly there was no mention of huts.
This was more of a shock than the storm outside, so I give you Jabba the Treaty. Victoria, you are one of a kind.
Tomorrow we will sight land, not dotted with glaciers, but a beautiful land all the same.
However beautiful it may be, it could never match the cachet and gravitas of the 7th continent, a continent that never short-changes and one already sorely missed. For now though we thrive, cocooned inside the stout shell of the Ioffe, still without any real contact with the outside world, be thankful for that – relish it for soon it will change, but now, we remain, to quote Waugh, orphans of the storm.
The pleasing performance of the last week was morphed into a melancholy monochrome mantra today. Deception gives away her secrets with a high meteorological tariff and this morning was no exception.
A sleet-filled squall battered the Bellows but fortunately the Captain found a sheltered parking bay and the gloom was lifted by a hundred bright jackets. Twenty two people momentarily lost control of their senses as they braved the South Shetland Sea before a gathering wind flushed us out through the Bellows. With the breeze steadying around thirty three knots any hope of Half Moon were fading, but with obscene levels of good fortune again, the wind died and this final landing delivered more Chinstraps than you could poke a walking pole at. Among these moulting colonies was one lonely Macaroni, divorced from his kin but wedded to this island, an island that like every other landing has really delivered.
Another gender defying swim and an irreverent but effective auction that may have been scorned by Sotheby’s but not by albatrosses, and the bow pointed North indicating a slowly encroaching timetable.
However, the fat one is not even reaching for her mouthwash yet, there’splenty more life in the old dog yet, Tony is salivating at the ornithological opus awaiting, let’s delay her swansong a little...
I type this as a procession of enlightened polar evangelists file past into dinner, with eyes glazed after yet another day which somehow superseded the previous one. Yet again the dusky clouds lifted and Cuverville was choked with cobalt castellations as well as gregarious Gentoos, including the Beckham and Brooklyn of the rookery who had to put up with the persistent, penguin paparazzi. Leopard seals have clearly caught the imagination as crabeaters; Weddells and furs were all seen masquerading as their more formidable cousin.
Next time I have a BBQ or Braii, I will remember this one; certainly the most southerly grill in the world at this time of year. I will think of the view of that remarkable icy amphitheatre and then, remember this afternoon, perhaps the best so far.
With Danco’s weather closer to Dakar, the stage was set for a mindblowing matinee and the Gentoos did not disappoint. They porpoised in, floating momentarily across the millpond surface before exploding onto the shingle, the initial sector of their commute. Then they waddled warily between lemon-clad traffic before turning right across the central reservation and onto the sealed highway, sadly a single gauge road with no discernible right of way.
For those who emulated these cheerful commuters the panorama above the bay was big medicine indeed, a staggering sight available only to a deserving few. Nature gave in abundance today as did those who decided the weather and we need this meteorological largesse to continue for those brave campers as they bed down on the ice.
We’ve counted them out and counted them back, they somehow survived the night despite the attentions of amorous fur seals, snow and avalanches.
‘I’m just going outside I may be some time’ would never be directed at Mr Yum Yum, but they survived that as well.
Before we start dealing out Antarctic medals for this show of stoicism, imagine replacing the high-tech bivvy suits and goose down sleeping bags with one season reindeer skin equivalents. Shackleton also camped on ice, yet Vibram and Gore-Tex was not available to him and he would probably have scorned it anyway. Yet big respect for those thirty thoroughbreds.
Nature gives .... she also takes away, so spare a thought for those penguin chicks; indescribably endearing yet fatefully pre-selected. Our joy has to be balanced with a sobering reality that here, in the most extreme area on earth, there are never second chances. Remarkable day, remarkable continent.
Rising at an indolent hour that Shackleton or Crean would have snorted at, revealed an ice-scape with a malevolent streak.
Clear skies paint a flawed canvas this far South. This is the most extreme area of the planet, where a strengthened hull is all that protects the traveller from the icy waters, waters today that had swell that would have even spilt Frank Worsley's tea. Intrepid staff Zodiacs essayed undulating arcs across the gunmetal surface before approaching a landing that made Elephant Island look like Blackpool or Durban sands. One team actually managed to get ashore into waist high snow and ferocious surf; the traumatised two are currently still residing in the infirmary. Abort was the only call, adventurous yes, foolhardy no although the gangway was perhaps even more hazardous.
This is not to say the day was not without incident as there was the small matter of ice. It may be "nice" but also formidable as a whole frozen epidermis peeled off the front of one, in a thunderous calve leaving a glistening fresh, frigid facade brighter than any pantone chart could ever achieve.
There is never such a thing as an empty sea; birds are always companions, striating the silvery surface and then bigger attractions: whales. Humpbacks appear to be en vogue today and hopefully for a few to come and as an antidote to the canceled excursion, one surfaced adjacent to starboard before diving in front of two more staggeringly sculpted ice creations.
The meteorological goddesses (for they are female) are notoriously capricious mistresses. Schedules are not there to be rigidly and clinically adhered to, that is the sterile domain of the ethically derelict cruise ships. A philosophical approach is a necessary faculty here but these affairs generally shake down and we have, I?m glad to report, an awfully long way to go.
By first light a posse of canary-clad seafarers were bristling buoyantly on the bow. An arc of cloud was slowly morphing from grey to nasturtium as an ambitious early sunbeam bisected its abdomen. Ahead lay a scene impossible to dream up by even the most ostentatious of science fiction directors. Castellated, crenelated, capacious icebergs dotted the horizon, now radiated by the fully grown sunshine.
The Ioffe heaved to adjacent to yet more impossibly sculpted bergs before launching virginal Zodiac operations ashore, and soon all had VIP executive seats in front of one of the South’s most spectacular amphitheaters. On their way to their hospitality area they passed several molting dailies, not a huge number but penguins all the same and our first. Anyway, back to the glacier as people sat slowly coming to terms with its bewildering majesty. This was a glacier that appealed on two levels, sight for sure, but also sound and the morning’s show was punctuated by massive internal glacial hemorrhaging, before savage arterial rupturing as thousands of tons crashed down in a cataclysmic calving from the front of the tortuous tumbling staircase of ice with the crump of a high velocity artillery shell. Before too long though the crescendo of shutter releases dwindled as everyone paused to take in such an intoxicating panorama.
This afternoon was a higher octane affair, the landing really eclipsed by the joy ride home which left a legacy of wet, corrugated bottoms. We’ve started now, we are currently further South than anyone else in the world, but I have short-changed you, I have not mentioned the huts. These desirable residences are fascinating. This afternoon’s palatial abode was only missing the wooden Scrabble set. However to one person on board these constructions are nirvana. Victoria lives and breathes them and thinks nothing of passionately chattering and ‘jabbering’ for hours about them...... Victoria, our very own Jabber the Hut.
Today was ‘one of those days’ and as you already know, that phrase is the hardest polar currency. You enjoy, today ? You want some more ...? Thought so, good. We’ll keep it on ice.
A sepulchral dawn canopy clogging the horizon. However there is a snap in the step of every Antarctician, the goal is no longer so distant.
This morning the various riot acts were read with both severity and sensitivity. This is a savage but precious Eden; the footprint must be light. Sadly too many pagan ships have besmirched this paradise; the Ioffe is not about to add itself to that dubious charter.
The nebulous cloak lifted its nose for a moment and after three days land was spotted. Distant land, but land all the same; indicating that the commute was almost done, the expedition proper is about to begin. These holidays are earned slowly, in degrees and talking of which, the seminal 66 was reached with a deafening bellow. For many this figure is either one short of the beast or a favoured bingo call.
We don't do bingo on the Ioffe, nor two sittings at dinner, shuffleboard or long dresses; those are left for the morally bankrupt cruise ships. 66 means something different down here, a flourishing feather in the maritime cap, an invisible line in the ocean but giving a thrill a chopped line never could.
The horn clearly attracted two humpbacks whose cameo ended with the mother performing a classic corkscrew fluke generating a clatter of intoxicated shutter releases. That was special, but Antarctica is.
Boots, check. Yellow jackets, check. Cameras, poised. Bags, de-loused.
Clouds, gone. Sunshine, dazzling. You ready? You gagging for it ? Thought so.......
Yesterday's Mediterranean afternoon was soon a distant dream as dawn beckoned the ship South with a foreboding, stygian sneer. Mother Nature serves balmy bounty sparingly and she indignantly resorted to type for most of the morning. It would be precipitate to consider the Drake tamed, as she can be fickle and cantankerous. Her sudden savage squalls are enough to keep any complacent mariner honest.
The albatrosses are constant companions but the avian allotment has been augmented by the spectacular Cape Petrels. Squadrons of them flew late afternoon sorties and sallies adjacent to port and starboard. These cavorting, careering, coruscating, chequered Antarctic Spitfires proved difficult targets for the barrage of bristling precision optics, but nobody ever said this camera caper would be easy.
The continent is yet to open her fabled portals, titillating her encroaching audience with a few miserly carats of her treasures. Some even saw some penguins today, they won't be the last, but you'll have to hang on a little longer, good things come to those who wait, and you are waiting magnificently.
Twelve knots with a bow scything through spume is a match for any potential sea day doldrums, particularly when the weather is Sicilian rather than South Atlantic. The biting Atlantic convergence is yet to be breached so yellow jackets remain largely virginal. Two words stay with me from Victoria's presentation, one is James, the other Caird.
Think on this as Neptune smiles benignly on this, our own fabled vessel. The Caird was two rowing boats lashed together with hemp and nails with no patches and drugs to be seen. As some brave passengers struggle to dinner from their berths all can only be bewildered by the fortitude of Shackleton's remarkable team. There was swell, but second division swell, not enough to compromise the mission and the sort of low key action the obscenely over-qualified Ioffe snorts indignantly at.
Frank Wild shot penguins and seals, without his marksmanship his marooned flock would have perished. He would never have been so foolish to put an albatross in the cross hairs and revoke Coleridge's opus.
Today, what they may have lacked in quantity was more than made up in quality, as a black-browed, grey headed, royal then the astonishing wanderer swept past the bow. With the sun slanting across a midnight blue ocean transforming a balmy afternoon into an ornithological orgy from which Tony remains in convalescence.
The Wanderer is a mythical bird that allegedly sleeps on the wing and can fly for three years and this ultimate aviator, with the wingspan of a fighter plane, delighted those stoic stern sentinels. The scalloped strato cumulate has cleared, the crisp convergence beckons, the icy grail is still some time away, but patience is a virtue down here. Ernest Henry had it in abundance; fortunately we don't need it so much.
He was wrong. A million air miles are banked from airports as far afield as Sydney, South Africa and Schipol, but it is impossible to sugarcoat the pain or longevity of longhaul journeys.
But that is the past, the journey is starting proper now. As the consomme was consumed, the last lingering lights of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, flickered and died. This not only signified the journey’s baptism but was also the moment the heretic’s holy trinity of Blackberry, Facebook and Twitter were neutered for two weeks.
The bow of the Akademik Ioffe points south, arrowing through a Beagle as smooth as a tallowed Agincourt bow. Legions of layered, latticed lenticulars levitated langorously to a distant horizon; cameras are brandished, shutters clattering in joyous unison documenting a landscape more at home on a science fiction channel.
The steady comforting rumble of the ship’s turbines are all that disturbs the placid night sky. Progress is encouraging but before long the Beagle’s mouth will spit the Ioffe into the ocean.
The word Drake is derived from a flamboyant history. Francis savaged an armada with enormous bravery. Perhaps some of that enduring characteristic may be required over the next few days as nature is frequently at its most capricious before permitting admission to her southernmost treasure. One hand for the ship, other fingers all crossed and I shall welcome you on board.