Monday, March 8, 2010


(click pics to enlarge)

Somewhere between stateless and no fixed address. Different language and different rules. At sea. It was something I'd only seen as a child on postcards that would later be posted home from some exotic corner of the world.

"We're at sea" I said to C, who with her sister S had joined us after a week or two in Peru. C had been before, and to Antarctica before, from Tasmania, but she felt my excitement. "Yes, we're at sea. At sea" she smiled, relishing the repetition as much as I.

The evening before we had slipped away from Ushuaia with little fuss, sailing down the Beagle Channel, once part of a great glacier from the Andes to the sea, and the very name itself was drawing us back into history. Argentina to port, Chile to starboard.

During the night we had reached that circular place, nothing between where you exist and the extent of your perception, defined by the illusory circumference separating sea and sky. Flat green-black inky sea cupped by a heavy grey clouded sky. It was like being on a little ship in one of those hemispherical snow dome paper weights waiting for a giant hand to shake it. C and I stood alone on the fly deck, cold wind and light rain heightening our senses, and peered as far as we could. At last there was only the sea.

We'd arrived at the wharf in the little bus they'd sent to the hotel. By now our bags were labelled - 401 - and we wouldn't see them again till they sat on our bunks. There were several boats, one a sister ship of ours tied up behind, and a large posh cruise ship on the other side of the wharf. Ours had 'EXPEDITION' one the side and I liked that.

It was late afternoon and a small crowd was gathered at the gangway amid clumps of baggage and goods to be loaded. Two Russian crew looked down from the main deck. Sergey I would learn was one of them, already wearing his distinctive blue bandana, yet to be stamped in our memory along with his steel blue eyes offset by an unexpected dimpled smile. There would be jostling later to get into Sergey's zodiac. Sergey was an enigma, and sexy.

The expedition leader and assistant welcomed us, though that they weren't just other passengers took a little while to detect. The barriers between staff and passengers would become even further blurred. as we would eat together, drink together, chat wherever we were together, and wonder together at the magic that we would soon share. It didn't seem to matter how many times you'd been before - the awe never diminished. Antarctica was a place to which people became addicted.

They collected our passports. I wondered if they went into some beeping nautical black box to be retrieved from the bottom when we became another statistic. They would tell us the boat could right itself after a 70 degree roll. What about 71 was my first thought.

There would be man overboard and lifeboat drill (seven short - one long alarm) the next morning with fifty people tightly packed into two fully enclosed cyclinders, each a little red submarine designed to stay supra-marine, hopefully. There was enough fuel to return several times from wherever we met, mmm, misadventure. And there were buckets.

The first night was cosy but broken. The roll was increasing. At 2am I switched on the little bunk light, its softness through the fawn curtains giving the cabin a weak golden blush. We'd opened one of the portholes and it was so black outside that I put my hand out in case there was some outer covering I didn't know about. Nothing to feel, nothing to see. Whatever shiplights there were, they had no impact on a heavily clouded sky. There was no ambient light at all. There was nothingness - no reflections, no towns, no lights, no night sky and no land. We were at sea.

In the early morning, alone on the fly bridge before C joined me, gripping the rails against the swell, aware now of the cold through my gloves, I really wasn't alone at all. I'd forgotten, or was expecting them later, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Surprise was the one thing that was to dominate this little adventure. How could you not be surprised when experience is beyond expectation. They weren't just birds - they were legendary birds. Albatross and Petrels.

From out of the rain there would appear, swooping, scooping, scalloping in wondrous loops over the waves, flying with consumate skill and ease, skimming and dipping, weaving and drafting.

In no time at all on the bridge, with books, binoculars, and others' knowing eyes, everyone was soon an expert. Look, there, a Black Browed Albatross, and there, that's another Storm Petrel, and a Cape Petrel, oh look at those wings, and over there, a Light Mantled Sooty Albatross, the names rolled off as if old friends. Look, quickly, just above the waves over there, port side and 10 degrees, there's a Wilson's Storm Petrel, he's a long way from home.

They were all a long way from home I thought. I was a long way from home, till I remembered home was cabin 401, our cosy little home heading south. You just knew you were going south. You just knew. It was getting colder and the rain was turning to sleet, and then snow flurries.

We crossed the Drake Passage in two days; the two to three metre swell was kind they said. It could be ten to thirteen metres on the notorious waterway where three oceans meet and where the ever circling waters of the great Antartic Ocean, spiralling endlessly round the continent, are narrowed between the downward reach of the Andes and the stretching upper tip of the Antarctic Peninsular, once juined, and now just separated, like the fingers of the Michelangelo Creation. And we were now below 'the convergence', where the cold Antarctic waters slip below the warmer waters of the Southern Atlantic, a shifting threshold where those with the sensibilities could feel the swell lessen.

By the second afternoon, the two yellow dots on the radar ("Is iceberg" announced the firstmate) became changing textures in the drizzle, mist and cloud and would slowly take form, whiteish shadows with a snowy ghostly white aura, and even at the safe distance of two nautical miles they looked as monstrous and as lethal as they were.

We were now only a few hours from the South Shetland Islands, and our first landing. At last I was about to see isolation, if not solitude, and it was beyond imagination.

1 comment:

Smorg said...

I suppose they'd have asked everyone to jump from one side of the boat to another should it ever try to roll for more than 70 degree, ay? ;oP

Buy what a cool trip! And nice capture of the ice berg on film, too! I've never seen one in real life (probably a good thing). It looks surreal! :oD