Bit of a bumpy ride to a historical site

Trip Start Jan 19, 2006
Trip End Jan 19, 2007

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Before I start on this voyage I warn you that I am going into a lot of detail about everything. I have to say this is mainly for our benefit as we want to remember everything that happened as it was so much to take in.

Tues 14th
At 4pm we got a bus from the wharf through security and onto the "Little Red Ship" or Explorer with about 100 other passengers.
We were shepherded into the forward lounge bar area for juice and sandwiches until we were taken to our cabin. We were on the bottom deck in Cabin 311 a twin room which was actually quite a decent size with an ensuite bathroom (unlike Navimag!!). Had proper duvets, towels and toiletries felt like it was incredibly posh for us. Unpacked our bags properly and used the wardrobe. First time in 10 months real luxury.

Later on have an intro meeting with the expedition team including Aaron our Expedition Leader. It is really emphasised that this is an expedition and not a tour as such as things change so rapidly and you cant really plan everything which is great! Also meet the rest of the team an orinthologist (bird person and not a dentist fortunately!), naturalists, botanists and geologist, historian. Few were based in Wales but never mind. All sounded very intellectual and not sure if we were up to other passengers knowledge on board but fortunately there is a really good mix of ages, nationalities (21 in all!) and types of traveller so we wont be complete thickies.

After that had a scary emergency drill with lifejackets and a register before we were taken to the lifeboats. Fortunately we were still in port so we didnt have to take it any further than that!

Explore the Explorer which has a gym and sauna, lecture room with permanent tea and coffee, several decks and an open bridge policy which is great. Not too large like some of the ships we have seen previously which is good.

Then dinner which we were almost bracing ourselves for bad food. Firstly, not a buffet (at dinner anyway) and 5 courses. Just to give you a flavour of what we proceeded to eat for the next 10 days tonight we had spring rolls followed by crab soup, Dave had beef for main course and I had trout with a caviar sauce followed by cheesecake, fruit and the most fantastic blue cheese and biscuits ever. Staff are all Phillipino and are very friendly. Needless to say we wont be losing any weight on this trip unless its very rough seas.

We leave port during dinner and take our first sea sickness tablet. Talk to lots of people and find out about their trips, are lots who are doing long trips like us and quite a few who have only booked in the last couple of days. Out on deck

Weds 16th.
Somewhere over the Drake Passage. Water Temp 8 degrees and outside 5 degrees. Calm seas thankfully!

Have a buffet breakfast with enough food to feed hundreds including muesli and nutella -again I am very excited, sad I know.

We then go to a lecture on birds with Anna who is incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable and we find ourselves birdwatching out the back of the ship aftewards in the glorious sunshine seeing different petrels and albatross. The petresl travel south to breed and lots of wildlife particularly love the Antarctic convergence as the seas mix and the temperature of the waters change to create a great nutrient mix for everything. Think I have got that right!

After go up to the bridge and meet some of the officers Polish, Swedish Captaln, Phillipino. Very helpful when its calm! They tell us how lucky we are today with waves of a couple of metres if that. They have seen them up to 25m high and the boat is only 32m high itself. The average is 8-10 metres. We travel at 13 1/2 knotts (nautical miles per hour). We admire all the equipment but have no idea what it all does apart from the radar where we can spot icebergs and boats. They tell us that we have to keep distance (3 times visible height) from icebergs as only 30% of them are above water. The bits that break off icebergs are called growlers, I am sure you wanted to know that.

Later on go to an Antarctica continet lecture with Lance who tells us all about Antarcticas geology. Here is what we learnt:
- The continent is 14 million square km and it doubles in size each winter when couting sea ice
- The continent is the coldest, driest and windiest on the planet and is actually classified as a desert due to lack of precipitation
- It is the fifth largest continent
- Ice can be 2.3km thick and covers 98% of the continent
- The South Pole is 2836 m above sea level
- Lowest temperature ever recorded was 89.6 degrees the mean is -50 degrees at teh pole
- Antarctic circle is at 66 degrees and 33mins west where the sun does not rise or dip for at least one day a year.
- 90% of the fresh water is locked in ice. It is effectively a desert as its too cold for precipitation
- Highest part is 4000 metres above sea level
- The Ross ice shelf the largesst is 330m thick. The Transantarctic mountains are the main mountainous feature
- Dome C was started in 1996 at the South Pole to monitor climate change , etc they are drilling and testing gases and deposits e.g. volcanic ash and are currently 100m above bedrock apparently

We also learn about glaciers and icebergs and that they are blue when there is lots of air inside and sea water freezes at -1.8 degrees. Then a quick presentation on ozone and climate change which all the staff seem to have differing opinions on. Really feels like we are back at school, except this time we are more interested!

After trying not to stuff ourselves at the lunch buffet we have a siesta (sea sickness tablets make you very tired!). Dave goes to a lecture with David about the history of Antarctic explorers including Magallanes, Shackleton and Cook, I am too tired for some reason. It is then afternoon tea which involves cake or cookies which are dreadful as you can no doubt imagine.

In reception there is lots of wildlife info and maps of our route plus a log of where we are at midday which was:

56 degrees 41 minutes South, 63 degrees, 34 minutes West (am sure thats wrong!), Have travelled 203 nautical miles so far. Distance to our first planned excursion is 378 nautical miles, estimated for 1700 tomorrow. Wind direction WSW, Beaufort Force 3, speed 9 knots and most important of all outlook, fair.

We read some of the reference books in the library and dream that our photos are half as good as the ones inside. Then watch the Blue Planet film. Before dinner the weather is less than fair and has turned grey and a bit more choppy. We are hungry though can you believe it? (Yes I hear you say) Dinner great again lamb and chocolate fondant (not together). We visit the bridge again to see the waves and find out that someone left their bathroom door open whilst having a shower which set off the sprinkler system in their room. We dont laugh at all at that. Sadly, our shower does not seem to produce any hot water at present.

Are rocked to sleep by the waves which are increasing in size and going in all directions.

Thurs 16th
Swell is only 2m but feels more and water is now 0 degrees. Have another great breakfast, Dave reckons its the best bacon as its so crispy.

Then tear ourselves away for a lecture on penguins. Learn all sorts including they have feathers which I now feel very stupid about in retrospect! We also find out that they dive out of the water or porpoise like a dolphin which now explains what we saw a few days ago on the ferry. Are told to expect to see Gentoo, Adele and Chinstraps, cant wait.

Lunch buffet is slightly less well attended than normal, possibly due to the waves which are roughly 4m but do reach 8m high. We are sort of glad to experience some rough seas but hope it doesnt last long. As a result we have to reduce our speed to about 7 knotts.

We go to the back of the boat and see painted petrels flying in formation just above the waves following the boat either hoping for food or better air currents. On the bridge we are lucky to be up there to spot a couple of fin whales and seeing the blow holes. We then spot our first icebergs, very exciting and just what you imagine. We also see land!

After yet another siesta we go to the all important zodiac briefing (the dinghy trips off the ship). We have braced ourselves for not doing a single trip off the boat, let alone a landing on the great white continent as we have heard that this is perfectly possible if conditions dont permit However as we approach evening (although it doesnt get dark til nearly 2200) we realise we are actually going to do our first zodiac trip to the infamous Point Wild on Elephant Island, we are incredibly lucky to be able to go there we find out later. I didnt realise it was quite so important, but obviously do now, it was the site of Shackletons ill fated trip to cross the continent and many of his men camped here for months awaiting him rescuing them after the Endurance sank. Shackleton took a few men in a very small boat, the James Caird, to South Georgia and managed to trek across the island and get help. It took many months and the story is incredible. Shackleton and all his men were truly amazing but Shackleton sounds like one of the greatest leaders ever. I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about any of this until we got on board and started to learn so many new things.

Anyway, we find out we are going to go on our first mini voyage at 20.00 after dinner. It is still a bit bumpy but a lot calmer than it has been. I am quite nervous about our first zodiac trip and the cold! We go out in 2 different groups to avoid all queueing up in reception and overheating in the process of waiting in all our gear. We layer up, fortunately still have our thermals and big socks from Russia and our fleeces and coats acquired on the way around the globe.

We have a specific briefing on the site we are visiting as we continue to do throughout our expedition. This includes the description of the site according to the Antarctic Name encyclopaedia book thing (the name escapes me):

Point Wild, 61 degrees 06´S, 54 degrees 52´W
A point 6 miles west of Cape Valentine on the north coast of Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands. Name Cape Wild is from the Shackleton ´Endurance´ Expedition 1914-16 but Point Wild is recommended for this feature because of its small size and to avoid confusion with Cape Wild on George V coast. Named for Frank Wild leader of the party from Shackleton´s shipwrecked expedition which camped on the point for 4 months until rescued in August 1916.

We get out as it is getting a bit dark but the light is lovely with the reflection of the snow and ice. On this voyage we are not landing but just viewing the main features from the boat, think its cos its not the best place for a landing or the best conditions as is the norm around here. It is -2 but -10 with windchill the water is the most crystal blue you have ever seen. As we cruise away from Explorer we approach a headland and can see the chinstrap penguin breeding colony with several hundred penguins. There is a monument on the beach to the Captain that brought Shackleton back to get his 22 men. Most of this beach has now disappeared. We also see a leopard seal which is a major predator. Also loads of birds including the snow petrel, a beautiful white bird (funny that) and the sheath bill which eats penguin poo! There are growlers and icebergs in the water and most of the island is covered in snow being early in the season to visit here. The light starts to turn pink as the sun is setting. We end our voyage by a visit to a mini-glacier as our zodiac driver explains. It is massive.

After 30 mins our first Antarctic voyage is over. Our feet are a bit colder but we are exhilirated. I have a coldish shower and we celebrate our trip with a glass of red wine before heading to bed as we journey to our next adventure.
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