Of King Penguins and Bridge windows

Mars/Hotchkiss School Antarctic Adventure

Duncan’s video of this trip is posted on Youtube http://youtu.be/-7LK7G0cbpw

I have been looking forward to this trip the whole season, the chance to work with 91 high school kids is something I relish. I was on the last Mars Hotchkiss trip in 2009 and loved the energy that the kids brought with them. For me, it is an opportunity to change lives, even if only one or two. I firmly believe that if you can make a difference in one person’s life, then I have achieved my life’s goals. Obviously, I would like to make a difference in more than one life, and that is what motivates me.

So the kids arrive, along with the new Abercrombie and Kent expedition team (some of whom I have met previously), the teachers and Mr Mars and his guests. We have 3 days at Sea before getting to South Georgia, however, these are great days for birding on the back deck. My luck was a little short lived though as I caught a cold from one of the new arrivals and after 2 hectic months on the ship, my immune system was stretched to the limit and I felt grotty for the first part of our South Georgia experience. Nonetheless, somehow I made it through and we had a stunning few days.

On arrival to South Georgia, we were in a big storm with some serious winds, but we managed to find some shelter and even though we missed our landing at Salisbury plain in the morning we managed a zodiac cruise in the afternoon. A good taster for what was to come.

The next day was Fortuna bay, the clouds were low and visibility poor, putting paid to anyone doing the Shackleton Hike over to Stromness, but we landed in Fortuna, where we had our first real king penguin experience, with a load of fur seal pups and reindeer to complete the picture. Reindeer are soon to be exterminated from South Georgia, as they are an introduced species and causing widespread environmental damage, so this was the last chance to see them.

The afternoon landing was at Stromness, where we took a lovely hike through the glacial valley until we reached Shackleton’s waterfall. The 2.5km flat hike was lovely and the waterfall at the end was a treat. We would have come down this way if we had managed the hike, so at least we had a bit of a leg stretch in beautiful scenery.

Later on the group headed out for a zodiac cruise at Hercules bay, I felt like death warmed up from the blasted flu and as there were enough zodiac drivers, I skipped out and tried to get a bit of rest.

The next day we had our cultural experience of Grytviken, the main whaling station on South Georgia, where we walked out to Shackleton’s Cross, erected by his Comrades, we looked through the amazing little museum, checked out the James Caird replica (this is the small boat that Shackleton used to make the journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia). One of my favourite displays is of a Wandering Albatross, whose wingtips reach from floor to ceiling and it gives us a true idea about the size of these birds.

The afternoon was St Andrews Bay, the largest King Penguin colony on South Georgia with approximately 100 000 pairs of King Penguins (excluding the chicks). How can one possibly describe the scene, with all the calling from the adults and the chicks with their high pitched begging calls. This has to be one of the true wonders of the world. The day was perfect, the skies were clear and photographs cannot describe the sensory overload. One cannot imagine the cacophony of so many birds, and yet it is not unpleasant or disturbing. I could sit there for hours just observing the penguins rushing through the colony and being pecked at by the other birds, or those that were swept away by the fast glacial melt river. It is one of my favourite landings and I am sad that I will not be going there again this year.

We did, however, go to Gold Harbour, another magical place with thousands of King penguins against the backdrop of a stunning hanging glacier. Most of the glacier has actually receded and every year I come back there is less and less. The scenery is stunning nonetheless, with my favourite albatross, the Light Mantled Sooty Albatross nesting up on the Tussock covered hillside. I saw one flying over us and managed to catch it with my camera, picking out the delicate white half moon around the eye and the subtle shadings of brown. Gold harbour is all about the elephant seals as they lie in their groups, burping and farting, these sounds and smells of the Southern Ocean should not be described and should really only be experienced at a distance. There seals bashing up each other as well, as part of their training.

Our last activity in South Georgia was a ships cruise through Drygalski Fjord, which is a beautiful deep fjord with a sprinkling of snow on the mountains and one of the most mystical birds, the snow petrel making its appearance. I love this little white bird, with its black bill, as it appears and disappears around the ship like a ghost, never making a big deal of its presence and seldom staying very long.

We left South Georgia with a touch of sadness, but excitement for what lay ahead of us. Not far out we encountered humpback whales giving us a spectacular display, tail lobbing, fluking, and we were all out there enjoying the show. We saw from a distance a whale making huge splashes, it looked at first as if he was breaching, but on getting slightly closer, we realised it was a Southern Right Whale tail lobbing. Throwing half his body out the water and thrashing his tail down. He lobbed over and over, before coming closer to the ship, giving us a close look at his carbuncled head. What a rare sighting and a very special one to say goodbye finally to South Georgia.

We left South Georgia slightly earlier than initially planned as we could see a depression moving our way and we wanted to get ahead of the worst of the storm. We still ended up getting hit by it. 70 knot winds (130km/hour or 80miles per hour) 8-10m (25-30 foot) waves, the ship was moving a lot. I have been in this little ship in many such storms and it is built to cope with anything Mother Nature can throw at us. This one though threw something none of us expected.

12th Jan- at about 6pm we were heading through the storm, the wind had died down from 70 to 40 knots and I had hunkered down, not being able to work at my computer for risk of feeling sea sick and not wanting to walk around the ship as there was so much movement. Lectures had been cancelled for the day but we were still going to have a recap, so I was contemplating getting up to get ready for the recap, when we hear on the radio that a bridge window has broken. The bridge took on a lot of water damaging some of the instruments. We regained power, steering (very quickly), one radar and the stabilisers within a few hours, but the sea is still really rough and nobody has a good night, at about 10 this morning we turned into the storm and started heading back to Ushuaia, which means that we will miss out on the Antarctic Peninsula completely. I am very disappointed, as I am sure the kids are, but we have no option.

All the ships’ crew, in every department have pulled together and brought the ship back to working order in a remarkably short space of time. I marvel at the hard work and cheerfulness of everyone and wish that this would be the story that comes out. How a stressful situation can bring people together and achieve amazing things. Such a case could have been completely different if there had been dissention or poor communication.

We are back on schedule in terms of lectures and activities, I still needed to give my climate change lecture, a tough one, as many people have differing views. I think it goes well and I hope the audience took home some of the key messages. I also had one more recap to give, even though I struggled to get my enthusiasm up, it seemed to go reasonably well.

17th We arrive in Ushuaia where we join the land programme that had been organised for three days.

18th We are off to the Tierra Del Fuego national park for a ride in a steam train that used to carry prisoners to areas where they would log the forest, there are still the remains of the logging. The trip takes on a scenic ride through the park, where we pass horses and get a stunning view of the mountains in the distance. As is always important we get to go for two short hikes to different viewpoints, one taking us to the edge of the Beagle Channel, where we had lovely view through the trees over the Beagle.

19th Today we go to Harberton ranch via lunch at a dog sledding farm. Obviously there is no snow at the moment, so the dogs were lying next to their kennels sleeping. Inside, we were treated to a superb lunch of salads and coal roasted lamb, it was delicious. After lunch we headed off to Harberton ranch, a place I have not been to since 2006, the weather was great, but for me it was a slightly different experience as I had the chance to catch up with a friend with whom I had lost touch. I had met the owner of the ranch, Natalie Goodall, through a mutual friend, and even though I didn’t know Natalie well, she visited me (with her daughter and 2 grandsons) in South Africa after a conference and I took them up to the Kruger National Park for a few days. This was probably 5 years ago and I have not been good at keeping in contact, even though I think of her every time I am in Ushuaia. Knowing that she normally spends much of her time in town, I didn’t expect her to be at home, but indeed she was. I managed to spend about an hour chatting to her and catching up, when she told me that Mathew, the one grandson who visited me, was working on the Bark Europa. This is a tall sailing ship that was built in 1911 (before Shackleton’s voyages) and I needed to see the expedition leader later in the day, so I would see if I could catch up with Mathew before they left port. We arrived back in Ushuaia after 6pm and I dashed over to the dock, and found Mathew, who had grown up from the 12 year old boy I had met 5 years ago and was now lanky and more mature, but still had the good humoured look I remembered. He was working as a sailor for a few trips before heading off to University to study mechanical engineering. The day had been filled with unexpected and yet wonderful surprises.

20th – Our last day of the land programme was in fact on water, as we did a catamaran cruise down the Beagle Channel, stopping to see the lighthouse, sea lions and a stop off where we could go for a short walk and those in the mood, which was most of the kids, could have their polar plunge. We came back for a trip to the prison museum and a bit of time in town before heading off back to the hotel for our final, farewell dinner.  It was an extra special day for me, as I had the chance to meet up with very dear friends who are working on another ship and who I didn’t think I would meet up with this season, as our itineraries never crossed. Out of every disaster, there is always something positive. I was offered numerous couches on the ship and if I wasn’t under contract, it would have been an offer I would seriously have considered, 10 days in the Antarctic with one’s best friends and it wouldn’t be considered work. Obviously, it was not an option, but knowing that there are people out there who love and miss you always gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. This is the strange thing about expedition work, we meet our friends on the pier after a year and it is like we have never been apart.

21st – It is time to say goodbye to everyone, all our newly made friends. It is always a sad time for me, just as I get to meet people and I have put my energy into knowing them, we part ways. Sometimes, we do meet up again.

I head back to the dock with the rest of our expedition team who are staying on the ship. We will be in port until the 31st and there is lots of work to be done, mine mainly helping in the hospital. I am physically and emotionally shattered, and feel completely sucked dry. I have not been able to shake the cold, which has now turned into bronchitis, leaving me tired and grumpy, which is out of character for me. I now need to look after myself and recoup so that I am ready for the next few trips before going home.

Life is good

Clouds and Duncan


@home, saving lives in Jozi, 2 June 2009

Greetings from Jozi

For those of you who don’t know I am an ambulance emergency Attendant (AEA) or an intermediate life support medic. I do this part time as a volunteer for the City of Johannesburg, trying to do my bit to improve the lives of the less fortunate in our city. I work on ambulance and response car, although not as much as I would like, depending on how much of the time I am in the country. I had a really good shift a few weeks ago where we had 11 calls in 12 hours, although most of them were not that exciting we did have one good case.

We get called to Park station, which is a major bus and train terminal and a really dodgy place (I would not go there under any other circumstances) for a man with chest pain. We find the patient, who is a homeless man, with chest pain who was having a heart attack. His health was really poor, he had tuberculosis (TB) and had stopped taking his medication (TB requires medication to be taken for 6 months and many people stop taking it, which leads to drug resistant TB), he also had all the signs of AIDS. On checking his blood glucose, it became evident that he was also a diabetic (a condition he didn’t know he had) and his breathing indicated that he was Acidotic from the diabetes. So we were presented with a really good medical case, and one where we could really help him. His ECG clearly indicated a heart attack, we could give life saving drugs, and saw a great, immediate improvement. We then took him to hospital where they could take over his care and treat all his chronic conditions. I don’t see our work as paramedics as saving lives, but rather at delaying death, as so many cases, such as this, we will keep him going for a while longer, but  with so many severe and chronic conditions and with inadequate health care, this patient is not likely to have a long life.

I am still in a dilemma over whether to take next year off and go and do my CCA (Advanced life support paramedic) course. Next year is the last year the course will be run, after which I will need to do a 4 year degree, and I cannot take the time off for that. Many people say, “Why do you want to do it, it is a major sacrifice and you will never work permanently as a paramedic”. It is a question I cannot answer, all I know if this is what I want to do. It will provide me with opportunities that I do ot have as an ILS medic. It is also one of my passions, one of those nebulous feelings that we cannot explain but which I believe we need to follow. It reminds me of a fellow volunteer who was once asked why she worked on Ambulance. I was tickled by her response, “You know, when you go under a bridge with your sirens on, it makes a really cool echo” she replied. It does indeed, and when we are feeling particularly playful, and the weather is good, we roll down the windows when responding to listen to the echo. It is not a real reason of course, but it demonstrates how difficult it is for us to capture why we do it. Some of the paramedics are clearly adrenaline junkies, there is nothing quite as exciting as responding against oncoming traffic at high speeds to go to help someone, or the adrenaline of a high stress accident scene with multiple patients, where every second counts, and you are responsible for bringing order to the chaos. Personally, I love the medical cases, where patients are really sick and in a critical condition, and what we do before they get to hospital determines whether they will live or die, or what their outcome in hospital will be.  The one reason we don’t do this job is for thanks, because we simply don’t get any. Occasionally, the patient or their family thanks you, but most of the time, the situations are stressful for the family and patient alike and they are just thinking of the now. How do we deal with the situation we find ourselves in? This is where the most important part of our job comes in: Compassion. By being calm and collected, and showing compassion, we are often giving patients and their family far more than drugs and interventions. Often a patient who is dying, knows they are about to die and are scared, but if their loved ones are not close by, it is up to us to provide them with their final comfort.

So will doing my Advanced Life Support (ALS) course change my life? Well, this qualification would increase my scope of practice quite significantly and provide me with many other opportunities. I would be able to do ALS short courses such as Advanced Cardiac Life Support, which I could then teach. I could work as a paramedic around the world as South African paramedics are recognised as being the best in the world, due to all the trauma we see. The costs are high, a year without earning anything is tough enough, but I would still have to pay my expenses to live and eat, as well as the cost of the course itself. I couldn’t hope of ever earning back the money that I would spend and not earn while doing the course. I know that I am working in the Antarctic for the whole season, and would only finish in March, so I would miss the bridging course that is run a few weeks before the course, to get candidates ready and where the final exam is the entrance exam to the course itself. I would thus need to write the entrance exam to get onto the bridging course as well as the final bridging course exam before I left for the Antarctic and this would only happen if the Instructors at the Academy looked favourably on my case and allowed an exception. They take 24 people onto the bridging course and then only 12 onto the course itself, so I would have a lot of work to do to get onto the course. I really want to do it, but there seem to be so many obstacles in my way that if I do end up doing it, it will be a minor miracle. I do believe in minor miracles at the moment, so let’s hope this turns out to be one. Watch this space…..

Back at home while working in my office, I have been fortunate enough to see sunbirds (and some other birds) coming to visit the Strelizia outside my office window. I have kept my camera close at hand and tried to snap some shots of them as they flit in for some nectar. They move so fast it is tricky to catch them, but I have a few reasonable shots. I also had a leopard tortoise visiting from the botanical gardens next door, so I will pop a picture of him in too.

Last Sunday, we had the first (and hopefully the last as it is almost fully burned now) fire on the mountain where I stay. I guess I should have been really worried because it was coming pretty close to the fenceline where I live and the wind was gusting quite strongly, but I don’t believe in worrying about things you have no control over, so I took photos before having to go out for dinner. Fortunately the fire services came in time and managed to control the fire and all was good.

From the roads of Jozi


Post Script: Everything came together, I received permission to write both entrance exams before I left for the Antarctic, and to miss the Bridging course. I would only know if I got onto the course after the bridging course, when my exam is marked with the others. In the end I did get onto the course, with what is rumoured to be the highest mark in the class. Sometimes, even when everything is pointing away from what you want to do, if you put your mind to it, you can make it work.

At Home, saving lives 18 October 2008

Greetings from Johannesburg (Jozi)

I have had quite a time since my return to South Africa, so I have put some thoughts and news on paper

The last voyage from St John’s to New York wasn’t as interesting for me as the previous Greenland/Canada/Svalbard trips as it was stopping off at little towns, which although nice, weren’t really what I enjoy doing. I was also getting a bit jaded, working on the ship is extremely hard work and completely exhausting, so one definitely needs time off. We landed in New York and a few hours later I was at the airport on my way home, so I didn’t even get a chance to explore the Big Apple.

Coming back to Johannesburg, of course, meant that I had to fulfill my commitments to the emergency services (I am a reservist ILS paramedic and have to log a certain number of hours every month – which is a bit tricky when I am away for extended periods, so I have to make it up on my return). I am starting to help with the teaching of the basic life support paramedic course, which I am very excited about, and I really enjoy the people I am working with on this project. Living and working as a paramedic in South Africa is full of excitement and challenges that one doesn’t get in many other places. I worked on the ambulance on Thursday night and we ended up having a relatively busy night. Our first call was a fellow who had been hit by a car (not seriously mind you) and when he went to talk to the women who hit him she sprayed him in the face with pepper spray and drove off. So he couldn’t walk and he now couldn’t see either. This of course is his story and it wouldn’t be unlikely that he tried to smash her window to steal something in the car, she sprayed him and drove off to escape and in so doing hit him on his side. Either way, spraying someone in the face with pepper spray is one way to make sure that they will not be able to take down your registration plate.

Then we have a call for a headache and on arrival we have a serious case of FES (Fluttering eyelid syndrome), where the patient is lying on the ground, moaning, always to a good audience, who dutifully try and help by pouring water over her, so now she is cold and wet as well. When you try to talk to her she just moans, when you try to evaluate her pupil response, she rolls her eyes back into her head so you can’t see her eyes. Of course she is incapable of walking, sitting or standing. The treatment is to get the patient into the ambulance out of sight of curious onlookers (This is a feat in itself) and tell her to pull herself together and talk to you or you can’t help her. Normally she has a full recovery in a matter of minutes and can talk and  respond. You see Paramedics do save lives!!!

Our third call for the evening was body pains – you just have to know what this will entail. The call was about 30km from our station, on a plot somewhere close to the intersection of two roads (both roads exist but they do not cross). We spent about an hour looking for the property until we were cancelled on the call. This reminds me of the following story from one of the call centre dispachers:

Caller: My friend has been shot!

Call taker: What is your address?
Caller: PO Box…
Call Taker: No man! Where must we send the ambulance?

Caller: Oh, Diepsloot camp 2 next to the coca cola sign

Call Taker: How many times has your friend been shot?

Caller: ……. I think this is his first time?!

We have often been dispached to an area and told to find an escort to take us to the patient by the coca cola sign, or some other such landmark – and then they wonder why we can’t find them.

 Anyhow we were then requested to assist the Advance Life Support  (ALS) paramedics with a patient who had been shot in the head but was still alive. This was another strange case where this guy was lying in the parking lot of a housing complex with a gun shot at the back of the head and three cartridges lying on the ground. The police, who were first on the scene, said it was an attempted suicide (who shoots themselves at the back of the head to commit suicide and with three cartridges he obviously missed on the first two occasions?). Next to the patient was a computer mouse and two condoms. What a strange situation, we don’t ask questions, which is maybe just as well. The patient was still alive, thanks to the good work of the ALS but will probably end up being an organ donor, as I am sure there was lots of brain damage.  So we got back to station at about 3am and decided to go home as we both (Paul, my partner and I) had real (?) jobs to go to at 8am.

Otherwise all is well and life (mine anyway) is hurtling along at a pace only reserved for the insane. But I guess I enjoy it that way.

Love from Jozi