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