27 May 2015

Antarctica! by Lisa Avis

The last time I travelled on my own was when I was about 9 years old and I sailed to Sweden to meet some old family friends – that sea passage still haunts me now! But I wasn’t to be deterred, I knew there must be a set of sea legs inside of me and I was ready to face the infamous Drake Passage.

Setting off aboard the beautiful steel chariot, Le Boreal, I was instantly drawn into an air of excitement and trepidation of what lay ahead. The Beagle Channel was just stunning, flanked either side by snow-capped mountainous terrain, with a luminescent sunset backdrop. A slight air of confidence was starting to creep in; this sailing malarkey was going to be a piece of cake!

Around midnight I woke up with the sensation of sliding from one side of my bed to the other – the expedition crew member’s advice comes back to the fore - ‘it’s going to rough around midnight, so if you haven’t got any sea sick medication, I would take one of these!’. Grabbing the little tablet I crawled out of bed and shot across the room – these large modern ships, with excellent stabilisation systems still do rock ’n’ roll. I woke hungry and after a good breakfast felt ready to face the day - I’d found my sea legs.

An escort of Cape and Storm Petrels and Albatross’ followed the ship, diving and swooping; their agility was incredible, you could even see their wingtips just breaking the surface of the sea. I was fortunate to see pods of orcas, minke and humpback whales. These majestic animals swam so close to the ship that I was sure one would be clipped, but no they just seemed to have a spatial awareness that a lot of drivers in the UK don’t have. 
The first object I saw was a huge tabular iceberg – this massive piece of floating ice was just on the horizon, but this gave credence to its sheer size.

Neko Island was my first encounter up close with penguins and my goodness they smell! They are however the most adorable little things. The temperature was incredibly cold, but undaunted I ploughed on through the snow, just for the glimpse of perhaps another gentoo standing in a position I hadn’t quite captured!

Stop number two; Cuverville Island. This was quite an emotional and overwhelming place for me. The sun was intense, which made the sky a vibrant aqua blue, and with a panoramic view it was breath-taking. I sat in the same spot for over an hour, with a group of gentoos milling around in front of me carrying on their daily lives. The landscape of ice and snow picked every hue within whites, blues, greys and purples nature can paint and to top it off, the scene constantly changed as the sun moved around.

One more night and then Port Lockroy. I was really excited to meet the team again. The last time I had seen them all was at their training days in September!

Nothing could prepare me for just how small Port Lockroy is. I’ve seen photo after photo, but it really is tiny. A quick zodiac ride with the lead expedition team and I was there – with enough time to put my bag into the Nissen hut and straight to work in the shop! Ha, who ever said this was going to be jolly was sorely mistaken. A few hours later and completely exhausted, I was having a cuppa with the team. What a welcome, but this is life at Port Lockroy: get up, dressed, tea and breakfast, briefings on ships, meet and greet visiting tourists, restock the shop, lunch, more visitors, restock the shop and dinner, diary, clean up and then a few short minutes for personal emails, bed! The only exception: if there are no visitors then its general maintenance and DIY jobs both inside and out (depending on the weather).

The yachts and ships that visited Port Lockroy were incredibly generous, offering showers, evening meals, breakfasts and what I soon learnt to be extra special; fresh food. It’s amazing how good fresh milk, cheese and vegetables can taste!

I joined the daily life of the team, and even had my own spot on the rota. The only task that proved really hard was gash. The toilet bucket needed to be emptied at least twice a day, and watching me wobbling like a giant oversized penguin provided the rest of the team with a great deal of entertainment! I really struggled to walk in the deep snow; I ‘face planted’ in the snow first time, and the only thing on my mind was ‘don’t drop the bucket!’ – I didn’t. I soon learnt deals could be done; washing up proved to be the least favourite job, and I was more than prepared to swap. I loved cooking. Producing a hearty meal for five out of cans of meat dishes (curry, chilli etc.) and dried produce (rice, pasta, pulses etc.) was great fun. I even managed a huge loaf of bread and pancakes! One thing you can’t be is particularly fussy about your food.

We celebrated Skinner’s 30th birthday in the lounge of Bransfield House with a surprise curry and chocolate cake, balloons, party hats and even music from the gramophone. He had no idea that we had planned this - I suppose making this our own secret ‘Operation Skinner’.

I could have easily stayed for the entire season, but my time was up and with fond farewells and even a little tear I left for my journey home.

The sea was like a millpond, which produced mirror images of the land on the water’s surface. It was only to be broken by a huge pod of orcas. The Captain, to the delight of all the passengers, turned the ship around in a huge circle so that we could all get a further glimpse of these exceptional predators.

Our next stop was Bailey Head on Deception Island. This proved to be an interesting landing – not your usual calm affair, but more of a ‘go now’ to get off the zodiac as quickly as possible as the poor expedition crew were hanging onto the boat for dear life! Everything was timed to perfection, as the wave brought the zodiac closer to the beach, it turned quickly and we disembarked one by one onto black volcanic sand. Chinstraps were everywhere! There are 60,000 breeding pairs and when people have talked about ‘penguin highways’, nothing could prepare me for the sight of an eight lane highway - although an elephant seal making a slow crossing caused mayhem. The noise was incredible.

Back on board and sailing around to Half Moon Island. More penguins, you really can’t enough of these hardy little birds who carry on their daily live, whilst under the continuous scrutiny of multi-coloured giants (humans) coming and going nearly every day for an entire season. One exception to the penguin normality – a lonesome macaroni penguin, with his long bright head feathers; he struck quite a pose.

This was the last landing, and just left the return leg across the Drake Passage. One last surprise was to come; we sailed around Cape Horn, before turning into the Beagle Channel.

This was truly a trip of a lifetime and one which will last forever. It’s not only the size and grandeur which floors you, but the sounds: ice pops and crackles like Rice Crispies, large icebergs scrape down the side of the ship, whales blow air, the thundering and roaring from avalanches, the constant shrill of seabirds and of course penguins! At night, it’s almost the complete opposite and the silence is deafening. The crisp, cold air fills your lungs making you shiver, but you feel invigorated, your eyes stream in the wind and your nose dribbles, but this white continent just gets to you.

My only problem now; when can I go back?

To view the full photo journal of my Antarctic journey, click here.  


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