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Port Lockroy, Paradise Bay and "setting foot", then at sea, rolling, rolling…

Part 10 (December 7-8, 2007)

By Kate Woodward


Yesterday was our last day of expeditions and we are now sliding back and forth (the typing chairs have wheels) as we await the start of "early risers coffee" in the Verandah Deck restaurant next door. The portholes (or "deadeyes" as I think the Captain called them--perhaps an infelicitous choice of word) were screwed shut on our side of the ship around 6 yesterday afternoon, when we were en route to the Drake Passage, so that when the winds coming from that side hit, we would stay cozy and dry.  We're feeling fine after taking Sturgeron yesterday evening as soon as the Captain made his announcement at 8:30 that we'd be hitting rough water in a couple of hours so if we were prone to (or afraid of!) seasickness, we should go ahead and take it then--very thoughtful of him!


Since we'd been in our cabin since the afternoon (poor Roger developed a very heavy cold and felt he shouldn't be exposing others to it), we had everything at hand--and had even, by then, had a delicious dinner (straight off the regular dinner menu for the evening) via room service. A photo here of the beautiful dessert:


One item from the high-stacked trays delivered by two waiters to our cabin when Roger developed a terrible cold.



I asked for a bottle of sparkling water to go along with it, and even though I thought I'd braced it well enough, it had rolled under the sofa by this morning--and a pair of binoculars had fallen from the shelf (which has a brass rail across it about 3" up, to keep glasses and other stuff "in") during the night, in spite of, once again, being "packed in" with other stuff.  Now we can appreciate why the beds all have a nice, smooth wooden "side" that runs from the head of the bed to hip height on the open side of the bed.  I was awake for a while during the night, having been "tipped into" the wooden side of the bed, and was impressed by not only the rolling but also the pitching of the ship.  Most of all, I was aware of the noise, loud cracking sounds and other "bangs". Being a novice at sailing in this kind of weather, I couldn't help worrying a bit, reassuring myself that "this ship goes through the Drake Passage all the time, so this must be normal," but then "I wonder whether I ought to wake Roger up--no, no, I'm sure everything is fine"!


Back to yesterday, which began after an evening sail through the apparently scenic Gerlache Strait (64degrees 30 minutes South, 62 degrees 20 minutes West) when we were asleep.  It separates the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula.  The Belgian Antarctic Expedition explored the strait in January and February 1898 (amazing to think of them here in their tiny boats of the time), naming it for the expedition ship Belgica, which had become stuck in Antarctic ice for 13 months.  Her crew was the first to spend the winter in Antarctica. The strait's name was later changed to honor the commander himself, Lt. Adrien de Gerlache.


However, we missed it as we'd had a full day including, besides outdoor activities, a hilarious version of "Call My Bluff", which on board they call "The Liars Club". The panel was made up of five of the speakers and the Captain, who proved himself just as adept at giving a completely confident as well as totally untrue definition for an esoteric word as the rest of them. Apparently, the score since this type of cruise began with this ship has always been 5-zero, not in favor of the passengers.


Anyway, we disembarked at Port Lockroy at 7 AM, feeling less groggy than we did when our requested wakeup call came at 5:30--last time for this!  Port Lockroy is on Wienke Island and was established in 1944 as Base A during Operation Tabarin (they were to give reports not only on the weather but on enemy activities).  I remained occupied almost continually until January '62.  The original station hut "Bransfield House" still survives as the core of the main building, and is the oldest British structure remaining on the Antarctic Peninsula.  The repair and conservation of Port Lockroy as a historic site and museum began in Jan. 96.  There is an ongoing experiment on the island, trying to gauge what effect tourism has on the well-being of penguins. Part of the island is open to tourists, the other not, and according to Wikipedia, thus far there does not seem to be any deleterious effect.


Port Lockroy landing area and the side view of Bransfield House.


The living quarters, which are what make up the museum, have been left in their '50's and 60's state, and it was fascinating to see all the old products in the various rooms which are open for visiting,

including a very old-fashioned "girlie" magazine and photos of Queen Elizabeth (looking extremely young and very lovely) ship historian Bob Burton refers to him!) looking down on the "lounge" area, which is a small (all the rooms are small), cozy room with (oops--Roger just got up to get a book, and the armchair he'd been using slid about 8 feet across the carpet; fortunately he was able to hang on to the table, which is either chained or screwed down--about half of the armchairs here in the library are chained, but his was one of the lighter ones--and the wheelie chairs at the e-mail stations were all lying down on their sides for safety when we got here)--sorry, back to the cozy lounge at Port Lockro--in addition to a record-player, it even had a small bar in one corner, which included not only gin and other alcoholic drinks but tins of plug (chewing) tobacco.

As I think I mentioned before, the people living and working at these bases received not only room and board and clothes for their pay, but nearly unlimited liquor and cigarettes--so much so that when they got back to the UK after their stint in Antarctica, they were so used to helping themselves to any of the many open packs that were strewn around that many of them had trouble in pubs initially, as they'd help themselves to any packet of cigarettes that had been left on the bar by someone going to the loo.

The kitchen had an old cast iron stove in it (with a drying rack above it, holding incredibly thickly knit long johns) and among the

dusty tins of Marmite and huge tins of dried vegetables, were tins of margarine--never seen that before. There was snow up to the kitchen window on that side of the hut.  The communications room contained lots of equipment, including an old typewriter, and the generator room was chock-a-block with bits and pieces of equipment and a lot of the base archives as well as the huge generator itself, which took up most of the middle of the room.

There was a "bunk room" which was cordoned off although the door was left open, and a blue sleeping bag was cast over one of the bunks--this is where the summer staff currently stay for the months when the station is open for visitors (it is closed the rest of the year). It was surprising how well it blended in with the other rooms.

There was also a gift shop (which accepted pounds, dollars, euros, and--if the amount was over $100--credit cards) that was surprisingly well stocked, and since there was a big sign saying that all sales helped maintain the Antarctica Trust, we were glad that I'd worn the empty backpack!

I ought to have mentioned the journey we had from the ship--which had a dusting of snow on the tables (all tied down) on the Verandah Deck--enough so that an early riser had built a very cute "snow penguin" about a foot tall on one of the tables--remarkably lifelike!

Because it was snowing and the disembarkation point to visit the base had a steep, icy bit of hill from the landing point, the scouts had not only dug "steps" in the ice, but they had brought along huge blue towels (must be the kind used by the Deception Island bathers, some of whom actually did take a very quick dip before the urgent call to get back to the boat) which they laid down on them which worked incredibly well.  Since where they dug was rather wet, and it was snowing, the towels quickly froze in place, making it very comfortable, not slippery, to make our way up the hill.

There was a small colony of gentoo penguins living on this part of the island, but we were very limited in where we could go to see them, as they were having a tough year (very poor breeding, apparently because there has been too much snow for too long, which has affected the timing and length of the breeding season), so they needed to be left strictly alone.  Some of them had actually moved into the under-house area beneath the base, which was built out over space because there was so little flat land--this gave them and their eggs better protection for marauding skuas.



Gentoos making their way up the boulders to their hide-away under Bransfield House in the driving snow that was being blown parallel to the ground.


The blue towels idea was used also on the "path" up to the base/shop, and again, they had frozen into place, so we had very comfortable walking--they really do everything to make things safer and easier for the passengers.  And if we'd wanted to send postcards, there was a red letterbox on the wall with the familiar ERII on it.  Since the post takes 2-6 weeks, I decided not to, but I  think Roger sent some to his crew.


Three stalwart gentoos nesting on an exposed boulder, station storage hut and the bay behind them.


By the time we came out, it was snowing heavily and we all looked like giant red penguins with our navy hoods up, to keep our hats on our heads, and our red parkas zipped up to the chin.  We'd had a superb Zodiac ride around the bay, before being dropped at the island to visit the base, as the visitor area is so small that only a very few people could be on it at one time.


Gentoos, along the "protected" part of the bay at Port Lockroy, blending into the black and white landscape.


As we made our way around the bay, we encountered "slush ice" as we headed towards a 25-foot high snow bank with a sheer edge when it reached the water.




 Approaching the iceberg that was just noticeable in the preceding photo--its color is slightly muted by a light covering of fresh snow.



Close enough to touch from the Zodiac, an extraordinary wind- and sea-carved shape.


On our return journey, after our visit to the former base (now wearing a stuffed backpack), exposure to the snow and wind made us very happy to get back--and I'm afraid we indulged in a second, this time hot, breakfast, with grilled tomatoes and baked beans as well as bacon and eggs--a great way to warm up!                              

Once we had thawed out and our cabin was festooned with our damp layers, we both agreed that the falling snow, even though it had obliterated the view (apparently the Port Lockroy base is built at the bottom of what are known as The 7 Sisters--huge sawtooth mountains that were completely invisible), gave a wonderfully wintry feel to our last day.

Regarding the garb required for these ventures--we were recommended multiple layers, mainly because of the wind, as we had incredibly warm weather in South Georgia (in fact, we usually felt over-dressed there).  From the bottom up: at least two pairs of socks, one cotton and a thick wool pair--and if it's really cold, a pair of silk kneesocks underneath the other two--followed by long johns, a pair of heavy corduroy or wool trousers and a waterproof pair (golf pants do well!) over all of the afore-mentioned, with the long johns and trousers tucked into the Wellies, the waterproof pants pulled down over the Wellies, to avoid "funneling" water into the boots when making a wet landing--this did work remarkably well.  On top, long-sleeved silk underwear and a turtleneck or wool shirt--and if very cold, a fleece as well--topped off with our Antarctica red parka, which has multiple velcro pockets and is very good against the wind.  We all wear the small life jackets that are special for expeditions (they have a water-soluble "release" feature that poofs the jackets up with a gas canister if anyone falls in), which acts as an additional layer in front and around the neck, and the water-resistant backpack on the back, to hold camera and anything else, to keep our hands free when embarking/disembarking--this provides an additional warm layer on the back. The variety of hats worn by passengers and lecturers is impressive, from Norwegian-style knit hats with ear flaps, braided "tails" and strings to tie under the chin to wool and silk knit balaclavas--sometimes worn with a hat on top, for extra protection.  You can imagine why with all that gear on, we are not "built for speed"!

Just as we had to race (as well as we were able to yesterday, when leaving our hike from Neptune's Window) to get back to the ship early, the later group yesterday morning had to cut their visit short, and I'm afraid the last Zodiacs had to turn around after just having a quick look at the Gentoos, as the ice was filling up the bay incredibly quickly.  Larry, our expedition leader, was biting his nails as they got the last passenger Zodiac off from Port Lockroy, as there were only 20 feet of open water left for him and the last of the staff to get back to the ship before the bay was completely clogged with pack ice, meaning anyone not yet aboard was staying. It's incredible how quickly this can happen.   


Fog and pack ice gathering.


Apparently there was another cruise ship (a much bigger one) that entered the Deception Island bay after us yesterday that had not left by the time we did, and the staff here says it's quite possible they are now frozen in there, and will have to wait for better weather to thaw them out, as there are no actual ice breakers in the area to plough a way through to them.

Roger has been patiently waiting for breakfast, so I'll fill you in with the final journey later--maybe tomorrow, maybe when we get back to Buenos Aires on Monday.  It's almost over--hard to believe it when we see the date on the Expedition Notes for today.


Much love to you all,



© 2008 Kate Woodward

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 137, November 2008