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The porthole covers have been unlocked! 

Final Part 11 (December 7-9, 2007)

By Kate Woodward


Although the porthole covers were still in place yesterday afternoon and evening (and I wore my sneakers to the Captain's dressy dinner, as I had found it tough enough to keep to my feet wearing my very minimal heels on the slick wood floor at the opening cocktail party), the superb farewell dinner went ahead anyway, with a staggering 6 or 7 course menu (sorry, too lazy to go down the 6 flights of steps to our cabin to get the copy of the menu--or, rather, to climb back up!). Before the dinner, there was a cocktail party in the lounge (that's where I was worried about sliding into people or mowing them down!) and we ended up chatting with several people with whom Roger had played bridge.

I forgot to mention an unusual thing that happened to us on our Zodiac tour of the bay before our short visit to the Port Lockroy base, which showed us how resourceful our staff needs to be.  As we were making the beautiful, slow tour by little boat, we bumped into (and over) some chunks of floating ice (quite different from bergs, as they were not attached to anything--just bits of broken up sea ice).  Bumpety-bump, grind, scrape. Then another bigger bump... And then we didn't seem to be going anywhere.  I found myself thinking of the reassuring note given us at the beginning of the cruise about how Zodiacs can function fine, even if four of the six "float chambers" were pierced.  However, things seemed normal.




Jen (photo above), our driver, who is also a biologist, I think, tried to veer to the right--more bumping and grinding--then to the left--nothing.  We were "beached" on several submerged rocks that lay about a foot under the water.  The water is so incredibly unpolluted that it was easy to see them, looking over the side, but they had not been evident from the stern and Jen thought she had been following the Zodiac ahead of us very carefully in terms of the route.  She un-strapped a short oar that was fixed to the inside of the boat, and asked everyone to move over to our side of the Zodiac, in hopes that she could push us off.  Even with the weight redistributed, no go (although I did enjoy having a sylph-like librarian sit on my lap--she was very warming!).  Jen then swung her legs over the side and, standing on some of the submerged rocks, proceeded to push us off.  I don't know how old she is (these outdoors folk are not only very tan but rather weathered, which makes it difficult to gauge their ages)--but she leaped like a very young gazelle back into the boat once we were afloat and we continued our journey.



Moving on through the slush, after Jen pushed us off the rocks.


Never anything alarming about it, although if we'd known how incredibly quickly pack ice can be blown in and can trap the unwary, we might have worried if she hadn't been able to free us.

Back, now, to the final outing of the trip--although this was not our reason for doing the trip, it apparently had been for some people and fortunately for them, the weather was tolerable, so they were able to make the trip to set foot on the continent itself.  I was so sorry that Roger was feeling so under the weather that he couldn't make it, but his cold was at its fulminating worst, and he was feeling feverish, so I think it was probably a wise thing to lie low in our cabin.

We began with another Zodiac ride, around Paradise Bay, which was where we had dropped anchor for the visit.  There were low-hanging clouds that concealed the peaks that surround the bay, but we could still make good guesses about what was there because of what we could in fact see below.  We got a good, fairly close look at what was called a castellated glacier, so named because of the amazingly rectilinear "blocks" that appeared as it moved along, giving it almost a look of crenellations in the middle part of the glacier just before it dropped off into the bay.  Charley Wheatley, marine biologist, oceanographer and research diver, was our Zodiac driver, and he kept his distance from the glacier (see photo below) as he pointed out a new "berg" that had appeared, from calving, since his first tour half an hour before.



We threaded our way among quite a few of the bigger blue bergs, and were nearing the time for our own very short visit to the "beach" which was an edge of Antarctica, the continent.

"We'll be heading in around the next couple of bergs," said Charley, "....hello... it looks as if this boat may need some help..."



There was a Zodiac, with a few staff members in it, stopped next to an iceberg and Charley maneuvered our Zodiac over till it was next to it.  I half expected that a member or two of that group would get into our Zodiac to attach their craft to ours, but what they were doing was reaching across to us with flutes of champagne! It was freezing (the best chilled I'd ever had!) and totally unexpected. This really was the icing on the cake--a perfect way to celebrate our last expedition--and after we had downed the bubbles, we putt-putted to the rocky beach and were welcomed to Antarctica.  

As you'll see from the picture on page 104, there was nothing spectacular about it--in fact, we would not have dreamed of stopping there had it not been what it was--our footstep onto the seventh continent. The red hut in the background is part of the Almirante Brown research station, the Argentinian base that has been unstaffed for quite a few years because of lack of funding.  It was actually burned down over 20 years ago by a doctor who couldn't face spending another winter there and couldn't think of any other way to get released from his contract to remain.

We were given a few minutes to walk along the narrow strip of stony beach, if we wished, but since it was only about 10 feet wide and there was a steep snow bank that came right down to the edge of it, we mostly stamped our feet and took pictures of each other.


 "Setting foot" photo of Kate by Bridget Swinney--many thanks!



So that was the last of our voyaging in the small boats, and a wonderful journey it has been, from the dazzling snow-capped peaks to the ice, to the wildlife, including all the different sorts of penguins we have seen at virtually all of our landings.

After our champagne and the actual "setting foot", we were on our way back to Explorer II.  Once again, we made a quick exit from Paradise Bay, and were on our way back north to Drake's Passage.

I have already spoken at length about the preparations for bad weather that took place as we were getting closer to the open ocean, when we would leave our protected passage between islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, and the exciting "rocking and rolling" we experienced that night. With the dropping of the wind, we are relishing the return of natural light to our stateroom, and are trying hard to digest the eggs Benedict from this morning's "Degrees of Difference" breakfast presented by the galley team in the main dining room.



We were greeted by two staff members in penguin suits at the entrance to the dining-room (smiling broadly in spite of surely being hot--and giving us a lifelike "squawk" when we left)--and were invited to take a trip through the galley to pick up our first course, which include mango smoothies and all sorts of breakfast pastries (thank goodness we won't be seeing any more of them in another day!).  The galley consisted of two long corridors of burnished stainless steel--all gleaming and signed for their different functions, including built-in bins for "separated chicken waste", "dirty plastic", and other recyclables (a reminder that the ship returns with everything it left with, so as to abide by the Antarctic Treaty). There were two large "rooms" at the end of the two corridors in which the cooking went on, everything sparkling--it's amazing how much they produce in what is relatively speaking a small space.  The "in/out" flow must help, as there is a one-way system in place, and every little bit of space is used, including wire "baskets" that are screwed to the steel walls in the corridors of the galley that hold piles of plates and bowls at the ready.

The waiters took our plates from us as we emerged, to carry them to the table for us (tablecloths still dampened to prevent china and glasses from sliding off), even though the boat is only doing a gentle roll now, and we passed a huge buffet table with more breads, cereals, fruit--and a wonderful ice sculpture of 4 penguins.  



From the table, one could order hot food, and I've kept the souvenir menu from the morning, which includes recipes for the fruit smoothies.  We also have menus from the Captain's dinner last night (I enjoyed lobster and Roger chateaubriand, among other goodies) and the opening banquet, so we can salivate when we are on bread and water once we get home!

There has been a moderate amount of activity around the e-mail desk in the library in the last 45 minutes as the crew as a whole has been going through their training exercise (which includes searching all of their cabins for strange packages--no place is exempt from this kind of threat)--it was scheduled for yesterday, but with passengers lurching from one hand-rail to another as we worked our way around by clinging to the perimeter of the different areas (or staggering to the one on the opposite side of the room), it was put off until the weather improved.  It's been interesting hearing how each crew member in his or her department has had very specific things to check and report on; it all sounds very precise and well thought out.  At the end, the Captain delivered a message to the passengers, saying that the staff had taken care of a bomb threat, a fire, and a sinking in under an hour--amusing, but also reassuring.

We will be meeting in half an hour to hear about how our disembarkation will go tomorrow morning.  Thus far, we know that our suitcases must be outside our cabin at 8 and we will disembark at 9--our (Noble-Caledonia) group meeting a coach on which we can leave our hand luggage and parkas, if the weather is fairly nice, while we spend 90 minutes looking around Ushuaia before heading for the airport and Buenos Aires. (Later: it turned out that we were on land by 8:15 and that a coach tour of the Tierra del Fuego National Park had been organized for us.



Photo above is of the Bahia Ensenada there.  To get there, we followed the highway that runs all the way from Alaska down through the Americas, dwindling to a dirt road at its end in this park.  In the photo of the bay, you can see, on the left, a sliver of an island that belongs to Argentina.  The snow-capped peaks in the background are Chile. On one peak, it was decided that the lower part of the mountain, which is tree-covered, belonged to Argentina, whereas the area above the tree line was Chilean.  With global warming, trees have been able to grow at higher altitudes, expanding Argentina's holding.)

Back to our last day on board Explorer II.  There is no tipping on this ship, as it is included in the overall price (Later: we found this was not quite correct; it is true that there is no tipping required, however, as Jannie announced, if there were any staff to whom one wanted to offer a private tip, because of exceptional service, one was welcome to do so.  By the time we heard that, we had already made nice-sized contributions to the two raffles mentioned here, so were down to a limited amount of cash), but there is a "ship's crew raffle" which passengers are invited to participate in, for the benefit of the crew (for example, to provide them with televisions in their cabins or emergency flights home in case of family crisis), as well as a raffle for a painting done by our wonderfully skilled and entertaining Patricia Silva, the ornithologist, who is also an artist. This is in aid of a foundation to try to protect the albatross from decimation by the long-line fishing that goes on in these waters. Tens of thousands of albatrosses are inadvertently caught each year, as they dive for the fish that have been caught on these multi-hooked lines (some lines are 30 kms long, laid out across the ocean bottom) and get entangled or even hooked themselves.  Very sad, as they are just disposed of, as if of no worth.

So we must get packing. Our very nice cabin steward, Richard (who is wearing wrist bands to prevent sea-sickness--no guarantee that one will be strong-stomached just because one has a job on board a ship), has left us extra water once again, as he knows Roger has been feeling a bit feverish, although in fact he is much better.  (We gave the rest of our dollars to Richard, as he had been so helpful.)

Yesterday, when it was so rough, Richard had tied his "supplies cart" to the corridor hand-railing with several terry-cloth belts from the bathrobes that were provided for us on our arrival, but today the cart is "free" again, and the bathrobes are back to normal use.  

So it's off now to the disembarkation meeting, on this lecture-, expedition-free day. Yesterday, for those who were able or who wished to leave their cabin (and one could see the lectures on TV in one's cabin) there were lectures on the plight of the albatross and the Antarctic Treaty.  The treaty, which was signed in 1959 and went into effect in 1961 stated that it was "in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord."  This forbade any kind of nuclear weapons testing or disposal of nuclear waste, supported scientific research and the sharing of scientific data, and put all territorial claims in abeyance. The success of this treaty gives hope that we may, perhaps in spite of our politicians, be able to achieve peace not only on this pristine continent but in other parts of the world as well.


 Land, ice shelves, and islands south of the 60th parallel are covered by the Antarctic Treaty.


On our last day, there was also an unexpected bonanza, because of the rough weather, which made an on-deck bird/whale watch impossible.  Russ, Zodiac driver and naturalist, spoke about "A Year in Antarctica", telling us about one of his years posted at Signy Base, from arrival to completely un-authorized (because of the danger) glacier cave-exploration that was strictly against the rules, but which he found irresistible. After discovering the entrance to a cave in the glacier while doing a training exercise, he recruited 3 colleagues who sneaked off in the middle of the night with him and wriggled into the first cave that led deeper into the glacier--then, finding another cave going deeper, could not resist--and in fact continued through another 2 descending caves, any of which could have "closed up" and crushed them because of glacial movement, finally reaching the actual ground beneath the ice (he almost lost his appointment as future head of base because of that bit of revelry). One of his duties was teaching climbing with ropes and other equipment to the rest of the group--but it was not expected that he would use those skills under the ice.  There was also a sanctioned but rather foolhardy seeming activity: the "Thin Ice Race" across an irregularly frozen area of water, during which everyone, in wet or dry suits, was expected to break through the ice at some point, into water so cold that it would kill one in four minutes if one was not able to scramble out.  Amazing how many ways adults can find to have fun! At the end, when I asked him what he had been doing during his 15 years as a marine, he said that he had been guiding groups of armed, special troops in the Arctic--and that he far preferred guiding people without guns. So here he is.



One last "blue view" and then home (what seems to be a reflection or turquoise water is actually the underwater part of the iceberg).


And here we are--having been so very privileged. Thanks for your kind messages and much love from the far calmer seas,




© 2008 Kate Woodward

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 138, December 2008