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Sailing from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula

 Part 8 ( December 2-4, 2007)

By Kate Woodward


I think I left off when we were cruising Drygalski Fjord, our last visit in South Georgia.  First charted by the German Antarctic Expedition in 1911-12, it was named for Prof. Erich von Drygalski, leader of the German Antarctic Expedition in 1901-03. The fjord was carved out by glaciers and because of the U-shaped bottom (compared with the V-shaped bottom of a valley or gorge worn through by a river) it provided 600' deep waters to the very end of the fjord.  So while there was a German sausages and sauerkraut barbeque on deck (in honor of the large German contingent aboard), at which we had to wear warmer clothes than at the previous one, the boat sailed slowly down the fjord, offering wonderful views of snowy mountains and the 3 spectacular glaciers which pour into the far end of the fjord.  We also saw the way glacier melt streams from underneath the slowly moving ice down to the waters of the fjord below.

The Captain interrupted our outdoor feasting with an interesting geological announcement.  We had just reached the point that showed up on the nautical charts (made in the mid-1950's) as the end of the fjord.  The 3 glaciers had actually retreated for about a mile in the last 50 years, so, as he said, we were currently sailing into what are actually un-charted waters. Sobering thought--a mile in 50 years--a lot of ice has disappeared.


Icebergs as we sailed along the southern coast of South Georgia



For several hours, we sailed along the southern coast of South Georgia, seeing frequent icebergs, and then, suddenly, a wreath of fog appeared at the base of the South Georgia mountain range that reared up from the coast, so the island looked as if it was hovering on the ocean--perhaps, as the sharp outlines grew more and more misty, something from another planet.



When we reached the open sea, it was suddenly colder, and although the mountains disappeared, there were still huge numbers of birds which were swirling above our wake, some of them albatrosses, many petrels, from the giant variety to the much smaller Pintados, with black lacy designs on the upper side of their wings and bodies...the ice bergs grew fewer and we settled in to hear about "Why the Earth Has Ice Ages"--with special emphasis on the fact that we are currently going through an Ice Age ourselves.

With all the attention currently/finally being given to the problem of global warming, this might seem irreconcilable, but one has to look at them in terms of different ways of gauging time.  I'm afraid that I ought to have been taking notes, so as to give accurate figures, but, roughly: one has to think in geologic hundreds of millions of years, or in hundreds of thousands, or in 10s of thousands.  Looking at the last 10,000-year period, it has been and is an Ice Age, in which there are (as there historically have always been) advances and retreats of glaciers, for example, but the general trend has been ice; we are still within an Ice Age.  The world will survive this and then another "age" will begin. That, however, does not negate the extreme difficulty in which we humans and mammals find ourselves in the very tiny time frame of human experience--we are in serious trouble now, even if the world lives through subsequent advances and retreats--we may not be around to share those.

The wind picked up during the latter part of the day, and we began to feel more rocking--the stabilizers are still out, although they may have to be pulled in when we get far enough south to be in iceberg territory.

On Monday (yesterday), we spent the day at sea and learned that the Captain had slowed the ship from the usual 12 knots an hour cruising speed during the day to 6 knots an hour overnight, at the same time doubling the number of crew on watch with binoculars as the ship's lights lit up the sea around it, for as far as the beams could reach. The fog was drawing closer in and there was danger from icebergs.  The wind had dropped somewhat, but for most of the day, we could only see what seemed a short distance around the ship, although I've learned that distances can be very deceptive and it was probably much further than I thought.


A day to go back to school.

Our historian, Bob Burton, gave us the most delightful (in terms of being entertaining and not requiring any brain-straining) lecture of the day, starting us off gently at 9:30 AM with a lecture on "When I was a lad; Two Years in Antarctica".

He and another 8 or 9 young men spent two years in Antarctica in the early to mid sixties, at which time there was a lot of very hands-on work to do.  For a start, they had to build their own shelter, using some pre-fab segments, for which almost no one had any training; this kept them busy initially and involved a lot of physical labor. Daily life, once they had shelter, involved non-scientific tasks like cutting blocks of ice to melt for water (enough to have a bath about once every 10 days and to wash clothes in the bath water so that they were at least a little cleaner than before) and a woefully monotonous scientific one for Bob (who had barely scraped a degree at Cambridge in zoology), who happened to see a notice on the department bulletin board advertising for a meteorologist for Antarctica.  Having decided that this might be an interesting project (and having no idea what else to do) he applied and was hired as the assistant, and after some minor training, found he was to check the temperature and weather and make a written report every 3 hours.  Once in situ, he found that the camp and the location of the thermometer were in such a sheltered area that there was no valid data to be collected. However, he still had the "work" to complete, which involved getting up in the night as well as making the day time checks, as it was in the job description.

What fascinated me was how these young men (no mixed groups at that time--and he feels that the current co-ed bases must have an awful lot of problems that they avoided) dealt with the sadly inevitable, occasional "Dear John" letters that arrived.  I don't think I mentioned that they were permitted a 100-word message home once a month or two (family writing back to them were permitted 200 words), so communication was infrequent and terse.  


Communications room ('60's style) at Port Lockroy, visited later.


When one of the group received a crushing and far less than 200-word letter from his girl, the "system" that had developed over the years of scientists living in such close quarters in the middle of nowhere went immediately into effect.  First, a bell was rung, informing the rest of the group that such a dire message had been received.  The others gathered together with the victim and, passing around some of the free booze (part of their "ration" from the government, which also included free cigarettes as well as food and 2 years' worth of clothing, that were generally in shreds by the end of that time), the dire letter was pinned up on the wall and it was used as a dart board.  Finally, there was a boot which had had a broomstick fixed in it with concrete which was used on these occasions by the wounded one--he got up a good head of speed and rammed it into the wall.

Given that this was 40+ years ago, I think this was remarkably psychologically "advanced" and I am sure was very helpful!

Before lunch, we had another lecture on whales, this time "Whales of the Southern Ocean", as whales are what we are hoping to see around the peninsula, then soon after lunch, a second lecture on penguins, an introduction to their life history. This was a more technical lecture than the first one, but since we'd since seen so many of them, we were much more prepared to pay a little closer attention--well timed (and her first, extremely amusing lecture, well thought-out).  Before dinner, we had a lecture I was really looking forward to by Pat Abbott, the American geologist, titled "The 41 Active Volcanoes of Antarctica".

Here too, there was some recapping of what we'd heard before (which was much more intelligible for some of us the second time around), and I'm very much hoping that we will indeed, if time permits, be able to visit at least one of the craters of still active volcanoes during the next 3 days (not the one which still has a molten lava lake at the center of it--which would be amazing to see!).  We've had quite a bit of talk about plate tectonics and how volcanoes form/act--and all of us are taking away far more (knowledge, not necessarily poundage!) than we started with.

During the afternoon, the Captain announced that we were moving towards a gigantic iceberg which is 14 miles across on the side that is facing us--but it is hidden in the fog, so we may not see it.  Large icebergs, as I think I've mentioned before, are tracked by radar, so the Captain was already turning the boat to go around it, even though we were still about 10 miles away from it.  We had an early'ish supper, right at 7:30, so that we could take a few turns around the deck before Roger's bridge got started at 9 or 9:30 (and by the time the mile measure was being approached, some of the wet splashes on the deck were beginning to freeze--in fact, another passenger said that at one point the light rain on deck became snow briefly).

My evening activity was to go down to watch the first 40 minutes of the video that is being put together by the ship cinematographer. It is selling for $175, which seems absolutely outrageous to me, but I decided it would be worth seeing (and hearing!) it, since our still photos can't convey the marvellous cacophony of the king penguins en masse.  By 10:20, I was back in our cabin, wondering how we could have so many pictures which are at least as good as what had just appeared on screen.  Still, there was that marvellous audio... If we had Internet access here (which we don't; passenger e-mails are rounded up several times a day and sent by the ship's connection), I'd google "penguin, calls" to see whether there is a site which has them, and in the meantime, one of the people we've met, who is a prize-winning wildlife photographer (and passenger--her husband is playing bridge with Roger's bunch) said she would shoot some film/audio of penguins on the peninsula, all being well.

We had travelled far enough west yesterday that we were told to set our clocks back again last night--and I couldn't help wondering why we bothered to make the change.  Perhaps it was to reinforce how far we are travelling, perhaps even to fit with the museum hours in Grytviken...? Anyway, it was nice to feel it was okay to read late and not have any trouble getting up for this morning's first lecture: "Of Whales and Men", which gave us an overview of whaling and its effects on the Southern Ocean.    

As an illustration of the 1984 principle of how one can change a population's ideas 180 degrees, compared to what was accepted thought before, Stephanie, our cetologist, prefaced her remarks  with a statement that when talking about history, one should try not to impose the judgements of the present day on it.  So she would tell us about whaling when it had no moral negative attached to it; when it was in fact an exciting part of the global economy. And it was in fact amazing to hear about and see old photos of the very early whalers--seeing what incredibly long distances they travelled far earlier than I had realized, and what risks they took in their work. And as Stephanie, an ardent whale conservationist, said, even now the Japanese are refusing to sign the whale conservation treaty because eating whale meat has always been part of their culture, just as eating beef has been a part of ours.

The afternoon was even more thought-provoking, when four of our experts got together to talk about "Climate Change and Sustainability".  Each one had about a 12-minute presentation, then the floor was open for questions/discussion.  I wish I had been able to record it, as the four speakers (Pat Abbott, Michael Schmid--the German naturalist who is handling the lectures for the German group, which meet in the very comfortably set up on-board movie theatre), Stephanie Martin, and Larry Hobbs, who is a naturalist as well as our expedition leader) were excellent.  There were not a great many questions from the floor, but the ones that were offered were very thoughtful and I think everyone left with lots to consider. Of course none of us mentioned (I have to include myself--just didn't quite have the guts to do so) that we of the western world really must not only drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, but those of us who love to travel must pull back and trips like this--alas--may have to disappear. In private conversations (not secretive, just not broadcast), members of the speaker staff have justified this sort of "small-numbers trip with very carefully orchestrated landings, to avoid damage to the fragile Antarctic environment", by saying that they will ultimately do good as virtually everyone who takes part in a trip like this ends up becoming an ardent advocate for conservation and preservation. That has certainly been the effect for us, reinforcing strongly what we already felt and believed.

The bell has just gone for our last lecture of the day--ever-engaging Bob Burton, speaking on "My favorite heroes: stories of Antarctic Exploration"--and tomorrow, we should be setting wellies on the seventh continent!


Much love to you all,



Some of our gentoo friends, "porpoising" as they move along surprisingly fast--this involves them actually launching themselves into the air, the way porpoises and dolphins do, I just wasn't able to catch them as they "flew".



© Kate Woodward 2008

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 135, September 2008