Adventures in Antarctica -Part II

King penguins and elephant seals

Living in close quarters with the many cuddly-looking penguins was a particularly ornery group of elephant seals. The beachmaster (alpha seal) here was ridiculously large, and incredibly loud and intimidating to boot. It was an impressive display of nature just to watch the occasional scuffle as order came and went.

Gold Harbour was a memorable stop for another reason: a large glacier. Or so we thought. Our expedition leaders pointed out that what we thought was large was in fact a tiny fraction of the size it had once been – images from the early explorers show a totally different picture, and our expedition leaders all had memories and picture records of the glaciers’ backwards progression over the years. It was a poignant reminder of our effects upon the world.

After exploring South Georgia Island for a couple of days, it was once again time to move on. Our next stop was Elephant Island – where Shackleton’s men ultimately spent four and a half months stranded on a tiny little patch of icy rock. This description is no exaggeration – there was so little space and such tricky conditions that we didn’t even land our Zodiacs. Instead, we sat, close enough to only imagine the difficulties those poor men encountered, squashed between an icy rock face and a stinky colony of chinstrap penguins, armed with nothing but a handful of biscuits and an ever-narrowing sense of hope. It was sad but impressive nonetheless. After all, they did it – despite the odds.

That evening, after our visit to Elephant Island, we set course for the Antarctic Peninsula and enjoyed a special dinner – as it turns out, it was to be our last (anyone’s last!) on board the M/S Explorer.

Our normal routine was to go to our cabins after dinner to read for a little while before heading to the lounge, where we chatted or played cards and board games for a bit before heading to bed early. After all, my roommate and I reasoned, we were there for the scenery and wildlife, not to stay up late chatting.

This evening in particular, we found that it was impossible to even lie on our beds and read after dinner, because not long after we tried, the ship started moving through an icefield. This, as you will know if you’ve ever experienced it, is not exactly a quiet, relaxing process. The ship – with its double, ice-strengthened hull, was designed for it, but it sure sounded loud and painful. The large chunks of ice (named growlers and bergy bits, I believe) creaked and squeaked out of the way, thumping and bumping the length of the ship as we pushed through towards the peninsula.

It was, as my friends later pointed out, nothing that the ship hadn’t done before: going through an ice field like this was old hat for the M/S Explorer, which had an impressive history of navigating icy waters.

In any case, the noise was loud enough to keep us from our books, so we sat at the bar and chatted for a while. I had just finished a nice glass of cognac (from a brand-new bottle of Remy Martin, no less!) when someone came into the bar and said that we were nearly done with the ice field and just approaching open water.

I decided to pop to my cabin to get my camera, because the sky had cleared from a storm we’d experienced earlier in the day and it looked gorgeous outside.

As I made my way down a level to get to my cabin, I saw one of my fellow travellers standing at the bottom of the lowest level. It was an odd sight – he was dressed only in his underpants, yelling to someone I couldn’t see. I should point out in my defense that he was not yelling in English, it was not directed at me, and I had never really spoken to this gentleman in the past. So, fuelled by cognac, I continued to my cabin and grabbed my camera. On the way back, I saw with a little relief that underpant man had disappeared, but I stopped to tell one of the staff anyway, because it had been a particularly odd sight.

Let this be a lesson to you: if you happen to be on a cruise, and you see one of your fellow passengers standing in their underwear, yelling and gesticulating wildly at the bottom of the stairs at midnight, even if you don’t understand what they’re yelling about, you should probably pay careful attention.

Because what they might be saying is something to the effect of “I just woke up because my bed was full of water!” and “it’s coming in through my cabin, really fast!”

That, of course, was not what I heard. So I proceeded to the top deck to be wowed by the incredibly bright moon, and the beauty of its reflection in the open water ahead.
To be continued…