My Travels: Amazing Wildlife Spectacles with South Georgia on My Mind

Overnight we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, where the icy waters of the Antarctic mix with the warmer waters of the Atlantic.

Map of South Georgia

Map of South Georgia

The ship maintained a blackout with no outside lights except essential navigation lights and all cabins had to have the blackout curtains drawn. We were doing this to avoid petrel mortality as they flew into the light like moths.

I awoke a new man. No sickness. I was so happy to be alive!

I was up before breakfast and went upstairs to the lounge and to the deck to suck in the sweet cold dry air and be faced with glaciers a few hundred meters away on either side of the ship. After being laid low I had forgotten all this port and starboard stuff.

I was looking at South Georgia, a long island running north south with a western seaboard that was hammered by Antarctic weather systems, and the eastern seaboard that had numerous bays that had been carved out by glaciers that still reached the sea, although in some places they were receding. The sea was ice blue, the sky clear with some wind. It was 1 Degree Celsius. Penguins were porpoising along side the ship and seals played like puppies around us in the water.

The Bay of Isles, South Georgia

I sat at the bar and had one of Amanda Jurinen’s famous Smoothies. It paid to get there early. Amanda always had a smile on and with her soft voice a Amanda at her smoothie barwarm greeting and a story to tell. She was a wonderful hostess.

Sailing Along Salisbury Plain

After a light breakfast we readied ourselves for an excursion to Salisbury Plain, which is found with the Bay of Isles.  The expedition team tried to land but decided it was too rough with big surf breaking on the black gravel beaches. We ended up riding the Zodiacs behind the backline, which was only 20 meters or so from the beach, so we would get good close ups of the view.

What a view it was: silver-white waves rolling onto the beach that was home to a breeding colony of King Penguins of more than 300 000 birds. Fur seals too numerous to mention. The colony stretched up from the beach, which was the widest point up into a low valley in the Alpine setting between the Grace and Lucas Glaciers. Yes, the mountains of South Georgia rise above the glaciers like the Alps rise above the plains of Italy and Germany. Except here he plains are the sea.

In the Zodiacs we could almost touch the penguins and seals. They launched themselves into the surf and played, some penguins swimming backstroke while others dived. They played in groups and broke away to hunt. On the beach the masses thronged and it was truly one of the amazing wildlife spectacles of this fragile earth of ours.

The breeding colony of 300 000 King Penguins on Salisbury Plain

The breeding colony of 300 000 King Penguins on Salisbury Plain

BASIL-3393

King Penguin doing backstroke in the surf

BASIL-3062

Seal swimming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Squadron of King Penguins readying to dive

Squadron of King Penguins readying to dive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Lucky in Fortuna Bay

We boarded the Vavilov and made our way further down the island to Fortuna Bay. This was much more protected than Salisbury Plains and we landed easily and in the midst of penguins and baby seals, or wieners. There was a King Penguin breeding colony at the base of a glacier about 1 kilometer inland, but I was so engrossed with the wieners and the young penguins in their brown down that I hardly moved from where we landed.

Fortuna Bay

Fortuna Bay

 

Seals sparring in Fortuna Bay

Seals sparring in Fortuna Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were clear streams of water flowing in the green grass, while the waterfalls not a few hundred meters away that fell into the wetland were frozen. The peaks were high and covered in snow, the valleys lined with glaciers.

As we stood to take pictures and compose penguins and wieners would come up behind you, and when you turn around the wieners would bark and feign attack, just like a playful puppy.

Seals in action

Seals in action

Both Salisbury plain and Fortuna bay were stellar introductions to the spectacular wildlife of South Georgia.

Ocean Notes Day 7

Ocean Notes Day 7

My Travels: Laid Low by Aggressive Soup

Sunset from my window

Sunset from my window

The next 48 hours were tough. When the aggressive soup was restrained at dinner on New Year’s Eve I received a visit from Liz Gifford shortly after

dinner started.

She was doing her cabin check and there I was groaning in my bunk with the window opened a slit for fresh cold air. I was on the 5th level and between the roll of the boat and the size of the waves they were breaking at my window level and would drench me if it was left open.

Liz is a wonderful person; very caring and sensitive. She is well read, an anthropologist who studied in Greece, a yoga instructor, a qualified wilderness guide and knows bears very well.  She is also an excellent host for Penguin Pictionary.

More than that, as I was to discover later when I had recovered, she takes the most amazing photographs. I have never seen such sensual and sensitive pictures of icebergs like the ones she has captured. I cannot find a link to any over her beautiful work, otherwise it would be here.

Liz Gifford Bio

Liz Gifford Bio

I sipped water through the night, double dosed on Stugeron and still struggled. I was bed bound. The next morning Liz found me in bed still after the breakfast call. I felt still the same at lunch. It was my first New Year’s Day that nobody wished me for St Basil’s Day. It really felt empty. At lunch she brought me my One Ocean motion sickness survival pack: a packet of cream cracker biscuits and a can of ginger ale. I was still in bed at dinner.

The ship’s doctor, Sarah Oxley, had been to see me and given me another tablet at first. The next day when I was still sick she gave me some Odansitron.

Fuji Moment: Portrait by Marius Coetzee -he does not know how to use a Fuji yet.

Fuji Moment: Portrait by Marius Coetzee -he does not know how to use a Fuji yet.

This is a super strong medication they use in post-anaesthesia nausea, but it made no difference. When she gave me the Odansitron she said something to the effect that “you really shouldn’t be on the ship if you get this sick, because it is going to get much rougher!” Liz visited me again that evening and during the day, Stephen, my roommate kept popping in and supplying ginger ales. Marius came by a few times and the next morning captured a Fuji moment with me weak in bed. Johan also came by on the 1st and then on the 2nd  he brought a small bread roll after lunch and left it on the counter next to my desk.

Liz visited again at dinner and for breakfast. On the morning of the second I was so weak and scared I was thinking of getting hold of the satellite phone and calling for a helicopter to get out. Sarah came by after the Odansitron had failed and gave me an injection of Phenergan later that morning and I slept till late afternoon. When I awoke 2nd Janaury I devoured the bread roll, cancelled the satellite phone call and wrote in my journal:

Hmm, only writing now after Stanley’s fish & chips.

 Sick forever.

 1 Jan: was very sick. Lay in bed.

 2 Jan: Got Odansitron from Sarah then injection of Phenergan and woke up OK.

 Am so weak & tired. Managed soup for dinner.

                         Good night

Lights out to save petrels en route to South Georgia

That evening I hobbled into the dining room and raised my hands:

“I am no longer Basil. Lazarus has arrived on board!”

Everyone laughed and from then when anyone was sick on the ship they used a new euphemism. No longer did they say the person is sick. They just said they “had been Basiled!”

This is a long post to explain what happened when the forces of nature relegated me to my bunk and had me wish for a puff of grass as instructed by my anesthetist, Pawel Wisniewski. It was just not available in the dispensary. Maybe if I sailed through Colorado where it is now legal I could get some for the nausea.

But the setback cleared two things in my mind:

  1. I really wanted to be going to South Georgia and the Antarctic, and I would survive anything to get there.
  2.  During the two days in my bunk I came to the realisation that I had not been touched nor had touched anyone for days and felt strangely isolated. My everyday life is filled with touching people, at home and at work, and I really missed that.
Ocean Notes Day 5

Ocean Notes Day 5

Ocean Notes Day 6

Ocean Notes Day 6

My Travels: Poems and Delirium

Feather in a snow bed

Feather in a snow bed

I had not penned a poem for years but as I lay curled up in my bunk rocking from side to side, my mind light from the two-day fast and the drugs to try control the nausea, my thoughts floated away.

I grasped these words out of nowhere when I realized how important it was for me to touch people, physically and with an aura of thought expressed in writing and pictures.

Liz and I had some deep conversations when she visited me but I cannot remember any details. We spoke of travel, of exploring, of growth, of wilderness and of the collective subconscious.

Then out of nowhere came this poem:

Far away, where even eagles do not soar,

Where sunset never happens but can hold the evening.

A land so harsh, yet a land so beautiful.

 

A land where our dreams are lost, where the spirit is gone.

Emptiness fills the silence and the white.

 

A land where the sea closes you off with waves,

Or great ice blocks your passage.

An empty land, cold and fearless,

Where our collective unconscious fails.

 

God fails almost?

Something I saw a lot of was bird feathers; when the penguins moult the feathers collect in patches at the water’s edge and then get blown into the snow to form pockets or ice to form frozen fossils. Finding feathers all over the place was reassuring, and slowly I began to record the dreams I had and look for the feathers. My spirit was connecting but I was struggling to define to what. There seemed a paucity of spirits in this place, like no other wilderness I had been to.  Yet there were just so many messages that I saw but I was just not ready.

Quiet in heaven’s soft light

Glaciers glowing blue at the water’s edge

Cold feet and fingers frozen

Eyes watery to frame a feeling

 

Close enough to touch

And to dive into the water

Black blue land on the horizon

Swallows a single stony peak

 

White fades into blue into grey

Absolutely nothing in the way

The sea waves stop moving

The world is growing  closer

 

Still colder camera battery fails

Slow picture making

Thinking, meditating

No wind or sun just being

 

Slowly a picture appeared at my  side  and then in the camera:

Black blue land on the horizon Swallows a single stony peak

Black blue land on the horizon
Swallows a single stony peak

Three weeks later as I walked down the steps into my home a single feather floated down in front of me and whispered: “ Everything is going to be just fine. You’ll see.”

I felt an immense peace descend on me in the midst of the bedlam of city and surgical life.

Where sunset never happens but can hold an evening

Where sunset never happens but can hold an evening

My Travels: A Mountain Goat on a Boat

For those of you who do not know me in motion, I suffer severely from motion sickness. It is so serious that if I do not take medication I almost die. On my honeymoon in Kenya twenty one years ago I ran out of medication for the flight from Nairobi through the Rift valley at 2 p.m.. I was so sick I missed out on some serious game watching for a day or two!

So getting on the Vavilov was a big thing for me. Sure, I was filled with trepidation about going to the bottom of the world. But my biggest gut-wrenching fear was that I would be too sick to photograph. So I started Epanutin before the trip. This is an anti-epileptic agent that was used by the astronauts in the last great era of exploration. Then I had boxes of Stugeron, a standard over the counter motion sickness remedy. I started this while we were waiting at the Albatross Hotel. Little did I know this would all be futile in a few days time?

The ships backup magnetic compass; looking back at Ushuaia.

The ships backup magnetic compass; looking back at Ushuaia.

Welcomed by assistant expedition leader Nate Small at the gangway

Welcomed by assistant expedition leader Nate Small at the gangway

There was a short queue to board the gangplank from the single harbor pier. This was the same gangplank we would use to embark and disembark the Zodiacs at sea. It felt like we were all going on a school trip, even though 98% of us were long finished with school. I daresay, some of us felt like school children in the face of the experienced and weathered but super-friendly expedition team.

On board the ship Steven and I quickly unpacked in our cabin with two bunks. I chose the one that seemed to have my

Even a small plane looked inviting!

Even a small plane looked inviting!

feet pointing forward. Some days into the trip my feet would point every direction except that! My cabin was on the 5th floor. The lounge and bridge were on the 6th. There were more cabins on the 4th and 3rd, with the dining room, reception and mudroom on the 3rd. The Russian crew slept behind closed doors on the 2nd floor and on the 1st floor was the presentation room.  One or two floors below that in the bowels of the ship was a multi-media room. I only plucked up courage to visit this just before our return leg through the Drake Passage, in case we did not make it. There were four big screen computers including Macs for people to load and share pictures.

Soon Boris Wise, the expedition leader, at a cocktail in the lounge, welcomed us. With all the medication I had

Trying to get out of the lifeboat.

Trying to get out of the lifeboat.

stopped drinking alcohol. Life was about to change. Just as well, as the next event was lifeboat drill. I was stunned to find there were only two lifeboats for the ship that could each hold one hundred people. I crawled in and out, and then looked at the big cruise ship on the other side of the pier and wondered if I had made the correct decision. I had never been on a cruise ship and would not in future, even though my wife, Ines, wants to do just that.

The first dinner was abuzz with excited conversation, meeting new friends and hearing tales of adventure.  We spent the rest of the evening photographing birds off the stern and then retired to bed. I slept well in the Beagle Channel, which is super calm. Then the ship stopped to offload the pilot and we entered the open ocean with some rocking. We were heading to the Falklands.

Ocean Notes: Our daily newspaper

Ocean Notes: Our daily newspaper