There she blows….
I make no bones about it, from the first 10 or 15 minutes I realised that this would indeed change my life and the absolute joy of realising that truly this is one of the last remaining wildernesses on earth and that it is statuesque because it has little or no human interaction was tinged with the inevitable feeling that nothing would ever come close. This time last year I stood in a similar white polar environment looking directly up at a coronal explosion of the Northern lights knowing I would never top this feeling, this truly awe inspiring phenomenon and yet a year later here I am thinking the same thing every time I move my gaze or use one of my senses more than the others.
Ive been to World Cup final games where my team has scored, sensory overload, you cant hear, you cant speak words, just primeval noises and raw emotion jumping up and down and hugging those close to you, friend or stranger alike. This is the same but different, you don’t want to blink for fear of missing something. You speak in short phrases, hushed tones in case you miss something, your body shuts out the cold, the wind, the rocking, the blinkers are on and you are there. You are in the moment, this is life, this is the experience of a lifetime and in another 30 seconds there will be another experience of a lifetime and so on…
..but Im getting ahead of myself, which explains why Ive sat down to write this numerous times over the last couple of months and every single time been sidetracked by the photos, the videos, reading my new friends comments on Facebook or just sitting back and thinking ‘Sweet Jesus, Ive been to Antarctica’.
I guess Ive just blown the paragraph about wondering if our shore landing would go ahead due to the weather. So lets get that over with now, yes I did set foot on Antarctica, no I didn’t go in the kayaks and no I didn’t get to camp out overnight on the ice (weather killed that one).
Ive never been one for cruise ships as I mentioned in my blog on the Northern Lights trip. I think Im too young to be going anywhere near a cruise ship and I genuinely thought Id be the youngest on this trip by about 20 years. I was mistaken. And then some.
I split this trip into 3 parts, the two days of tedium to get there, being there and then 2 days of editing photos, catching up on the sleep I missed, fixing all the things I broke during the trip including myself and possibly drinking myself into oblivion to avoid the drake passage crossing and to mark the end of my work trip and the start of my journey home.
I had my cabin assigned and my luggage was waiting for me in the cabin along with my waterproof gear so that’s a relief. No need to stand for a week in the shower wearing the same set of clothes hoping they dry overnight. Having a wee boat of my own I realised that everything has a place and everything should be in its place. Or more to the point everything should be squeezed into its place packed with as much soft material around it as the space will permit, then add a little more packing and force the door closed.
The Drake Passage is the worst stretch of water on Earth. After last years experience in the Norwegian sea/Arctic Ocean I did wonder if my ‘How bad could it really be?’ thoughts would be better kept to myself over dinner or should I just getting the looking like a dick over and done with early in the trip by mouthing them.
Everything packed, stowed, repacked and emergency stuff left to hand I went up for the welcome briefing in the bar. Now being the only Irish person on board and it being St Patrick’s Day tomorrow and a full day at sea I thought I had the weight of the nation on my shoulders. Well certainly the stereotypical view of my nation on my shoulders. I was met with a chorus of disapproval when I said I wouldn’t be drinking until the last shot was taken and we had turned for home. Yeah, lets just see how long that one lasts…
During the briefing, lifeboat drill (seriously, who the feck is going to rescue us out here?) and dinner it was a formal introducing yourself politely to the people you would be singing in the bar with later on in the week. Carefully not dropping any swear words and in general trying to be as unlike myself as possible. Yeah that wouldn’t last either.
There is always a danger on this sort of thing of ending up with the couple (usually English) who sit and drone on with non funny anecdotes about driving along the A1234 on a sunday morning when every sane person is sitting at home nursing a hangover. I genuinely thought Id be sitting most nights bolting my dinner down me or eating sandwiches then retiring to my cabin for a night of editing and captioning photos.
I couldn’t be more wrong. From the first embarkation meeting in the hotel where I met an English couple who had blown a redundancy payment to take the trip of a lifetime, to the guy just out of the US military travelling the world, to the south american tour rep, the north american tour rep, the wall street hedge fund manager, the hedge fund owner, the commercial lawyer, the retired bus driver, the commercial diver, the whale guy, the seal guy, the whale woman, the boat drivers, the hush hush military comms woman with an unhealthy interest in soccer to the rest of the adventurers on this trip, every single one of these people had stories to tell, interesting stories, life changing stories. Every single person on this trip was a traveller. This isn’t your package holiday to Spain, this isn’t your typical guided tour holiday, these people were fellow travellers. They get it. Ive rarely felt at home with a complete bunch of strangers in my life. This is gonna be good.
The lifeboat drill was interesting and Captain Phillips wasn’t the ideal movie for in flight entertainment on the way down. Then again if you fall in here, I don’t think you have to worry too much about your ability to swim. Well certainly not for very long anyway.
Dinner was a surprise, a 3 course affair with salad bar and the typical sit down now Joe and pace yourself ended up at 3 plates and having to waddle back up to the bar later. My thoughts about skipping a lot of the formal sit down meals evaporated as the tables were big and people moved around and it was one of the main places to hear the plans for the following day (as well as the meal roster). Having a choice for dinner was also a novelty, you all know I love my grub but it even got a bit much for me later in the week and I did indeed skip a couple. One to prepare for my photography talk and one when I realised I couldn’t eat one more thing or Id have to get larger waterproofs.
I noticed most people were wearing the scolopamine patches behind their ears for sea sickness and the crew advised everyone to apply these now and take other meds as we were going to be in the Drake Passage later that night and its difficult to get tablets down you when everything else is going the other way.
Now really, how bad could it be? I have my own boat, have been on some rough irish sea crossings and even though I thought I was going to die in Norway I still didn’t throw up. In fact the only sea sickness medication I had has been expired for over 8 years already. Still whats the worst that could happen? I popped a couple of those and left it to fate.
Dinner over I headed up to the bar to see if I could spot the usual suspects I would be joining later in the week. The usual suspects consisted of myself and the barman. Now not wanting to really back up the racial stereotype on the first night I thought discretion was the better part of valour and went back to my cabin to get the head down as the tablets were making me sleepy. In the little net above my bed I put my water, more tablets, sick bag, another sick bag and my torch. Hate waking up in a strange place and not knowing where the light switch is, never mind the toilet door, lifejacket, whiskey…
Speaking of the toilet door, it was a shared bathroom with the next cabin, each cabin had a door so the plan was you went in, locked their door, did your business or whatever, cleaned up/washed down/fumigated/checked for floaters and then unlocked their door and went back to your own cabin. Well that’s the theory…
I was rudely awakened from the post seasick med stupour by the boat rolling around and someone banging on the door and calling my name. That horrible ‘oh fuck we are all going to die’ moment was upon me just long enough to realise that the urgency in my next door neighbours voice wasn’t down to us sliding beneath the Drake Passage but more down to the fact Id forgotten to unlock their side of the bathroom. Oops. Still I wont do that again…
Mental note to introduce myself to my neighbours over breakfast and apologise, not good locking them out of the toilet and them getting to know your name by reading it off your cabin door.
It was early enough and today was mostly lectures on boat safety, birdlife, whales and our proposed trip itinerary although nothing is set in stone here due to the unpredictability of the weather and conditions. Now you read this with any travel brochures or booking anything from concert tickets to crazy golf but as you are getting thrown around on the ocean you do take the hint. Its then you realise what all the chains underneath the dining room chairs are for, to keep you at your rough place setting. They are also attached to certain chairs in the bar as well, although one of our party never ever realised this the whole trip. Like how many times do you have to sit in bucket seat then go arse over tit across the bar floor to realise that perhaps picking the untied chairs with the highest centre of gravity isn’t the smartest idea in the world. Obviously it doesn’t take a genius but it takes a certain kind of special to do this at least twice a day and not realise. He could of course just believe in fate….
The out of date tablets had just made me drowsy, and hungry so I made my way down for breakfast and noticed the queue for breakfast wasn’t as long as for dinner last night, perhaps there were too sittings or perhaps the patches thing didn’t really work out for a lot of people. I was still feeling less than 100% compos mentis so thought Id ditch the tablets and if I was sick so be it, at least Id be alert enough to take photos.
The day was a series of shuffling from lectures to food, to lectures, to snacks, to lectures, to coffee, to food, to lectures…
…then all hell erupted. I missed whatever was on the loudspeakers but judging by the people scrambling to get back to their cabins to get their wet weather gear on and crew running about the place, it was probably going to be something I would like to photograph….
Now another point of explanation here, there were a lot of people on this ship from sunnier climes than Ireland. Drier climes too so whilst I contemplated putting on a jumper they were running for the full wetskin suits. So there was I standing on the top deck in combats, trainers and fleece thinking I should have really went and got my gloves as well as the cameras. I wasnt that cold, it was certainly winter day in Belfast type weather, nothing to worry about but then we hadn’t crossed the convergence yet and it was technically still summer.
It was then everything became clear, we had spotted two blue whales swimming together. Now every primary school classroom Id ever been in had a picture of a blue whale somewhere, every schookid knows they are the biggest mammal in the world and the biggest thing in the ocean and here were two of them just swimming past us. Just swimming is an understatement, they were bombing through the water, spouting away. In that moment you realise that this is the real thing and that you are in that movie, not just watching it. The captain heeled the boat around (not exactly the nautical term but last time I saw something change direction that quick it was night, it was stolen and the police were chasing it) and went after them for an hour. Again this is where words fail me. Very much in the moment, we are chasing two blue whales in the drake passage. Permission to say ‘fucking hell’ rather loudly captain?
We followed them for about an hour and our whale guy said he had only ever seen 3 blue whales down here and that was 2 of them and that he had never seen 2 chase each other like that. Id better get these photos edited quick then!
The full enormity of that ‘do you have any places left’ email sent off to the company one night 6 weeks ago is now starting to dawn on me. This is something special and this is only day one.
Up until now all the conversations had been polite and the usual chit chat of people travelling and exchanging pleasantries. The thin veil of no swearing in 14 different languages was now gone and the conversations over coffee that afternoon were incredibly animated. It was an introduction to a group of about 70 people all being in the same place and being touched by the same thing but seeing it differently. How privileged you are is brought home by the fact that some of the people raving about the whales are the Russian crew who have been doing this 6 or 7 times a year for years. When they go and waken crew members up to see something, you know its worth seeing.
The rest of the day was just a buzz of excitement and everyone was enthused and running around smiling. Its amazing how much of a cure that was for the poor folk suffering from sea sickness lying on their bunks. Still, if you have to drag your sorry ass out of your sickbed for 10 minutes, there’s no better sight.
The small matter of St Patrick’s Day had not passed us all by and of course yours truly decided to take a front and centre role in proceedings. At the bar that evening the music shall we say was ‘easy listening’ and the bar staff apologised explaining that we all weren’t their usual demographic and that they had no music to match. That was soon sorted with a trip down to my cabin to get my tablet with my music on it. Naturally I had to do DJ and of course it helps to remain sober to do this important job. Now I have no DJ experience and the closest I have to it was that my brother was one. I thought that 300 miles off the end of the earth this was qualification enough, what I didn’t know was that I was applying for the gig for the week. Ive never wanted my name in lights but seeing it on chalk on the bar noticeboard was just another piece of the professional veneer eroding away.
I still was sticking to my guns about not drinking until the landings part of the trip was over.
Then of course I wasn’t counting on a beautiful Argentinian woman walking up to me, looking me straight in the eye, taking my hand and saying ‘come have a drink with me’. Ah shit, I am only human and I am a sucker for Argentinian women. It was only one drink though and I was heading down to bed at 11 so that’s not too bad. Besides which tomorrow is another day at sea so that doesn’t really count, does it?
Even less people showed up for breakfast this morning, which was surprising as Id had worse Irish sea crossings. Saying that though I did have a gravity lesson in the shower that morning. I just naturally assumed that the handrails around the very small shower cabin were for elderly or infirm folk but standing there buck naked in the shower holding my shower gel in one hand and squeezing a small pile into the other you start to notice that whilst you think you are standing vertical for some reason the shower curtain is sliding up your back. Luckily I’m blessed with fast reflexes and at times I even surprise myself how quick thinking I am. Realising I should really drop the bottle and not reach for the one thing that’s going to stop me from ending up in the toilet, naked, with a hand full of shower gel was one of my most inspired thought processes of the whole trip. Seeing that grab handle start to disappear just out of reach is one of those horrible slow motion shiiiitttttt moments that you know the chances of winning from are slim. This time I did win though but the night I was pretending to pole dance in the bar I wasn’t… …but that’s a story for another day. From now on, its showering with one hand on the grabrail at all times.
The rest of the day was the mandatory IAATO briefing to remind us all that we were going to the last pristine wilderness on Earth and we should keep it that way, lectures on seals, explorers and tagging whales. The queues for meals were definitely shorter and although there was a late night film showings, this was getting near the time. Our cabins were tidy, our wet gear was tried, our kit was disinfected and vacuumed out, the lectures were done, introductions were done but from tomorrow things would be getting serious. Last night we crossed the convergence and outside on deck it was noticeably colder. Thermal trousers and gloves colder although no need for a hat just yet…
Tomorrow I am up at 6am, tomorrow I ride in a zodiac in the Antarctic Ocean. Tomorrow I set foot on one of the Antarctic islands.