If yo’uve been following my blog about the tail end of the South America leg of this trip you will know that Ive been trying dismally to perfect a ‘selfie’. You know the skill that any 13 year old girl with a cameraphone has, yet with all this kit and knowledge of optics, physics, engineering and so on I still manage to take a selfie with eyes closed, sky, feet, that expression you have 10 seconds after you’ve taken your selfie when you realise you didn’t account for shutter delay or the exasperation on your face when you realise you’ve hit the shutter button 5 times to no avail but as soon as you turn the camera round to take a look, it takes the photo. Well if you are between the ages of 12 and 18 or are female then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.
I couldn’t feel more middle aged right now if someone bought me slippers and I realised I had my own ‘comfy’ chair.
I confided this lack of photographic ability to some of my travel companions and God bless them but they took hours and hours with me trying to sort it out. Patience of saints, the two of them.
Id progressed from complete ineptitude to consistently capturing the essence of ‘grumpy fecker’. That will have to do.
Im now fully prepared for something Ive thought about since I first heard about Antarctica. Id read about it since I was a kid, Ive seen films, documentaries, I went to the Tom Crean Antarctic explorer play, Id read books on the explorers on this trip and now this was it. My turn.
…after yesterdays weather I was taking nothing for granted although when I got up, again to an almost deserted ship (up an hour before the early morning alarm call) I figured that if I get close enough I just say fuck it and jump overboard and swim for it.
Everything so far had been monumental. I’ll say it again, life changing, and 4 months on I still mean that, but this was the main event. After this you can turn the ship around and go home.
I hope not but this is the reason I’m here.
Up in the bar a few other hardy excited souls were pouring coffee down their neck and I realised I wouldn’t have to jump overboard and swim for it, there were enough of us of the same mindset to throw a zodiac over the side and speed for shore.
This morning was different, the talk was more in hushed tones, we just wanted to get on with it. Our port of call would be Neko Harbour.
Everything was double and triple checked, I brought four cameras with me today, 2 weren’t just enough, what if this broke or the bag went over the side or or… I also had some extra luggage in the backpack. Id bought every kid I knew either a small toy penguin or badge and Id bought a batch of the ships badges and they were all coming with me to shore. They would be set down on land, photographed on land and then every kid would get bored with my story and would get something that had set foot on Antarctica.
I rarely post on twitter, just to update to my ramblings, rovings and so on but after going to see the show I had tweeted to the production team that Id raise a glass to Tom when I set foot on Antarctica the following month.
So as the zodiac rode up the beach, I got off the boat, put my lifejacket in the pile, took off my rucksack, broke out a small bottle of Jameson whiskey I had bought in Belfast City Airport for this exact purpose. (I had bought another one I’m going to drive down to Tom’s pub ‘The South Pole’ in Cork later in the year to drink)
My fellow travellers just laughed at the non drinking Irishman who suddenly dumped the cameras to take a swig of the water of life. I explained what it was for and passed the bottle round and a select few in my merry band toasted their own favourite explorer and their accomplishments.
It was pointed out to me that water is covered by IAATO and alcohol might not be. I did point out that it was a form of water and in Irish is the water of life, so technically I thought I was ok.
Life will never be the same.
A few years ago I was interviewed for the college I tutored photography for. And the director asked what work I most valued. My voice stumbles in this section because I remembered my own childhood and once ending up on stage in the Civic theatre in Belfast as a kid. I still remember that to this day. I am proud of being a small part of the group of people that, a couple of times per year, gets kids from various backgrounds in Northern Ireland and has them as part of a dance production in one of the major theatres in the country. No matter what happens to that child for the rest of its life, every time they go past that theatre they can remember the time they danced on stage to hundreds of people. No-one will ever be able to take that away from them.
Ive walked on Antarctica.
10 years ago I didn’t think Id be able to walk again. I was totally reliant on people for the most basic of needs and here I am standing at the end of the earth.
Never give up hope.
Besides which there’s nothing that a penguin picture wont cheer up.
Back into photographer mode I noticed in the middle distance a mini march of the penguins so I thought Id take up a position to get them as they went past, if indeed they did go past. IAATO guidelines cover not only distances to the wildlife but also to keep out of their regular paths and not to block their way if moving en masse. Again tell it to the penguins, they decided to turn 90 degrees to march over to see what I was up to.
Although shot with a telephoto lens I did realise that the tugging at my leg was an actual human this time but they were more concerned that I might be sitting in the tsunami line if the cracking noise from the glacier beside us turned into a full scale calving.
The wee jedi master voice in my head was telling me to be mindful of my surroundings and probably better to move my ass unless I wanted to become a permanent fixture on the continent Id tried so long to reach.
There was a steep, icy, rocky climb up to the high vantage point over the glacier but to be honest I was just happy being there. I didn’t think my leg was up to the climb, well the climb maybe but I didn’t it buckling on the descent so I thought, yes you’ve made it this far, lets try and live another day shall we?
I went up part of the slope and was joined by one of my travel companions. Out here we were a far way from the ship, had lost site of the landing beach and most of the rest of the shore party were off up climbing the hill so the two of us were left on our own. Time to let discretion be the better part of valour and have someone watch my back when taking photos and vice versa.
I spotted this one wee penguin doing a circuit of this large rocky outcrop so thought Id follow him to see if he was doing circuits for any particular reason or was just that stupid.
Yes indeed, he was that stupid and do you know what, he wasn’t the only one. I followed him to the edge of the rock outcrop and in my desire to get an angle on the shot of him above all his companions way down below I found myself sliding on my belly sidewards across the ice, commando style. Well that’s one of the defining stupid moments of my life. I looked around and could see no-one or nothing. I was only about 10 feet away from the rocky outcrop but was lying belly down on an ice cliff that stretched quite steeply down to the shoreline below. Sliding face first to a battered and bruised face and one million hits on youtube wasn’t the least of my worries. Yes this ice sheet was covered in penguin tracks but nothing to indicate there weren’t snow covered crevasses that wouldn’t sustain the weight of a middle aged spread young man. They would never find my body. It really is that simple. Forget the euphoria and emotional rollercoaster of getting here and being here, remember where you are, everything around you can kill you and be mindful of your surroundings.
I got to my knees and sighed in relief at seeing other human beings, at least if the ice gave way now people would see me fall!
Time to head back to the ship before we headed off to Wilhelmina bay to hopefully get some sightings of humpback whales. We had seen quite a few on various cruises around our landing points and even saw a few logging on the way back to the ship but this is the one place we might get to see a few together.
Id fallen in love with the whole standing out on deck thing by yourself. Although I was joined on and off by a few folk today. The weather was clearing and the scenery was outstanding/awesome/spectacular all of the words you use for things that really aren’t that outstanding/awesome/spectacular but which are quite appropriate here.
There’s also that morose feeling that you have turned the corner, the high point has been reached and now you are heading home. Like the kid fighting tiredness on Christmas Eve or staying out until the sun goes down on your summer holidays, you are straining to get that one last view, that one breath of clean air, all whilst trying to avoid frostbite or in my case, put on a hat.
Running up and down to the bar for fresh coffee covers most of that.
This was going to be a cold one, 2 hours out on the zodiac in the evening with the weather closing in and real sub zero temperatures. I might even bring a hat!
I stopped short of the hat but put on every layer Id brought with me. Id be glad of them later on as it started to snow and the wind got up in the middle of the bay.
Early on we spotted a family group of humpbacks logging on the surface. I mentioned in a previous post about the logging but it was becoming clear that this was humpback whale central, they were everywhere. The crew radios were abuzz with sightings and stories. None of us left our own groups because that’s what it was, our own group, we would all have different stories to tell later in the bar.
Like the hole in the ozone layer thing I mentioned earlier, it is now all too clear why these magnificent animals were almost hunted to extinction. You just wait until they are logging, sail up to them, stick a harpoon in them and tow them ashore. Writing this blog a few months after the fact does have certain advantages. The BBC recently ran a 2 part series on the whalers of South Georgia, mostly poor Scots guys who left poverty to work on the whaling boats and what a commercial industry that turned into, making fortunes for the companies and a perfect example of human greed and not paying attention to future ramifications as long as there is money to be made now. Instead of hating the guys I felt sorry for most of them, one of them was in tears and obviously haunted as he described how certain types of whales would cry out as they were being slaughtered. Whilst in Wilhelmina Bay I couldn’t comprehend how or why anyone would want to do it, now I know both. Its a disgraceful chapter in certain nations histories and some would like to continue it today. Have a look at these beautiful magnificent creatures that do no harm to anyone and ask why.
At the time of writing though hundreds of children have been slaughtered in Gaza and if we don’t stop people dying, is it any wonder what else goes on.
We were getting very close to the animals here and there are rules on how close you can get with the engine running, without the engine running and so on. Again nobody tells the whales and when the wind changes and you start to drift over their tales and strictly aren’t allowed to start the engine to get away then you once again get a feeling for where you are in the world. Like my trip to the Arctic last year, it doesn’t really matter if you can swim or not as you aren’t going to be around long enough to find out.
The family pod we came across was beautiful, Im assuming mother, father and child, with the child rolling around, flipping its pectoral fins, diving, lying on its back, giving us a full show.
We were drifting past the back of the three animals when the juvenile turned and it seemed that curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to take a look at us. Again, cute.
Then one of the parents disappeared beneath the water, the boil on the surface headed in our direction.
Now the zodiac driver did apologise afterwards for his ‘swear’ word that he let slip when however many ton of humpback whale broke the surface no more than 20 feet from us, threw its dorsal fin up and looked for the world like the tail was coming up to turn us all into the water. Can I just say that what he said wasn’t a swear word, its not even close, certainly not compared to the mouthful of swearwords that came out of my mouth. IAATO guidelines or not it was time to get the fuck out of there before said parent decided to give us something other than a warning. (no that wasn’t the swearword he used either, but was one of mine).
Do you know that feeling of shock and heart racing when someone pulls out in front of you in traffic or cuts you up or just narrowly misses you or narrowly averts an accident. You know where you react and about 30 seconds later the shock hits you and you don’t see the funny side any more. Well…
…be mindful of your surroundings, it ain’t a zoo!
As Dr Bruce Banner is quoted as saying ‘don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’. No shit sherlock! (that might have been the ‘swear’ word used – very understated for the situation we found ourselves in, in my view).
It was one of those times when you are insignificant and nature just carries on around you. I remember lying in my bed trying to sleep in Africa out on Safari, Id never heard so much noise, things hunting, screaming, killing, eating, humping, talking, communicating and just being fucking noisy. All around, everywhere. That’s what it was like here. Feeding, diving, rolling, sensory overload.
Somehow the snow falling, the chill reaching the bones, the double gloves and the regretting not bringing a hat didn’t matter. The ships crew were excellent, we’d stayed out longer than planned, no rush here in amongst all this. The bar and restaurant staff even got dressed up in penguin suits and got their own zodiac and went from zodiac to zodiac throughout the bay dispensing a hot chocolate and Baileys mix. Gentlemen, I salute you!
The blue twilight was now descending and the ship was very far away so time to return. The wind had dropped and we were gunning it back to dinner a medicinal hot whiskey and maybe a short DJ session in the bar. Off in the distance I spotted a whale tail in the blue light. We were speeding along, on the antarctic ocean, one handed I lifted the camera and telephoto lens, manually focussed, quick switch of the wheel to change the settings down to a low aperture and high iso to still not get enough shutter speed. Hanging on to the boat I had one eye in the viewfinder and fired off a single shot.
‘Did you get that?’ said one of the people in the boat.
‘Yeah, of course I did!’ I said with a smile whilst the wee voice in my head really said ‘not a fucking hope in hell of anything but blurry blue in that one’.
Over dinner and in the bar I noticed that a few people like me were coughing and sniffling. Someone had brought a cold aboard and in the confines of the ship and the need to hang on to the guardrails at all times, it was now making it way through us all. I could feel my throat tightening and eyes getting sore. Not exactly a great recipe for a photographer but lets get to bed early tonight after a couple of medicinal hot whiskeys. After instructing the barmen on their construction, it seemed a lot of my fellow travellers thought they should partake of this brand of Irish medicine. As my dad used to say ‘cures coughs, colds and sore arse holes.’ Indeed.
I did my usual DJ set and retired to bed about 11pm. Id see how I felt in the morning, tomorrow was a good cruise in the morning and another landing in the afternoon but the day after tomorrow was another biggie so Id see how I got on.
Oh I suppose you want to see that blue light photo? Well here it is and Ive printed it off letterbox crop and its hanging in the office in front of me.