Somewhere over the rainbow...

Somewhere over the rainbow…


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I love my job, I do, no, I really do. Yes, this is my job, I travel the world taking pictures of things to show people who may never see them for themselves or which may prompt people to go see things for themselves or are included in educational textbooks for generations to come to show them the things I was shown when I was a kid and led me to be here taking pictures to show… …you get the message.
So the next person who asks ‘how was your holiday?’ will get a punch in the face.
Today is one of those days its definitely not a holiday, you have to scrape your sorry ass out of your bunk at oh my God its early am, woken by a far too cheery man for his own good. You realise your throat has closed over during the night and blowing your nose and shaking your head you realise you have a decision to make. Yes, far from the rest of humanity, in a place most people only dream of reaching, you are sick, sick enough to not go out on a zodiac.
Then you look out the window and realise where you are and the wee voice in your head tells you to man the fuck up, get some pills down your throat and get on with it. Those photos wont take themselves.

argentine primavera antarctic base cierva cove danco coast Antarctica
argentine primavera antarctic base cierva cove danco coast Antarctica

The great thing about being on a boat with people from the USA is that you can find a pill for everything. I spend my life railing against taking pills for everything and anything having been on the receiving end of taking this pill to stop me dying, this pill to stop the pill that stops me die making me throw up, the pill that stops me from staying awake all night due to the side effects of the pill that stops the pill that makes me die throw up. Of course I also have to remember that if I take the pill that stops me from dying and the pill that stops the side effects of the side effects of that very same pill together, they will make me die, albeit more slowly than if I hadn’t taken any pills at all. That’s how I see the US pharmaceutical industry tv ads, selling you a circle of pills that will keep you alive for 10 minutes more than you should have or maybe just make you think that.
Yes I am a hypocrite so as Im swaying in a boat that isn’t swaying I’m offered a number of small blue pills that someone got off their sister who is a nurse. My brother is a nurse and he purposely wouldn’t kill me, so I ask three times what they are but then realise I’m 5 days away from being able to Google it so by then I’ll either have survived or be dead. Either way just pop the blue pill.
Its not quite World War Z but the lurgy I have has started to take its toll on the breakfast goers. That and the early morning calls and the over abundance of food. Others too think they can afford to miss the multiple course breakfast and just go for coffee and the pastry. But breakfast is where the unusually happy crew manager gives his daily briefing and that’s just gold dust.
This morning we are going for a zodiac cruise around Cierva Cove, we could have aimed to make a landing there at a station but they have left for the winter and the sea ice is forming up so we will get nowhere near the coast. This afternoon we do have a landing but by then the blue pill will have worn off and I have a decision to make, go out or rest up in the bar because tomorrow is our last landing day and its inside a volcano at an old whaling station followed by chinstrap penguins and elephant seals and I really don’t want to miss that.
Today I feel the cold, I should have worn my hat for the first time but hey thems the breaks.

akademik sergey vavilov russian research ship charted as a tourist vessel cierva cove Antarctica
akademik sergey vavilov russian research ship charted as a tourist vessel cierva cove Antarctica

As is now becoming ‘usual’ if you could ever apply that to here, what starts off as ‘just another zodiac cruise’ turns into another one of those blink and you will miss it trips. The sea ice is giving us that tinkling sound like hundreds of thousands of icecubes in hundreds of thousands of crystal glasses. Its quite a loud noise when you sit still with the engine off, any fans of ‘Its a wonderful life’ will know thousands of angels were being made all around us. I’m smiling now, I was smiling then, just one of those surreal sounds that you really cant describe to people, an alien sound yet comforting, simple, happy, elegant, all the words that were on the chalkboard on day one that we all had no real comprehension of.
Ive mentioned it before but the ice again is fascinating. the icebergs that have rolled and tumbled with the dirty base of the valley the glacier took hundreds or thousands of years to collect as it crawled by is now floating at the top, almost within touching distance as we idle by.

dirty layer at top of inverted iceberg taken from glacial ice cierva cove Antarctica
dirty layer at top of inverted iceberg taken from glacial ice cierva cove Antarctica

Oh and the blue ice. I don’t mean the blue ice, I mean the BLUE ice. That BLUE should have at least three exclamation marks so go back and read this but shout the word BLUE!!!

close up of older blue ice formed from fresh water against white new ice and fresh snow Antarctica
close up of older blue ice formed from fresh water against white new ice and fresh snow Antarctica

The kayakers are cutting through the closing sea ice and it looks hard going for them today but every one of them is smiling. Every one of us is smiling. We see a new type of seal, a Weddell seal and a new type of penguin, the chinstrap.
Its surreal. I’ve overused that word in this blog but how else can I describe it, Im in Antarctica idling in an inflatable boat through closing sea ice where the murmur of the engine can just be heard over the crescendo of tinkling noise that builds when we push a bow wave of the natural field of icecubes in front of us.

antarctic expedition zodiac boat driving through brash pack sea ice cierva cove antarctica
antarctic expedition zodiac boat driving through brash pack sea ice cierva cove antarctica

In the middle distance a humpback whale dives…

humpback whale lifting its tail above surface of cierva cove Antarctica
humpback whale lifting its tail above surface of cierva cove Antarctica

Two hours just flies by and Im wondering what exactly was in that blue pill or if I’m still sleeping and will wake up as we start to cross the drake passage on day 1.
I have mentioned the surreal thing. Right, the crew top it all with lunch on deck, a barbeque, in a blizzard, on an open deck, on a ship, in Antarctica.
Im famed for my BBQs, Ive even had one in the snow (well ok the bbq was out in the snow, we were all in the house).
This, I had to take photos of to prove it as no-one would believe it.

serving bbq lunch passengers on board expedition ship in antarctica
serving bbq lunch passengers on board expedition ship in antarctica

serving bbq lunch passengers on board expedition ship in antarctica
bbq lunch passengers on board expedition ship in antarctica

Sitting there in the cold the chill descended on me and I made the decision to cut my losses for the day and retire to the bar for this afternoons excursion aided by a few medicinal hot whiskeys. No more blue pills for me and bed early.

If I didn’t know any better Id say the 6am alarm calls were recorded. They aren’t alarm calls in the traditional sense where you get the choice to set your alarm for breakfast time minus the time it takes to get from bunk to handwashing station at the entrance to the dining room. No, this comes across the emergency speaker system so it might just be information you might need to hear. I do applaud the expedition leader though, you couldn’t pay me to do that job. It would be ‘ah whatever, talk to me after Ive had my coffee’.
The afternoon in the heat, the hot whiskeys and an earlyish (9:30) bed had lifted the cold a bit but today we were sailing through the caldera of an active volcano to land at an old whaling station, then off to Hannah Point for our last landing before heading home. That dreaded home word. It already seems like we’ve been here a month because we couldn’t possibly have seen and done everything in just over a week.
Now Ive been on trips where we’ve had a ‘must see’ that has been a bit ‘meh’ or been driven round somewhere beautiful (st petersberg – the russian one) but because you spent all night partying on a sleeper train, the only thing keeping you awake is your head hitting the coach window occasionally. When the guys here say to get out on deck to see us sailing through the narrows into an active volcano, you know this isn’t ‘ordinary’. We seemed very close to one side with a fair bit of space on the other, but that was explained by the massive spike of rock just under the surface. Apparently there’s something very similar which can catch your engine at low tide off Crawfordsburn beach. That rock will ruin your beach bbq plans and mean you might have to stick her on the beach for a day or two to patch the whole or get a new prop for the engine…
…out here…
…well lets just not go there.
Did I mention it was almost full white out conditions? No? Well it was. This was our ‘opportunity’ to go for an Antarctic plunge but with the blizzard and wind it was too dangerous. With windchill it would probably be our last plunge if we tried it. Damn, I was looking forward to that.
As I walked down the gangplank to the zodiac a voice boomed out above me in a very posh, quaint, English male accent.
‘It must be cold if Irish is wearing a hat finally’.
Yes, it was cold.
Selfie time. This is real adventurer time!

man taking selfie on shore excursion to whaler's bay antarctica
man taking selfie on shore excursion to whaler’s bay antarctica

The buildings in the distance behind me are some of the storage tanks for the whale oil. This was a smaller station than those in the BBC documentary I mentioned about South Georgia but at the time I thought they were massive and it showed the industrial scale of the whaling industry.
The site is preserved and some of the old wooden structures still survive. Whilst the idea of the whaling industry is abhorrent, how people survived here is nothing short of miraculous. This photo of us with one of the buildings in the whiteout shows the conditions. Heaving going with minimal kit, never mind working here.

tourists from antarctic expedition ship at whaler's bay deception island south shetland islands antarctica
tourists from antarctic expedition ship at whaler’s bay deception island south shetland islands antarctica

There had been a bit of a disturbance at the designated landing site as a youngish fur seal had decided to make a nuisance of himself and charge at us every so often. I saw three fur seals play fighting in the distance so went along the beach a bit to get an angle on them with the long lens. I then did one of those stupid things, I took the shot and then turned and walked off. Now there is a fair distance between them and I don’t know how fast a fur seal moves, I don’t know if they are aggressive to humans or if this was real or play fighting amongst themselves. The key points in that comment is that I don’t know, I turned my back on wildlife whilst not knowing. I didn’t back away as I normally do watching where I was walking and slowly backing off until I reached higher ground. It could have been complacency or the effects of the cold or this was the last day but again the voice in my head was screaming at me ‘this is the type of shit that gets people killed’ or worse puts me in a position where someone puts themselves in danger trying to offer help. OK maybe I’m over exaggerating but remember where this is. Its now near white out and Im all alone watching where Im putting my feet in the white on white conditions.
Of course the first thing I come across is a grave.

wooden crosses in the graveyard at whalers bay deception island Antarctica
wooden crosses in the graveyard at whalers bay deception island Antarctica

Good job Im not superstitious.
The white out is broken up by the red wet weather gear of my ‘buddy’. So what is it appropriate to shout to the first human being you see after a bit of a wake up call like that?
‘Get the fuck out of my shot’.
I wont dignify his response by broadcasting it here, suffice to say it was a proper series of swearwords, also appropriate to being almost turned over by a whale.
We have a saying here ‘nice weather for ducks’ which means its raining so heavily only ducks would enjoy it. So ‘nice weather for penguins’ although the penguins didn’t seem to think so.

two gentoo penguins lying down in snowstorm blizzard whalers bay deception island Antarctica
two gentoo penguins lying down in snowstorm blizzard whalers bay deception island Antarctica

I put my hand in the cold Antarctic water as we went back to the zodiac. Two weeks previously Id done the same in the warm subtropical Pacific and two weeks before that in the cold North Atlantic at home. Small world.
A lot of tired but exuberant people over lunch. Traipsing through the snow and blizzard was the toughest going we had had here but it felt like real adventure. Yes, real adventure as we tuck into the three course lunch…

chinstrap penguins closeup with eye prominent on hannah point Antarctica
chinstrap penguins closeup with eye prominent on hannah point Antarctica

The chinstrap penguins seemed equally as stupid as the gentoos but they had a whole black and white vibe which made them seem a lot cooler than the gentoos. Hannah Point was perhaps the most difficult terrain as it was very icy and sticking to a flag marked path was crucial here, it was a steep slope and we had to walk along a ridge to get to the elephant seal colony. Not the place for your bad leg to buckle as one slip and it is straight to the scene of the accident!

two tourists walking along ridge at hannah point penguin colony Antarctica
two tourists walking along ridge at hannah point penguin colony Antarctica

People tell you things, its just words, sometimes there’s a picture with the words that can be worth, well a thousand words. The phrase ‘you will smell the elephant seals before you see them’, doesn’t quite portray the assault on your senses, mainly your nostrils.
At first you think the smell is so bad they must be over the next ridge, but you would be wrong, they must be over the ridge after that and you would be wrong again. I must really be downwind of them and then the wind changes so you really are downwind of them.
FFS what have they been eating.
From what I can gather elephant seal behaviour is boiled down to emitting noxious gasses from either end and at times both ends simultaneously whilst trying to argue with your neighbour for absolutely no reason whatsover. Ive had nights out in rural Irish towns where that behaviour wouldn’t be out of place.
My inner 10 year old was loving this although after this mornings experience with seals, I heeded the ‘don’t get between them and the sea’ comment. I didn’t ask for clarification of this as seeing them up close I thought it was self explanatory. If they decided they wanted to go for a swim, in a hurry…
Although it appeared other than barging their neighbour they didn’t want to do anything in a hurry.

male elephant seals roaring hannah point livingstone island Antarctica
male elephant seals roaring hannah point livingstone island Antarctica

Hand on heart I have never heard, seen, smelt and even tasted as many farts in one place since I was 13 and the school canteen thought it was a good idea to supply us all with egg and onion sandwiches on a 6 hour school trip by coach.
Sure where would you get it?
Sun was setting over the South Shetland islands as we turned for open sea and headed North.

evening falls over livingstone island the south shetland islands Antarctica
evening falls over livingstone island the south shetland islands Antarctica

Work was over and we had 2 days of sailing rough seas home, the only thing for it was to retire to the bar, toast Antarctica and party the night away. I thought Id be sensible and get to bed at a reasonable hour and get up late (8am) for a day of talks, reviews and generally hanging around the bar.
I woke up the next day completely shattered, Id been in bed about 11 as usual but hadn’t taken any sickness pills or cold remedy as I was out of them. Feeling rough I went down for breakfast and then for the first time went back to my cabin, hung the do not disturb sign and feel asleep for a few hours.
I went up on deck to clear my head… well that’s an understatement. I went up to the top deck and had to use the camera in front of my face as a windbreak as I couldn’t breath. The beautiful blue sky was deceptive as the ship was bobbing around in the Drake Passage. Blew the cobwebs off and when someone followed me up to see if I was still attached to the ship I realised it might be fortuitous to return to the bar at this stage.

expedition ship crossing the drake passage
expedition ship crossing the drake passage

I didn’t want to start drinking too early today as we had the charity auction later that evening and who knows what I would come home with after a glass or two of vino. Needless to say the crew supplied us with a complimentary drink before the auction!
Bidding was brisk, and high on the first set of items but there was nothing really unique to me that described my trip. Then of course it came to the auction for the arrow used to take whale dna samples. Now Ive run charity auctions, Ive participated, Ive paid over the odds for items I could have bought in the same place I went to collect my items but never before had I been allowed to bid against myself. Put the drink down Joe, this is serious business.
Someone else had set their mind on the arrow and the auctioneer kept reminding us that it was a broken arrow and they apologised for that, I said it would just allow me to make up more stories around it. Id set myself a limit and I found myself bidding that limit with no sign of the other person backing down. Some of the other wealthier bidders had been quiet allowing us to duel it out, which did surprise me a little. The hammer came down and I was the proud owner of one broken arrow with a faint aroma of whale.
Later in the bar I expressed my surprise at why the other bidders hadn’t bid for possibly the most unique item there and to a man and woman they said ‘would never get it through customs’..
ah…

The following morning I was up early to get up on deck as we rounded Cape Horn. Tick another box off the bucket list although we were lucky to make it out through the mist but yes, cape horn was there and we did round it.
Over breakfast I expressed concern that I was feeling so rough having not drank too much and been in bed for around 11ish as usual.
11ish?
Yes, when the clock in the bar said 11 I went back to my cabin.
You passed my cabin bouncing off the walls about 3:30am.
Really?
Yes?
Didn’t anyone tell you? They stop the bar clock at 11pm every night…
Bugger!

The crew did their best to fill the remaining time and we got a good tour of the ship which was originally built in the cold war era by the Soviet Union for underwater sonic research. Looking for aquatic life, whales, measuring thickness of Arctic ice, that sort of thing, not submarine hunting or broadcasting to the ballistic subs at all. That 3 mile towed sonar array communicating with the sister ship (also chartered by the same company) was purely peaceful..
..love it. Sure, where would you get it…

Im going to end here, I still had to endure a day in Ushuaia made easier in the company with some of my shipmates, then a couple of nights in Buenos Aires including dinner with one of the most beautiful women Ive ever met… …but that’s another story for another day.
What matters is that I was sad to leave Antarctica, sad to leave South America, very sad to leave all my old and new friends but with some memories that will last as long as my memory does. This trip has a large place in my heart and I’m a better person for having gone and seen it. It was a trip of a lifetime and coming from someone for whom trips of a lifetime are my business, that is saying something.
Is the best thing Ive ever done… unquestionably, yes. Educational, socially and spiritually uplifting. A feast of sensory experiences. Sights, sounds, smells, feelings that will last with me forever.
Would I do it again, unquestionably yes but with the proviso that what made the Antarctic leg for me wasn’t just Antarctica but also the blend of the crew on the ship, the fellow travellers I met along the way and the stage in my life I am at. I achieved a dream that a little boy brought up on the Falls Road in the middle of the Northern Ireland troubles in the 70s and 80s has no expectation to dream never mind accomplish. Above all though the trip might be over but the journey continues…

PS – Somewhere over the rainbow… On our last night we had a slideshow of selected images taken by us on the trip and at the time someone was playing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole – beautiful song.

more antarctica photos here
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