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Published: February 21st 2011
Lifeboat drill in Montevideo Port
its a commercial port so we are surrounded by enormous container ships being simultaneously loaded and off-loaded
We're in the Port of Montevideo looking up at the enormous container ship towering over us. Well I expect its normal size for a container ship but it seems enormous. It dwarfs our ship, the Plancius, our home for the next 18 days. Its fascinating watching it being simultaneously loaded and off-loaded, a continuous flow of lorries driving past, pausing for a few seconds while a container is placed on them then driving off – its all incredibly efficient. There are giant cranes everywhere and its only when you leave port and compare them to the city's skyline that you realise just how big they are – far bigger then any of the skyscrapers.
From Montevideo its 1,437 nautical miles to South Georgia. That's 4 to 5 days straight across the Atlantic Ocean – did I mention I get sea sick!! As we leave port its clear blue skies and flat waters but this is deceiving. It looks like we're at sea but we're still in the River Plate which is 80 miles wide at this point. We won't reach the open seas until the middle of the night but up on the bridge the weather charts are predicting good
heading out to sea...
...well into the River Plate but it looks like the sea its so wide - the river mouth is 140 miles wide
weather and low winds, lets hope they are correct. In the mean time, for purely medicinal purposes to ensure we get a good night's sleep, we retreat to the bar.
In the morning we awake to thick fog. This is excellent news for me – fog occurs when there's no wind to blow it away and, of-course, no wind means calm seas. Its not such good new for the birders including Debi & Don who organised last years trip to The Falkland Islands, South Georgia & The Weddell Sea (Shearwater Journeys) and who tipped us off about this trip. By lunch time the sun has burnt the fog off and we're out on the bow in glorious sunshine surrounded by a host of birds wheeling round the ship. They come in all shapes and sizes from the tiny fluttery storm petrels skimming the water's surface to the enormous wandering albatrosses (3m wingspan) soaring gracefully above us.
Over the next 3 days the seas are mostly calm with a few occasional patches of heavy swells that cause some impressive gentle rolls of the ship. Gradually the temperatures drop from 16C down to 2C and the birds change from Atlantic
Captain Pruss making sure we're going in the right direction
the Plancius is his new toy, this is her first trip of the season and her first with him as captain
species to Southern Ocean species. The birders all seem happy - apparently we see 35 different species (8 x albatross, 15 x petrels, 4 x prions, 4 x shearwaters, 4 x fulmar/gulls/terns). We haven't seen the Atlantic species before and some of them are pretty snazzy like the Spectacled Petrels and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. But my favourites are still the Black-browed Albatross. They are exquisitely beautiful with their simple black eye-brow marking standing out against their white head feathers – they look like they must have spent hours applying their make-up to get such perfect lines.
While there are always dozens of birds circling the ship the dolphins and whales are thin on the ground (or should that be in the water!). A couple of sperm whales and sei whales pass. Then, very excitingly, there's a sighting of a strap toothed whale with its weird front teeth projecting and circling its jaws. Hardly anything is known about them and they are rarely seen so we're really lucky.
Our previous polar exploits have been on the little Russian ice-breakers with 50 passengers but none off them are in service any more. So Plancius with its 100 passengers is as
small as it gets but it still feels enormous. I suppose its partly a reflection of the increase in tourists to Antarctica; in 1990 only 2000 people/year visited now its 60,000 people/year (of which 30,000 land), that's an incredible increase. Even before we board the Plancius it feels like we know her - last year on our Falklands, South Georgia, Weddell Sea she was 1 day behind us on her maiden voyage as a Polar passenger ship. We were in constant contact and kept getting progress reports. Our captain on that trip was Captain Pruss and here he is again as the Captain of the Plancius – now we know why he was so interested in her performance!
As well as bird watching there's the lecture programme to keep us occupied and top up our knowledge of the seas, wildlife and South Georgia. Then there's the films, not the blockbusting Hollywood variety but the tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Trans-Antarctic Expedition that made South Georgia so famous. The story is just as gripping as any Hollywood thriller. And its because of him that we get the luxury of spending 10 days at South Georgia – on board
we have a team of mountaineers that are going to attempt the crossing of South Georgia that Shackleton undertook with Tom Crean & Frank Worsley in May 1916.
Then, before we know it our 4 sea days have passed (with minimal swells and no sea sickness!). Today we should see land. In preparation we are all busy vacuuming our rucksacks and outer clothing especially any Velcro. South Georgia has very strict bio-security measures to prevent the introduction of any more alien species - they are having a hard enough time getting ride of the ones that have already established themselves to the detriment of the indigenous flora and fauna without having any new ones arrive.
So here we are up on deck binoculars poised – but not for birds this time, for land.
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