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Published: February 17th 2010
3 nights and 3 full days - that's how long we are out in the open seas between The Falklands and South Georgia. Luckily its warm and sunny with calm seas and the wildlife entertainment show is still in full swing. The sea-birds are constantly circling the ship including some new species e.g. wandering albatrosses, grey-headed albatross, black bellied storm petrels, soft-plumaged petrels.
During the second day the sea temperature dropped from 10oC to 4oC. This means we have crossed the Antarctic Convergence and are now officially in Antarctic Waters. This day was officially christened Whale Day - in total we saw 72 whales (fin, bottlenose, sei and southern right) and 27 hour-glass dolphins, how spectacular. Some just pass by fleetingly, some get on with the job of feeding right in front of us taking no notice of us as we slow the ship to linger briefly and watch, others put on a show and seem as interested in the ship as we are in them. The water itself is also fascinating - a strange thing to say I know. Its difficult to explain but the water surface keeps changing texture, at times its almost oily and so flat that
the surface is like glass providing perfect reflections of the birds as they skim the surface.
On the morning of the 3rd day we pass Shag Rocks - 6 small islands inhabited by 2000 or so South Georgia shags. The rocks are often shrouded in mist but today its so clear you can even see Black Rock 10 miles away on the horizon. The 150 mile stretch of sea between Shag Rocks and South Georgia is heaving with Antarctic Prions, there are thousands of them - literally, the expedition leaders count hundreds of thousands. At times the sea is covered with flocks of several thousand birds which lift off the water together like a giant swarm of bees.
Interspersed with our wildlife viewings are lectures from the expedition staff educating us on the wildlife and early exploration of the area. We also have to decontaminate ourselves if we want to land on South Georgia. This is to prevent the introduction of foreign species. It involves sitting in the bar and hoovering your outer clothing and backpacks, especially any Velcro, to make sure there are no seeds attached. Its quite an amusing sight; everyone clutching bundles of clothing and
queuing to use the two vacuum cleaners. The ship itself was de-ratted before we left but we have to make sure we don't transport any rats and mice by checking our backpacks before we return to the ship after landings. There are lots of rules and regulations but they are all designed to protect the wildlife and environment and are easy to comply with, after-all its the wildlife and environment you are here to see.
By the evening of the 3rd day we have reached mainland South Georgia with its rugged snow capped peaks - quite a contrast to the green rolling hills of the west Falklands. Its 8pm when we anchor in the bay at Elsehul where the beaches are so jam packed with fur seals and southern elephant seals that there's nowhere to land. However, the ship is filled with 49 restless passengers who've been at sea for 76 hours and can now see land so despite the lateness of the hour and the swells we set off for a zodiac cruise around the bay. The whole place is heaving with wildlife - we see 4 species of penguin (King, Gentoo, Macaroni and one Chinstrap), 4 species
of albatross (Gray-headed and Black-browed on their nests, Wandering and Light-mantled Sooty circling overhead) and a host of other birds. The penguins are as amusing as ever hopping out of the water and stopping to preen on the rocks before commencing the long march up the steep rocky hillside to their colony - it looks like a hike equivalent to me climbing Everest. Even the albatrosses entertain us with their ungainly take-offs and landings from the cliffs above us. At 10pm the weather starts to turn - the winds pick up, the swells increase and the skies darken. It not just night fall - for the last 36 hours we have been racing ahead of a strong low pressure system and it has finally caught up with us. We retreat back to the ship and the cosy bar and wait to see what is going to be thrown at us.
What gets thrown at us is a big storm that lasts for 24 hours making any landings impossible. Out at sea its reached Force 12 (hurricane force) with 14m waves and winds over 73mph, the ship that's one day behind us is out there in the thick of it.
Southern Right Whales
with their classic V shaped blow
Luckily we are anchored in the lee of Start Point near Salisbury Plain so we avoid the worst of it. Its still pretty wild and windy outside and the heavy swells are causing a lots of rocking and rolling. This is when the 'open bridge' policy is handy, you can observe what's going on outside from the warmth and protection of the bridge where the officers are happy to explain the function of all the kit and let you check out all the charts. From here you can see the seals enjoying themselves playing in the waves, surfing in and out and leaping around stopping every now and then to look up quizzically at the ship before launching themselves into the next wave.
To keep us entertained we are given a tour of the engine room by the captain and shown the DVD Endurance about Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. I think they showed us this to stop us complaining about one day's bad weather with no landings. After seeing Shackleton's men spend a winter on the pack ice, 5 months travelling across the ice and sea in 3 life boats to Elephant Island, 15 days on the open seas
in the lifeboat James Caird crossing from Antarctica to South Georgia, 36 hours traversing the uncharted mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to get to habitation how can we complain? Especially, as like us, when they reached South Georgia they were prevented from landing by hurricane force winds - the difference is were are on a cosy ship being fed 3 course meals, they were on a tiny lifeboat with a few ships biscuits. Hopefully tomorrow will bring better weather and like Shackleton we will be able to land and get our happy ending.
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