Day 10 |
Nov 22, 2008

At Sea, Between South Georgia & Elephant Island

By Victoria Salem

Position at 9am (off Shingle Cove, Coronation Island): 60, 39.02’S, 045, 33.2’W

Weather and Sea conditions: Overcast for much of day, with wind in gusts.

In the early hours, we passed Monroe Island in the South Orkney Island group, originally intended as our landing site today. However, the weather forecast had alerted us to the probability of strong wind and heavy swells there, which activated Plan B!

The day started well, with snow petrels flying past The Restaurant while we were having breakfast. At 9am, we reached our second possible landing site of the day, off Shingle Cove, Coronation Island, South Orkney Islands. We tried to drop anchor there, but it proved impossible to hold the ship against the wind and current, despite waiting half an hour or so for conditions to improve. With winds gusting up to 60 knots, our Captain soon decided that it was pointless to linger, because a landing and/or Zodiac cruise was not going to be safe. This was, after all, Expedition Cruising!

So we sailed on towards Elephant Island, at the extreme north end of the South Shetland Islands. Elephant Island has, of course, been made famous by the exploits of Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance expedition. After Endurance sank in November 1915, Shackleton and his men were stranded on an ice floe for over five months before setting sail in three small boats for Elephant Island, the nearest land. Elephant Island was never visited, so Shackleton then had to undertake a further boat journey of approximately 800 miles to South Georgia, from which he was able to arrange for the rescue of his men from Elephant Island. 20 men were stranded there for four months, hoping beyond hope that rescue would arrive in time.

Having set off on our journey in the direction of Elephant Island, we resumed our lecture series with a talk by Robin Aiello at 10am, entitled “Life in Antarctica”. Robin spent three months near McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea some 15 years ago, and we heard first and foremost about the challenges of diving in Antarctica. She was supposed to be studying jellyfish, but saw not a single one, though she did see a lot of fish, krill and fascinating creatures of the sea bed. Robin also told us of both the joys and difficulties of camping in Antarctica – and how she appreciated the wildlife, the ice and the privilege of living in this remote region of the globe for a whole summer. Some of the more unusual experiences she gained were swimming with killer whales, coming face to face with a leopard seal and taking shelter from the wind by lying cuddled up to Weddell seals on the ice.

Robin’s talk was followed with a lecture on “Penguins” by Chris Harbard, our ornithologist. Chris described the different species of penguins scattered throughout the southern hemisphere, with a focus on ones we have already seen and ones we are hoping to see over the next week. We also heard of giant penguins now only known from fossil finds, and looked at the biology of the penguin and its adaptations to the cold and a life spent at sea.

Sea swell increased around lunchtime, and many of us decided to have a siesta or maybe watch a movie in the comfort of our suites, spending a pleasant, lazy afternoon conserving our energy for the days of landings ahead.

At 5pm, despite the Prince Albert II’s pronounced pitching, many gathered in The Theatre to hear my history talk entitled “Amundsen the Sportsman, Scott the Hero?” about the characters of these famous polar explorers and their race to be first at the South Pole. I believe most guests came away with a clearer understanding of why the one succeeded and the other failed, and with a fair degree of awe at their undertaking in such a hostile, unpredictable environment as Antarctica.

The day’s recap and briefing followed at 6.45pm. Robin (marine biologist) and Rob (naturalist) talked of ice, how it shaped and altered the benthic communities it passed over and how it was itself shaped by sea and wind. Ludger (geologist) followed this up with an interesting account of the various South Poles and their locations (geographic pole, ceremonial pole, pole of inaccessibility and wandering magnetic pole) and I spoke of the most famous explorer of all time, Captain James Cook, who on this day in 1772 left Cape Town (South Africa) and set sail on his second expedition, in the course of which he circumnavigated Antarctica at high latitudes without once setting eyes on the continent itself.

Robin West (Expedition Leader) ended the briefing session by telling us what to expect when we reached Elephant Island tomorrow morning, some time after breakfast. We were aiming for Point Lookout, hoping it would bring us some shelter from prevailing winds and enable us either to make a landing or take a Zodiac cruise around this famous island.

But the day was not yet over. After a good dinner, many of us gathered in the Panorama Lounge for a game of “Liars’ Club.” Four members of the Expedition Team gave creative and totally convincing explanations of some very unusual (but real!) words for us to choose who was telling the truth. Chris Harbard and Chris Srigley, Robin Aiello and Rob Suisted kept us amused and skeptical for an hour of entertainment, before we retired to bed.