by Chris Massey
Early in February 2000 five members of the Ski Club departed for 18 days in Antarctica, Harry & Pat Ashworth, David & Ruth Harrison and myself. The expedition was a reunion of 36 men who had worked for the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), as had Harry & David, plus wives and a few friends.
We flew to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego via Buenos Aires and boarded our ship, the Lyubov Orlova, in the evening with a short time to catch a glimpse of the town before dinner. Ushuaia is the most southern city in the world with a population of 42,000, a long main street, a good museum in the old prison and a marvellous backdrop of snow capped mountains.
Our ship was Russian, built in Yugoslavia in 1976 and registered in Valetta. It was 100m long, twin-screw, with two 1825 kw engines and reinforced hull but had only limited ability to sail through loose ice, as we were to find out. We generally sailed at 11 to 13 knots in good conditions. All the crew were Russian and the daily organisation was carried out by staff (mainly Canadian) from the company through which the booking was made.
Our destination was Marguerite Bay, 68 degrees South on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and the plan was to sail there directly and then visit bases and make landings to see the wildlife. Marguerite Bay was discovered by J-B Charcot in 1909 and named after his wife.
Our crossing of the Drake Passage, past Cape Horn, took two days and was unbelievably calm for what is noted as one of the roughest waters in the world. However, there was still quite a swell and a number of people succumbed!
So, we crossed the Antarctic Circle and were sailing amongst icebergs and flows, sometimes with lonely seals lounging on their fat stomachs. Whales came near and surfaced to blow but you had to be very quick to capture a photo.
We visited the old British Base "T" on Adelaide Island, which had been home to many of our party years ago. It was handed over to the Chileans about 1982 and they gave us a warm welcome, which we also received on Argentinean, Uruguayan & Ukrainian bases. For people on the ground, man-to-man, political wrangles are ignored; everybody is in the same fraternity, coping with the elements.
Our southernmost landing was to be Stonington Island where several of our party had wintered but, unfortunately, we could not make it despite three attempts, as the pack ice/brash was too thick and our Captain could not take the risk. We got very close and it seemed to many of us that it would have been safe, but conditions can change very rapidly, and a ship can be locked in with ice as happened to a tourist ship last Autumn, requiring an ice-breaker to release it with all the massive costs and delays.
Icebergs are another serious danger as they drift erratically in the grip of currents and as we know, contact can be disastrous except as a subject for a good film. Many icebergs are 300 yards long but they can be 30 miles or longer. Ways have been studied to tow them to drought stricken countries of Africa but so far without practical conclusion.
We had many things to see and I was fascinated by the unoccupied Base "Y" on Horseshoe Island in Marguerite Bay, which has been preserved as a heritage site and refuge. It is an undisturbed time capsule of a past world, with the Enfield generator, tank for melting snow, Tilley lamps, sledges, dog harnesses, English books, Marmite, Horlicks, BBM margarine, Pearce Duffs custard powder, Smedley tinned fruit, HP sauce etc...and bunks almost ready for habitation.
By contrast the following day we were given a most interesting tour of the ultra modern British Antarctic Survey (BAS) base at Rothera on Adelaide Island and the Director and others gave us talks. FIDS changed their name to BAS in 1962. They carry out many scientific research projects and we visited the dive room, aquarium, labs, aircraft hanger with three Twin Otters and a Dash 7. The accommodation was luxurious compared to Horseshoe.
For me it was tremendous being in the company of so many people who had lived and worked in the area and were coming back for a holiday with such enthusiasm. Everybody was an expert at something; geology, meteorology, botany, medicine, glaciology, surveying, cooking, drinking, dogs etc... The FIDS gave us many entertaining talks and some good anecdotes were recounted - here are three:
"Imagine what it was like for us pilots coming from Punta Arenas, to land and be surrounded by troglodytes: hairy, smelly men covered in congealed seal blood and blubber rushing towards you, getting into every nook and cranny of your plane looking for what goodies you might have brought and speaking FID. Mind you, after four months we smelled and talked just the same."
"We all wondered: How did the authorities know we'd need a dentist this year, a medical doctor in four years, and no one in between? One year our doctor was a trained gynaecologist. We told him he had to take care of the dogs. You can say this for him; we had a hell of a lot of pups that year."
"We had so much cocoa that we used it to mark the landing strip for an American plane. The pilot was so impressed, that as he took off, he flew over and dropped us a few large tins of the stuff."
We were sheltered from the reality of living in Antarctica, in our heated ship with excellent meals served by attractive & cheerful Russian girls. Also, being at sea level, in the summer, day time temperatures were often above freezing and we only became cold when wet; nothing like conditions on the plateau. We had a brief taste of stormy weather, and during our many landings, accomplished by Zodiac inflatables from the ship, we experienced many climatic situations. Once it was very difficult to get back on the ship due to heavy swell and wind.
It would be interesting to experience the real wilderness with a journey on land in a small group but this is more difficult to organise. The FIDS who had experienced all this gave us dramatic accounts of sledge journeys, lost dogs returning months later, being pinned down by blizzards and near escapes. These stories illustrated the isolation of their situation and reminded me of the great expeditions undertaken by the early explorers.
Regarding food, I was disappointed that penguin was not on the menu. We saw thousands of them, particularly the Gentoo, and I thought a Gentoo Vindaloo would go down very well. However, I had second thoughts after reading Dr Frederick Cook's (of the Belgica Expedition) assessment of the delicacy.... "If it is possible to imagine a piece of rotting beef, odoriferous cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce, the illustration would be complete."
I have not said much about the wild life which is the main reason many people visit the continent. I learnt much and those with keen eyes and in the right place saw many species of penguin, albatross, petrel, shag, skua, tern, whale, dolphin, seal, etc....
I think penguins are the most appealing. They are funny in an almost human way, the young ones nag their parents and chase them relentlessly for food, falling over and knocking into others in the process. The adults stand in one spot for hours on end, turning their heads from left to right, scratching and fidgeting just like someone waiting at a bus stop. Some are unafraid and will come up and peck your boots.
An inspiring sight was a giant petrel following the ship, swooping with effortless swings, floating on the air currents from left to right, allowing itself to drop behind and then suddenly catching up with a few small flaps of its huge wings.
We had some stunning sunsets in the late evening, with a drink in our hand and the sun shining on icebergs and distant glaciers, waiting for the fabled green flash at the critical moment - Austral beer helps!
Near the end of our voyage, we visited Whalers Bay on Deception Island. This is a collapsed volcano, which has formed a spectacular ring shaped island, and Whalers Bay was a Norwegian whaling station from 1910 to 1931. There are places where the water is near boiling. Its strategic location and superb harbour were most important in WWII, and the British navy with Operation Tabarin, made sure it did not fall into German hands. FIDS took it over for research as Base "B" from 1945 until 1969 when another eruption forced evacuation. It was eerie seeing the remains of the whaling operation, vats, barrels, huts and Biscoe House, as named by the FIDS. Many other things such as the graveyard and jetty are covered in ash or mud. The house is in a poor way as the last eruption flowed through it but it is a very solid building and much is standing. Harry showed me around, including the "Green Room" on the first floor, which had been his bunkroom in 1963 - it was just the same. There had been an impressive bar and a well was excavated inside the building with the help of a mining engineer.
In all we made 18 landings and amongst other interesting places were, Neko Harbour with its creaking glacier ending at the waters edge, Port Lockroy, Paradise Bay, Half Moon Island and the Argentinean base at Hope Bay with complete families.
Virtually no outside news filtered onto the ship and we were so totally absorbed that most people stopped talking about their home life. Apart from those we met on the bases, the only others we saw were some mountaineers on a distant face, four men on a British 44ft yacht anchored at Cuverville Island and a lone Australian yachtsman who had wintered near Port Lockroy and had supper with us. He was very sociable in spite of, perhaps because of his months of solitude.
People often grumble about the undoubted hardships of living in Antarctica, but there are compensations, and many are drawn to come back. It is like stepping out of your life for a while into another world and as Shackleton said "We all have our own White South."