12th November 2018 – preparing for serious icebergs

Day two at sea from South Georgia Island, on route to Antarctica.

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By a little past 6am I had pulled the curtains wide and was sitting looking out through my cabin windows.  Just as I was wrapped in the big soft white towelling robe, the ship was wrapped in snow laden fog.  The horizon was so close.  The snow flakes eddied onto my balcony and collided gracefully with the windows, themselves, and the outdoor furniture.  It was soft inside, and the world appeared soft outside with the colour of the air and the water all variations of muted greys. However, this softness was unlikely to be felt beyond my cabin doors – I felt sure it would be bitingly cold outside. The waves had white crests and, away from the ship, the snow was being driven horizontally. I could have stepped outside but the passenger information on my television informed me that the wind was blowing at 80kms/hr. No point in getting cold and wet!

Yesterday another Salsa dance class was scheduled but I didn’t join it (conflicted with the Expedition team delivering their final recap on the South Georgia Island experience) and I was in bed last night watching the movie “A Very Long Engagement’ (which was appropriate to be seen on Remembrance Day) while the Dance Contest was in full swing upstairs. Today Origami and tonight, Karaoke are programmed.  Will I miss those as well?  It seems as if this trip has something of an identity crisis and cannot decide whether on offer is a cruise or an expedition.

At 9.30am I settled into what turned out to be an excellent lecture, in English, ‘Cetaceans of the Southern Ocean’ by a German naturalist, Hanna Michel.  Systematic, organised, told a story and pre-empted almost all our questions.  I understand now that the whole whale category (cetaceans), consisting of 90 species, includes whales, porpoises and dolphins, and I know more about each of the balean (includes Grey and White) and the toothed (includes killer/orca – 5 different ecotypes in the Southern Ocean alone with different communication dialects, beluga and sperm) whales we may see in the Southern Ocean.

The lecture covered the vexing topic of beach strandings, with the explanation that solar flares which disrupt earth’s magnetic fields, may interfere with whales’ navigation which seems to depend on magnetic fields. Another issue associated with strandings is that these categories of whales are tight social family units so as one member is rescued, it hears the distress calls of others still beached and returns to land to support them and becomes beached again.

At 10.45am I settled into an interesting lecture, in French, ‘La Vegetation antarctique et son adaptation en milieu extreme’ by Myrtille Berenger.  I understood some of what she said, and her PowerPoint slides made that process easier. The types covered by the lecture were fungi, lichens, hepatthiques, algae, moss, ferns, and plants with flowers.  There was a long section on the constraints for vegetation – temperature, rainfall, wind speed, movement of animals, amount and timing of sun, variation in altitude, relationship between altitude and latitude, the type of strategies a particular vegetation has developed to tolerate an environmental change, ability to acclimatise or adapt to a different climate or height above sea level.  Towards the end of the lecture the presenter discussed some of the tests undertaken in relation to the morphological adaptations that plants undergo to cope. At the end, the reproduction situations were covered briefly.  Beetles are the main insect however, with global warming, flies are becoming an introduced species in the sub- Antarctic and Antarctic, and they are likely to have a significant impact in several ways.

Oh oh. The Captain has made an announcement throughout the ship that we are all to proceed to the lecture theatre for an important announcement. In the theatre, Judy and I waited, speculated and decided the message would be associated with a medical issue or a severe weather situation. The Captain addressed us. We learned that a Le Cercle Polaire special guest (he was scheduled to give us a lecture) died and was found by his steward this morning; the Captain is waiting on the Argentine authorities to instruct him what he must do. So, we wait and wonder whether we must turn away from Antarctica and head for Ushuaia.  If we must take the two-day trip to Argentina, it is doubtful that there is enough time to return to Antarctica afterwards.  We are all telling each other that if we die please put us in the fridge and don’t upset the other passengers by shortening their trip.

Now it was time to listen to Agnes Breniere presenting a lecture in English on “Icebergs: Cathedrals of Ice”.  Three types of ice exist (not counting the blocks in your gin and tonic):  fresh water land ice/glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost.  10% of the world’s land is covered by glaciers.  Check out the International Ice Patrol Classification – www.polarview.org. Generally, the submerged part of the iceberg is 8 times the visible volume, but it varies according to the shape of the iceberg. The ratio for a tabular is 1:11 compared to a tall comparatively thin shape which might be 1:2-3.  Agnes showed us maps that track icebergs over the decades – the first satellite tracking started in 1976.  At https://www.polarview.aq/antarctic there is a publicly available website where anyone can follow the tracking of icebergs of a large size. A useful informative lecture.

We were required to drag all the external clothes we have been wearing on South Georgia Island downstairs for a mandatory Biosecurity Cleaning – with the vacuum cleaner, along all the seam lines and velcros and pockets.  It is a tedious business but ensures that anything we picked up inadvertently on South Georgia Island, does not get relocated to Antarctica.

Afterwards I raced upstairs for a lecture in French on ‘Le Continent Blanc’.  Samuel Blanc spoke quickly so I didn’t understand as much as I would have liked, although most of the PowerPoint slides made sense. As I watched the super-sized projection screen sway as the ship rolled (as usual) I learnt that very little rain falls on the large eastern plateau of the Antarctic continent.  Sam showed fabulous maps with the speeds of Antarctic glaciers then changed to the topic of wind.  It was startling to learn one of the explorers defined 148km/hr wind as calm.  In 1972 the strongest wind on record registered 320km/hr!

We watched a time lapse photo through the seasons of the ice and the melt on the Ross Shelf, learnt that in winter depending on the location, the temperature might be -70 degrees or -15 degrees. In July 1983 the gauge dropped to an exceptional -89.2 degrees, saw phytoplankton frozen in ice, and then the presenter moved onto the endemic life on Antarctica.  15 species of birds, 5 species of manchots (penguins); 6 species of pinnipedes (seals), 300 types of fish and 2 plants.  He introduced a section on the major explorers associated with Antarctica. Finally, and most astonishing because I had never thought about it (although now it seems obvious), we were shown a map with the wedges for 12 time zones around Antarctica. Of course, this connects with the time zones of different countries further north, but I imagine at a practical level when you are working on comparatively small Antarctica research stations, it is a nuisance keeping these different nearby time differences in mind.

At 6pm I sat through the Briefing about our future; for the next three days, we will be in and around the Antarctic peninsula (so we were all relieved that a death did not require us to abandon travel to and landing on Antarctica). We can expect one stop-over tomorrow afternoon and two each on the subsequent days, before hauling for two days to Argentina.

A small break back in my cabin and looking out at the endless sea.IMG_4160.JPGWith my pack of Australian shipboard friends (there was Jane and Duncan, Lee and David, Anne-Marie and Ken, Neal, and Sue and Warren, and sometimes others) I settled into pre-dinner drinks, we moved to dinner and had a few more glasses of beverage, and then relocated to the lounge for a Karaoke session.  I have never experienced a Karaoke session before but now I can understand why they are so popular. When you have time on your hands, you have drunk too much, it is so easy to laugh and laugh and find yourself standing with a microphone, reading the teleprompter and singing at the top of your voice out of tune.   Four of us got up together to sing ‘Stop in the name of Love’ – we chose this song because we wanted to (and did) some disturbing choreography (I ‘performed’ with Jane, Sue and Duncan).   So much fun and I haven’t laughed so much for so long.   And of course the Ponant photographer was happily snapping away and making a record of our antics:JaneDuncanSueHelenin the name of love.JPG

Duncan Sue and Helen Karaoke.JPGIt was around 11.30pm when I called it quits – in anticipation of a big day in Antarctica tomorrow.

Reflecting back on the expedition to date, nobody could have predicted how successful this trip had been. We were lucky to have non-windy weather.  South Georgia Island welcomed us with the good fortune to see the native animals in their thousands, and to experience that landscape and climate.

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