Under Siege

Mina2 in the Caribbean - Where's The Ice Gone?
Tim Barker
Tue 22 Feb 2011 13:54

Date: 20 February 2011

Position: 65:14.976S 064:15.935W - Vernadsky


The work involved in tying the boat in with four 100 metre ropes tied to rocks at each corner, which you have to do almost everywhere here, takes up to a couple of hours and the distances of 40 miles or more between possible anchorages (there are probably less than a couple of dozen on the peninsula) means that you want to arrive comparatively early. Because if, for instance, you find your anchorage full of ice and have to move to the fall-back option it could be another four hours before you get there. Try doing that every day, and you would be on the move the whole time – no time to relax and take in the wonder of the scenery and to study the abundant wildlife. So we tend to travel one day, tie in then spend the next day there before moving on the following day.


So yesterday  was a chilling out day in Vernadsky. It is very different to previous anchorages. The Argentine islands are not massively mountainous like, for instance, Port Lockroy, but they are a group of low-lying islands which makes it easier for walks.


But first up was a peaceful kayak with Niko, one of the two Germans, through the islands and ice bergs. With no outboard engine to spoil the peace, we would paddle up to an ice flow and be within a few feet of Crabeater seals relaxing in a pool of their own pink shit – an indication that they are eating a lot of krill, the shrimps that abound in the Antarctic waters and are the staple food source at the bottom of the food chain for seals, penguins and whales.  


Then we went ashore and visited the Wordie Hut. Named after the chief scientist in Shackleton’s expedition it was the original building of the British scientific station here. Well not the original building – that one was swept away by a tsunami in the middle of the twentieth century. Unlike the hut at Port Lockroy which is evidently a museum (and a very good one)  the Wordie Hut has been left exactly and simply as it was, everything from books, food, typewriters, felt socks and cooking utensils all in place as if the scientists had just popped out for a walk. Quite spooky in a way.


I walked back over the hill alone through the snow to the anchorage. At the top of the hill you get a wonderful panorama of the low-lying Argentine Islands to the north and west and on the other a stunning view east across the Penola Strait to the mountains of Graham Land and the wide glaciers that sweep majestically down to the sea. Looking down to the south was Pelagic Australis lying peacefully in Skua Creek with Skua Island beyond. As I headed towards the boat I soon realised why the creek and island were so named. The place is full of Antarctic Skuas. Large brown birds with a wingspan of nearly five feet, they are a bit like very big crows. At this time of the year they are rearing their chicks and are aggressively defensive. Everywhere I went I appeared to stray into the territory of their unseen nests. A Skua would line me up and fly straight at me at head level, its piercing eyes staring me out as if viewing me down a gun sight. Only at the very last second would it veer away, just a foot or two from impact, just as the next Skua was lining me up from a different direction. We humans are the uninvited intruders here and the code of behaviour of visitors is strict. No closer to any animal than five metres. If you are causing any animal distress by approaching too close to their young, then you back off. No beating them off with sticks. But in my case it was impossible to know where the nests were, so I was stumbling along holding my ski stick in the air as the Skuas buzzed me from every direction.


So distracted was I that I failed to notice the large fur seal lying near a rock. I almost trod on him when he reared up and roared at me, bearing his vicious teeth. Fur seals will bite you if you threaten them, and the treatment is worse than the bite. Fur seals do not brush their teeth and their mouths are a fertile breeding ground for every bacteria known to man. If bitten, infection would be assured unless you literally scrub out the wound with bleach and a toothbrush, presumably whilst clamping a piece of leather between your teeth and having some smelling salts to hand for when you pass out with the pain. Then it’s a course of strong antibiotics and hope for the best. I leapt back ready to leg it, but the moment I moved away he settled back to his interrupted snooze.