Position: 64:41.253S 062:37.848W
Cuverville Island – Part 1
Date/Time : 8 January 2012 2345 – Well after my bedtime – (9/1 0145 UTC)
First up, apologies to all about the lack of blogs. Yes, we’ve been awake most of the time so, you might have thought, plenty of time to blog, but the fact is we’ve been a tad busy.
I left you a couple of days ago as we were having a cracking good sail, albeit in freezing sleet and snow, across the Bransfield Strait from Deception Island to Enterprise Island on the peninsula proper. 110 miles – about 18 hours. The cream on the pudding came in the evening when we saw a couple of blows, then the dorsal fins and finally the flukes of a couple of Humpback whales – the first we had seen on this cruise. But in the early hours the cream turned a little sour as we entered the Gerlache Strait, and the wind backed and came at us on the nose at gale force. Not wanting to turn the passage into a marathon, tacking back and forth down the Strait into a gale, we turned the engine on and ploughed our way into the literally freezing waves and spray, keeping a close look out for ice. It was miserable, but our destination was just four hours away, so we gritted our teeth and got on with it.
Half way down the Strait coming in the opposite direction was a small trawler type boat called the Hans Hanssen. To my slight surprise, Ewan picks up the VHF and calls them up.
“Hi there, is Dion on board?”
“Hi Dion, Ewan here”.
“Ewan, what a nice surprise …. blah, blah”
“Blah, blah, blah…. “ goes Ewan. And the conversation continues until the Hans Hanssen is over the horizon.
The wind abated half an hour before our arrival, at 0515, at the tiny Enterprise Island where we tucked into a little bay at the head of which was a beached wreck, alongside of which the occasional passing yacht ties up. It is a safe, beautiful and deserted haven. Well, not entirely deserted. There was another yacht tied up alongside, Happy Taurus II. So we tied up on the other side of the wreck and after an unusually quick anchor nip we flopped exhausted into our bunks and slept. But not for long. This was the adventure a lifetime and there was no time to lose. We were all up again four hours later to the smell of a sizzling bacon and eggs brunch.
There was a rap on the cabin roof. “Is Ewan there?” called a voice. It was Hamish Laird, veteran high latitudes professional with whom Ewan had sailed from South Georgia to Uruguay at the end of his 2 ½ year stint as a research scientist on Bird Island. Hamish was on board Happy Taurus II as the professional ice pilot. For God’s sake, there are few enough boats in Antarctica. Does Ewan know someone on each and every one?
Breakfast over and it was action stations. Out came the inflatable kayak. Peter and Richard headed towards a high offlying island for a scramble up to the summit through the thigh deep snow for a photo opportunity, whilst Venetia, Ewan and I lowered the dinghy to explore the next door bay for some reported seals. I, having only had a couple of hours sleep if that, completely lost my senses and embarked without hat, gloves or waterproof trousers. When we returned half an hour later, I was like a block of ice. Once we got back, the tide was down and we clambered aboard the wrecked whaler, the Governoren, that we were tied up to for an exploration.
The Governoren was, I understand, the brand new pride and joy of the Norwegian whaling fleet in 1916. Shortly after arrival on the peninsula, a fire on board caught hold, and the skipper ran her ashore at Enterprise Island to allow the crew to escape ashore, and it has remained there ever since. Because of the extreme cold, everything here rots and rusts extremely slowly so, in the bilges at low tide, you can still find mounds of harpoon heads and coils of 100-year old rope. On deck lie enormous steam driven winches with the makers name still standing proud on the bases – made in Gateshead. The upper decks have been taken over by nesting terns which flitter to and from their nests, each with a plump krill (small shrimp which is the staple diet of almost every larger animal on Antarctica from penguins to whales) in their mouth. It was fascinating.
As part of the specialist kit needed for this expedition are abandonment suits – one-piece drysuits that you put on if you need to take to the liferaft. They’re not designed to keep you warm, but to keep you dry. If you got soaked in the freezing water here you wouldn’t last long. Ewan approached me. “Are the abandonment suits only for emergency?” he asked. “Can we use them to go snorkelling?” Over the week I have come to know Ewan, I knew he was slightly odd (he has conversations with penguins and seals – in their own language), but I hadn’t realised he was actually certifiably insane. The boat was surrounded by ice for God’s sake. He was rather hoping that Peter might come and join him. Basking in a steaming thermal pool in Deception Island is one thing, but volunteering to plunge into freezing water, pushing the ice out of the way to see a couple of krill was certainly not Peter’s idea of fun. Ewan was on his own as he floated around like a corpse, face down in his fluorescent orange jumpsuit.
By this time we were ready for dinner. Fine dining on Mina2. And talking of one-piece suits, Richard appeared in the most extraordinary outfit – a skin-tight olive green affair with more zips than you can imagine – and some in the most unusual places. Mysteriously it also has a number of strategically placed holes covered with flaps. Richard claims it is an outfit worn by pre-Cold War Russian special services troops. Whether or not Richard had his silk underwear on underneath I shuddered to think. Photographs were taken, with Richard in what he clearly considered to be some sort of macho lunging pose. These photos will be published when we get back to broadband heaven in two or three weeks and I will open a competition amongst you blog-fans to suggest what the various orifices are for.
Hamish joined us from the Happy Taurus II for post-prandial digestifs and confirmed the bad news that we had already heard rumoured – this has been the coldest summer for more than 40 years and the ice south of Port Lockroy is still fast. The incomparable Le Maire Channel – Kodak Valley – is impassable and is likely to remain so. But there are many wonderful places to explore north of Lockroy and the following day we were to head for Cuverville, home to the largest colony of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica.
Part 2 of this extended blog will tell of our extraordinary passage to Cuverville.