ANTARCTICA (Part 2) – December 2009

An Untouched Winter Wonderland

It is hard to describe just how beautiful Antarctica really is.

From midday on 29 December until late on New Year’s Eve, Veendam cruised along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, weaving between mountainous islands, dodging icebergs and daring to negotiate narrow channels.

For three days, our surrounds were dominated by pristine white snow, with the occasional outcrop of dark brown rock. Doubtless, the weather on our balcony was icy, with the temperature hovering between minus one degree Celsius and two or three degrees above freezing. However, we never really felt as though we were cold. We rugged up for the conditions and were always able to nip back inside if we felt uncomfortable.

Indeed, I was more conscious of the blinding reflection of the sun from the white cliff faces than I was of the cold. I kept my cap and my new sunglasses close at hand.

By the time we left the pristine, white beauty of Antarctica and headed north to the Falkland Islands, there was a heaviness in our hearts. Will we ever return to this beautiful place? We will ever see the unspoiled wonder of the Antarctic Peninsula, again?

In the Ice Pilot We Trust

We were somewhat disturbed to learn that our Captain boarded Veendam, for the very first time, on the same day we did. We were even more alarmed to hear that he had never before navigated the seas around Antarctica. It’s not a place where you want to get into trouble. The nearest navy is in Punta Arenas, over one day’s sailing time away.

Whilst fascinated by Shackleton’s legendary story of survival, I had no desire to replicate his experience.

Any anxiety we felt, however, was moderated by the knowledge that the Captain had, at his disposal, the services of an experienced Ice Pilot who had ventured to Antarctica on dozens of occasions.

The Ice Pilot’s role is to give the Captain advice, which the Captain may either accept or reject.

We can imagine the conversation:

Ice Pilot – Okay, mate, there’s a rather large iceberg directly in our path. Unless you want to condemn all on board to an icy demise, I recommend you alter your course immediately.

Captain – Thanks mate! Good thing you pointed that out. Left or right? Port or Starboard? What do you reckon?

Ice Pilot – Clear water on either side… your choice…but let’s make it quickly.

Captain – Okie Dokie…here we go…

Ice Pilot – Faster! Faster!

We would like to think that the Captain’s mindset is flexible and that he will give significant weight to the expert advice he is receiving. It would certainly help us to sleep at night.

“Iceberg! Straight Ahead!”

The tragedy of the Titanic is so much a part of our collective consciousness that there is something somewhat menacing about a mental image which involves both a passenger ship and an iceberg.

Indeed, we understand that an elderly female passenger asked the Ice Pilot, whilst still in Ushuaia, whether we were expecting icebergs in Antarctica. When told that icebergs where, indeed, expected, the woman made a spontaneous decision to terminate her cruise and return home!

It seems that the sinking of a ship almost 98 years ago has given rise to an insidious condition which remains prevalent to this day: PTIPD or `post-titanic-iceberg-phobia-disorder’. Studies show that there was a significant spike in the incidence of this affliction from 1997.

The truth is that we passed thousands upon thousands of icebergs during our voyage around Antarctica. Some were the size of a lounge suite and others where several times larger than our vessel. There were many of varying sizes in between those two extremes.

Thanks to a variety of measures – including radar, sonar and simply keeping one’s eyes open – none of these icebergs posed any particular threat. It’s not as though they suddenly leap out from behind a cliff face and stand, defiant, in your path. At no point was Veendam required to turn `hard to starboard’ or engage its reversing engine. The lifeboats were never deployed and the foreboding words `women and children first’ were never uttered.

Rather, the Captain – with the assistance of the Ice Pilot – simply weaved in between the floating mountains of ice. There were times when we felt as though we could reach out and touch some of them, they were so close.

Moonriver’s Berg

Many of the icebergs were, in fact, remarkably beautiful.

We spotted our first iceberg whilst having breakfast on 29 December, as we approached the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I was about to place a fork laden with egg yoke in my mouth when I saw the iceberg hovering on the distant horizon. It was a majestic sight. The iceberg was estimated to be over three times the size of our ship. It had beautifully symmetrical sides which were almost perfectly perpendicular to the ocean. The iceberg’s roof formed a graceful arc which resembled a saddle. Before long there was commotion in the dining room as passengers jostled for positions beside the window and cameras were quickly drawn.

Once Veendam began cruising along the channels of the Antarctic Peninsula and around its islands, the icebergs became more plentiful. My favourite – which I have since named `Moonriver’s Berg’ – featured a high rim at the rear and a smooth, inviting apron at the front. The middle of my iceberg had melted so that an enchanted pool of water had gathered. The most pleasing aspect of my iceberg was the colour of the water in the pool; it was an extraordinarily beautiful shade of turquoise.  I felt a strong urge to go for a swim in the icy water.

Huckleberry B the Ice Pilot

B also had her favourite iceberg experience…

The gym onboard Veendam is positioned directly below the Bridge, at the front of the vessel. As one works a cross-trainer or runs on a treadmill – as we have virtuously done on all but one day of our voyage to date – you enjoy a wonderful panoramic view over the bow of the vessel.

When in a port such as Valparaiso, your view is of the thousands of dwellings which are perched on the escarpment above the bay. When at sea, you watch the waves roll across the vessel’s path as sea birds swoop hither and yon in search of food. In Antarctica, your view is dominated by hundreds upon hundreds of icebergs which broke away from the frozen continent come winter’s end.

As she worked her cross-trainer, B was struck by the amusing thought that whereas in October, where all we ever seemed to see were shipping containers at every port, now icebergs dominated the landscape. Deciding which sight she preferred was not difficult.

Indeed, some of the icebergs in her path were the size and shape of a shipping container, with lovely symmetrical sides; one plane illuminated brightly by the sun, the other cast a darker shade of white.

Before long, Huckleberry B was seeing all kinds of objects floating in the water. One iceberg resembled a massive slice of white chocolate cake. Another had the rounded quality of a fire warden’s helmet. Yet another looked like an aeroplane floating in the water, complete with wings and a tail fin.

Doubtless, nobody will be surprised to learn that, in B’s mind’s eye, the dimensions of more than one iceberg resembled the shape of a sleeping Cavalier King Charles Spaniel or two.

By the end of her session in the gym, B’s common sense had been vanquished by her imagination. Now she was the ice pilot! Her eyes were cast upon the horizon, planning in advance the course Veendam should take, weaving between the icebergs; avoiding the massive ones, skirting around the large ones and trampling the insignificant ones.  She leaned left or right in order to influence our vessel’s path through this complex maze. Remarkably, our ship followed her command!

Finishing her work-out, Huck B draped a towel over her shoulder and congratulated herself on several jobs well done.

The Mountains of Antarctica

One of the surprising aspects of the Antarctic landscape is the towering mountains which are often in evidence.

Our first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula was at Palmer Station on Anvers Island, when some zodiacs where launched to deliver some scientists to the American base. At this point, the land mass only rose a short distance above the level of the surrounding sea with white hills rolling to the horizon.

However, once Veendam headed further south to the Lemaire Channel, the landscape changed dramatically. The icebergs became more abundant and our view was now dominated by white cliff-faces which rose sharply from the ocean and soared into the sky above us. We felt dwarfed in our small vessel.

I had always envisaged Antarctica to be predominantly flat. I was completely wrong. The terrain is amongst the most exhilarating Huckleberry B and I have seen, even without the snow. When cast in brilliant white snow, the panorama is nothing short of breathtaking.

New Year’s Eve at Elephant Island

On the last morning of 2009, Veendam steamed north-east along the Antarctic Peninsula and attempted to enter Hope Bay and head towards Paulet Island.

The scenery was again spectacular, with abundant icebergs, rolling white plains and soaring mountain peaks. However, we were only half way along Hope Bay when our Captain announced that there was too much pack ice in our path to continue.

Thereafter, we headed north and by 10pm on New Year’s Eve, we had reached Elephant Island. Readers may recall that this is where Sir Ernest Shackleton left 22 of his men whilst he and three colleagues made the treacherous sea journey to South Georgia Island in search of help.

The sun never really abandons the Antarctic Peninsula during summer. Whilst it does disappear over the horizon at around 11pm, the night does not become completely dark. Even at 2am, the sky resembles dusk. Indeed, during those wonderful days cruising Antarctica, there was enough light penetrating our curtains at night to necessitate sleeping masks in order to fall asleep.

And so Huckleberry B and I celebrated New Year’s Eve – and the dawn of a new decade – by dancing slowly on our balcony, still dressed in ball gown and tuxedo, whilst the pale Antarctic sun illuminated a snow-clad Elephant Island. It was a fitting way to cap a remarkable adventure.

Moonriver

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