Monday 23 December. Day 16

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23 12 13 - 20:16

It’s past 1am. It’s hard to make yourself go to bed when it’s constant daylight outside. I’ve just returned to my cabin after a bracing constitutional around the deck, following a very pleasant evening socialising and imbibing a not inconsiderable amount of red wine.

The ship is making very slow progress through pack ice. There is a narrow channel that we are inching our way along – it of course is pretty frozen in itself. There are icebergs on either side of us, some kilometres away – hard to tell exactly how far. We oscillate between hardly moving to suddenly being jolted sideways with a crunch as the ship bashes and barges its way through.

It’s blowing a gale, snowing slightly, visibility not brilliant, rather gloomy and grubby. I’ve got the porthole window open a whisker and the wind is whistling through it. Most of the day the temperature was minus 2 or less; it’s probably not that much colder than that now, but the windchill will make it somewhere equivalent to minus 15.

We were out in similar conditions this afternoon. Somewhat brighter – in fact there was blue sky and sunshine for some periods. The weather has been better than the forecast blizzard, so that was good.

We had another fabulous day, albeit with a few mishaps. We made the continent! Or almost! To one of Hodgeman’s Islets west of the Mertz Glacier. It may or may not have been connected to the mainland. Regardless, it was made of rock!

It was an 8km journey from the ship, traversed by Argo, quad bike and skis. The surface was firm – a pleasant change from the previous few trips. Steve and Peter the skiers described it as being like skiing on an ice rink. The Argo journey was however still something to endure rather than enjoy.

The enjoyment was being there. Rock in this part of the world equals penguin rookery. It was a fabulous privilege to clamber up the rock and stand amongst hundreds of Adelie Penguins on their nests made of stones, sitting on their eggs which are about to hatch. I saw one penguin surefootedly and sure-beakedly carry a rather large rock in its bill – some 5cm or so across, drop it on the edge of the nest being sat on by its partner, then proudly stand up tall as if to proclaim his or her superior skill in hunting and gathering for nest material. It was really lovely to be able to observe this part of penguins’ lives, given how much I have got to know their habits and characteristics over the last week.

Weddell seals were also there in numbers. Tracey the seal ecologist managed to collect tissue samples from 6, by shooting them with a biopsy dart which penetrates just enough to collect a very small sample of hair skin and blubber.

Seals also featured in one of the dramas of the day –whilst gaining a closer look at the seals Mary fell through an iced over tide crack and found herself on her back, in the freezing water, back pack drenched and only the narrowness of the tide crack stopping her from going much, much deeper! She was rescued pretty promptly, and didn’t get so wet that her life jacket deployed ( life jackets are standard attire whenever we are off the ship– they are small neat packages looking like an oversized pair of braces that will expand when they hit water. )

The first drama of the day was the sinking – or almost! – of one of the Argos. The Argos are designed to be amphibious – just. They were launched today off the ship – and two of the three made it safely being towed by a zodiac the 50 metres or so to shore. The third was towed too fast it seems – and water came over the bonnet / bow, flooding both the engine and the vehicle itself. Ben tried in vain to bail out with a spade and luckily they made it to shore before the vehicle sunk entirely. Ben ended up rather wet too, but similarly to Mary, not submerged enough for the lifejacket to come into play. Sadly Argo engines don’t take too kindly to being submerged… the ships engineers are still working on it and not very optimistic about its prospects.

The third drama of the day is the one which is still unfolding. Because of the Argo mishap we got off late, and had one less vehicle to ferry people to and fro. I’m told the Captain was becoming rather definite late in the afternoon that we needed to get everyone back on board ASAP because of the coming weather and the ice closing in. As I write we are continuing to make extremely slow progress through what looks like a winter alpine snow field – it’s yet another surreal part of this journey that we are in a ship trying to barge our way through here! I’m sure the Captain would have been much happier if we had got away a few hours earlier. Maybe we would have made it through the worst before it consolidated as much as it has with the very cold south- easterly winds blowing the ice away from the coast, around and behind us as well as ahead.

We’ll see where we are in the morning – it may be a very white Christmas Eve!

PS. 9.30am 24/12. We have moved less than a kilometre over night, and are now stationary in a sea of ice. The word is that we are not stuck, merely waiting for a weather change. It seems to me that we are having the quintessential Antarctic experience.J Stay tuned.


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