It’s a strange time of year to be away from family and home. I’m so used to spending my December holidays in the sweltering heat of Cape Town’s northern suburbs with a few visits to the beach and the maddening shops. However, the strangeness of spending this time of year in the antarctic only serves to add to the unique experience of being here.
Tahlia, that explosive ball of sass and sweet kindness, has finally joined the cruise after a smooth flight to Antarctica. Chief scientist Tahlia, who demands militant-like escorting to supper by Steve and I, managed to join us on Christmas eve. We retrieved her from the Germans who treated her to a bed, skidoo rides and fine German beer. T had just come off of a very eventful and memorable leg 0 of the ACE cruise and now, only days later, she’s on our cruise. She has her work cut out for her; scientific administration, managing of scientists (an often barbarous group) and her own mooring op all fall under her jurisdiction. She has a hunger to assume her office honourably and in time, as we shall see, she will have her fill.
Christmas and New Years were both celebrated aboard the vessel. Christmas was a special time because we, the passengers, as well as the officers and the crew shared a Christmas lunch together. Normally passengers, officers and crew dine in their respective messes. That evening a beach party was held in the lounge and everyone got gifts as part of a ‘secret santa’ shindig. New Years was celebrated with a suitcase party—everyone fills a suitcase with an outfit, the suitcase gets given to another passenger at random and then everyone wears what they find in their given suitcase. Through scheming, stealth and recce-like execution we managed to ensure that Tahlia was given a suitcase with a Springbok jersey in it. Tahlia, by her Maori heritage, supports the All Blacks (as good a reason to support that colonial rabble as I’ve ever heard). So getting her into that jersey was a satisfying feeling. All in all, a great time was had as we celebrated the silly season.
It was around this time that what came to be known as ‘The Great Penguin Hunt’ took place. The birders aboard the vessel were looking to tag a number of Adelie penguins in Antarctica while they had the chance. A motley crew was assembled and prepared to enter the gauntlet of the Adelie empire. Lowered onto the ice beside the ship, the hunting party inspected the ice as I watched on from the bow which rested upon the bay ice. The strategy communicated between the hunters and the penguins drawn in by natural inquisitiveness, the ambush was set. When the small group of penguins realised they were surrounded, panic set in and the retreat began! The assemblage of Homo Sapiens were bent double in a comedy of errors. Rugby player (yes you, Clinton), pensioner, engineer, student, Maori and some guy from Durban called Steve were all initially outdone by the avian platoon. However, after a few moments of being humbled the hunters started to snag their booty. One by one, penguins were seized and brought in for tagging. The tags are harmless and fall off after a couple of months. The data collected will help to better understand the behaviour of these penguins—vital information considering the breeding success of the Adelies was 0% in our area for this breeding season. And so, the ping-pings were released after tagging and the hunting party returned to the vessel, their job done.
While sailing through open waters we performed a set of CTD (conductivity temperature depth) casts. A CTD holds instrumentation that gives real-time measurements of the conductivity, temperature and depth of the ocean. It also holds bottles used for collecting water samples at varying depths. Our oceanography team was trained by Tahlia, an old hand at CTD casts, to operate the CTD winch on these casts, effectively moulding us into CTD winch operators. The title came at the expense of sleep, however; CTDs continue through the night as need be. Often there is little time to waste.
As we sailed through a stretch of open water we saw some whales while standing in the bridge. At this point I spoke my mind to Steve, saying “Imagine if right now, orcas surface right next to the ship!” While they did not surface right next to the ship, they surfaced moments later about 300–400 metres off our port side. They were gone too fast to guess their number, but a short time later, with everyone on high alert, two orcas were spotted about 10 metres off our starboard bow heading straight for the ship! At the last moment the two orcas dived under our ship and didn’t show themselves again. While the encounter was brief, we managed to glimpse wild orcas. Another antarctic bucket list item to scratch off.
Steve and I have decided to spend a little bit of time on the outside decks each day. It’s easy to just stay inside and grow accustomed to the frozen fortress around us. Knowing that we won’t be here forever, we decided to purposefully engage with Antarctica. We will soon reach the halfway mark of our adventure—a bleak thought. But great opportunities are still to come and we will grab at them with both hands.