Archive for the 'Antarctica 2009' Category

The Sixtyfifth Latitude

It is a difficult job to narrate the events of the last three days in a few paragraphs, but here is an attempt. Wednesday morning we awoke surrounded by bergs and islands, ice on all sides. A morning landing at Neko Habour, first footsteps on the mainland of the peninsular. There was some group discussion onshore and a walk up a snow hill to watch the calving of the ice coastline. A large chunk of ice gave way to the sea. Back to the ship for lunch. I spent the duration of the afternoon on the ship bow. The water was peculiarly flat and the sun was warming. We drifted through a narrow channel in between islands and bergs. The colours of the ice and sky reflected vividly in the water. Back to the gangway late afternoon equipped with sleeping bags and bivy sacks.

We were taxied out to a small island in Paradise Bay to setup camp for the night, getting busy building ice walls for shelter. We had a tent per team but most people, myself included, opted to sleep under the stars. I skipped dinner and stayed on the island until the following morning. Ice cliffs ashore thundered with the occasional calving. As is normal at this latitude, there were uninterrupted views of an extended sunset. Brilliant yellow-pink colours eclipsing the polar landscape. I watched the silhouette of the Ioffe sail out of the bay to leave us isolated on the island. The sky was fabulously exposed, I have never seen so many stars. Frequent glimpses of shooting stars and satellites. We stood around watching the sunset and gazing at the sky, eating energy bars and chatting about trivial things as if it were normal. By the time I buried myself in my sleeping bag my eyes were heavy, but I found it difficult to let go of the night sky and the faint outline of a glacier behind me.

Thursday morning we awoke before dawn to pack up camp and return to the ship for breakfast. Makes a change from Jumper’s usual “team inspire, team inspire, team inspire” wakeup call. Back on the ship bow to admire the peninsula coastline, spotting the occasional penguin and whale. In the afternoon we arrived at the Ukranian research base, Vernadsky, at the 65th latitude as far south as we would go. It’s wintering over time and we are the last ship this far south. Thus, following standard protocol, we are obliged to drop off supplies for the Ukrainians. It was intriguing looking around the base. Rob was last here at my age, when it was a British base. When we Brits were done with the base it was passed it on to the Ukrainians for a dollar. Behind Vernadsky still stands a pre-existing British base from the 1920’s, Wordie House. We were ferried out to see this frozen time capsule, preserved in the exact state it was left centuries ago.

Returning to the ship we congregated on the bow for a team photo and a ship ceremony before turning our backs to the pole and making for the Drake. A wave of euphoria as the trip climaxes at the most southern point we will likely venture ever again. Some bright spark observes that the ship’s outdoor plunge pool has been filled with sea water. Next thing I know I’m jumping into the ice cold water in my summer boardies. We spend the remainder of the afternoon dipping in and out of the pool and recovering in the sauna. For some reason me, Nial and Dave decide it would be fun to go through this ordeal ten times. It took no less than twenty minutes sitting in the sauna after the final plunge to fully recover. Good times. Up to the top deck to watch the sunset before dinner, one last glimpse of the Antarctic peninsular before the dreaded passage home. Rob Swan’s final presentation in the evening. Drinks all round at the bar.

Friday morning and we are back to empty horizons and the swagger of the ship as we pursue Cape Horn on the Drake Passage. People busy themselves with their various workshops and teams. I attend two sessions with David Noble and Kartikeya on their respective projects, 2DegreesC and the Indian Youth Climate Network. The passage is relatively calm, but the ship is rocking around a sufficient amount to bring on bouts of sea sickness. I am abstaining from taking any medication as I don’t plan on revisiting the delirium of the journey down here. For the first time on this trip I couldn’t face a full dinner. I finished my first course and headed out on the lower deck. I stood there, headphone in one ear with the other free for the ocean. Both hands firmly on the handrail as the waves threaten to breach the deck. It was a good time to collect my thoughts and re-engage with life as it will resume in a couple of days, stilla foreign concept as I contemplate it now. I sat in the bar for the remainder of the evening until everyone disappeared to bed.

So today is Saturday, final day onboard the Ioffe. I have paid off the bar tab and am beginning to think about packing. Workshops and sessions will continue through the day, I plan on being out on deck for much of it. We should be past the Cape by late afternoon, slowing pace in the Beagle channel for a final night before alighting in Ushuaia. This has been a mental and a physical journey. It has been the tipping point for re-examining my future, my aspirations, my “thirty years”. Robert Swan and Antarctica have been the inspiration. Viviane Cox and BP have been the enablers. The people have been the passion. Thank you all.


Gerlache Strait

Today I had the best day. To recount the events of this morning genuinely feels like rewinding a week. I rolled out of bed at 6:15 for an early shower to be on the bridge at 6:30 for sunrise. Overnight the ship had been covered in a blanket of snow which made for magnificent viewing against the white backdrop of the islands and bergs. Another grand breakfast and a group “reflection” session, then back to the top deck for a spot of whale watching. First whale sighting of the trip within a few minutes of standing there – a humpback broke the surface fully emerged. Several fin sightings followed.

During the remainder of the morning we offloaded onto Zodiacs and motored around the islands and bergs for a couple of hours. We encountered at least three pods of humpback whales including an enormous lone whale that came very close to the boat. Other sightings of fur seals, a leopard seal and some beautiful iceberg formations. White mountains on the horizon blended seamlessly into the clouds, juxtaposed against a radiant blue from the rarefaction of the bergs. Incredible scenery to be zipping around in a Zodiac.

Lunch on the boat and more time on deck, followed by a swift attack of the mud room to be on the gangway ready for the first Zodiac launch of the afternoon. The ship anchored off the Gerlache Strait and we taxied out in the Zodiacs to disembark on Cuverville Island. We were given all afternoon to explore the beach, awash with Gentoo penguin colonies, and a snow slope immediately behind. Again, the scenery was stunning. The sun was out to share in the glory too. I spent a good period of time just sitting on the slope staring out into the bay, absorbing my surroundings. Ample time for some snow sliding on the slope and a good deal of penguin observing.

We were all wearing big smiles onboard this evening. One of the crew had taken it upon themselves to bring a large chunk of ten thousand year old ice back to the ship for the barman. Scotch promptly became the order of the day. I am in total awe of this place. It’s beauty, its “untouchableness,” its remoteness, its aura. To think we are the last ship this far south, the place is ours. I cannot wait to see what is in store for tomorrow.

The First Landing

First thing I did this morning was to throw on my clothes and head to the bridge. The storm completely passed overnight, though judging by the amount of rocking and sliding in my bed it got worse before it got better. This morning the sea was flat. A new wave of excitement – Antarctic islands and icebergs springing up on the horizon. I ate breakfast this morning watching icebergs float by the porthole windows of the dining room. That set me up for a day on full throttle; no sea sickness, no drowsiness, 100 percent health and spirit.

A quick briefing on Robert Swan’s e-base and I got kitted up and headed out onto the lower deck ready for the Zodiac launch. We anchored up at King George Island, the most populated part of Antarctica with scientist communities from all parts of the globe. A short zodiac taxi across to the island and a first sighting of a chinstrap penguin and a seal. We then took a walk up to the e-base that Rob and his team have brilliantly constructed, running entirely on renewable energy. One of the wind generators was down due to the excessive 80-90 knot winds of last night (50 knots is hurricane level). We then set out on an hour’s walk to a glacier at the end of a cobble beach, before returning to the Zodiacs and lunch back onboard. The place is incredible. I really cannot literate anything more than that. It is a white wilderness with spectacular scenery – no doubt the photos will attest to that much. But most palpable is its sense of “untouchableness.” In spite of the gigantic Russian oil drums left to rust on the shore and the scientist community living on King George Island, this continent is quite simply the last place on earth untouched and untouchable by mankind. There are no governments, no laws, no wars and scarcely any human life. I hope it stays this way.

This afternoon I went to a session by a chap from the BP Institute at Cambridge University, followed by an attempt at whale spotting on the top deck, to no avail, and a session on the geology of Antarctica in the presentation room. After dinner Rob delivered part two of his presentation. I can’t understate the admiration I have for this quintessentially British eccentric and his story of ambition, vision, conviction and achievement.

I am once again reminded of the peculiarity of the position I am in. We just sailed clean through a storm of 40 foot waves, which I understand ripped all of the cargo off the back of a Chilean ship in the passage last night and all but caused it to capsize. This morning I walked on the continent of Antarctica. There is little more to recount than that. Rob, his team, and this place are truly inspiring. I will do my utmost to capture all of that over the next three days. Good night from Antarctica.

The Drake gets Gnarley

Conditions in the passage have gotten a little rougher. At 20:30 last night we crossed the Antarctic convergence, where 8-9 degree waters of the north meet 2-3 degree waters of the south. Geographically, we are now in Antarctic waters. Since I last wrote the swell has become progressively more pronounced. Last night I spent some time on the top deck looking out over the ship’s bow as we navigated the waves. It was a lot different to Thursday night when we stood star gazing in comfortable clothing. Last night I was dressed in full wet weather gear, the wind was howling, the air was cold, spray was washing over the surface of the deck and I had to hold on tight to maintain balance. I loved it.

Overnight the swell picked up and I awoke this morning to an invitation on the tannoy up to the captain’s bridge. I eagerly got out of bed to watch the ship battle the swell from the bridge, with the occasional wave spraying up onto the windows. All decks are closed, with the exception of the smoker’s area on the lower deck outside the lounge. We are in a storm of force 8, but I am advised the swell is coming from a larger storm, with winds of up to 80 to 90 knots reported on the South Shetland Islands (where we are heading). The waves have had a sufficient period of time to become organised, and the report from the bridge is that we have been in waves of up to 40 foot, peak to trough. This afternoon we were in “hove to” mode (I think that’s how you say it) which means we had two engines running, but were not actually going anywhere. The aim was just to let the swell pass and wait for flatter sea. This is the first time that Robert Swan has been in such a position. I believe we are moving now, but only at 5 or 6 knots until the waves subside in the early hours of tomorrow morning. It has set us back a bit, but not by too much.

All that aside, things onboard are rosy. The Ioffe is more than equipped to handle these conditions with its stabilisers and experienced crew. The ship is swaying wildly as I sit in my cabin, and there is the odd crash and creak as the waves test the strength of the vessel, but nothing has stopped us from enjoying the usual three course meal in the dining room and a customary drink at the bar.

This evening we gathered in the dining room to hear the first part of Robert Swan’s story and his trip to the South Pole in the footsteps of Amundsen and Scott, the first unassisted walk of its kind. We learned about his seven years in London scrambling for the funds and resources to make such a journey and the first half of the expedition itself, up to the sinking of the Southern Quest which was due to take the team home on their return from the pole. It is utterly inspiring, listening to the achievements of Rob and his team, whilst bobbing around in the middle of the Drake Passage in a force 8 storm.

There was definitely light snow when I sat outside the lounge on the lower deck earlier, and according to Jumper the temperature has now dropped to sub-zero. Signs that we are getting closer to the continent. I’m just off to relax in the lounge for a bit before bed.

Like most people seem to have done, I spent a lot of the day in bed. I haven’t been physically sick as many have, but I am certainly not immune to feeling the effects of sea sickness. The medication I am taking also causes drowsiness, which doesn’t help. There’s a trade-off between feeling sick or feeling drowsy, both of which seem to lead to more time in bed. At least I am not missing much with the closure of the bridge and all decks outside. As a result, I am now wide awake. I am growing accustomed to feeling below par. Hopefully I will be able to get a reasonable amount of sleep tonight in order to be fresh and alert tomorrow morning when we are scheduled to arrive at our first destination on the peninsular.

South of Everything

We are currently in the Drake. Conditions are relatively calm, although the swell has gradually been increasing since we entered the passage last night. I am getting used to swaggering my way around the ship. The shower this morning was a new experience and there were a few incidents of sliding chairs at the lunch table. Apart from that, things are calm. We are riding on the front of a depression behind us, so I am told it should remain relatively calm. Of course, all that could change.

Breakfast was at 8 this morning, followed by a morning session with our respective teams. My team’s discussion on the theme of leadership took a step back and looked at the broader concepts in order to delve deeper in the context of global challenges. My contribution to the discussion is to frame leadership on two levels; an evolving dynamic of collaborative work on the macro level, and an attribute of the individual on the micro level, a mindset and a set of competencies.

This afternoon I attended a session on energy in China and the challenges there. To put this in context, china’s annual growth in demand for energy is larger than total annual UK energy consumption. Given the research intensity that is going on in China right now, I wonder how soon it will be before China overtakes the developed world in terms of technology and energy efficiency. This is major opportunity for the developing world. What would happen if countries like China and India turned the traditional focus on technology transfer from the developed world on its head, and became the pioneers of energy technology in a new economy? It’s ambitious I know, but the discussion certainly needs to be framed in the context of drivers. Developed world countries are driven by the need for energy conservation, developing world countries are driven by the need for energy efficiency and economic growth. We can’t be realistic about hitting meaningful targets without the developing world on-side, and we can’t bring the developing world on-side without a means of addressing the energy-growth paradox.

A long way from home

A long way from home

I’ve just returned to my cabin after a briefing session on the Zodiac boats we will use to explore the Antarctic peninsular. The swell has just picked up. A wave just blew over onto the cabin windows. I am eager to go back on deck after I finish writing this. I have found my favourite place in the whole of the ship; an overhanging platform on the port side of the bridge. I stood there for half an hour today transfixed by the empty horizon. No land in sight, just sea and sky and a pair of Cape Petrel. Something that seems quite profound to my mind is how far south of everything I am. I stood on the platform with my back to the world. Everything I know is north of here. I’ve left all that behind. The Akademik Ioffe is the last ship of the season to venture this far South, so the only people south of here now will be the scientists and researchers who have setup camp on Antarctica for the winter. We are transporting food supplies for one such contingent. No other ships will come out this way for a few months, which leaves the entire region free for us to explore unabated. What a place to be. I’m off for further ocean gazing on the top deck.

Embarkation Day

As I write we are in the Beagle channel onboard the Ioffe, a few of hours south of Ushuaia. This is ‘embarkation day.’ Only a few hours ago this adventure still felt like a dream. Now it is sinking in. Things kicked off this morning with the arrival of Robert Swan and the 2041 crew, straight off the ship from a previous trip. He kicked things into action with an inspiring introduction followed by a talk from the ship’s safety officer, a fellow named Jumper. Reality was brought a little closer with talk of ‘Bronco-5’ and ‘Me First’ rules and the peril of encounters with leopard seals. We spent the rest of the morning session dividing into groups on the dynamics behind the challenge of climate change according to broad themes that have arisen in discussions thus far. I will be spending much of my time during the crossing with a team discussing the theme of leadership. 

This afternoon I headed into town to buy some sea sickness tablets and have lunch. Mid-afternoon we boarded the ship and spent a while orientating ourselves with the layout. Buffet snacks and champagne were awaiting us in the dining room. Late afternoon we congregated on the deck outside watching groups of seals playing in the waves from the ship, abruptly followed by an emergency drill. I have just finished dinner and am now sitting in my cabin. As we move further out into the channel the ship is swaying from side to side by increasing magnitude. 

A depression is forming over the passage, which we enter around midnight tonight. Robert Swan commented in passing that the next 36 hours could be choppy. I am ready for it. I don’t want to cross the roughest see in the world and not have a few stories to tell. That may mean that this is coming at you with a slight delay, as I am advised the ship could be too shaky for the satellite connection.

I’m about to “drake proof” the cabin on advice from the crew, before a few light drinks in the lounge bar. I can’t think of anything philosophical to reflect upon this moment, other that what a fantastic and unique experience this really is. I plan to fullye xploit that. Good night!

First Day in Ushuaia

Today has been insightful. Things kicked off this morning in the conference room of a hotel across the road. Vivienne Cox, the CEO of BP Alternative Energy introduced us to the programme and delivered an inspiring speech about what to expect from the experience. The afternoon session was led by Peter Senge of MIT, whom I met earlier at the breakfast table. We were split into three groups with a view to approaching the challenge of climate change from the perspective of Developed, Developing A and Developing B countries. Three sets of targets for energy efficiency and emission abatement were plugged into a simulation model developed by the IPCC, which made for some interesting observations. Even with the most optimistic targets, it is seemingly impossible to get the CO2 concentration down to safe levels by 2100. Food for thought. This afternoon I opted for a walk up to the glacier behind the hotel. Was great to stretch the legs and get out into the open for a while. The views are fantastic.

There is a glorious view over the bay that I discovered this morning over breakfast, gateway to the Drake Passage, and an equally spectacular view of the city from the glacier this afternoon. I’m off to dinner now, will check in again tomorrow. Good evening all from Ushuaia!

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