At the End of World: My diary from the Antarctic – Part 1
At the beginning of 2018 the Greenpeace ship – the Arctic Sunrise – embarked on an epic journey to the Antarctic. It carried a team of campaigners, photographers, film-makers, scientists and journalists from across the globe with the aim to build the case for the world’s largest protected area: an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary.
Chris Till was one of the campaigners on the ship. His daily updates give us an inspirational insight into what it is like to travel to the Antarctic on a Greenpeace ship…
Ship’s Log – Day 1
After a long journey to the southern end of South America, and days of waiting for provisions and equipment, yesterday evening we finally threw off the lines, and set sail south to the Antarctic on the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise. Overnight we made our way through the Strait of Magellan, and then turned down the coast of Chile. Not far from port, we were joined by a pod of commerson’s dolphins (also known as panda dolphins because of their distinctive black and white colouring) which played in the waves at the bow of the ship.
TL;DR – Today we set off for the Antarctic and met some panda dolphins along the way.
Ship’s Log – Day 2
This morning we made the scary decision that, though there is rough weather ahead of us, we are going to push ahead through the Drake Passage, as the weather’s only going to get worse over the week ahead so there’s no point in trying to wait it out.
The Drake is the stretch of water between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, and is renowned for some of the roughest waters on the planet. The waves steadily picked up through the day, and more and more people on board excused themselves and went to lie down in their cabins.
The higher you go in the ship, the more extreme the movement, and I’m lucky that my cabin is tucked down on the lowest level and in the middle of the ship. I managed an entertaining shower during the afternoon – the first time I’ve ever had to hold on to something to stay upright while washing my hair.
TL;DR – We decided to brave some bad weather and head straight into some of the roughest waters in the world.
Ship’s Log – Day 3
Last night was the roughest it’s been so far, with the waves getting up to about 5 metres, and very little sleep. The Arctic Sunrise is affectionately known as ‘the washing machine’ – she’s an icebreaker with a rounded hull and no keel, which means she rolls (the sideways motion) and pitches (the bow/front and stern/back going up and down) like anything.
We checked what other ships were braving these seas this morning – there are a few, but they’re all a lot bigger than us.
I seem to be dealing with the seasickness better than many of my colleagues – I spent the morning in bed but then got up and about. Of course our crew of hardened sailors are taking it in their stride (and slightly revel in the newbies’ misery). The outside decks of the ship are off limits as they’re too dangerous in this weather, so I spent an hour of the afternoon watching the waves from the bridge.
The birdwatching is good too: I saw wandering, royal and black-browed albatrosses all circling the ship, as well as lots of tiny Wilson’s storm petrels dancing close to the waves. These petrels are so small that it seems ridiculous they should stray this far from land, but they’re actually in their element: they’re also known as Jesus birds because of the way they seem to walk on the water’s surface.
TL;DR – Rough night in Drake’s Passage, but the bird watching was amazing.
Ship’s Log – Day 4
This journey just keeps on going. The waves have dropped a little, so life is definitely more comfortable, and that also means we’re making faster progress than we were yesterday – we should hopefully reach the South Shetlands tomorrow morning. Alison Sudol, one of our two on-board Antarctic Ambassadors, was up and about today, and with little else to do except wait this journey out, we watched When Harry Met Sally in the lounge.
TL;DR – Movies with a movie star.
Ship’s Log – Day 5
We’ve reached the ice – I think that means we’re officially in the Antarctic! Given the weather is still looking unsettled over the next few days, we decided to push on past the South Shetlands to the more sheltered waters of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Getting where we’re going means sailing through the Gerlache Strait, a stretch of water between the Peninsula and the islands off to its west. It’s simply stunning – tall black mountains disappearing into thick cloud; towering glaciers on either side, and chunks of ice in myriad shades of blue and white. I read that older ice can be blue because of its increased density: snow falling on top of the glacier weighs down on the ice, squeezing out the air bubbles, and that density means that longer wavelengths of light are absorbed by the ice rather than being refracted out, leaving just the blues. These tiny pockets of trapped air are also the reason this glacial ice pops and crackles as it melts.
This afternoon we had biosecurity and wildlife briefings to prepare for our planned landings – biosecurity (which includes regular and routine scrubbing and disinfecting of all kit pre and post each visit) to ensure we don’t introduce non-native species or transfer pathogens between different penguin colonies; wildlife (minimum safe distances and behaviour to look out for) to help us avoid disturbing the animals we would encounter or ending up on the toothy end of an angry fur seal.
TL;DR – We reached the Antarctic and found out why some ice looks blue (instead of white).
Ship’s Log – Day 6
Today we landed on Danco Island, finally touching down on the Antarctic and the first time off the ship in six days. The island used to be the site of a British research base, abandoned in the 1950s, finally removed in the early 2000s leaving just the concrete foundations, and now home to a big colony of gentoo penguins.
At this time of year the colony is full of chicks, and there’s a very evident fledging system: on the highest points of the island, the chicks small enough to be in the nest are constantly minded by one parent (which keeps away the scavenging skua and giant petrels), while the other heads out to sea to forage for food. Once a little older though still covered in grey fluff, the chicks move down to a ‘crèche’ area on the beach, at which point both parents are free to forage, and the chicks have a kind of safety in numbers.
The drama on the beach came from the moments that the parents suddenly stop feeding and speed off across the beach being pursued by squawking chicks – apparently this is typical gentoo behaviour and it’s thought that it happens because the penguins often have more than one chick, and making the chicks run for their food ensures that only the fit survive.
This evening we had a few beers to celebrate the fact that our photographer, Daniel Beltrá, found out he’d won a big international award for a big series of photos he’d taken during a Greenpeace expedition to the Amazon. Here’s hoping he can do the same for this trip!
TL;DR – We began filming on land. Penguin chicks and their parents proved to be very entertaining. Also one of our photographers won an award!
Ship’s Log – Day 7
This morning we planned to climb a glacier to visit the colony of chinstrap penguins above. It didn’t quite go to plan, as the beach where we’d intended to land was so covered with fur seals that we’d be unable to get ashore without disturbing them. It was in no way a wasted trip though: on our way back to the ship, we were able to get some great images of a huge leopard seal hauled out on an iceberg.
These ambush predators can reach up to 3.8m and have huge, almost reptilian heads, perfect for their preferred diet of penguin. In the afternoon we had a more successful landing, this time at Cuverville Island, for another colony of gentoos. The ambition on this landing was to give our other Antarctic Ambassador, David Harbour, time to fulfil his Twitter challenge and film his much anticipated ‘Dance with the Penguins’ – something we said we’d help him do if he could get 200,000 retweets. Almost 400,000 retweets and a huge amount of press coverage for the campaign later, I was dropping David off on an Antarctic beach with a camera. The gentoos certainly obliged, providing a wonderful backdrop for the video.
On the way back to the Arctic Sunrise, we had a bonus, beautiful sighting of mother and calf humpback whales. In the stillness after we switched off the engine of our boat to avoid disturbing them, all you could hear was the huge blow and inhalation of the whales as they circled us for a while before diving back down to feed.
TL;DR – David Harbour (Hopper on TV show Stranger Things) danced with penguins.
Ship’s Log – Day 8
Today, the weather didn’t play ball. We’ve spent the last couple of days staying quite far south on the Antarctic Peninsula, hoping for a weather window that would allow us to land journalist Matt Taylor from the Guardian on A68, the huge iceberg that last year broke off from the Larsen C iceshelf. We always knew it was going to be a long shot given the helicopter would need to cross the peninsula, requiring visibility all the way up over the mountains and calm conditions on both sides of the ridge. Sadly, today we had to admit that it wasn’t going to happen in the time we had.
Instead, we spent much of the day doing water sampling for micro-plastics. This involves deploying off the side of the ship a manta trawl, a wide mouthed net named for its similar appearance to the ray, and moving forward at very slow speed. The net funnels down to a much smaller device, which both measures the volume of water passing through and filters out anything suspended in it. The hope would be that it would be a mixture of plankton and fragments of floating organic matter. Sadly, in nearly every trawl Greenpeace has done around the world there has been evidence of micro-plastics, and we were testing to see if this was even true in these remote waters. The samples will be sent back to our labs in Exeter for analysis.
These trawls are more difficult in the Antarctic because you have to find a stretch of water that is entirely ice free. Even having managed that, we still had to abandon one run because a care-free humpback whale almost ploughed into the net swimming right up alongside the ship – the manta trawl would definitely have come of worse if we hadn’t pulled it up out of sea with seconds to spare.
TL;DR – We tested for micro-plastic in Antarctic waters, but the ice and whales in the water made things difficult!
Ship’s Log – Day 9
This morning we arrived at Deception Island, at the southern end of the South Shetland Islands. The island certainly lives up to its name – an active volcano with a flooded caldera, there is just a narrow gap in the circular wall through which our ship could pass. The waters inside are noticeably warmer, and this affects the whole climate: rather than huge glaciers, snow-covered slopes and icebergs, there was open water, exposed rock and grubby patches of ice clinging to the slopes.
It felt more like landing on Mars than another Antarctic beach – an impression aided by the vast abandoned whaling station with huge rusting tanks and decaying buildings. The whalers were attracted by the safe harbour and surrounding seas full of whales, though I’m sure the fact that holes dug on the beach quickly became steaming hot baths was a big bonus for weary seamen. The island was spectacularly atmospheric: surrounded by towering cliffs and wafted over by clouds of sulphuric stream, the station is now overrun by huge numbers of fur seals playing and jostling for space. Walking along the beach, we found our path at one point blocked by a leopard seal. Later, walking back the same way, the seal had returned to sea, leaving only its huge tracks in the sand and a pile of regurgitated penguin remains.
TL;DR – We landed near an old whaling station that had been taken over by fur seals. It felt like landing on another planet.
Ship’s Log – Day 10
It’s surprising quite how much the Antarctic is marked by humans exploiting it for its riches. This morning we landed at Yankee Harbour: previously a nineteenth century sealing base, the beach is still home to the big iron pot that was used for melting down seal blubber. Now the bay is most remarkable for its gentoo penguin colony.
Guidelines state that you should maintain a distance of 5m from penguins to avoid disturbing them, though no one appears to have told the penguins. Sitting down on the beach, I was immediately surrounded by curious chicks, one even pecking at my boot.
From the boat on the way back to the ship, we saw one unfortunate gentoo caught by a fur seal. We followed a lengthy chase across the beach in which it was obvious that neither predator nor prey was in its element. Despite a serious mauling, the gentoo eventually escaped its captor with what looked like just a bit of a limp. The nonchalance of the other nearby gentoos was perhaps the most surprising thing of the whole event, with some watching on from just feet away.
The afternoon I spent filming with Alison Sudol, who is presenting a short video we’re creating for International Women’s Day about the incredible women working in this environment which was historically so dominated by men.
TL;DR – Today I saw curious penguin chicks and an epic battle between a gentoo penguin and a fur seal.