At the End of the World: My diary from the Antarctic – Part 2
Chris Till was one of the people that made the journey to the Antarctic in an effort to raise awareness for an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary. His daily updates give us an inspirational insight into what it is like to travel to the Antarctic on a Greenpeace ship…
This is part two, if you missed it, head here for part one.
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.
Ship’s Log – Day 11
We woke up with glorious blue skies over Half Moon Bay. But today was a reminder that working in the Antarctic can be hard even in the best of conditions. Our first landing had to be aborted because the direction and size of the swell made a beach landing impossible. Our second attempt was abandoned because, again, the beach was covered with fur seals.
In between, our jet boat managed to suck up some free-floating kelp which then entangled the impeller – boat driver Grant had to spend ten minutes free diving beneath us to free up the mechanism so we could get back to the ship. Even with experienced crew, this is not an easy place to operate. Today drove home how lucky we’ve been to be able to accomplish all we have in the expedition so far.
TL;DR – Today I was reminded that nature is the ultimate ruler of the seas.
Ship’s Log – Day 12
Since last night, we’ve been steaming south, through the Antarctic Sound, and into the Weddell Sea. We’re aiming to reach the area being considered this year by the Antarctic Ocean Commission as a protected area, which starts at 64 degrees south.
There is far more ice on this eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, and we reached the ice edge some time this morning. After days of rolling about in the open sea, the Arctic Sunrise finally felt at home here in these still waters, bashing chunks of ice out of the way. This new environment brought a load of new spots: there were lots of delicate and perfectly camouflaged snow petrels weaving amongst the icebergs, and I saw my first Adélie penguins pottering about on the ice.
TL;DR – Our icebreaker ship – the Arctic Sunrise – finally got to show us what it is made of.
Ship’s Log – Day 13
Another day of heading south. You can’t just go in a straight line it seems, but have to follow leads through the ice and look for patches of open water. Even doing that you frequently run into icebergs that are far too large to break through and therefore have to double back to find another way around. A highlight of today was, in one patch of open water, happening across a pod of orcas with their huge dorsal fins standing tall above the water.
We’d planned tonight to ‘park’ up against an iceberg to continue in the morning, but at about 11pm realised we were being boxed in by ice from behind. It’s key to avoid this happening as it can lead to becoming trapped in the ice – you need to keep some space to build up momentum to push through. The captain and first mate therefore put on the lights and took shifts pushing on through the night.
Watching from the bridge it was a surreal experience to see the team searching for any route by roving spotlight on the otherwise pitch black. The ice also feels a lot closer when it’s scraping down the wall of your cabin, just inches from your head.
TL;DR – We saw orcas! We also sailed through the night to prevent us from being trapped in between the ice.
Ship’s Log – Day 14
After a night of good progress, we woke up inside the area we are campaigning to be an ocean sanctuary. Today was all about helicopter operations and fortunately the skies were clear.
The morning was spent getting our photographer and videographer, as well as the journalists on board, up in the air to capture footage of a spectacular seascape, covered in ice. We’re well aware that, when talking about a potential sanctuary that is 1.8 million square kilometres, aerial shots are a key way to convey a sense of the scale of the place. We certainly weren’t disappointed by the pictures that came back.
This afternoon we did what we think might be a world first: a live broadcast from the top of an iceberg. The ship’s captain and our polar guide, Tom, selected the location: a huge tabular iceberg about 70m high out of the water. On reaching the iceberg, it was Tom’s job to keep us safe, going ahead with a 3m long snow pole, which he used to test the ground underfoot, looking for any signs of ‘rotten’ ice, cracks or crevasses. At one point not far from where we landed, there was a deep hole plunging what looked like hundreds of metres down into the iceberg’s interior.
In an entertaining contrast to this outdoorsy adventure, the team and I spent most of our time on the iceberg dealing with something far more mundane: internet connection. We had an impressive technical set-up to receive the ship’s satellite signal, but of course there were teething issues, and the sub-zero temperatures played havoc with various batteries. My personal highlight was the moment a voice came crackling over the VHF radio from the ship: ‘could you try switching it off and then on again?’
Technical glitches resolved, the broadcast was a great result, with tens of thousands tuning in live around the world to hear about the campaign.
TL;DR: How do you make an interesting Facebook live? You do it from the top of an iceberg!
Ship’s Log – Day 15
Today was spent travelling north, back towards the Antarctic Sound and out of the Weddell Sea. Conditions have worsened, with some high winds, and the resulting swell meant that it’s not been the most comfortable of transits. We also had to abandon the landing we had planned en route at Hope Bay, which was doubly a shame because it meant missing out on an opportunity to film a large colony of Adélie penguins, and because we’d offered to drop off some fresh fruit and veg to the research station there. The 60mph winds in the bay meant that those scientists will have to continue to survive on dry provisions until someone else can get to them!
TL;DR: Weather has become grim on our journey to the Antarctic Sound.
Ship’s Log – Day 16
Now back in the South Shetland Islands, we landed this afternoon on Penguin Island. Yet again, there was a heavy presence of fur seals, but we picked our way along between them, being sure to give them plenty of space and not to cut them off from the water.
We weren’t alone this time, as we are back in the area of the Antarctic frequented by tourists, and a cruise ship arrived and deposited 200 visitors on the same island. These tourist groups are heavily monitored and supervised to ensure minimum disruption to the landscape and wildlife, with the guides marking out a path for them all to follow, fortunately taking them up the island’s peak rather than over to the colony of chinstrap penguins where we were filming.
The diligence of the guides didn’t stop two tourists getting separated from the group and wandering over in our direction, presumably under the illusion that we were some of their party. As they meandered obliviously, faces glued to their cameras, they came perilously close to a couple of unimpressed fur seals, and our polar guide had to step in and lead them to safety. The fur seals on this island were seemingly more boisterous (and interested in us) than those we’ve seen elsewhere, probably due to there being large numbers of juvenile males keen to test their strength by jostling with each other, and occasionally squaring up to us.
TL;DR: Tourist cruise ship, fur seals and penguins.
Ship’s Log – Day 17
Today was another flight day, with some of our guests being deposited back onto King George Island to make their way home. Despite thick fog making travel difficult, we thankfully did manage to make things work.
Spending time today looking out at the South Shetland Islands, the contrast was remarkable between the land which appears so barren (often volcanic, stark and covered only with the occasional patch of lichen or moss) and the sea which is so evidently fertile. Beaches like the one we landed on yesterday are simply covered in life, the sheer amount of biomass is staggering, with seals often even piled on top of each other – but all that life depends on the sea.
TL;DR: Fog descends on the Antarctic.
Ship’s Log – Day 18
We woke up this morning to see on the ship’s satellite mapping system that there were three fishing vessels operating nearby. It seems so strange to think of fishing happening in such a remote and beautiful place, but these vessels are here precisely because of the richness of these seas. They are catching Antarctic krill, the species on which nearly all the wildlife we have seen relies.
We made our way over to these vessels to communicate with them about our campaign, and to ask them to consider our proposal that the krill industry should cease operations within any area that is being considered as a protected area – including where they were fishing at that moment. All three ships were open to a conversation over the ship’s radio, though declined our suggestion that we could visit their ship to deliver further materials about the campaign.
This is just a first step in our work to engage with the krill fishing industry in the Antarctic, and it was fascinating to see them at work. We got some compelling images of the ships, two of them rusty giants belching out black smoke, against a backdrop of glaciers and icebergs. Even more amazing was the water around the ships: it was alive with porpoising penguins, whales – perhaps a hundred humpback, fin and minkes – and other seabirds. These vishing vessels had obviously placed themselves in the middle of a huge swarm of krill to drop their nets, and the link between this krill and the rest of the Antarctic ecosystem could not have been more evident.
Later this evening we put one of our RHIBs in the water to go and collect a bunch of plastic fishing waste that we saw caught up on a spectacular iceberg – a nice reason for a quick sunset cruise!
TL;DR: We came across krill fishing boats smack bang in the middle of feeding whales, penguins and seabirds. We also ventured out to pick up some plastic fishing waste caught up on an iceberg.
Ship’s Log – Day 19
This evening we are heading north, on our way back to South America, with the prospect of stormy weather and seven metre waves ahead of us in the Drake Passage!
We did manage one last Antarctic landing before turning home, this time at Hannah Point on Livingstone Island. It was the most biodiverse landing site of the whole expedition: while many of the other places had quite homogenous wildlife, such as a single giant colony of penguins, Hannah Point was a positive variety pack of Antarctic animals.
There were large overlapping colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, entirely unfazed by our arrival. Scurrying amongst them were the roving snowy sheathbills that essentially play the role of vulture in the Antarctic, and are partial to a dead or dying penguin chick (as well as a camera bag or anything else left on the floor). There was a smattering of fur seals, as well as pockets of hauled-out elephant seals – mainly juveniles piled up on top of each other and occasionally farting or roaring in displeasure. Up on the cliffs above, massive, ungainly southern giant petrel chicks were watched over by nervous parents. And high overhead, circling skuas waited for any opportunity to swoop down on anything not big enough to fight back.
It was a beautiful and unforgettable final experience of this place that I have been lucky enough to visit, and which we simply have to protect.
But the most memorable moment of all has to be this penguin who, despite being surrounded by Antarctic beauty and wilderness, chose to make his bed on a dead seal.
TL;DR: Our last day in the Antarctic :(.