Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Trek to South Georgia


An albatross, photographed inexpertly from the back of the ship
     It took days to get to South Georgia island in the storm.  As the previous post described, the sea was incredibly rough due to a very serious storm.  Since all that could be done was lay in the cabin and wait, sliding back and forth, that was how I spent the majority of my time.  My over-riding memory of that time (since the patch made me unable to read) is watching the curtain above my bed swing far out into the room and back with the waves.  Apparently I was not the only one; a fellow shipmate, Maureen Mullen, thought to video it and this little video takes me back to those moments:  www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10153791285587072 
     I heard talk about how serious the storm was from experienced ocean-goers and people knowledgeable about ships; it wasn't gossip, it was overheard in passing. Without access to any internet or news, the only glimmers I heard of the outside world were from the crew, through their contacts with other ships, or the few passengers willing to pay the exorbitant cost for unreliable satellite internet access.
     We had seen a small sailboat docked at the Falkland Islands when we boarded the Ortelius.  I had looked into the itinerary for that ship when researching trips and decided it was too small and too risky.  It had a very limited number of passengers, and they had to help sail the ship.  I can't sail, nor can my husband, though he'd like to.  I decided that the roughest part of the world's oceans would be a very poor training ground.  I could not imagine myself in gale force winds trying to correctly operate some part of the ship so no one died.  No thanks.  I had wondered if that ship could even sail in the storm, and I heard that it did, through the crew.  I also later heard that it had to turn back because someone broke a hip.  Once again, the seriousness of things settled in.
     This was a vacation, but it was certainly a serious trip as well.  Being a klutz all my life, I tried really hard to be careful.  I didn't want to get an injury and ruin the trip for all my fellow passengers.  I couldn't imagine how bad it must feel to be the reason to have to turn the ship around.  The injuries would be bad, but knowing that you just ruined everyone's trip would be even worse.  I made a mental effort every day to keep one hand for the ship, and to pay attention to what I was doing.  I am very physically disconnected - not at all aware most of the time of my physical self.  I tried to really, really concentrate and not get lost trying to take a great photo and fall overboard, or not balance on a huge wave, or otherwise forget where I was and get in a wreck.  The seasickness was exhausting, and the constant storms, but many other things made the trip hard for me and one was trying to concentrate, all the time, on my physical self in space and staying safe.  This was a great effort for me, one that I made to keep myself safe, but also so as not to ruin the trip for everyone else.
     A few practical challenges arose.  There were nice, warm showers in the cabins.  But the boat tossed so violently, I had a hard time using mine.  Does it seem like a good idea for an accident prone person, on a ship in the remote southern ocean, where an accident ruins everyone's trip, to get into a wet environment with slippery soap and no railings?  I did not think so.  This decision was reinforced when, more than once, I was literally thrown off the toilet and across the bathroom by a wave.  It's a small bathroom and there was a sink to grab and I was fine - but there is something terrifically surprising about being suddenly ejected from a commode that I will not ever forget.
     In the days at sea we had a lot of "briefings."  Most imparted practical information, like how to get on and off the ship.  There are no docks, of course.  There is a long metal ladder lowered off the side of the ship, and then a rubber zodiac/panga that, one by one, passengers load up into and then get to land.  Near land, one gets out, when instructed, in the manner instructed, and wades to shore - a "wet" landing.  I've certainly had my share of these worldwide, but not in such cold water, or such remote locations, and never boarding off a metal ladder on the side of a ship with waves tossing the zodiac up and down.
     As a lawyer, I am a rule-based person.  I like instructions.  I follow instructions.  I don't second guess my guides.  Even still, the detail on exactly how to step on and off the zodiac and exactly how to grip or not grip the sailor who was assisting with boarding and unboarding was surprisingly meticulous.  Again, I realized the safety issues.  How on earth were we going to get all these people, many elderly, many with heavy camera equipment, on and off a zodiac in a bouncy, windy ocean?  How was I personally not going to manage to slip between the boat and the zodiac and break a leg, or otherwise pitch myself into the very frigid waters?  Recall the klutz factor.  I was told to use the "sailor's grip" and grab the arm, not the hand.  I hoped I would remember this in the moment.
     Many places in the world I have said to myself, when faced with a boat to boat transfer, "Bad idea!" and done it anyway.  In Indonesia I took an incredibly stupid risk getting on and off a tiny skiff, I still scold myself for doing it, it was so dumb.  Pure miracle I didn't get injured.  In Madagascar, when they told me to "jump" from one boat to the other, roughly 4 feet apart and very different heights, I thought to myself "Is this possible?!" right before I did it.  But when I looked at the video of people getting on and off the zodiacs I really thought "You have got to be kidding me, there is no way I will pull this off without dislocating my shoulder."  (It dislocates a lot, but those are other stories).  I could see the zodiac rising on a wave and my shoulder going with it while the rest of me did not.  I knew I would do it, I just had no idea how I could possibly do it without injury.
     There was one guide per zodiac boat, generally, with 8 to 10 passengers.  I did the math on that.  If the zodiac flips, the guide has to get out of the water, and then start to rescue people.  Sure, we all have life jackets, but time is of the essence in such cold water.  At breakfast I sat next to the doctor, who I quite liked.  I've never known an African to pussy foot around or be sentimental about death.  Death is "bad luck," and Africans are about the toughest people on earth.  So I said to her, "Aren't the life jackets basically a body recovery system?  I mean, there is no way one guide saves everyone in time."  She said that you have about 4 minutes, and fat people fare better, with extra insulation.  Fit people die first in this instance - and I remembered my favorite episode of "I Shouldn't Be Alive," where the fat guy actually makes it in the ocean and all his less fat buddies perish.  I have some extra fat - my husband doesn't, so I made a mental note to make sure to get ahold of him and push him to the boat first if we went over.  And if he was in the same zodiac.
      "The real problem," the doctor said matter of factly, " is that you lose your motor control and you can't grip onto anything so you can't hold a rope or grab a hand or cling to the boat."  Maybe the four minutes was before loss of motor control and not death, I don't remember, exactly.  But I knew that basically, if the zodiac flips, there is - once again - a real possibility of death.
     I am not a fearful or morbid person and I am not really afraid to die, though I do hope to avoid it as long as I can.  But this trip had a lot of death opportunities that I couldn't not reflect on, especially as I was being tossed around like a superball in a peanut butter jar being shaken too vigorously by a kid.
     Another rumor from the crew was one of the other ships in the southern ocean "making the crossing" in the storm had a fire onboard.  Fire on a ship is a major danger.  More death opportunities.
     Many of the non-safety briefings were about photography and ecology.  I attended as many as I could stand to.  By that I mean that they were held in the lower front part of the ship, the lecture hall, otherwise known as "the vomitorium."  This particular room was really bad for seasickness.  Bad in the sense that many people left in a big hurry, various shades of yellow and green.  It was a tough room to be in, and hot too.  Sometimes I wasn't up to it.  I did my best.  I didn't want to miss anything, and I didn't want to start throwing up.  It was a very clear tradeoff.  There were some really good photographers, and some great tips.  I am not a "serious" photographer, it is just a hobby, and I only use a point and shoot camera, so much of it was above anything I will ever care to tackle.
     As I got to know the company I was going to South Georgia with (Antarctica was a separate company, same ship - more on that later) I began to realize that it was a very good company.  Many of the guides were good, and they were very serious about protecting the animals and the environment.  The company, Cheesemans Ecology Safaris, had been coming to S. Georgia for years and had an incredible staff, including a couple who had actually lived on S. Georgia for years and probably knew more about it than anyone else alive.
     My fellow passengers were, by and large, serious wildlife devotees - the best kind of travel mates for such a trip.   There was a huge variation in age and interest, with lots of birders, lots of professional photographers, and lots of "repeat" customers.   I really do enjoy meeting fellow travelers on such a trip, but I'm an introvert and I only have so much energy for conversation.  It turns out that one serious drawback to being on a ship for 28 days is that you can't get food without talking to people.  The tables are such that you always have at least one and usually four other people sitting with you.  Extroverts want to chat it up all the time, and that is a bit much for me, meal after meal, day after day.  It seemed that, within a few days, the ship had self-segregated, with extroverts on the larger side of the dining area and introverts on the smaller side, a wall inbetween.  It wasn't a perfect segregation, of course, and there were always new people to meet, but there seemed to be a tacit understanding, upon which I came to rely, that on the introvert side conversation wasn't mandatory.  Sometimes I only had the energy to eat and do minor introductions.  Sapped by seasickness and influenced by scopolamine, drained of a lot of energy, and using a lot to try and be "body aware" and not break my neck or go overboard, I just did not have much energy left for conversation.  Witty banter was often beyond me.  We were required to wear nametags with our name and where we were from.  I liked this when it meant I didn't have to ask those questions.
     We had a "bio-security check" where we had to report to an area and vacuum out every pocket, every strip of velcro, every single item that we would wear or take ashore.  Why?  To remove seeds and possible contaminants.  S. Georgia is an isolated island and has tourists coming to it - it cannot afford invasive species - it has already had several bad rounds with those which did it no favors.  So companies bringing tourists are to require that bio-security measures and protocols are followed.  My company took this very seriously, and I liked that - I wish all companies would do the same (I highly doubt, from what I have heard from other travelers, that most do).  I was impressed that they found a cheat grass under the insole of my boot and made me remove it.  I think they really tried their best to keep S. Georgia safe.
     At each landing site one has to get into a dip tank and after each landing, do it again, and in the dip is a disinfectant.  The goal is to not spread material from one landing site to another.  Again, great idea.  It took a little getting used to - but education on the importance of all of that was provided as we slowly made our way towards the island.  I looked at the slide shows of the past trips; I imagined how it would be to see alllllllll those penguins.  I knew it would be worth all of the effort.
     While I didn't miss access to news, I did miss access to my animals.  How were the horses, the dog, the cats?  I couldn't know.  I had to trust the petsitter and the house-sitter and just wait a few weeks for email access, and that was very hard.  Even if something had gone wrong, there was simply nothing to be done - no plane to catch, no way to get home. It was an unsettling feeling that only got worse as the journey got longer.
     The clothing for such an expedition was another layer of the adventure.  I do not ski or participate in winter sports, so I've never had to do much but wear long underwear for the cold.  This trip required multiple layers and it took some time to get dressed.  Long underwear, then another layer, a third layer (wool or fleece), maybe a fourth (usually snow pants), and then a waterproof layer.  Two layers of socks.  Two layers of gloves.  Two layers of hats.  (I added toe and hard warmers too).  A waterproof backpack for camera and anything else going ashore.  Sunglasses for glare (and water protection).  Lifejacket.  Polar waterproof boots that were knee high.  It took time to get it all on, and I could barely walk in it.
     To make matters worse, I am a big believer in cheap gear - clearance gear, for trips, since it is only likely to be used on trips.  I want to spend money on the trip and not on the gear.  I had to buy a larger rain jacket to get it on over all the required lawyers (my upper body had long underwear, a sports type turtleneck, a sweatshirt or light fleece, a down jacket, AND then the rain jacket.  I bought one on clearance, of course, but sadly, the ONLY available color was a terrible, horrible pink.  I despise pink.  I despised this uber-bright pink in particular.  But, I never care much about appearance, and certainly not on a wildlife trip, and I would likely never need or wear the jacket again (since it would be too big without all the layers).  So I couldn't justify paying 4x the price for non-pink. When I was fully dressed though, it was like a terrible cross between Adventure Barbie and the Michelin Man.  With ginormous boots.  Luckily, I was basically unrecognizable because of the balaclava, the hats, the sunglasses, etc.  But the pink was sooooooooooo not me....except for the bargain aspect (totally me).
     When we were finally allowed on deck post-storm, there were always photographers off the back of the ship shooting pictures of birds.  I tried, but for lack of anything else animal related to do, as I'm no birder.  There were some dolphins, but my efforts to shoot photos of those were met with greater failure than my efforts to get photos of the birds.  It was great that the storm had passed enough to go outside, but in every direction there was ocean and not much else.  Of course, the really good stuff was all yet to come, and the waiting was tedious.
     I have tried to think about why this trip was so much harder than my others, so hard it has taken over a year to be ready to write about.  Most trips, the focus is very external - mostly the animals I am there to see and the environment.  While every trip offers some reflection and some depressing things (animals in snares, injured animals, poached animals, destroyed habitats, etc.), with India being one of the harder trips in that respect, this trip was uniquely hard for me.  Partly, that's because so little time was spent actually with the animals compared to the time and effort to reach them.  Partly, especially in the times of no reading, reflection was far more intense than usual, at least for me.  Partly, it was like a visit to a holocaust museum, visiting the scenes of mass murders of the past.  There were so many layers to the trip - it was a very complex experience.  I have envied some of my shipmates who have blogged about it already, in many instances brimming with enthusiasm and excitement - but I can't match it.  My experience was different.  I will try, in the posts to come, to peel away the layers, and at the same time, to show through some of the photos and videos the intensely cool wildlife experiences. 
There's a dolphin between the waves.

Another terrible dolphin shot; you can see the body towards the right

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