Monday, May 1, 2017

Voyage to Antarctica

Photo my shipmate, Sean Traynor, shared of a 60ft wave coming towards us
   Once docked in Argentina, we lost all of our Cheeseman's Ecology staff (except one, who stayed on for a job with the second company).  The Cheeseman's portion of the trip was great - the passengers were all very environmentally conscious and into birds, photography, wildlife, or all three.  There were only about 4 passengers per staff member, so there was more than enough staff to keep everything running smoothly all the time - and all the staff worked hard.  The ship doctor was wonderful, and everyone from the company was experienced.  There were bonus researchers and even a couple who had lived on S. Georgia for a number of year and had a lot of inside knowledge.  I was too sick or exhausted on the trip to attend all lectures or absorb all info, but it was definitely available. 
     When we shifted to the second portion of the journey, same ship and ship's crew but different tour leader and guide staff, we were with Oceanwide.  The contrast was stark and shocking.  The number of passengers increased from 78 to 120.  The number of staff went down dramatically - I don't think there was one staff person per 25 passengers.  Even the difference in the ship doctor was stark between the two portions of the journey.  The new passengers were much younger, and very *not* conservation minded.  They were more concerned with selfies than species.  Most were from Europe, but some were from China or elsewhere.  Very few Americans.  There was one child, which is insanity.  This is *NOT* a trip for children!  We were staying on for the Antarctica voyage and so were 5 other people we had been to S. Georgia with.  We had hardly talked with them during the S. Georgia portion of the trip, but now they stood out like beacons in a dark night....like minded people. 
     Only two of the new passengers seemed as keen on wildlife as "the S. Georgia group."  I found the two because they were on the back of the boat taking photos of birds - and they were the only two doing so.  I never went on deck on the S. Georgia trip when there were less than 6-8 birders or photographers, so all of a sudden more people on the boat, yet only two taking photos was noticeable.  The pair were birders and guided trips in Holland; they were also fellow introverts, so not much conversation was had, but enough to know we were there for the same reasons, not selfie taking and facebooking the journey and "checking off" stepping foot on the 7th Continent.
     The one staff member who had been on our S. Georgia trip was an extremely experienced trip leader who now had to take orders from a "trip leader" who was complete crap.  I have nothing good to say about this bossy French woman who had almost no leadership skills.  I hated her before we ever landed in Antarctica.  She was vile. I would have hated her without the contrast of a good trip leader for S. Georgia, but with the back to back contrast it's fair to say I loathed her intensely.
     Unfortunately, there was a small heart-breaking event shortly after we left Argentina.  I was out on deck and saw a very tiny bird, obviously a land bird and not a sea bird, hopping about.  We were too far out to sea for the little bird to get back to land. I also was never able to get a good in-focus photo as the boat was moving and the bird was usually hiding or hopping.
     I wanted to help the little bird - it was only 10 days until we go to back to the same place.  I racked my brain about any kind of container I could use and any kind of food I could offer, and any kind of water container.  At home I would have had loads of options but on a ship in the southern ocean, I had not planned for keeping a bird, and I could not think of how I could keep it safe.  I thought about hiding it from housekeeping but the biggest barriers were a safe container and food.  I contacted one of the guides and pointed out the bird and suggested we try and save it.  Sadly, the idea was rejected and the basic explanation was that this happens all the time, a bird makes a poor choice and comes aboard and they do not take them inside and feed them until they land again; the bird meets it's demise.  Now as a person who has done a ton of foster and rescue of all kinds of species, I found this completely depressing.  I was even kicking myself for not being able to come up with a plan using the materials I had on hand to keep the bird alive.  I forget what species it was now...red rufus something?  I feel completely awful about this bird - still - but I could not think of a way to save it.
     On the S. Georgia voyage we had been very careful to close all the curtains at night to prevent birds crashing into the lit windows, and this was often mentioned.  There was concern anytime a bird was found on the ship, dead or alive, and it was released - but those were seabirds.  On this leg of the trip no concern for any kind of bird was ever articulated and no one even suggested closing the windows at night.  The focus of the new company was not wildlife.
     There were two main things which occurred on the voyage to Antarctica - which should have been 2 days long but was closer to 4.  First and foremost, we hit a storm crossing the Drake Passage.  If you have read the blog of this journey, you may recall that we had a very serious storm sailing from the Falklands to S. Georgia, and a storm sailing from S. Georgia to Argentina.  This third storm at first seemed no worse than the other two - though they were the worst I'd ever experienced.  The new passengers were very quickly very, very ill.  Without the briefing on seasickness we had gotten last trip, who knows how informed they were about options....there was a long line at the doctor's office.  At dinner, most of the tables were empty.  Having been through it all before, we rolled with it - literally - again slamming against both ends of the bed, getting tossed off the toilet, having everything not affixed go flying around the cabin.  We huddled in the dark cabin, re-patched Scopalamine, sucked ginger candies, listened to audio books (a brilliant solution for when the drugs make it too hard to read).  We waited it out.
     We had lost our group of introverts and were once again back to forced conversations at meals, only this time there was a language barrier as well much of the time.  We met a few perfectly nice Europeans who were on holiday and decent enough.  All the Chinese passengers stuck together, spoke to no one else, and brought their own Ramen noodles, declining ship food.  Selfies were rampant.  I found little to nothing in common with 90% of the new people I talked with. 
    The storm got worse, and ended up being not only worse than the first two storms, but seriously dangerous.  The gale force winds were so strong the ship actually could not move forward - we spent over 12 hours just staying in one place and trying not to capsize.  The waves were over 50 feet.  Once I went to the top of the ship, where the crew steers, and I lasted one wave before I ran out - it was terrifying being 7 stories up, seeing a 50 foot wave come, and then crashing down into the trough.  It was way, way, way too much movement.  There was no levity among the crew - there were drawn faces and white knuckles.  They were doing their best to keep us alive.  It was a very perilous journey.
     When I realized how bad it was, and learned we were not even moving forward but focused on not capsizing, I just laid down and waited and hoped that this good Captain, who had already performed so well in two storms, would get us through the worst of this one.  Once in awhile he made some terse safety announcement.  It was clear what was expected was we would all stay holed up in our rooms and out of the way of the crew, and I was perfectly keen on that plan.
   I don't think I will ever forget the thundering sound of the ship hitting a wave a certain way - it BOOMED so much I was always waiting for an announcement we'd hit an iceberg.  Then I would feel the vibration going up and down the ship like a violent shudder through the steel.  It wasn't fun.
     The tour was supposed to be a "base camp" adventure where the ship served as a base camp to various activities, including kayaking, camping, wildlife photography and mountaineering.  We were interested in all, except I didn't plan on any mountaineering.  What became clear from the lectures we had on the voyage was that: 1) each passenger would get to participate in only one of these activities, 2) there was a lottery for each activity so each passenger was to submit their order of preference and the lovely "expedition leader" would attempt to get everyone a slot in at least one activity, 3) weather could cancel any activity at any time - if so, too bad, and 4) due to the storm we already lost a day of activity options.
     A "expedition leader" for each activity gave a briefing.  The mountaineering was headed up by an Italian I could barely understand.  It was my husband's top choice but I had no interest in it; so we signed him up as a top choice and hoped he would get to do it, while selecting camping as a second choice.
     Camping had sounded interesting to me, I love camping....until the camping briefing.  No tents.  You are taken out to the ice, dropped off with a bivy sack and a sleeping bag, and made to lie in a row of other campers, 30 at a time.  It sounded crowded and cold.  Plus, if you were dropped off and the weather was bad overnight, return to ship could be delayed.  I wasn't interested in freezing for an indeterminate period of time in a bag that numerous other people had slept in before, exposed to snow, wind, and idiots "Go Pro" filming and selfie-sticking.  Nooooope.  Also, I learned that when people were camping, the ship can't move overnight, so you REALLY, REALLY limit where you can have landings.  So my advice is *never* select an Antarctica trip with a camping option - even if you do not want to camp yourself, if *anyone* camps the entire ship has to sit around on the same spot all the time.  Bad freaking idea.  Terrible.  I had not realized.  I had thought camping would be a plus, not a huge limitation.
     Kayaking also sounded interesting until the briefing.  However, I decided it was also not for me.  All the kayaks have to be tied together and there is a ton of gear to get into, and if you do go in the water, it is insanely cold.  You can't even get close to icebergs - too dangerous.  So basically you have to gear the hell up, get in a kayak very close to 6 others, and not get close to any animals or anything interesting.  I'd much, much rather spend my exceedingly limited time landing and seeing wildlife than kayaking - and you couldn't do both.  You could go ashore, OR kayak.  Not a tough choice for me.
     So although I had thought, planning in ignorance, that all these activities were cool, I hadn't realized the logistical limitations.  Camping means you can't get to new and interesting landing sites.  Doing any activity - kayaking or mountaineering - meant wasting a landing.  Landings are like gold - rare and precious - and since 1/3 will be cancelled due to weather anyway, I'm not giving one up.  Further, no way I wanted to do anything in a large group of people with very limited staff because if anything went wrong, it was likely to do really wrong in a hurry.  Truly, the only thing I cared about was wildlife, so I just crossed my fingers for landings and hoped to see some new species.
     On the S. Georgia trip there were professional photographers, even one with a million dollar camera.  There were people who filmed for BBC and nature documentaries.  There were loads of fancy SLR cameras and oodles of tripods.  The Antarctica voyagers largely had iphones and Go Pros, and selfie sticks vs. tripods.  As a simple point and shoot person, I am no camera snob.  But if you have gone halfway around the world and only have an iphone or Go Pro, that tells me you are not there to appreciate nature and sit around looking at wildlife, you have other priorities, and likely, I don't share them.  Not 100% guarantee, but a strong indicator, based on experience.  (I was not wrong).
     The terrible expedition leader kept giving briefings designed to lower expectations - how hard everything was to do, how time consuming, how bad the weather was, how terrible difficult arranging logistics were, how we should be thrilled if we got a chance to do ANYTHING vs. expecting to do more than one thing, etc.  It was all garbage, and her entire manner was more one of running a high school pep rally than in any way educating adults about what they needed to know for safety or to appreciate the environment.  The combination of listening to her and the ship tossing the lecture hall (aka vomitorium) made me physically ill.
    The biosecurity we went through was cursory compared to the same for S. Georgia.  Everything was very much "less" than the trip we'd just finished.
     I cannot describe it better than a fellow traveler did.  One of the women who was on the S. Georgia trip and now continued through with us was from England and her husband had worked on early charting of Antarctica and the channels of the peninsula.  It had been a dream of hers to see where he had worked, and he was long dead.  She seemed very aware that this was the "last chance" she'd ever have to see it.  Her elderly cat had been ill and she'd had to put him down before the trip, and she said she had little to go back to, and she thought she would pack up her things and move to New Zealand to be near her son so that when she died, he didn't have much to do to clean up after her.  She was at the end of an interesting life, and she knew it, and was having an interesting adventure, traveling alone.  I liked her immensely, though I'd only shared a zodiac ride with her in Larsen Harbor and hardly spoken until the Antarctica portion of the voyage.
     I was sitting at breakfast with her, looking at all the young and eager (and ill) new travelers.  No one had name tags.  On the Cheeseman's trip we were all required to wear name tags all the time.  She said of the expedition staff: "They don't even know our names.  They don't even care who we are."  So, so well put.  They didn't care who we were.  They would get us to Antarctica, but they didn't care if we got what we wanted out of the trip, and they didn't care about our experience.  That was all too clear.  Our checks had cleared and that was all that mattered to them.  Instead of being about a wonderful place in the world, it seemed very cold and corporate, very understaffed, and very poor quality.  I was immensely happy that one of the Cheeseman's staff was still on board and viewed that as the only possibility of seeing anything good in terms of wildlife.  One tiny ray of hope.
     We were at sea many days before we touched land again.  I forget how many - travel from S. Georgia to the Falklands and then to Argentina and then to Antarctica.  There was some wildlife along the way.  We did see some dolphins, several of whom spent time playing around the boat, diving underneath the bow and popping out on either side (getting any photos was challenging).  Mostly though, it was a long, stormy journey with a lot of dead time.

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